By Rebecca Jennings
Inside the lucrative, distinctly nonacademic world of online classes.
A digitized woman with long blonde hair dances in front of a blank spreadsheet. She’s showing you how to remove blank columns, or maybe to combine cells, or perhaps how to create a new formula to help you format an entire row. She is ecstatic to be there.
The woman is 30-year-old Kat Norton, better known as “Miss Excel,” who in 2020 began going viral for her high-energy, 15-second TikTok dances superimposed with hacks for navigating the popular data software program Microsoft Excel.
Within months, she’d launched her very own digital class: the Excelerator Course, made up of 100 sub-10-minute video tutorials and packaged for the price of $297.
Students can complete the tutorials and corresponding workbooks at their own pace, on their own time. They choose between the original or the advanced course (or shell out $997 for a course on the full Microsoft Office Suite), going from a total Excel newbie to a pro in just 12 hours.
The classes were a hit, particularly among her core audience of 25- to 35-year-olds who were looking to bulk up their resumes or improve their marketability; many of them were working from home due to the pandemic and considering a potential career change. And Norton is the platonic example of an online course teacher: She’s proficient in an in-demand skill and, perhaps most importantly, she’s very good at selling it.
But no one, not even Norton, could have predicted what a gold mine she’d stumbled upon: Within two months of opening the original course, she says, she earned more from class sales than she made at her corporate day job (which included, among other things, training people how to use Excel) which she’s since quit to be Miss Excel full time.
She now estimates she works about 15 hours a week, spending the rest of the time exploring the outdoors in Sedona, Arizona, with her boyfriend, who handles sales for the company. So far, they say they’ve enrolled more than 16,000 people; there have been multiple occasions on which they brought in more than six figures in a single day, claims confirmed by documentation reviewed by Vox. “It’s when I do the webinars,” she says of the live classes she streams from wherever she wants whenever she wants, “those are the massive cash influx days.”
Norton and many other influencers are cashing in on the online course boom, a cottage industry in which anyone can learn a money-making or otherwise life-improving skill — the Microsoft Office suite, email marketing, “gut health,” equitable household labor, how to get a tech job, self-confidence — from someone they already trust.
These courses, hosted on one of the dozens of make-your-own course platforms like Teachable or Kajabi, can run from a few hundred bucks to thousands of dollars, from a day-long “intensive” to a months-long course. What most of them have in common is that they’re undertaken completely independently — for the majority, students aren’t part of a specific cohort, but can sign up and complete the work whenever they want.
All of the coursework is typically prepared long before they ever sign up: the videos, the worksheets, the content — all are premade and prerecorded, meaning that every time someone new joins the program, the teacher makes money. If a creator gets lucky, they can spend only a few weeks or months building a course that will continue to earn them profit for years to come.
It makes sense, then, why so many of these classes are about business; even online courses devoted to “boosting your confidence” are pretty explicitly geared toward improving one’s marketability.
The online course creator is a distinctly American character, one who preaches that the surest way to financial stability is self-employment, and more important than any singular interest — science, art, sports, whatever — is your ability to sell it to everyone else.
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First published in Vox.com
March 30th 2023
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