In the past few years, and especially since the pandemic started, I have seen a trend gain more and more traction among language teachers: making teaching into a business.

The fact that language teachers feel the need to go it alone, which often means leaving their teaching jobs, is perhaps hardly surprising. Indeed, as Keith Copley reminds us, the ELT industry can be a precarious one, with low wages and bogus self-employment as the norm.

In my case, it was this bogus self-employment that pushed me to go it alone. I was at the end of my PhD, I had been teaching as a freelancer for years, and I simply could not find a job in ELT or in academia that would provide even a modicum of stability.

So, three years ago, I went from bogus freelancer to actual freelancer and started writing my first self-study course. This coincided with the start of the pandemic, which led to an increase in the self-study course business, and I have seen many a teacher turn to designing self-study courses since.

So, if you have wondered about writing a self-study course, this might be the article for you!




Why should I design a self-study course?

Many people do it as a side hustle: just a cursory glance at websites like Udemy will make it clear just how many people design and sell self-study courses. There is a clear advantage to self-study courses: they are very, very scalable. This means that after you invest time and effort in designing a course, it can be purchased multiple times and your time commitment is limited. This is of course different from teaching, which is time intensive.


How can I design a self-study course?

Designing a self-study course can be long and complicated but I hope this article can serve as a primer to take your first steps! In this first part of this two-part series, I will tell you all about laying the foundations for your self-study course, from choosing a topic and platform, to doing your research and selecting your delivery modes.


1. Choose a topic that you like (and that people need)

When deciding to take on a side project, there is nothing worse than dedicating lots of time and energy to it only to discover that nobody is listening. So, to decide on your focus for your course, don’t just ask yourself what you are interested in but also what people will need. Christina Rebuffet-Broadus explains this clearly in her article Personal branding for freelance success although it is scary, finding a niche will ultimately help you stand out. To decide what to focus on and what people might need or want, harness social media and online tools: Facebook groups, popular hashtags and pages, high-frequency Google keywords and Google trends will tell you more about what people are looking for.




2. Do your research, draw on the research

The topic you land on may be something you are already knowledgeable about… or maybe not. For example, when I decided to write a course on teaching literature in the language classroom, it took me six months of research just to decide on the content and structure of my course. I knew about language learning and teaching but my expertise was not in literature. In addition, if you’ll pardon my wordplay, the literature on teaching literature was not extensive: finding good research studies and manuals was half the battle. And incidentally, if this happens to you, it may be a good sign that your course is something that has not been done before! So, research, research and research – but also, why not include the research in your course? Drawing on research studies within your course gives credibility to the course itself and allows your students to follow up on the sub-topics they’re interested in on their own.

3. Choose your platform: where are you going to shine?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of platforms hosting self-study courses: those that come with a marketplace and those that don’t. The former include searchable databases where prospective students can look for what they’re interested in. This allows your content to be searchable but it also means you’ll be competing with many other courses, including high-rated best-sellers. The latter host your content for you but do not have a marketplace. This means that you will have to do all your marketing to make sure that people find your course. These platforms may therefore be suitable for you if you already have a healthy following (e.g. on social media or via a newsletter). While this marketing work can be laborious, it does pay off in the long run because your profit margins will be higher: platforms with marketplaces tend to take a big chunk of your earnings.


4. Select your key delivery modes

After choosing your topic and platform, it is time to plan out how you are going to deliver your content. You may think that self-study courses are delivered primarily via videos, and I would agree that this is indeed a common expectation from students. However, making videos is extremely laborious, takes training and often software and a bit of hardware too (think good microphones and cameras). In my work, I have found that a mixture of videos, audios, texts and presentations provides my learners with variety. It also allows me to choose the medium I think will be best suited to different topics: for example, explaining the main SLA theories and the relationships between implicit and explicit knowledge entails making decades of fairly complicated research accessible. At the same time, however, some of the complexity has to be communicated so that my student-teachers can utilise the concepts in their work. For this, I find the best suited medium is still text. Just one note: if you do use text, make sure it cannot be copied and pasted (most platforms offer that option).


Now you’re all set to start thinking about your self-study course. In my next article, we are going to look at how to structure it, what kinds of activities to include and how to pilot it. Stay tuned!