How to start an online school: a brief guide and 5 tips

17 Apr, 2024

Whether you are aiming at creating a niche eLearning platform, or a large online learning hub, or digitizing a formal educational institution, there already are quite a lot of settled rules, expectations, and best practices you can use to make sure the product takes off. eLearning (and online learning in general) are no longer a novelty, so by now, we can frame a general blueprint and plan of action even for unique cases. Let’s look at some of the major factors that define how to start an online school – and make it popular, too.

We’ll look at the role of customization, methods of choosing functionalities, the role of AI, best tactics in collecting feedback, positioning the school as a marketable product – and provide some actionable tips along the way based on Lionwood’s own experience with EdTech development.

What You Need to Know: Current Trends in Online Education

First thing to know is, the market for online learning platforms is getting truly enormous compared to even several years ago. By 2029, the number of users is predicted to amount to a billion at least. Over the 21st century so far, the market size has grown by 900%, and this wasn’t even the result of the pandemic – in fact, the revenue was rising linearly until 2021, and more or less plateaued at a current $58.45B mark (and is still expected to rise).

The reasons for adoption lie not with the trivial “we had to” but rather with the actual benefits that online learning started to yield once tutors updated their methodologies to accommodate the digital format. According to research, online learning reduces the time needed to learn a particular subject by up to 60%, instantly making it attractive for corporate learning, language learning, and niche subjects. Meanwhile, gamification is a major factor for public schools. Finally, there’s still the obvious advantage of learning from home, which, by now, has crossed into formal education, as well: around 26% of students (4.9 million) now take college classes exclusively in an online format.

So why do we see a stabilization in overall market revenue? One important factor to note is that the market is already saturated, so each subsequent online learning platform that is developed has to compete with more counterparts and snatch its own niche. This, in turn, fuels the three major trends:

  • Customization. On the one hand, as a product, an online school has to differentiate itself from the competition, and customized, individualized learning pathways are the most sensible way of doing that. In other words, it’s no longer enough to be simply “an online engineering course”, “a language learning app”, etc. – a platform needs to offer personalized experiences to gain traction, and that means custom development and a lot of flexibility.
    On the other hand, individualized learning has become more of an imperative simply because the learners are now more likely to be scattered across demographics and locations, so that one-size-fits-all approaches no longer work.
  • The role of AI. Artificial intelligence is now being used in online schools mainly to answer the customization challenge. The most common practical uses include (a) creating individual learning pathways based on the available material – i.e. AI “guides” the learner through the course; (b) helping create interactive exercises that don’t repeat themselves, to help learn some patterns – e.g. math problems or language exercises based on a certain grammatical or conversational pattern. Of course, there are countless other situations for AI use, but these are the most widely used so far.
  • The interplay between formal and informal education best practices. Interestingly, the key learnings from the previous decades of the industry are now adopted across the “border” that divides, e.g., arts&crafts courses and school systems. Gamification principles and UX imperatives were developed on both sides, and now college courses can freely borrow what corporate LMSs have developed, and vice versa. For example, digitizing and facilitating paperwork – usually the ambition of public schools and colleges – is now a practice used with some independent platforms that engage tutors.

For more examples of a major online platform for formal education, see the NIT case study, describing a project aiming at digitizing school education in Ukraine.

Types of online schools

Before building or opting for particular software for an online school, it’s a good idea to have a very clear vision of what type of platform it will be. Is it affiliated with any traditional learning establishments? Who will be teaching? What is the main driver of adoption among users? Who even are the intended users?

Here are several major criteria to consider:

  • Target audience: kids or adults? Learning for their own interest, or required to learn a subject? Will they use the skills acquired immediately (e.g. in the workplace?) This will allow you to define what areas within the courses should be personalized, and in what way.
    For example, independent learners will likely require more personalization in the way the course material is arranged, as they prefer learning at their own pace. In other cases, though, the pacing is fixed for everyone (more or less), while the types of exercises and learning formats are to be personalized, and so on.
  • Subject matter to be taught. This will allow you to define the type of content on the platform. For example, learning math is better with drag-a-graph and similar functionalities in the exercises, and the balance of video/verbal content is quite different than, say, in a creative writing course. Another aspect is, how much interactivity has to be allowed for? Do you need video lecture functionalities?
  • Teachers/authors/managers: There can be several types here: (a) platforms with actual full-time teachers/tutors (who will all need specific user roles distinct from Admin and User), (b) platforms where authors are engaged for specific courses but still interact with the learners, (c) platforms where the content is uploaded once and then the learners’ progress is tracked automatically, without individual feedback.
  • Subscription model. Based on this criterion, your platform could be a pay-per-course affair, a full membership one, or it could have group membership (e.g. paid for by a school or company), or have a freemium approach.

A Brief Guide on How to Start an Online School

So with all these things in mind, how do you start an online school? Here is a general step-by-step guide based on our experience. Of course, it can’t be realistically more precise, since every case is unique (and if it isn’t, it really should) – but the overall process involves the following steps.

Define the type and concept of your edtech platform

We’ve already seen above which distinctions are relevant when defining the course of action for an online learning platform. It’s a good idea to start with the general vision, then analyze it along the four-axis system (that is, learners – subject matter – user roles – subscription type) to get a more precise understanding of what needs to be implemented.

Once you have that, you can set the priorities according to a typical priority matrix often seen in business planning (urgency / impact), where urgency will correspond to the must-have features, and impact, to the ones that differentiate your online learning platform from the others out there. This is the first step towards defining the core functionalities.

Tip #1: Get inspiration from not-so-obvious sources

Even when you’ve defined the general type of your online school, you can still take notes from platforms of other types. In fact, it’s even better to adopt some best practices from very dissimilar projects, because these may happen to become a major differentiator for your product. Someone creating an online art school may adopt ideas from apps like Duolingo or a K-12 school system, and vice versa – the only thing here is to select exactly those types of activities, course management functionalities, etc. that really fit well into your vision.

What features and functionalities are needed?

At this point, you can already define the core features and functionalities your online school will need to function and “be itself”. It’s a good practice to not try to implement everything imaginable at once, but rather follow an iterative, incremental, Agile-like approach on a large scale, starting with the essential features first.

The “package” will have several categories to think of:

  1. Content presentation: video lectures? Live streams? Articles? Infographics? Downloadables? In what proportion should they be presented?
  2. Interactive elements and exercises. Thankfully, the days when multiple choice radio button questions were the only option are gone, meaning students can enjoy a more interactive experience. It’s good to have an idea of what type of interactivity will be needed going forward to leave room for flexibility.
  3. Evaluation and feedback. How will the progress be tracked and assessed? In some cases, there needs to be grading by a human tutor with individual feedback; otherwise, with closed-type exercises, an automated evaluation process is enough. Companies are also experimenting with AI-led evaluation for things like free text answers, etc. All this impacts what the platform will need to have.
  4. Dashboards and user roles. Whether for students (tracking progress), tutors, content authors, or management, dashboards are a good way to organize working with the platform and steer the direction of all activities.
  5. Forums and chats.

Tip #2: Analyze the formats needed and take care of gamification

Depending on what you intend to teach, there can be different formats of both content and practical activities. As of now, the rule of the thumb is that the format should be entertaining enough but never distract from the material itself. You can also think of ways to gamify the experience, from actual activities to progress tracking (e.g. Duolingo’s idea of leaderboards).

Tip #3: Ensure feedback, communication, and community building are embedded

In-app feedback and communication are always a good idea, be it for having issues reported or engaging the users with the actual learning content. Today’s online learning platforms are often evaluated by users based on how much feedback they can provide above the usual “here’s how you did on the quiz” level. Additionally, forming a learner community helps with further adoption of your platform, and it can be fused with multiple aspects of learning, even with progress tracking.

Choosing/customizing or building the platform

Creating an online school entails numerous considerations, from tailoring the curriculum to fostering engagement among students. While existing out-of-the-box solutions offer convenience and simplicity, opting to build a digital platform can provide unparalleled advantages. Building your own platform allows for complete customization, enabling you to design features and functionalities that align precisely with your educational objectives and teaching methodologies. This level of flexibility empowers you to craft a unique learning experience tailored to the specific needs and preferences of your students. Additionally, a custom-built platform offers scalability, allowing you to adapt and expand as your school grows without being constrained by the limitations of pre-packaged solutions.

At the same time, owning and controlling your platform gives you full autonomy over data privacy and security measures, ensuring compliance with regulations and fostering trust among students and parents. Overall, while the initial investment and development process may require resources upfront, the long-term benefits of a bespoke digital platform far outweigh the limitations of off-the-shelf solutions in terms of innovation, customization, and sustainability.

Tip #4: Go cross-platform to enable microlearning

Microlearning, where the user can ingest the material in bite size portions on the go, is getting popular among diverse demographics. While adult learners prize the possibility of squishing the course in between the chores, microlearning is also beneficial for young learners with a shorter attention span. That’s why the average course completion rate for microlearning is around 83% versus the 20-30% for conventional courses. To enable it, the online school should ideally function on a cross-platform basis, with seamless experience on both desktop and mobile devices.

Branding and website

Establishing a strong branding and website presence for a newly established online school is crucial for building credibility, attracting students, and conveying the institution’s values and mission. Begin by defining the school’s unique identity, including its vision, values, and target audience. As a minimum, you’ll need a logo, color palette, and visual elements that reflect the school’s ethos and resonate with the target demographic. Consistency is key across all branding materials, from website design to promotional materials, to ensure a cohesive and professional image.

Additionally, you can leverage SEO techniques to improve visibility and attract organic traffic to the website. Finally, regularly update and maintain the website to keep content fresh and relevant, fostering ongoing engagement with current and prospective students.

Going live, spreading the word, and establishing the analytics flow

Launching the website involves announcing its availability through various channels: you’ve got social media platforms, email campaigns, as well as good old press releases and targeted ads. As the school gains traction, establishing an analytics flow becomes essential for monitoring key metrics such as website traffic, user engagement, conversion rates, and demographic data. Tools like Google Analytics can provide valuable insights into how visitors are interacting with the website, which marketing channels are driving the most traffic, and where improvements can be made to enhance user experience and increase enrollment.

What’s especially good with online schools, if your platform has an in-built feedback mechanism like a forum, you can collect feedback from within, too, once the amount of users is sufficient.

Perfecting the platform

The story doesn’t end there. Possible further improvements could focus on optimizing the UX and navigation to make it more intuitive and user-friendly, ensuring that students can easily access course materials, assignments, and resources. Additionally, feedback may highlight the need for more engaging and interactive learning content, prompting enhancements such as incorporating multimedia elements, interactive quizzes, or gamified activities to increase student engagement and retention.

Oftentimes, refining the assessment and feedback mechanisms, such as implementing automated grading tools, providing timely feedback on assignments, and offering personalized learning pathways based on student performance, can help improve learning outcomes and student satisfaction.

Tip #5: Reduce the amount of actions needed for everyone

UX is of primary importance here: after all, one of the reasons for people to opt for online learning is convenience. Ideally, the users should learn their courses, and not how to use the platform, while tutors and authors should feel their routine work amounts shrinking. Accordingly, by gradual perfecting, you can ensure that whatever a user wants to do using the platform, they can achieve that with minimum clicks, taps, navigation, and so on. Ironically, though, major UX revamps are also something that takes getting used to, so dramatic changes should only be applied with caution.


By understanding the current trends in online education and identifying the specific needs and preferences of your target audience, you can develop a unique and compelling platform that stands out in a competitive market. By embracing customization, personalization, and an iterative approach to platform development and prioritizing user experience, you can refine and perfect your online school over time, ensuring continued growth and success in the dynamic landscape of online education. Consult our experts to embark on your journey of creating an exceptional online learning platform that transforms the lives of students worldwide.

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