Lucy Gough launched an online interior design course Image copyright Lucy Gough
Image caption Lucy Gough launched an online interior design course

Like many others, interior stylist Lucy Gough saw her income disappear when the coronavirus hit and naturally felt anxious about her future prospects.

“Within one week the four shoots I’d been prepping for were all cancelled,” she recalls.

However, rather than do nothing, London-based Ms Gough decided to pivot her business and create an online interior styling course after teaching a similar course at London design school Central Saint Martins.

“Even though I’d wanted to create a course for the last year it wasn’t until lockdown was confirmed and all my income evaporated that I started creating it,” she says.

Covering six modules including shoot styling and home staging, Ms Gough launched the self-paced course in mid-May and within two weeks had already attracted 112 students from as far as Canada and Poland. She estimates that the course might make her £20,000 this year.

“It has changed my life in terms of giving me an income when all my jobs as a stylist were cancelled at the beginning of Covid-19,” she says. “I always envisaged my online course being a career sideline but at the moment it’s my only focus. When shoots are scheduled in again it will start to become the passive income that I had imagined.”

Ms Gough is just one of thousands of people worldwide to have created an online course following the outbreak of coronavirus. Thanks to the pandemic, e-learning platforms are experiencing an unprecedented demand as lockdown has prompted people to take courses on everything from digital marketing and life coaching, to floristry and gaming.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the value of the sector was forecast to jump to $300bn (£250bn) by 2025, up from $190bn in 2018, according to the research firm Global Market Insights.

Image copyright Teachable
Image caption Ankur Nagpal, founder of Teachable, was surprised at the surge in course sales

Ankur Nagpal, founder and chief executive of New York-based course-hosting platform Teachable, says lockdown has greatly accelerated the number of people starting an e-learning business.

“A lot of people who intended to move their courses online in the future found this to be a catalyst and adapted rapidly,” he says.

Total revenue earned by course tutors on its platform has also grown significantly since the outbreak, with its teachers set to earn more than $43m in May, up from $24m in February.

Even Mr Nagpal was surprised to see the surge in new course sales. “I imagined there would be some form of consumer spending slowdown, but we saw the opposite.”

Greg Smith, founder of Vancouver-based Thinkific, which provides the software for entrepreneurs looking to create online courses, says, “Consumption has gone up as people are stuck at home and want to learn new professional skills or take up new hobbies to entertain themselves.”

The company is seeing demand for courses in areas such as mental health, home school activities for kids, and health and fitness.

However, it is not all rosy in the world of online courses.

Image copyright Jonathan Little
Image caption Jonathan Little had trouble cancelling a class

Jonathan Little, 26, a content outreach executive living in Crewe, enrolled in a 14-day free trial of a graphic design course via Shaw Academy, an online learning platform, in May in a bid to improve his skillset.

However, not happy with the course, he decided to cancel within the two-week period. He says the process was “incredibly convoluted and damn-near impossible to cancel”.

“You have to log into your account and then you go through five to six different screens, each one giving you the same spiel about ‘don’t give in on dreams’.

“After all these pages you finally get through to what you think is the cancellation page then you’re told you can’t cancel online and instead need to call. I rang from a landline and after a lengthy automated voicemail, I cancelled. After seeing reviews online I decided to call my bank to make sure no money would go out to them.”

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Mr Little says it has made him think twice about signing up to online courses in the future. “It’s made me a bit more cautious. I always usually look at reviews online but I just did it in the spur of the moment. It’s made me cautious about signing up to things I’ve not heard of before.”

James Egan, chief executive of Shaw Academy, told the BBC that Mr Little encountered an automated voicemail service because he called on a Sunday, when the firm does not have people answering the phones.

“We apologise that the customer’s cancellation process took longer than usual. We take customer feedback and satisfaction very seriously and are currently reviewing our cancellation process to see whether we can make it easier for the small number of people who choose to cancel our services.”

How do other sites handle complaints about courses? Thinkific’s Greg Smith says, “If someone alerts us to a scam or fraud we will shut down sites. However, we have done that very little since we set up eight years ago.”

Image copyright Amanda Rosewarne
Image caption People should be cautious when signing up to courses, says Amanda Rosewarne

Amanda Rosewarne, co-founder and chief executive of the CPD Standards Office, which provides independent Continuing Professional Development (CPD) accreditation, says people should be cautious when taking up courses due to an increasing number of scams.

“One scam involves creating a site, charging you for a course, and then never delivering the product,” she says. “Scammers can also easily hook you by selling a course, but then once you have completed it and ‘passed’ the assessment, the professional certificate or licence fails to materialise in the post or by email.”

Image copyright Leila Gharani
Image caption Leila Gharani has been teaching Excel courses since 2016

Despite some problems in the sector, for some, running an online course can be life-changing.

Leila Gharani, 42, has been teaching Excel courses costing via Udemy since 2016 and takes home a six-figure salary from the e-learning platform. The lockdown has led to three times as many students as usual taking up her courses, with 10,400 bookings in April.

The Vienna-based course creator says teaching online has changed her “whole life”.

She adds: “I stopped consulting and I switched all my work to online except for some conferences and speaking engagements. My husband left his full-time work and joined my company. We have a lot more time for the kids and it’s offered more stability in our private life as we can work from home.”

For those who never want to go back to an office, online courses might be the future.

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