The Ethics of Teaching Online

It's never been easier to begin teaching online. But just because you can, doesn't mean you should. And if you do, are you sure you're acting ethically?

There's never been a better time to learn online

Most learning can be accessed for free

If you want to learn anything, you can probably find it for free online. 

There's a phenomenal amount of education content available, through which you can expand your skills and abilities. Educational content on the internet has helped me learn photography, Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, InDesign, HTML, CSS, Python... the list goes on.

Frankly, I don’t know where I’d be without it.

Don’t believe me? You can learn to code on freeCodeCamp, you can brush up on your maths, macroeconomics and physics on Khan Academy and you can read academic papers on Google Scholar or JSTOR. Or you could just read through the, er, crowd-sourced sum of human knowledge.

But what about paying for it?

If you've got some money to spend, even more options present themselves.

You can take courses on Udemy in everything from 3D Animation to B2B sales, CreativeLive to hone your creative talents or MasterClass for something more akin to an intimate fireside chat with a celebrity of your choice.

I’ve used paid content to great results, often in very specific or niche areas where I’ve wanted to access something I’ve had a hard time finding somewhere else.

All this is to say that, free and paid together, there is a truly huge amount of educational content online, and it's all been created by people you'll likely never meet.

But is it all created equal? And can we always trust the people behind it?

Why would you want to teach online?

“No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.” - Peter Drucker

Teaching helps us to learn

Teaching, it turns out, is just as good for the teacher as it is for the learner. It's actually one of the best ways to learn something deeply - even simply reflecting on what we've learnt allows us to better understand and retain it.

In a fantastic essay on the subject, Michael Simmons defines the 'Explanation Effect': to learn something extremely fast, the best thing we can do is to immediately give away what we have learnt to others.

Not only that, it's incredibly satisfying to help others and see them flourish as a result.

Teachers can genuinely help people

People have problems that they want solved. They vary depending on who you are and what you want to do. They change across generations, across years, sometimes even days.

There will always be a place in the world for people who have unique skills they can share with others. And some people just have a knack for teaching, too.

Sometimes, the same people with those unique skills are also good at teaching and they are able to find a way of solving a tricky problem for a unique set of people.

Now we're onto something.

This is rare, but when someone like that decides to teach - whether it's online or in person - it would seem reasonable to compensate that person for the work they do to help others.

By that same logic, it follows that there is less of a place in the world for people who want to teach something generic, especially if they expect to be paid for it.

There are few barriers to entry

So you think you've got something valuable to share with the world? Great! Luckily, thanks to the internet, it's never been easier to teach online.

Using nothing more than a laptop with a webcam, you or I could create a website and a video course in a single morning using any number of services that are out there.

After lunch, we could then put together a laser-focused ad campaign on Facebook using stock images and some sales copy. Chuck a few hundred bucks at it and - presto! - unless you've done something seriously stupid, you've got traffic coming to your website and people signing up to your course.

But should you be charging for it?

Just because we can do these things so easily doesn't always mean that we should.

Maybe we don't have the right experience. Maybe the resources are already out there for free. Maybe we aren't really solving a genuine problem.

But if we do it anyway, should we charge for it? And if we do charge, how should we set the price?

There’s nothing unethical about providing a slightly crap video course if it’s free on YouTube - you let the people decide whether or not they’ll listen to your advice. Chances are they won't.

But if you decide to find a way to sell that same crap course online anyway, what happens then?

Here in my garage...

Unfortunately, there's a growing number of people who really shouldn't be selling courses online... but they're doing it anyway and becoming millionaires in the process.

Enter the 'fake gurus'

You may recognise them by their ubiquitous and relentless advertising on social media, followed by a 'free' training, or webinar, or ebook, followed by a course with an eye-watering price tag (that, for some reason, always ends in a 7).

Some of the most common 'hard-sell' courses out there are normally about one of the following topics:

  • Marketing agencies
  • Consulting
  • Dropshipping
  • 'High ticket’ sales
  • Amazon FBA

All of these things can be done from home, with just a laptop, and they don't involve you building anything, touching any products or meeting any clients in person.

They're all ways in which it is - yes - technically possible, with an awful lot of hard work, to make some form of income. But are riches and success guaranteed if you take their course? Not in the slightest. 

But that's not the point!

The point is to just buy the course. Then buy the next one. And if you don't see results? Well, there's a disclaimer for that, normally tagged on to the bottom of the page. They typically say that it's 'down to your hard work to get the results', and the results of other students are only 'indicative'.

Don't get the results you were promised? That's entirely your fault. Sorry.

Unethical tactics

Unethical behaviours in online education typically include some, or all, of the following characteristics:

  1. They sell a lifestyle and/or an income, rather than a learning outcome - real quote: "Step by step training to make $1000-10,000 a month!"
  2. They look down on honest jobs - real quote: 'How to convert your current income situation you call a “job” into a self-managing growth machine!'
  3. They rely heavily on the personality of the guru rather than what is being taught - I found one website that had more than twenty photos of the 'guru' on the homepage
  4. They target vulnerable demographics - low income, younger, desperate to 'make it', and ruthlessly targeted with advertising
  5. They give you the ‘hard sell’ - simulated scarcity, time-limited offers and plenty of social proof
  6. They sell incredibly expensive products - typically starting off with 3 figure course with a price that ends in a 7, later to reveal even more expensive products that run into the thousands
  7. They use disclaimers at the bottom of the page - you shouldn't need a disclaimer for educational content. If the course doesn't do what it says it will... it shouldn't be a course in the first place.

[For more on this, I highly recommend the videos of Coffeezilla, Mike Winnet and James Jani on YouTube.]

What about real educators?

The rise of 'fake gurus' poses a serious problem for people who actually have something valuable and worthwhile to share with the world.

Not only do these gurus cheapen the worth of online education, their tactics spread to others who would otherwise have proceeded ethically. The behaviour becomes normalised, everyone starts hopping onto the bandwagon, and people who genuinely want to teach and learn suffer as a result.

If online education is to succeed in the future, it needs to clean its act up. Fast.

The Seven Tests of Ethical Education

Paid online education is, rightly or wrongly, not regulated. Completely absent is any kind of commonly agreed set of ethical principles. There are no 'rules of the road', if you like, for teaching others in exchange for money.

It seems blindingly obvious that this is long overdue. So I wrote my own.

Test 1 - Is it Specific?

Does my course or content clearly specify what it will be teaching someone to do? Does it give a clear outline of what is included before requiring their information or payment?

Good: 'You will be able to write code in Python - here's the syllabus.'

Bad: 'You could make THOUSANDS by becoming a Python MASTER! Sign up here for a free 25 minute training!'

Test 2 - Is it Realistic?

If someone takes my course, can they realistically expect to be able to do what I've said the course will teach them?

Good: My student will be able to repeat what I've taught to get the results that I've claimed.

Bad: I have a disclaimer blaming my students for not getting the same results as others.

Test 3 - Is it Helpful?

If someone takes my course, will I answer their questions along the way? Will they be able to email someone or talk to them about it? Will I update the content to address this if gaps are found?

Good: Students can email me directly to question, comment and complain if they need to.

Bad: They can access 'chat support' with a virtual assistant, on the other side of the world, who I've never met.

Test 4 - Is it Priced Appropriately?

Any digitally delivered course (that is, content that could theoretically be copied and downloaded infinitely) over $100 needs to pull a lot of weight to be worth the price tag. Courses of any price should always come with a money-back guarantee that is easy to request and always honoured.

Good: Yes, it's priced at an appropriate and affordable level that I can reasonably defend.

Bad: It's pricey, and I'll sell them something even more expensive or push more products onto them afterwards.

Test 5 - Is it Sold Honestly?

Is it always easily available and clearly signposted? Do you make it easy for students to access the course? Is your marketing free of any emotional or social engineering?

Good: There's a link to buy it on my website or platform, there is no urgency or scarcity and I don't use any 'hard sell' tactics.

Bad: I use false countdown timers that induce anxiety, I have discounts 'for today only', I make them watch a 20 minute video first, I make them 'apply' for the chance to enroll, enrollment closes in x days...

Test 6 - Do You Have Experience?

Have you actually done the thing that you are teaching? How much experience have you got doing it? Is it enough to warrant selling what you know?

Good: I've done this myself more than once and I'm excited to teach others.

Bad: I haven't really done it but I've seen others making money this way, so all I need to do is copy them. If it works for them, it'll work for me.

Test 7 - Does it Solve a Problem?

Does your course solve a problem for the person who is taking it? Does it make a specific skill relevant to a niche area? Does it help someone sell more? Do more? Does it make their life easier in some way?

Good: I've written a course about programming for marketers that they will find useful and they wouldn't be able to find anywhere else.

Bad: I've created a $197 course about a very generic skill, and I'll try convince anyone who will listen to me that they need it.

Pan for gold...or sell shovels

There's a saying that you make more money in a goldrush by selling shovels than you would do panning for gold. The same appears to be true of online educational content and the rise of fake gurus.

The temptation will always be there for people to claim they're selling you something... and then deliver something else. The barriers for entry are so low and there are precious few - or any, it would seem - gatekeepers out there to protect consumers.

If you're thinking of selling educational content online, no-one is going to police you. This doesn't change that fact that you have a responsibility to act ethically in what you do.

Selling a course and you can't answer 'yes' to most of the above tests? 

It's time to think again.

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I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

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