5 key trends in digital learning in 2023 

Editor’s note: Evan LePage is director of content at Thinkific, a Vancouver-based platform for digital learning experiences. 

The creator economy has quickly become a juggernaut, taking the world by storm. According to recent statistics, collectively it’s worth a staggering $100 billion and employs over 300 million people worldwide. The term "creator economy" refers to the vast network of individuals who earn a living through their creative pursuits, whether it be producing online content, creating digital art or offering specialized services. The diverse and dynamic industry has exploded in popularity thanks to the rise of digital platforms and social media, which have provided creators with new opportunities to reach audiences and monetize their work.

One sector of the creator economy that is poised to see the most significant growth is e-learning. A report from Global Market Insights showed that the e-learning market size surpassed $315 billion in 2021 and is projected to see a 20% per year growth rate from 2022 to 2028. This growth can be attributed to several factors, including the increasing demand for online education and the rise of remote work. As more and more people turn to e-learning to develop new skills and advance their careers, the creator economy is poised to become an even more critical player in the global economy.

Tracking this evolution, online learning platform Thinkific conducted a survey of over 2,000 U.S. adults and consulted with many successful creators to gain insight into the digital learning landscape, side hustles and the broader creator economy. Their findings were compiled into the 2023 Digital Learning Trends Report, which highlights key trends in digital learning and shows how they are impacting the industry. 

Here is a summary of the report's major findings and their implications:

1. Creator educators take over from entertainers. 

When people picture creators, they often think of MrBeast, Charli D'Amelio or Logan Paul. While a lot of creator economy attention (and dollars) is focused on a small group of entertainers at the top, creator educators are emerging as the reliable middle class. Thinkific’s Trends Report (registration required) survey found that more than two times as many people are interested in creators making digital content for education than for entertainment. 

Sharing knowledge and driving impact is a lot more sustainable – and achievable – then trying to become a household name. That means the nearly one in four people who identify as a digital creator have more room to build a lasting career within the creator economy. Education isn’t a zero-sum game, after all. We all bring experiences and expertise to the table, and these can be shared through courses and other digital learning products.

What should creators take from this data? Entertainment might be the path to stardom, but education is a more attainable path for the countless creators still looking to earn their first dollar online. 

2. Finding time to learn via microlearning.

Have you seen the headlines about Gen Z's use of TikTok as both a search engine and an off-the-clock classroom? The last few years have led more and more people to become reinvigorated by the process of active learning, and there have never been more tools and assets at the digital fingertips of creator educators. However, time remains a fundamental constraint, even with mobile technology. As pandemic restraints clear away and we resume our normal commitments, any time for learning we do have will have to be fitted around work, appointments and commutes.

Microlearning is a learning solution that has evolved to meet hectic modern lifestyles as we constantly evaluate how best to allocate our time. Compared to traditional models, microlearning’s bite-sized how-to videos – ranging from 30-seconds to 10-minutes long – are not only more convenient, but they are also more impactful and aid in maintaining long-term retention. In our report, the second-most cited benefit to short-term form learning after discovering new topics (41%) was that it's easier to absorb short-term, short-form content (26%).

The growth of microlearning should be music to the ears of creators in the early stages of their education journey. Concise learning experiences are cheaper, faster and easier to make, meaning that users can produce and publish large amounts of content which can be easily tested and iterated as they go. 

What’s more, microlearning enables creators to consistently grow their audience size. Thinkific creator Kat Norton, founder of Miss Excel, used microlearning on TikTok to create a sizeable audience (currently 1,683,000+ followers). Her content is concise, engaging, free-to-access and highly instructional – thereby covering all microlearning bases. 

Our survey found that 57% of people decided to learn about a topic after seeing short-form content about it on social media. Creators that take advantage of that through extracting a handful of choice quick tips can directing people online courses for a deeper dive. 

3. Learning communities assist in consumer retention and shared experience. 

Within the online education space, communities were long seen as an add-on or a bonus that you threw in with a course. No more. 

Nearly 60% of surveyed Thinkific creators are currently selling, or are planning to sell, an online community as a learning product. Why? Strong communities make every other part of your business easier. 

They allow you to build a more engaged following, increase retention of your product, and generally better support the success of your learners – by building in a layer of accountability and shared experience. 

They also make it a heck of a lot easier to sell future products. The Thinkific survey found that 53% of people say they’re more likely to buy a product if it’s recommended to them by a member of a community they belong to

This is more good news for creator educators who are just starting out. Where a course might take weeks to record and build, you can create a community in hours and start sharing it with your audience. Once people join your community, it might just be the extra push you needed to commit to your business and start building out your product suite.

Of course, you also need to stay active in your community. Melissa Guller, founder of Wit & Wire, says, “It all stems from you. If you are not replying to every comment, if you are not encouraging your students to support their peers, they're not going to come back.” Stick with it. Post topics and prompts, ask and answer questions, and drive engagement and value. 

4. Creator educators must income streams to weather storms. 

It hasn’t been a great year for the economy (forget the looming recession and high interest rates … even banks aren’t safe!). 

Nearly one in three don’t earn enough to meet their needs, and 35% don’t have one month of emergency savings in the bank. It’s no wonder people don’t feel comfortable making the jump into a new career within the creator economy.

But the traditional career path isn’t secure either, as recent waves of layoffs have proven. More than 7 out of 10 of people are considering pursuing additional income streams because of the economy. The online learning industry might provide a measure of career security in tough times because of the diversity of income opportunities it presents. 

Diversification is the only way creator educators can future proof their businesses while maximizing revenue. It’s important to conduct market research within your community, speak with your audience and your learners, and see if you can identify opportunities to expand your offering. Build a value ladder, ranking products from low to high value (and corresponding sale price) and see if you can fill in any gaps. Courses, templates, e-books, one-on-one coaching, consulting … there’s no shortage of ways to grow your business and in doing so build yourself a nest egg.

5. Research shows consumers value course content over popularity of platform. 

When signing up for a digital course, people are far more motivated by the course content (65%) than by the platform it’s hosted on (8%) according to the Thinkific survey. And yet, course creators still flock to marketplaces that eat into their revenue while offering very little in return.

A course on a marketplace is given equal weight to every other course on that website. “This makes it difficult to differentiate your course against every other course of the same type,” says creator Kyle Scott, president of SERHANT. Ventures, a real estate brokerage firm that offers sales training and coaching courses. “And it makes it difficult to differentiate your experience as the entrepreneur and the thought leader from the experience offered by the course marketplace.” 

Instead of trusting your marketing to the platform, take ownership. Invest in your personal brand, spend time and resources on marketing your learning products, show up for your community, and you’ll find you can generate much, much more revenue for your business. “Not only can you forge relationships with your own audience, but frankly you have a higher profit potential,” Guller explains. “My entire marketplace revenue from a year is equal to one self-hosted course sale.” 

Data mentioned in this article can be found Thinkific’s 2023 Digital Learning Trends Report (registration required).