Udemy LIVE: It’s a wrap!

Udemy LIVE has concluded, and consensus is that it was a huge success! We were so thrilled to see everyone connecting in-person and hanging out like lifelong friends, not simply professional colleagues. This is the solid foundation upon which we’re building Udemy’s future and, more important, the future for millions of people around the world who want to learn.

Your faithful blogger wasn’t able to attend every session, but here are some highlights from my Udemy LIVE experience. Admittedly, this only scratches the surface of the great content and conversations we were treated to over the past few days, but we’ll be posting more materials from the event in days to come and you can also check out #UdemyLive on social media. Lots of folks posted photos and videos on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their personal blogs, so you can get a taste of what went down.

What struck me, in particular, was the instructor-bonding I witnessed throughout the weekend. Udemy instructors may only interact online most of the time, but it’s clear they’ve developed strong friendships, and I loved seeing everyone enjoying each other’s company so much.

Friday night reception
We welcomed instructors to Udemy headquarters to get things kicked off right. Personally, it was a thrill to finally meet several people I’d only spoken to on Skype before, and I know a lot of others felt the same way. It was so cool to discover we’re all “real people”!

In addition to mixing and mingling over drinks and hors d’oeuvre, Udemy instructors got to visit stations where they could create personalized Udemy badges for their websites and take professional headshots. The evening’s biggest hit may have been the station where instructors could generate heat maps, like Laurel Papworth’s, showing where their enrolled students are located around the world. It’s one thing to see a list of countries in your instructor dashboard, but these visualizations really brought that data to life and demonstrated in very clear terms the impact Udemy instructors have.

Saturday general sessions and breakouts

100 Million Students and Beyond
The heart of Udemy LIVE was Saturday’s full slate of presentations by Udemy team members and instructors themselves.

VP of Content Grégory Boutté got us started by reviewing the accomplishments of those in the room: 160 instructors representing 28 countries, including such far-flung locales as Australia, Pakistan, Singapore, Panama, and Roumania. Collectively, these instructors have:

  • Taught more than 1.9M students
  • Created more than 1,400 courses, yielding 419 years’ worth of content
  • Answered 92,000 student questions

In other words, Udemy instructors work hard!

Grégory also called out a few in the crowd who’ve been teaching on Udemy for 4 years or more:

Cathy Presland
Alexa Fisher
Joseph Caserto
Miguel Hernandez
Charles Wall
John Bura

CEO Dennis Yang praised how far we’ve come together but reminded the audience there are still millions of people worldwide who are hungry for access to quality learning resources, and “we’re just getting started.” Understanding that online teaching can be a rather solitary pursuit, Dennis reassured everyone that “we’re here for you.” I think the instructors felt that commitment in so many ways this weekend, from meeting Facebook community hero Lindsey Bonner to having candid, constructive conversations with Udemy team members.

VP of Product Rob Wong and SVP of Engineering Claire Hough previewed product enhancements we’ve released and are working on to make Udemy’s marketplace more relevant, accessible, and rewarding. Our goal is to help instructors plan, organize, and create amazing course content and monetize it. Rob and Claire talked about our new course management UI, revamped review system, mobile-first experience for phones and tablets, and recently released Apple TV app. A hint at future voice-to-text capability for automatic captioning got the crowd pretty pumped too.

From there, everyone picked which breakout sessions to attend.

Ask an Instructor panel
I went to this session featuring some of Udemy’s longest tenured and most accomplished instructors taking questions from their peers. Cathy Presland, Peter Dalmaris, Scott Duffy, and Rob Percival addressed common instructor challenges. Here’s a sampling:

How can you provide a unique, differentiated course experience?
Scott: Being unique is the most important thing you can do to stand out among 30,000 courses. Be yourself and give your students personal attention and encouragement.
Peter: With the marketplace growing so fast, it’s hard to find an unfilled gap for your topic. Spend extra time on the details of your course and make it perfect, so the quality level becomes your differentiator.

How can you demonstrate quality?
Cathy: Teaching is not the same as talking. I’ve changed my approach over time and now focus a lot on learning style. I offer very specific, bite-size courses that are very practical and include exercises, but there’s no single right answer. Know what your students need and give them that.

How do you determine your course length?
Rob: For my first course, I just included everything I thought should be in there. I wanted to overdeliver in terms of information and content, so students would have lots of reasons to buy.
Peter: Consider having a comprehensive flagship course that can become a category leader.
Scott: Course length is definitely a purchase driver, and offering a lot of content raises the perceived value of your course. I don’t care if students finish.

What’s your strategy for keeping up with student questions?
Peter: It’s the first thing I do every single day, including weekends. It’s my morning ritual and tends to take about 60-90 minutes. I start with public Q&As and then email. I’m very thorough and careful in my replies. Student questions are also a great source of new lecture topics, and I also put questions and answers into my email newsletter.
Rob: I get 100-200 questions a day, so I created an HTML page that allows me to answer in bulk. I make sure to answer every question, but I simply don’t have capacity to go back to do follow-ups and address everything in each thread. I also create new videos to answer debugging questions.

What’s the best day/time to send promotional emails?
Cathy: It depends and is different for everyone. The key is consistency so whatever fits into my routine is what I do.
Scott: Look at your revenue trends to see when your students are already most active. I teach work-related courses and get most of my sales on Mondays, so that’s when I send my emails.

How to Create an Exciting Learning Journey
Udemy employees/instructors David Kim and Pete Sefton started this session by sharing the goal they had for their “SQL for Newbs Masterclass”: to do for learning what Jon Stewart did for news, i.e., make it entertaining and watchable. As they explained, having subject expertise is only half the battle; instructors also need to encourage and engage their students. DK and Pete did this by including “brain busters” in their course for students to solve on their own. Another trick they shared for “shocking students back to attention” was adding surprising elements like wearing funny hats for a lecture or replacing themselves with R2D2 and a piňata in another.

Instructors Teresa Greenway and Rick Walter have their own distinctive methods of keeping students locked into learning.

Teresa starts her courses with a “quick win,” i.e., a simple project that helps students gain confidence in their baking skills. Her other powerful message to fellow instructors is to spread joy. When she was focused on making money, it drove the money away, she told the group.

Rick summarized his own experience of trying to learn to make an app but only finding extremely boring online resources. He kept that in mind when he created his own course. He urged other instructors to put themselves in the student’s shoes by going through the process of selecting a course and purchasing it with their own real money. That’s the best way to glean what will convert prospective students and deliver an experience that’s both fun and educational.

More tips from Teresa and Nick:

  • Include updates in your course description. Showing that you keep content fresh and current tells students that you care about delivering value.
  • Give individual attention. It’s not hard to reach out and make personal connections, and that extra effort will pay off. Both instructors described following up with students who’d left negative reviews, and how the simple act of a personal message prompted those students to revise their ratings.
  • Run challenges and contests. Nick picks student apps of the month and does a live stream of himself using the app; Teresa changes her Facebook group’s cover photo each month to feature a winning baker’s project. Giving students a chance to “win” and show off what they’ve learned is a creative, effective engagement tactic.   

Students First
One of the weekend’s running themes was how Udemy and instructors alike need to focus on student needs first and always. To tackle this broad idea, a foursome of Udemy employees took to the stage and presented suggestions for better understanding students and engaging them.

Catherine Gao challenged instructors to ask themselves why their courses should even exist. If you can’t readily come up with a list of how your courses will help solve a problem and deliver skills and knowledge, maybe you need to rethink your course idea. Catherine also exhorted audience members to be obsessed with their students and get deep into their minds, uncover their fears and dreams, and understand their starting point.

David Quintanilla explained why delivery is such a critical part of the overall student experience. In a nutshell, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. The best course content will fall flat if it’s not delivered in a way that resonates with its student audience.

Lauren Rosenfeld elaborated on DQ’s talk with some specific tactics for improving delivery:

  • Each course should be a clear journey from point A to point B. Scripting your course in advance will eliminate detours.
  • Be conversational and authentic. Putting a photo next to the camera or imagining yourself in front of classroom can help make your delivery more natural.
  • Interject energy and passion. When you’re making a video lecture, you need to amp up your presence and personality in a big way.
  • Vary your tone of voice. It’s easy to lose steam and not even realize it when you’re in the midst of a recording session. Make sure you keep your delivery lively and avoid the dreaded monotone.

Matt O’Dell talked about how to structure your course in a way that keeps student preferences first. He recommended starting your courses with a “quick win” and offering more practical applications than concepts. Giving practice exercises is a great way for students to see the progress they’re making so they’ll continue through the rest of your lectures.

Advanced Video Workshop
With dozens of courses on videography and photography, instructor Phil Ebiner was a natural to lead this session. Conversations in the instructor groups on Facebook are often around video equipment and best practices, so it wasn’t surprising to see a big turnout for this workshop. Using a before-and-after example, Phil demonstrated how music, imagery, talking heads, graphics, and calls-to-action can turn a mediocre course into a great-looking, professional-grade production. His equipment overview included tips on lighting and backdrops, which he had set up right there in the room for people to see.

Fireside Chat with Eren Bali and Dennis Yang
The daytime portion concluded with Grégory Boutte interviewing Udemy founder Eren Bali and CEO Dennis Yang in a casual “fireside chat” format. This was probably the first time most instructors got to hear directly from Eren about Udemy’s origins and how the company has evolved since its earliest days.

Instructor Gala Dinner
If you weren’t there, the photos won’t do it justice, I’m afraid. Oz the Mentalist wowed everyone with his feats of magic and mystery. We’re still trying to figure out how he knew the serial numbers on Dinesh’s dollar bill… Then it was party time!

Sunday Seth Godin Workshop
There were a few more breakout sessions Sunday morning, including instructor Eric Arceneaux and subject expert Shanna Cook co-presenting on social media marketing, but the main event was Seth Godin’s keynote. Seth had some powerful words of wisdom and left us all feeling very inspired. Not surprising there was lots of tweeting during Seth’s talk!

Seth was received by the Udemy instructors like the marketing rockstar he is, and we appreciated how much time he spent taking selfies and signing books after his presentation.

Closing thoughts
With Udemy LIVE 2016 now behind us, we’re already reviewing what we learned from hosting this event and coming up with ideas for next year. The appetite is there for more instructor activities, and I heard a lot of people discussing how we/they can organize regional get-togethers so we don’t have to wait another 12 months to see our friends!

Thanks to all of the instructors who traveled from far and wide to take part. We’ve got a lot of big plans and ambitions for the future, and after this weekend, we’re more determined and excited than ever to continue working toward our mission of 100 million students. Let’s go!