- Who: Jonathan Polley
- Website: Makescienceeasy.com
- Course Topic: Science for Kids
- Revenue Stats: Up to £3,500/month
Who are you and what course business have you created?
I’ve been teaching science to school children for 14 years and have worked in a range of schools. This includes private schools in the United Kingdom, schools in deprived areas of London, and even prestigious international schools in Spain.
I’ve seen a large discrepancy in the quality of education offered in these schools, ranging from excellent to very poor. I want to give everyone the opportunity to experience excellent science education regardless of their background. So I created Make Science Easy to make sure everyone has the ability to access high quality science education, in order to pass their exams with great results.
What market do your online courses serve?
Make Science Easy targets learners of all abilities aged between 14 and 16 years old. These are the ages that students in the UK and those following the British education system outside of the UK are preparing for their exams.
Our courses also target home-schooled students, regardless of where they are based in the world.
People who take our online courses typically have a small understanding of the absolute basics of science. However we do try to accommodate those who have zero prior scientific knowledge, or who have serious misconceptions about science due to poor teaching in the past, or through misrepresentation by the media in general.
What’s the biggest benefit of taking your courses?
Very simply, the biggest benefit of taking our courses is that you will come out with a fantastic grounding in the fundamentals of science. You’ll be fully prepared to take foundation science exams, for whichever syllabus you are studying for.
How did you get into the market?
I came up with the initial idea while I was working as a teacher in an international school in Spain. I taught a qualification known as the international GCSE. Roughly 800,000 people take this examination every year. However, there are virtually no online resources for this qualification. The students I taught complained that there was nothing online that fully met their needs. So, it seemed like an obvious gap in the market for me.
However, since developing the courses I have widened the scope slightly and tried to incorporate relevant subject matter and lessons from different syllabuses. This is in an effort to provide wider coverage and a fuller learning experience.
Why did you decide to create online courses in the first place?
Initially I started creating the courses to provide additional assistance to the students I was teaching in the school I was working in. The feedback I got from these students was really positive. They all found it helpful. In some ways many found it more helpful than the actual lessons in class. That’s because online content has to be delivered in a more succinct way. It’s also actually easier to explain abstract concepts with video as you can add animations, rather than just drawing on a whiteboard.
Since my students were finding the lessons I was creating useful, I decided to send my videos to friends who were teaching elsewhere. I asked them to show the videos during lessons or get their students to watch them at home. The feedback from this was also overwhelmingly positive. But this time, it was without the bias of the students watching the lessons actually knowing me.
It was at this point that I really thought I might be on to something. It seemed like it would add value to a huge number of people and could potentially be a viable business for myself.
Once I made this decision I started to create the course material on a regular basis, with the intent of putting it online, while continuing to teach in the classroom. However, around this time I had a large number of life changes, including becoming the sole carer for my children, one of whom has fairly complex needs. Caring for him full time meant working a 9-5 teaching job (and teaching really is anything but a 9-5 job) was no longer viable. So I took the path of working full time on my courses. Becoming self-employed afforded me the opportunity to work flexibly, which is essential for me right now.
Did you have any moments of doubt before you created/launched it?
I’m not so sure I had too many moments of doubt before I launched my course. I knew the content of the courses was very good, perhaps better than anything else available (at least for my target audience).
However, I did (and still do) worry that I may have bitten of more than I can chew. It sometimes feels like I just have too much to do and I am trying to wear too many hats. It’s almost as if I am trying to do the work of five or six people at once, while making what felt like no headway at all. This can become very demoralizing.
One doubt that I had at the start, that I still have, and I honestly still don’t know how to get around it is my target audience.
The people who are taking my courses are primarily teenagers. Although they might need my course, I am realistic that very few of them are going to ask their parents to buy it for them. After all, it means more work for them and how many teenagers want that?
So I need to appeal to parents. But most parents will not be looking for revision material for their child, at least not on a regular basis.
It’s a real quandary and I am not sure how to deal with it.
If so what made you turn it around and do it anyway?
I realized I was working in a bit of a haphazard way. There was no real logic to how I was working, I was trying to tackle everything at once instead of systematically approaching what I need to do. I also wasn’t measuring my achievements, so it felt like I wasn’t actually achieving anything.
To tackle this I created a few spreadsheets for different tasks. One of the spreadsheets is based on course creation. The other is based on marketing activities.
Both work in the same way, but I´ll explain with the course creation spreadsheet.
I started by listing all of the lessons in each course (Biology, Chemistry and Physics). Each course has a total of 65+ lessons.
For each lesson there are a number of tasks, so I created a header for each task. Then every time I start a task for a specific lesson, I fill in the box in yellow, when the task is finished, I fill the box in green.
It gives a visual record of what I have achieved and what I need to achieve. At the start of each week I set myself specific targets for what I will get done that week.
It really helps keep me motivated and shows that am making good progress.
What’s your online course like?
Every lesson in the course is based around an instructional video. These videos are created using PowerPoint, and where relevant the PowerPoint can be animated to show key scientific concepts.
I took an active decision to go with substance over style. Animations in PowerPoint are fairly crude, but they can illustrate everything clearly and show things in an easy to understand way.
I could have learned a new animation package and it could have made the videos look flashier, but would it have actually added anything to the quality of the learning? I don’t believe it would have.
Videos range from about five to twenty minutes. Lessons follow in a logical pattern so concepts learned in previous lessons can be built upon in subsequent lessons.
After each video, students are presented with a multiple choice quiz, usually around ten questions or so. This tests students on their understanding of the concepts covered in the lesson and provides immediate feedback. Ideally, where they’ve identified gaps in their knowledge they will re-watch the relevant part of the lesson.
A text version of the video is also available to download and print off. These can be collated to create a revision guide/text book for learners to use at any time. There are also worksheets that accompany each lesson. These can also be printed and completed at any time. Each worksheet has an accompanying answer sheet for students to check their answers.
A number of lessons also have instructions for practical activities that can be completed safely at home, without the need for specialist equipment. This is primarily aimed at home-schooled learners rather than those using the courses as an accompaniment to what they are learning in school.
How long did it take you to create your courses?
The first course I created was the Biology course. I did this while still employed full time teaching science in School. This meant my time wasn’t completely dedicated to creating my courses. So it took about 14 months to complete.
I started working full time on the courses around the time I started to create the chemistry course. Due to my experience and the increased amount of time devoted to course creation this took me around five months to complete. I am currently finishing off the physics course and this should take me between five and six months to get finished. Hopefully it will be launched around December 2019/January 2020.
Of course, the courses are never actually complete as exam boards are continually changing their syllabus. So I need to continually make small changes to the lessons to keep them updated.
The process of creating a course is fairly simple.
The first thing I do is look at the relevant syllabus, published by the exam board. I break that syllabus down into lessons. Really this is no different to what I would do if I was teaching in a classroom, although I tend to condense content more for online courses than I would do for classroom teaching, otherwise there would be too much repetition which would be tedious.
For each lesson I then create a PowerPoint and ensure everything on the syllabus that is relevant for that lesson is included in the lesson.
I create animations needed to explain complex concepts from scratch. Photos needed for each lesson are obtained using Pixabay, which offers rights free images. However, for some lessons which require more technical images I will use Wikimedia commons and ensure I correctly cite the usage of these images.
Once I finish the PowerPoint, I record audio over the lesson. I then encode the video and edit it to cut out all of the times I make a mistake before creating the final video.
One thing that I don’t do, that most people do, is I do not create a video script before I record. I just make up what I am saying on the fly. I am so used to working this way in the classroom that it just seems more natural and makes everything sound better. There are drawbacks to this as I often notice that I have missed important things out as I edit the video and then I need to go back and re-record sections.
Once I complete the video, I create the other resources that the lesson needs like; the summary, quizzes, worksheets. Then its time to move on to the next lesson and repeat 65 more times.
The average lesson takes about 20 hours to create from start to finish. Although some can take less time, lessons that need more complex animations can take up to 50 hours.
Tell us a little about the process of launching your course and getting your first sale(s).
Because I was still working on the other courses, the initial launch of my course was very much a case of, put it up, post a bit on Facebook and see what happens. Much to my surprise, not a lot did happen at first. I naively thought a “build it and they will come” approach would work. Needless to say it did not.
Once I realized this was the case I did a bit more to promote the courses. It still wasn’t enough (but I thought it was better to focus on content creation as I still had a full time income) rather than to worry about selling the course just yet.
After a couple of weeks, sales did start to trickle through. Slowly but surely there were occasional sales. It was a pretty great feeling even if not a huge financial gain.
In hindsight, it may have been better to try to have a big launch and really push for sales, rather than just putting the course up and hoping for the best. But you live and you learn!
Do you have a lead magnet?
I offer a free scientific literacy course. It’s only ten lessons long and focuses on the fundamentals of science. What science is, how science works. Basic mathematical skills for science. The process of designing, carrying out and evaluating an experiment.
It gets quite a lot of sign ups which is great. When people sign up for that course they are also enrolled in my other courses and can complete the first few lessons for free. After they do that they reach a paywall and need to sign up. I also offer a discount code to people when they log in for the third time. This incentivizes them to sign up.
I’m always looking for new ways of getting more people to sign up. And I’m working on offering two different ebooks as lead magnet. One for students and the other for their parents. I’m hoping that will be a big boost.
I’ve also posted the first few lessons for each course on YouTube. These all have links and cards to Make Science Easy. This has encouraged a lot of sign ups as well.
I definitely need to look at how I can convert more sign ups into paying customers though.
What’s the traffic strategy that works best for you?
Probably the most effective traffic strategy I have right now is YouTube. It’s working reasonably well. But on the other hand, I don’t want to post too much there as I will essentially be giving all the content away for free.
Once the physics course is completed I am looking to really harness other traffic sources such as social media, blogging and paid advertising. But while I’m working on finishing the physics course, I’m weary of spending too much time on developing traffic because it can be a huge time sink. I’m also acutely aware that offering all three sciences in a single package is a far more attractive offer than just the two I have right now.
What online course platform are you using?
We use WordPress as our content management system (CMS) and we are running WP Courseware as our teaching platform.
It’s great, it does everything we need and is easy to use while not being resource intensive. I did consider using a third party provider such as Udemy as they already have huge traffic numbers. But looking into it, their target audience and mine do not really mesh and it just didn’t seem like a good fit.
Are there features you wish it had?
Not really. However, when I set it up it did not have payment options, it was just a course creation tool. So I used a membership plugin to take payments. Both work really well together. But now WP Courseware takes payments, so I should probably stick with that rather than with the membership plugin. But doing so would require a huge amount of work on the website. I’m definitely in a technological debt situation at the moment.
What made you decide to use your chosen platform over others?
It simply offered everything I needed at the time, at a reasonable price, while having positive reviews.
What other tools do you use to run your online course business?
I use S2 member to power the membership side and payment side of the site. It’s interesting that it isn’t always highly rated as a WordPress membership plugin. And maybe that is because it has a fairly steep learning curve. But it’s incredibly powerful and well supported.
S2 handles payments using Stripe to accept cards and we also accept PayPal.
In terms of creating videos, as already mentioned I use PowerPoint to create the videos. I record audio using a condensing microphone and a pre-amp. The sound quality is just superior to a podcast microphone. (And my voice is awful so needs all the help it can get!)
I use good old Windows Movie Maker to edit videos. It is simply the easiest to use and best tool for my needs.
Please share some idea of revenue.
Revenue varies wildly. During the summer holidays revenue is unsurprisingly very low. As soon as school is back there is a large spike which gradually drops as we head towards December. In January it spikes again and then it gradually drops until around April/May, when it spikes again as people prepare for summer exams.
Months where sales are high I can see an income of up to £3,500 a month. Months during the summer sales can drop to as low as £500 a month.
When I initially launched, I only had one off prices. Now I offer monthly subscriptions too. So, during the summer months when school is out I may only get three or four new customers a month, but the recurring subscription fees keep my income from totally dropping off.
On average I am earning slightly more than I was as a full time teacher although there isn’t much in it at the moment. However, I anticipate this will continue to grow, especially once I complete the physics course.
Please tell us a little about what the money you’ve earned from your courses has done for you.
Financially it hasn’t made a huge difference for me yet, although if growth continues then it could definitely be life changing.
I’m not quite there yet, but within the next couple of years I do want to be able to take on a couple of employees and grow the business. However, I am a fairly risk adverse person.
I know that without risk I may never get the full reward from this, and I am OK with that.
In addition to revenue are there any numbers you would like to share?
Perhaps the one thing I have done to grow my email list faster than anything else is to run an online competition. For the competition I gave away 5 free subscriptions to Make Science Easy. - Jonathan Polley Click To Tweet
All people had to do was answer an easy question and submit their email address. The competition ran for three weeks and I got about 80 entries a day on average.
The five winners all got their free subscription.
I am now in the process of converting those who did not win into subscribers by telling them about special offers.
What has creating your course done for you personally?
For me the most important thing creating my course has done is allow me the freedom to work flexibly. Being your own boss is stressful, but incredibly rewarding.
The most important part of that flexibility is to be able to spend time with my kids. It enables me to be a better parent as I am not working according to someone else’s deadlines.
Do you have a story of a transformation from any of your clients?
A young lady in her 30’s purchased our biology course last year. She is a young mother and had been unsuccessfully trying to pass her science exams from the age of 16.
She spent a month completing all of our biology lessons.
At the end of that month she took her biology exam again. And this time she passed, and with a really high grade too. This has allowed her to apply for further studies in fields that she was not able to do before because she lacked a biology qualification.
I got the most lovely email from her. Her life changed as a result of taking our course. If I closed the site now and never got another sale from it, that alone would have made it all worthwhile.
What advice do you have for people just starting out?
Keep working and keep believing in yourself. Success doesn’t come overnight. You’re going to have doubts, you’re going to ask “is this worth it?”. That is totally normal. Keep going. The more you put into this the more you are going to get out of it.