A digitized woman with long blonde hair dances in front of a blank spreadsheet. She’s showing you how to remove blank columns, or maybe to combine cells, or perhaps how to create a new formula to help you format an entire row. She is ecstatic to be there.
The woman is 30-year-old Kat Norton, better known as “Miss Excel,” who in 2020 began going viral for her high-energy, 15-second TikTok dances superimposed with hacks for navigating the popular data software program Microsoft Excel. Within months, she’d launched her very own digital class: the Excelerator Course, made up of 100 sub-10-minute video tutorials and packaged for the price of $297. Students can complete the tutorials and corresponding workbooks at their own pace, on their own time. They choose between the original or the advanced course (or shell out $997 for a course on the full Microsoft Office Suite), going from a total Excel newbie to a pro in just 12 hours.
The classes were a hit, particularly among her core audience of 25- to 35-year-olds who were looking to bulk up their resumes or improve their marketability; many of them were working from home due to the pandemic and considering a potential career change. And Norton is the platonic example of an online course teacher: She’s proficient in an in-demand skill and, perhaps most importantly, she’s very good at selling it.
But no one, not even Norton, could have predicted what a gold mine she’d stumbled upon: Within two months of opening the original course, she says, she earned more from class sales than she made at her corporate day job (which included, among other things, training people how to use Excel) which she’s since quit to be Miss Excel full time. She now estimates she works about 15 hours a week, spending the rest of the time exploring the outdoors in Sedona, Arizona, with her boyfriend, who handles sales for the company. So far, they say they’ve enrolled more than 16,000 people; there have been multiple occasions on which they brought in more than six figures in a single day, claims confirmed by documentation reviewed by Vox. “It’s when I do the webinars,” she says of the live classes she streams from wherever she wants whenever she wants, “those are the massive cash influx days.”
Norton and many other influencers are cashing in on the online course boom, a cottage industry in which anyone can learn a money-making or otherwise life-improving skill — the Microsoft Office suite, email marketing, “gut health,” equitable household labor, how to get a tech job, self-confidence — from someone they already trust. These courses, hosted on one of the dozens of make-your-own course platforms like Teachable or Kajabi, can run from a few hundred bucks to thousands of dollars, from a day-long “intensive” to a months-long course. What most of them have in common is that they’re undertaken completely independently — for the majority, students aren’t part of a specific cohort, but can sign up and complete the work whenever they want. All of the coursework is typically prepared long before they ever sign up: the videos, the worksheets, the content — all are premade and prerecorded, meaning that every time someone new joins the program, the teacher makes money. If a creator gets lucky, they can spend only a few weeks or months building a course that will continue to earn them profit for years to come.
It makes sense, then, why so many of these classes are about business; even online courses devoted to “boosting your confidence” are pretty explicitly geared toward improving one’s marketability. The online course creator is a distinctly American character, one who preaches that the surest way to financial stability is self-employment, and more important than any singular interest — science, art, sports, whatever — is your ability to sell it to everyone else.
You could, if you really wanted to, write off all influencer online courses as cynical cash grabs by people who know their followers will fork over any amount of money for their tutelage. But that wouldn’t tell the whole story. The travel YouTuber Damon Dominique’s foreign language courses, for instance, are full of funny and beautifully edited videos in which he teaches students conversational French or Spanish, interspersed with entertaining stories about his escapades hitting on men at European raves. Like Norton of Miss Excel, Dominique already had a background in language teaching, but decided to launch a course when the pandemic made it difficult to film travel videos.
For creators like Dominique, online courses are a welcome respite from the erratic and unpredictable nature of making content on internet platforms. “There’s a change in the algorithm every few months, and right now it’s all moving toward short-form video,” he says. It took him about six months to organize, film, and edit the course, offered on the digital course platform Teachable, which, like most course platforms, takes either a percentage of the revenue or costs creators a few thousand dollars per year to use, depending which pricing model they choose. So far, more than 5,000 people have taken his $199 French course.
Teachable doesn’t consider itself as a replacement for higher education, per se, but it does hope to supplement it. “Most people never go to college, and they need a solution that works with them and their life,” explains Teachable general manager Mark Haseltine. “The challenge with traditional education is it’s so expensive, and it’s on the school’s time, not the individual’s time. A lot of professors are more concerned about their own reputation.” Influencers, he argues, are experts at engaging with their audiences, who in turn trust them to educate in a way they’re already familiar with.
Academics, however, don’t always see influencers as the best professors. “Some of [these influencers] do have legitimate training in their field, and some don’t, but they’re able to position themselves as credible experts by using these acceptable boundaries and patterns for communication authenticity,” explains Emily Hund, a research affiliate at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “In the realm of parenting stuff, there are so many people selling parenting courses from every possible angle. On one hand, it’s great when it comes from an actual trained psychologist because now more people can access helpful tips. On the other hand, every day you’re getting content about what might be wrong with your kid. It creates this strange dynamic, this shift to selling ways of thinking and ways of approaching the world.”
Consider, for instance, the kind of person most closely associated with influencer courses. YouTuber Jake Paul advertised his “Financial Freedom Movement” course in 2020 with a fiery screed against traditional schooling: “I’m sick of our education system and how it’s teaching kids 0 real life skills for them to secure there (sic) own future,” he tweeted. His solution? A $20 per month course where kids can learn skills like becoming an Uber driver or food delivery worker to support themselves while they network their way to social media stardom. (The program’s website is no longer functioning.)
Or take YouTuber and motivational speaker Brendon Burchard, who for $997 a year can teach you how to be a millionaire. Specifically, he will teach you to become an influencer, using “seven-figure marketing strategies” to market, well, yourself. The idea is that if you sign up for a course by Burchard, you too could someday become a Burchard: someone who tweets about “ownership mindset” and “high performance habits” and produces YouTube videos about “the power of encouragement.” Evangelical Christian influencer Bethany Beal’s $1,900 “She Works Smart” course is more explicit: The end goal is for you to start your own online course business “so that you can make money on autopilot.”
And boy, are people trying to make money on autopilot. Online courses can run the gamut from shady (professional misogynist and alleged sex trafficker Andrew Tate’s $50 per month “Hustler’s University,” where students learn crypto trading and dropshipping) to explicitly criminal (there is at least one six-week course in which $945 will get you an in-depth lesson on how to steal credit cards and use them to pay for fancy vacations). They’ve earned the online course industry a bit of a bad rap on the wider internet; in YouTube videos, Medium posts, Reddit threads, and tweets, people vent their frustrations about being endlessly marketed to in this specific way. “All of these influencers peddling this shit contributes to people putting less and less value into teaching and more into just marketing themselves as products,” describes one Reddit commenter. “It’s an MLM but in human form.”
Nicole Ouellette, the founder of a marketing consulting company called Breaking Even Communications, was introduced to influencer courses through the small business owners she worked with, many of whom said they’d paid for expensive business courses from people like Burchard or financial influencer Grant Cardone. “At first I thought, maybe these people know more than I do,” Ouellette says, laughing. “And then I started looking into it.”
What irked her most about them was that her clients were made to believe that the only reason the advice didn’t “work” was that they didn’t do it properly. “I’ve said this in business meetings before: ‘If there was one thing that ‘worked,’ I would tell you what it is, make you pay me $10,000 for it, and lie on a beach.’” She found that the courses her clients took followed the same formula and gave the same advice: find your target market, “start with why,” and build your “click funnel.” (“Click funnel” is a term that comes up often in online marketing speak; the basic idea is turning your existing connections into paying customers by sending them increasingly irresistible emails.)
Another thing that can help? A recession. “People get a little more desperate for money and think they need to start a side hustle,” says Ouellette. “I’ve had more than one business owner sitting in my conference room, crying, asking if I can save their business. These courses seem very tempting, especially if an influencer says that the last two courses were full and there’s a waiting list. You think they really know what they’re talking about.”
My Tech Best Friend was one such course claiming to make people money, specifically to teach them the skills needed to obtain high-paying tech jobs. Charlie Howe was already working in the field when she discovered the program through other young Black tech workers on Twitter, where she saw people talking about how they went from little to no tech experience to making upward of $90,000 salaries. Last August, she enrolled in the months-long program for a discounted early bird rate of $3,700.
Immediately, she says, she was put off by My Tech Best Friend’s founder, Mary Awodele, who Howe describes as “very rude, nasty, and condescending.” “When she sent out communication to us, she was basically calling us illiterate or dumbasses,” she says of her 770-person cohort. While the course itself was “great,” Howe later discovered that much of it had been plagiarized from other courses. In November, Awodele posted a video to her Instagram in which she implied that she’d rather be called the n-word than have one of her students secure a job in tech without informing her. (TechCrunch spoke to a dozen other people who also said that Awodele was “hostile and led harassment campaigns against those who spoke out against her.”) After posting a Twitter thread about her frustrations, Howe started receiving threats to her phone. Screenshots of the texts, which came from three different numbers, include personal insults and veiled threats, such as “you ugly ass disgusting stinky ass bitch. Just know you got something coming for you.” She’s currently in the process of trying to get her money back.
Awodele had built a following of tens of thousands on Black tech Twitter, forging relationships and, as Howe describes, “creating hype around herself” by misrepresenting her actual experience in tech. She’s far from the only influencer accused of using her reputation to exploit her followers, nor is Howe the only person who’s felt scammed by influencers capitalizing on the online courses boom.
One woman paid $18,000 to attend an online course that was described by its founder, self-help influencer Brooke Castillo, as “the Yale of life coaching schools.” She ended up realizing within a month that most of the course materials were recycled from Castillo’s existing content, that the teachers hired by Castillo were often distracted and unavailable, and that they met complaints by insisting that the problem was the student’s fault. She tested her suspicion that the program was nothing more than a cash grab by intentionally trying to fail the final exam, but passed anyway. “It felt like get em in, get em in, sell, sell, sell. And once they’re in, it’s like — well, I gotta go sell to more people,” she told the Guardian.
Another woman told Refinery29 that she’d paid around £1,200 for the lifestyle influencer Sarah Akwisombe’s “No Bull Business School” as well as £199 a month for her “Smashing It” “six month success accelerator,” only to find that the advice included stale, irrelevant tips like “getting up at five in the morning and doing loads of cardio or getting rid of people in your life who don’t support you.” In 2018, the travel influencer Aggie Lal launched a $497 12-week course aimed at growing Instagram followers. Students said that some of the tips included advice like, “when posing for pictures, try not to look pregnant” and insulting comments like, “people who work at Starbucks aren’t living up to their potential.” Thirty-five students ended up signing a petition demanding refunds.
That scammers can sell courses that appear just as legitimate as Miss Excel or Dominique’s French class is both an asset to and a hindrance for the online course boom. It doesn’t take too much imagination to envision a world where instead of college, many people invest a few hundred or thousand bucks into piecemeal courses they find online about subjects they’re interested in. (Educational vloggers Hank and John Green recently launched a program that does just that, allowing attendees to earn credit at Arizona State University.) It’s a little more difficult to imagine the rigorous standard-setting and professor-vetting of an average university applying to any influencer who wants to launch their own course.
The tension between the online course industry’s vision of a fully remote, learn-on-demand society and the central principles of liberal arts education, which prioritizes intellectual curiosity and critical, nuanced thinking, does mirror the clashing worldviews of self-employed influencers and those interested in working within traditional corporate or public sectors. There is a sense among online course teachers and the ed tech sector at large that education is important insofar as it can earn you money, that it is possible to distill a master’s in business or a decade working as a software engineer into a single webinar or bootcamp.
This perspective also aligns with the highly individualistic nature of self-help gurus in the Tony Robbins tradition, where nothing more than a change in attitude can “unlock your potential” and make you a millionaire. When Norton talks about her enormous success with the Miss Excel program, she credits the spiritual guidance she learned at a yoga retreat in Morocco, as well as the teachings of Joe Dispenza, who writes books and gives lectures on the power of manifestation. (Though Dispenza portrays himself as an expert in quantum physics and neuroscience, he is by trade a chiropractor and has ties to a New Age school that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as espousing homophobic and antisemitic views.)
“It’s crazy how things can change if we just work on our mindset,” says Norton, describing the intense, debilitating anxiety she felt as a child and how she was able to overcome it. “I feel like so many people get stuck on that edge, and don’t realize they can reprogram those thoughts that are keeping them in place. The only limits we have are the ones we’re placing. Once you clear that out, the peace happens and it starts getting you on your destiny path and into your highest timeline.”
The thing about influencer-led online courses is that if this kind of jargon — “highest timeline,” “manifestation,” etc. — doesn’t resonate with you, you can find plenty of other content creators who will speak to you in ways that do. This is the appeal of the industry as a whole, after all: an à la carte, mix-and-match style of education, where you get to pick professors based on how likable they seem online, and where you get to “cut through the bullshit” and get straight to the part where your life gets better. And everyone knows what this industry considers “the bullshit” part of college: It’s the part where you learn how to think critically, how to explore, how to converse, how to live, how to discern between people interested in you and people who are interested in your money.
Norton has big plans beyond Microsoft Excel. Companies have started bringing her in to speak to their teams, getting them excited about work and helping them evolve their mindset. “I went from being shy and uncomfortable in my own skin at my corporate job to dancing on the internet and making way more money than I ever thought,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, if I could do this, like, other people could do this.’”