These days, it seems like everyone is selling an online course (or maybe they just secretly want to sell one). And, I suspect that you might want to do the same.
Or – maybe you already have an online course, but you want to make it stellar – taking the wisdom from your head and laying it out in such a way that your students can use it to improve their lives or businesses in some massive way.
But, how many online courses have you taken that have been disappointing, frustrating, or poorly constructed? If you’re like me, the number is discouragingly high. The worst part is that my experience as a student usually meant feeling stuck as I tried to muddle through the course.
The truth of the matter is, teaching and learning online is not easy, and creating online courses is an art form. Really!
This post will take you through the key steps involved in building an online course, along with the challenges you’ll face during each step (and also how to survive them). But more than that, it will help you determine if you are ready for the challenge!
Very few entrepreneurs have a background in education, and usually need help with designing courses, and like so many aspects of business, it all starts with having a strategy.
Have a Solid Design Strategy
So why would you need to use design strategies?
It’s like building a house. Without a blueprint, or an understanding of how construction works, or what materials to use, we might end up with a lop-sided, ill-finished house that comes crashing down on our heads the first time the wind picks up!
Bringing the example back to our online course, we might end up forgetting the introduction, adding too much content to one module, glossing over important student interactions, or forgetting to upload half of the learning resources (i.e. checklists, worksheets, etc.).
If we use solid design strategies to plan out our course, we can get to work building it right – the first time.
Determine Your Timeline
Creating a course of any kind is not for the faint of heart. It takes time to plan the right course, compose stellar content, and deliver it with style. That is, only if you want to offer your customers a darn good course – one they tell everyone about. My guess is that’s what you want to do.
Most likely, it will take you 3 to 4 months to create a course, if you are focused. It might even take closer to 5 or 6 months, if you are building it more slowly.
That’s a lot of time, so let’s get started!
Phase 1: Planning Your Course
Time: The first phase for designing a course is the planning process, and will probably take about 15 to 30 hours of your time. Depending on how much time you have to dedicate to the project each week, that could mean about a month’s worth of planning and researching.
Challenge: You may have heard the advice that you should merely sketch your course ideas out and offer the course for sale before you start creating it. The problem is, that would require scrambling to create the course before it is launched.
I used to wing it, too, but learned the hard way that this can lead to a disastrous course and bad experiences for your students.
Rather than scrambling at the last minute, make a better plan by following these two steps:
- Conduct research on exactly what your potential students want.
- Draw up a plan for key parts of your course, before actually writing any content.
Step 1: Conduct Research
Learning is a personal journey and one where your students will immerse themselves into your course. Therefore, it’s important for you to know who you want to work with, and how you want to impact them, before you start building.
Start with some basic market research. This will allow you to find out what it is that people want to learn about your topic. An easy way to start is to simply ask them; reach out to your network and ask them what they want to learn about your subject.
You will also need to determine the profile and learning styles of your future students. To start, think about these questions:
- Are they middle-aged professional women who are busy and need mobile learning?
- Are they young, new entrepreneurs who need lots of examples and illustrations to understand the material?
- Or, are they some other combination of profile and learning traits?
By considering their average age, lifestyle, culture and education, you will get a good idea about how to communicate with them, and how to phrase words (i.e. using the word ‘dude’ or not), their life goals (i.e. to excel at something, find deeper meaning, or simply survive), and their background (i.e. they have a college education, prefer top-end service, or are DIYers).
This information will help set the tone, level of language, and topic focus of your course.
Cater to your audience – they will respond well!
Explore student learning styles and try to include several of them by sprinkling different modes of delivery throughout your course (i.e. a bit of video, some audio, relevant images, detailed illustrations, knowledge check quizzes, and online discussions, etc.). It’s not hard to do, especially with the technologies that are available today.
Survival Steps: Let’s be honest for a minute: most people hate doing market research, and many overlook it (or, completely ignore it). I don’t blame them – it’s difficult to find data on your potential market, analyze it, and create the perfect product for them.
At the very least, you have to determine who your target market is!
Follow these steps to gently start the research process:
- Start conversations with your network about your course idea and see how they react.
- See what books are popular on Amazon about your topic and take note of the comments being made.
- ‘Listen’ to how people are reacting to problems that are similar to what you want to solve via your course.
After trying this for some time, if you find data that indicates that your course will fill a need, then dig a bit deeper with the steps outlined above to start conducting solid research.
Let’s look at an example of the research phase in action:
Tamara, a silversmith, wants to build a course to show others how to create jewelry using silver and wood. She has an audience of admirers who think her designs are unique and beautiful, and many of them buy her pieces. However, she realizes that she can’t ask them for input on a course, as they might not be interested in creating pieces, working with silver or carving wood.
Tamara decides to start following and connecting with other jewelry designers via Instagram and Facebook to learn more about them and their needs. After spending a bit of time networking with them and learning about their designs and products, she plans to ask them if they would be interested in her online course, Wooden Silver Designs (TM).
As well as networking, Tamara also checks Amazon to find books about creating and soldering silver jewelry. The comments that customers leave about each of those books reveal the specific topics they like, as well as which instructions and projects work for them. They also demand more illustrations and pictures for each step. This gives Tamara ideas on what to teach and how best to teach it.
Step 2: Create Your Course Plans
Now that the research is done and you have a good idea of who your learners are and what they want, you can start to sketch out your course.
Find Your Big Idea
The big challenge facing you now is that you want to avoid delivering a course that is too similar to what others already offer. To set your course apart from the competition, you will need to determine its big idea.
To get started, answer these questions:
- What makes your course super special compared to others?
- In short, what is it about your topic that turns you on?
- How do you see it and feel about it?
- What can you offer that no one else can?
This big idea is what you need to deliver, and will help set the direction and tone for all of the lessons in your course.
Survival Steps: The process of determining the big idea behind your course will take time and might even cause a lot of frustration, as you try to decide between the hundreds of ideas spiraling in your head, or the complete lack of them!
Instead of allowing frustration to take over, try these steps to uncover your big idea:
- Take time to ponder your idea; reflect on it during walks and give yourself some white space (non-thinking time) to develop it.
- Sit down with a friend; share how you feel about your topic area and what really excites you. Then, write down what you discovered during your conversation.
- Ask your friend what they heard and then work together to come up with the big idea for your course.
Determine Your Learning Goals
The second important part to planning your course is determining your learning goals.
To get started, answer these questions:
- What 2 or 3 things do you want your students to do, feel, know and/or perceive when they have successfully completed your course?
- What part of your topic can you teach that will impact your students lives? Be realistic – unlike you, they may never become an expert.
This question, if you really think about it, will pare down your course. And, that’s a good thing!
Why? The biggest problem with most courses is there is simply too much content. Even professional teachers overload their curriculum – they panic and think about everything that needs to go into a course so that their students learn something.
But instead, the reverse happens: students drown because they can’t filter all of the information. Rather than learning, they get overwhelmed and quit.
Survival Steps: Course creators often struggle with narrowing down their topic to a few reachable goals, and aren’t sure how to avoid overloading students with content and activities.
Rather than plunging your students into the icy depths of information overload, consider the answer to these questions to help determine the basic learning goals for your course:
- What would you cover, if you only had 15 minutes to teach about your topic?
- And, if you only had 10 minutes to see if your students “got it,” how would you evaluate their understanding in a repeatable way?
In the end, people just want to learn something very specific; usually, this means that they are not interested in the whole history or every minute detail of your topic.
Remember – they are learning, so treat them gently! It’s a fine balance between developing a watered-down, empty course that leaves your students wanting, and delivering mammoth content that squashes them beneath its weight.
Decide How to Deliver Your Course
Last, determine how your course will be delivered. Will it be facilitated by you or self-study; evergreen or a limited-time offer?
It is your choice on how you want to deliver the course, but understand that the less you are involved, the more content and activities you have to create and the less you can charge. On the other hand, if you are highly involved in the learning process, you can have less pre-prepared content and charge a premium for being available to your students and sharing your ideas.
Survival Steps: This is often the biggest challenge for people, because it involves determining the technological platform to use for delivering your course.
To help you decide how to structure your online learning space, think about the following:
- Envision what your course would look like if it were delivered in a physical, in-person classroom. What would that look like?
- Where would students sit, stand and work on projects? How would the room be arranged?
- How would you teach your topic, and what materials would you hand out?
- Last, what would students be doing during the time they spent in the classroom?
Take these ideas and place them online – it can’t totally mimic the in-person class, but you can find technologies that are capable of supporting how you want teach, give out learning materials and engage with your students.
Let’s go back and check on Tamara, the silversmith, who wants to make her course really special and not like any other jewelry making course.
Taking some time to reflect, she uncovers her big idea… bending silver into magical designs.
At the core, that is what Tamara does with her silversmith craft. She dreams of gorgeous, filigree-type designs. From there, she draws them, develops casts to produce them, and then carves out select wood pieces, such as walnut, to glue the silver onto. Because silver is so malleable, it’s easy to bend into any shape.
For learning goals, Tamara suspects that students will need help with actually designing the pieces; therefore, she plans to offer them her design templates. During and after her course she expects them to:
- Prepare silver for casting,
- Create casts for silver formation,
- Use a jigsaw to cut out wooden pieces,
- Glue silver and wood together, and
- Add silver hooks to complete the jewelry pieces.
She has decided to create a series of ‘how-to’ videos supplemented by drawings/illustrations, written instructions and project ideas that will live in an online course platform and will be sold as an evergreen course.
She will keep the content focused by succinctly sequencing each important step, and supplement her course material with downloadable resources like illustrated instructions, as well as her design templates.
So – Are You Cut Out for Creating on Online Course?
Planning a course is so important; you can probably remember which courses you’ve taken in the past that were not well planned. Right?!
Now that we have walked through what it takes to plan out your online course, you probably have a better idea of whether it’s something that you are ready (or willing) to tackle!
If you start with these steps right now, you can have a course planned out in a month. Or, you can take your time and start doing your research now, so that you’ll be ready to go when you are ready to make the commitment to start moving forward.
We’ve covered Phase One of the course development process today – planning your course.
Phase Two involves designing your course’s learning path, various lesson elements, engaging activities, and look and feel. And, Phase Three is where you will develop your course by composing the guts (the content and learning materials), creating student activities, adding finishing touches, and placing it strategically online.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling motivated to get out there and start doing the research and planning for my next online course. How about you – do you think you’re cut out to create an online course? If not, what’s holding you back? Let’s take this conversation into the comments below!