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Design Your Online Training Course: Phase 2

Design Your Online Course

In my previous article on creating an online course, you were asked questions to see whether you were ready to build and deliver an e-course.

In Phase 1, I posit that teaching and learning online is not easy. And creating online courses (or any course) is an art form.

Additionally, you were cautioned to create a course where students truly learn and get terrific results from it.

In Phase 1, I asked you to consider the initial stages of:

  1. Conducting research on exactly what your potential students’ wanted
  2. Drawing plans on key parts of your course before writing any content

PHASE 1 CHALLENGES: As well, you learned how to overcome the initial big challenges for developing a solid online course, such as:

  • To reconsider only sketching your course ideas and offering it before you start creating content; otherwise, it could end up looking like a scrambled, hot mess.
  • To avoid delivering a course that had the same topic as what others already offer and thus, falling flat in the marketplace.

Return to the article on Phase 1 of creating an e-course to refresh your memory and prepare for the next phase’s challenges and survival tips.


TIME: The second phase of building a course focuses on the design process (Note: the content development is in the soon-to-come Phase 3).

The design phase takes place offline and requires about 20 hours of your time. This equates to a couple of weeks, if you are focusing on building your course.

CHALLENGE: It is so tempting to start writing instructions, collecting images, producing videos, or creating other types of content. But this actually occurs last in the course building process.

Why does content creation occur last? Well, let me ask you. Do you know what the building blocks are to learn your topic, and what students will do to move their new knowledge to long-term memory?

Knowing the answers to those two questions will inform WHAT content to create.

And in order to answer those questions consider these 2 course creation steps:

  1. Design a learning path for students to follow and successfully reach your course goals; a path that is sequenced and helps them build their understanding
  2. Determine the engaging activities your students should complete so they increase their skills and knowledge, or change their perceptions and behavior.

Then, add finishing touches to your course design with the following:

  • Create a course outline to follow when composing your content
  • Select the best technical platform and applications for YOUR course
  • Include branding elements to match your business’ look and feel

Step 3. Map Out the Learning Path

If you recall in Phase 1, it was important to determine 2 or 3 things you wanted your students to know, feel, or do after your course was over.

Imagine them walking away from your course with these new golden nuggets in their life.

These are the goals of your course with high hopes your students will accomplish them. Many course developers ignore how to help students reach their goals, but rather put more effort into the marketing and sales of their courses.

These make for poor info products that don’t resell.

The next step, after choosing your course goals, is to figure out how to teach your students so they can successfully reach them through your lessons.

Therefore, you need to determine how the lessons will flow together to help your students develop a certain piece of knowledge, skills, perception and/or behavior over time. Teaching too fast, or skipping important elementary steps, will hinder their learning.

Remember, your students are taking your course because they are newbies; therefore, don’t move too fast, but start with the basics and move slowly towards more advanced topics.

Learning Focuses

Our brains, heart and motor skills need to develop in sequence to come to understand something more fully.

There are different types of understandings that can be categorized into 3 simple domains:

  1. Cognitive – learning via the brain to know something
  2. Affective – learning via the heart to feel something
  3. Kinesthetic – learning via the body to do something

Which will your course develop the most in your students?

To understand more about these domains and the sequence of learning to reach higher levels, click here.

NOTE: For instruction on how to design an online course for the affective domain, see my blog post here.

Backward Design

As you can see with the domains, there are typical steps learners need to take before they can reach higher levels of understanding, ability, or awareness.

For instance, people need to be able to recall or remember a new piece of knowledge (i.e. fact) before they can apply it. This is a big misunderstanding with many courses that move too fast and leave their students in the dust!

To design a course backwards follow these steps:

  1. Start with your ideal levels of achievement (i.e. 2 to 3 course goals)
  2. Determine how you and your student will know they reached the learning goals of the course.
    1. Will they be able to present confidently? Build a small cabinet? Live differently? Write a book chapter, etc.?
  3. Consider the common level of understanding of your students when they join your course. Then consider the steps you need to teach to get them from there to your goal level – this is called the gap.
    1. Are you starting to feel your goals are too lofty, and there is no way your students can reach them within the length of your course?
    2. If so, it’s perfect timing to notch your goals down a bit. It’s okay – this is more realistic. Remember, don’t lose your students in the dust and overpromise something you can’t deliver. They just want to learn solid basics, anyway.

Your answers to these steps become the learning path for your course.

SURVIVAL STEPS: I suspect designing your learning path is starting to seem like a monster with hundreds of dangling arms to help your students reach a certain point. And at a distance, no less, without you being there to guide them!

It probably seems like that, so perhaps try this approach:

  • Imagine you will be teaching a friend something over the weekend that she really wants to learn and has turned to you to be her teacher.
  • What is it you hope to teach your friend within that timeframe?
  • What materials, tools, etc. will you gather to help with her learning?
  • How will you know your friend has learned what you hoped by Sunday afternoon?
  • What step will you start with? What 5 to 10 steps will you follow afterwards to reach the end goal?

This becomes your learning path, which can be applied to a bigger course.

We are all capable of teaching and have done so many times whether you realize it or not.Click To Tweet

Have you taught your mom how to use the computer? Have you taught your child how to ride a bike? Have you trained work colleagues how to implement a new process?

It really is all the same. Start with the end (goal) in mind and walk backwards to the point of your learner’s beginning state of knowledge or development. Then fill in the steps in the gap of understanding with lessons to help build their knowledge, skills, and awareness.

Build them step-by-step.

EXAMPLE: If you recall in the last article, Tamara, a silversmith, plans to deliver an online, evergreen, standalone (self-study) course on creating silver and wood jewelry.

Her course goals are for students to accomplish the following by the end of her online course:

  • Prepare silver for casting
  • Create casts for silver formation
  • Use a jigsaw to cut out wooden pieces
  • Glue silver and wood together
  • Add silver hooks to complete jewelry pieces

She suspects her audience will be the novice to semi-experienced jewelry makers. However, she isn’t sure what medium they’ve worked in but assumes more silver than wood.

Therefore, she plans to offer all the above lessons but separate them into:

  • basic steps and
  • advanced steps.

That way, more experienced craftspeople can jump to her special, advanced techniques for creating silver and wooden jewelry.

In each section (i.e. basic and advanced), she will have appropriate resources.

For instance, she will compose step-by-step written instructions plus a shopping list for supplies in the basic section, design templates, extra tips and suggested readings in the advanced part.

She knows that her basic section will need the most detailed instructions, a jewelry-making supply list, where to buy items, drawings/illustrations of each design process, and handling tips for beginning designers.

She plans to actually go through the steps herself and note each one as she creates a piece of jewelry.

Her advanced section will need video tutorials with her speaking more directly to the students in an ‘artist’ language she developed in the basic section and which jewelry makers commonly use.

She will refer back to the basic section to remind students to stop the video and review certain steps if they get lost.

She also plans to take her students on a visual tour of her work studio and show other pieces she has made describing how she has created them as well as offering additional tips.

Step 4. Choose Engaging Activities

You might have heard that passive learning is out and active learning is in. That is, people need to do something with their senses and brains to actually learn.

Otherwise, the information streaming from written text, videos, etc. will literally go in one ear and out the other.

Active learning, or hands-on learning, helps more information and skills move to long-term memory which can be recalled and used again. Hence, the point of taking a course – to be able to do something afterwards.

Creating engaging activities is your responsibility as you have promised people that they will learn from you. Therefore, it’s best to make your course interactive, practice-based, and dynamic.

Let’s find out how. To start, here are 2 burning questions:

  1. How will you get your students to actively do something in your course and practice the ideas and skills?
  2. How will you encourage frequent interaction and engaging activities to help their learning move to long-term memory (i.e. they get it)

Here are some examples of active online activities and the rationale behind them:

  • Discussion forum
    • Ask people to debate an important point. Set guidelines about etiquette in discussions. Moderate the discussion and summarize everyone’s idea.
    • If you provide this a few times during the course, people will most likely feel heard and want to engage.
  • Web page
    • Provide a written case study or image with a narrated story, and ask 1 or 2 problem-solving questions about it. Give an answer on the next webpage, and why you think it is the best answer.
    • In this exercise, people don’t have to do too much to stop and think about the topic/issue. And your answer becomes a teachable moment where you can present deeper ideas on the topic. You won’t know if your students agree but it would get them thinking.
  • Quiz maker
    • Provide 10 questions to help your students know if they understand the information. This is best for basic facts, terminology or calculations. Quizzes can be multiple choice, true/false or matching questions. Again, you can add more teachings in the feedback, which become teachable moments.
    • In a quiz, students are actively reading and thinking about the information. They also learn more through the feedback due to being more engaged and present in the quiz.

To learn more about how to develop and offer engaging activities online read these 2 short blog posts:

SURVIVAL STEPS: At this point, a full panic might be setting in and your fear of teaching or creating a course is rising to the top.

I understand. It’s much easier to write the content, find the right images, video a lecture, than designing an active learning experience.

But for quality courses, this is where the rubber meets the road.

Quality courses engage learners.

Maybe start by thinking of simpler exercises your students can perform:

  • Make the exercise super relevant to them, and something they want to add to their life.
    • For instance, if you are teaching about how to improve healthy eating habits have students find one new vegetable and locate 2 recipes online to prepare it in delicious ways they like.
      • Perhaps this would mean adding a spice they like or have it cold. See how this is simple, yet very learner-centric.
    • Share your story on how you used a new fruit that was not in your diet before. Show pics of you preparing the fruit in your kitchen, the final dish, and a link to the recipe.
      • People love stories and learn from them (as oral history has shown). They see parts of themselves in the story and can relate more than being told what to do.

The biggest challenge with engaging activities in an informal course (versus a formal college course worth marks) is to get people to engage.

However, they are taking your course because they truly want to learn something.

Make it easy for them to apply by offering fun exercises, simple-to-follow tools, and asking them to connect and communicate with you and the online class even if it’s on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

In short, engaged learners are happy learners.

Take Tamara again, the silversmith instructor. She knows she wants to connect with her students. Likely they are active in their own jewelry-making studios but she wants to ensure they try her technique and not put it on the back shelf.

To Tamara, this would be a failure for her as a teacher.

She decides to set up a channel on Instagram as she uses it all the time to shoot her pieces and post them. She loves Instagram and finds it easy and fun to use.

Therefore, she invites her students to post small steps they are taking to create one of her designs. She insists they take pictures of the following and share with other students (past, current, and future) using her hashtag #silverwoodart:

  • Their working studio
  • Materials they have found for the project
  • Their custom silver cast using Tamara’s designs
  • Creating the silver pieces
  • Cutting the wood pieces
  • The final product
  • Any other image they want to share

Tamara plans to comment on all their photos and add some shots of her own. This dynamic, visual and connected exercise motivates and supports learners as questions can be asked during this sharing process.

Step 5. Add Finishing Touches

Developing a learning path and determining engaging activities is a huge step in the design process. It will take the most effort and time but will convert to a sound, pleasant course your students will love.

There are few more things to complete the design process.

Create Your Course Outline: Your course outline will be your map for when you start creating content. It provides you with the sequence of lessons along with the required learning materials and engaging activities to support them.

It also becomes something you can share on your sales page. And give to your students before the course starts.

Here’s how to create a course outline:

  • List all your lesson titles in the order of the learning path for your course 
  • Add the materials your students will need to learn (i.e. workbook, video tutorial, Pinterest account – this is only a list and not the actual items. We will develop those in Phase 3)

Review your course outline when you are done to ensure you are happy with the flow and the right amount of lessons to avoid overflow.

Have too many lessons? Be brave and cut out the less-than-necessary ones.

Have to few? Determine where you can strengthen some areas to enrich learning.

Select Course Platform and Other Technologies: This is usually the first question people ask – what technologies should I use?!

Your course goals, lessons, and activities will completely dictate this. For instance:

  • Will your students be working more offline building furniture, writing in their journals, or meditating?
    • Then you might just need simple password-protected web pages that can hold text, download instruction sheets and showcase videos.
  • Will your students need to take knowledge-checking quizzes and engage in an online discussion plus work through dripped out content?
    • If your course is more involved like this, then I suggest you use course software, such as Zippy Courses or a hosted service like Ruzuku that can easily handle these elements
  • Do you plan to offer more courses or perhaps in a series?
    • Then consider setting up a membership site, like AccessAlly or Wishlist Member to tuck your course content behind closed doors.

Think  About Your Branding: Branding is more than just your logo and preferred colors – it’s the look and feel of your course.

Treat the design of your course just like you would your clients.

Is your brand more about practical application with no-nonsense images, or a flowing experience with visual stimulation or background music?

Items you need to consider to transfer your brand to your course are as follows:

  • Get the right color combinations by using this palette:
  • Discretely place your logo in your course to not only identify your business but also to copyright to protect it
  • Determine the font sizes and types you will use for headings, body, and special text
  • Determine your level of language in the course, such as professional, technical, casual, or humorous
  • Collect visual assets (i.e. images, videos) you already have on your webpage, etc. and repurpose/reuse them for your course branding


Phase 2 of building an online course is all about the conceptual design. Think in terms of a builder creating the blueprints and mood board for a new house. This is the same process.

  1. To start, determine the different types of understandings you want your student to develop (i.e. cognitive, affective or physical). It could just be one.
  2. Next, develop a learning path by having your course goals in mind (from Phase 1). Then, designing your course backwards by creating lessons to connect the outcome goals to where students are now in terms of understanding. This could be about 10 or 15 lessons to get them to your goal post.
  3. To truly inspire, excite and help students develop their learning by creating engaging activities using the ample amount of free or low-cost technologies available.
  4. Following your learning path and engaging activities, create a course outline that shows all the lessons to reach your course goals.
  5. Considering the learning journey you are providing your students, select the right technologies that will support it. You don’t have to have the most popular or expensive technology. Less glam is best.
  6. Last, consider the look and feel of your course to heighten your branding.

ACTION TO TAKE NOW: Think about the learning path your students will need to take. Roll it around in your mind. When ideas come, make scribbly notes and diagrams connecting parts of your course. Revise your course if it’s getting too big or unwieldy. Rein ‘er in. Then push a bit harder to create the ideal learning path to reach reasonable course goals.

NEXT STEPS: After designing your course, it’s time to create the content (I know you’ve been waiting for this!)

Proceed to Phase 3, developing your course, which includes composing the guts (the content and learning materials), building student activities, adding finishing touches, and placing it strategically online.

What challenges are you facing in Phase 1 or Phase 2? Ask in the comments below!

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