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Designing Online Courses: The Complete 2024 Guide

  • Lexi RodrigoLexi Rodrigo

Updated by Willy Wood

The overarching goal of teaching is to have an impact on your students’ lives, to be the vehicle for a transformation that they wish to achieve. That’s true whether you’re teaching in a traditional classroom face-to-face or whether you’re teaching an online course.

And if we’re measuring teaching success by these parameters, we have to admit that online courses don’t have the greatest track record.

For starters, course completion rates are dismal.

Despite the popularity of virtual learning in this post-COVID era, the completion rates for online courses are between 5% and 15% and the completion rates for massive open online courses (MOOCs) are between 3% and 6%.

And even when students pay to take a course, the rates are still dismal. For example, Udemy says that the average student completes only 30% of the course content and an average of 70% never even start the course they’ve paid for!

And if students aren’t even consuming the online courses, how can they be learning?

This concerns you, the online course creator who’s driven by your desire to share your knowledge and make an impact.

Just getting people to enroll in your course isn’t good enough. Ultimately, you want your students to see results and be satisfied with the course. Getting many students and making money from your course are secondary.

So, why are completion rates for online courses so dismal?

Some people claim that humans have shorter attention spans today than in the past. One popular internet meme even claims that people today have an attention span of only 8 seconds, which supposedly equates with the attention span of a goldfish. Go ahead and check it out; just Google “attention span of a goldfish” and you’ll see what I mean.

The only problem with that argument is that it just isn’t true. There’s not a shred of evidence for the claim and it falls apart under the least bit of scrutiny. In fact, people’s ability to binge watch the latest season of The Witcher (or any other of your favorite streaming shows) should be enough to summarily reject the theory.

Nevertheless, online course creators looking to improve their retention rates have tried all manner of gimmicks to try to get attendees to pay attention and stick to the course.

These approaches include over-the-shoulder screen sharing demonstration lessons, interaction in chat rooms, awarding badges or certificates, and other gamification bells and whistles.

Surely, a combination of these methods should be enough to keep your students attentive and engaged.


The Challenge of Designing Online Courses in 2024

As it turns out, the problem is not that your students have shrinking attention spans or that we’ve lost the ability to pay attention; it’s the constant proliferation of material to pay attention to.

“Our brains evolved in a much simpler world with far less information coming at us. Today, our attentional filters easily become overwhelmed,” says neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

These days, your online courses aren’t just competing with traditional classrooms or even other online courses. They’re competing with all other media, from Snapchat to YouTube to Netflix to Whatsapp.

So, knowing all this, what’s the best way to design your online course so that your students get the learning and results they want out of your course?

Fortunately, enough research has been done to let us know what makes some students more successful than others. Surprisingly, it isn’t a high IQ. Sure, that makes learning easier, but it doesn’t guarantee success.

Instead, it’s the students who have non-cognitive skills like perseverance, self-control, and grit who are most likely to succeed, whether online or offline.

Think about it.

If you have self-control, then you’ll be able to resist the shiny, bright distractions that fight for your attention every millisecond (“I’ll check my email just as soon as I’ve completed this.”).

If you have perseverance, you’ll keep working through the course, even if the lesson is dull (“I’d rather be watching Netflix, but the module assignment is due today.”).

And if you have grit, then you’ll push on even when you hit a challenging assignment (“I’m so confused with this lesson! Maybe I should read the transcript and see if that helps me understand better. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll ask for help in the Slack community.”).

The trouble is, few online course designs account for these non-cognitive skills that help students complete online courses amidst the distractions and challenges of modern life.

Instead, many online courses are merely digital versions of the traditional, in-person classes. They over-emphasize the digital delivery of the subject matter: the video lessons, the transcripts and other written materials, the discussion forums.

Too often, these courses stop at imparting knowledge, leaving students unable to apply what they’ve learned, if they’ve learned anything at all.

So what’s an online course creator to do, short of only taking on students who already have the non-cognitive skills to succeed (and how would you determine that, anyway)?

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Designing Online Courses for Today’s Learners

Fortunately, enough research has been done to let us know what makes some students more successful than others. Surprisingly, it isn’t in-born intelligence or a high IQ. Sure, those things make learning easier, but they don’t guarantee success.

Instead, it’s the students who have non-cognitive skills like perseverance, self-control, and grit who are most likely to succeed, whether online or offline.

Think of it.

If you have self-control, then you’ll be able to resist the shiny, bright distractions that fight for your attention every millisecond (“I’ll check my email just as soon as I’ve completed this.”).

If you have perseverance, then you’ll keep working through the course, even if the lesson is dull (“I’d rather be watching ‘Like Father,’ but the module assignment is due today.”).

And if you have grit, then you’ll push on even when you hit a challenging assignment (“I’m so confused with this lesson! Maybe I should read the transcript and see if that helps me understand better. And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll ask for help in the Slack community.”).

The trouble is, few online course designs account for these non-cognitive skills that help students complete online courses amidst the distractions and challenges of modern life.

Instead, many online courses are merely digital versions of the traditional, in-person class. They over-emphasize the digital delivery of the subject matter: the use of videos, badges, discussion forums, and the latest tools.

Yet despite the gimmickry, they stop at imparting knowledge, leaving students unable to apply what they learned, if they learned anything at all.

So what’s an online course creator to do, short of only taking on students who already have the non-cognitive skills to succeed (and how would you determine that, anyway)?

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Online Course Design for Today’s Learners

Let me introduce… the Leveraged Learning Triangle. I encourage you to think about education and learning through this model from now on and use it as a kind of online course design template.

The Leveraged Learning Triangle is a concept by Danny Iny, founder and CEO of Mirasee, which he shares in his book, Leveraged Learning.

It looks like this:

Leveraged Learning Triangle by Danny Iny

Most education, whether offline or online, stop at knowledge.

It doesn’t actually get learners to do stuff with the subject matter. No wonder, so many think education is becoming more and more irrelevant (As Danny points out in the book, some large companies like Ernst & Young in the United Kingdom don’t even look at degrees anymore when recruiting new talent.)

To be useful and valuable, education should also impart insight and fortitude. According to Danny, the Leveraged Learning Triangle has three sides:

  1. Knowledge refers to the subject matter content and skills that we usually associate with education and learning.
  2. Insight is a combination of critical thinking and creativity. It’s what enables the learner to come up with new ways of thinking, use their new knowledge in problem solving, and apply it in real-world situations.
  3. Fortitude covers those non-cognitive skills I mentioned earlier, the ones that help your students complete the course.

By using the Leveraged Learning Triangle when designing an online course, you not only impart knowledge. You also empower your students to complete the coursework, so they can internalize and apply that knowledge in their lives.

“For education to be viable in the future, it needs to not just focus on that little corner of knowledge, but to impart all three of them, by teaching people how to go past just the knowledge and have real meaningful insights and the skills of fortitude that allowed them to stick through,” Danny says.

You have to admit, insight and fortitude will serve your students in all other areas of their lives as well. With the Leveraged Learning Triangle as a guide for how to design an online course, you’ll end up creating courses with a much higher caliber than the vast majority of what’s available right now.

…Isn’t that what you want as an online course creator?

Naturally, the next question is: how?

How do you create an online course that provides all three points of the Leveraged Learning Triangle?

In the next section, we’ll show you how.

The 6 Layers of Leveraged Learning

The 6 layers of Leveraged Learning give an online course design blueprint for imparting knowledge, insight, and fortitude.

1. Content

As with traditional course design, you’ll begin by determining the content of your online course. You’ll do this by working backward from the outcomes you want to your students to achieve.

Here are the steps:

1. Begin with the learning outcomes.

Answer this question: What are the learning outcomes your students hope to achieve when they take your course?

These are the payoffs you’re promising them that will motivate them to sign up for your course in the first place.

Here are a few examples:

“My pilot course will teach postpartum women to look great and feel confident by losing their pregnancy weight safely.” ~ Fitness Trainer

“My course will teach employees with high-stress jobs to be happier and more productive at work through EFT.” ~ Emotional Freedom Technique Practitioner

“My pilot course will teach busy CEOs to save time and become more effective communicators by writing effective emails fast.” ~ Freelance Writer

2. Determine how you will measure students’ outcomes.

The next step is to answer this question: How do you (and your students) know when they have, in fact, achieved the intended outcomes?

Here’s an example of how our EFT practitioner, above, could do this step:

Since there’s no way for me to measure happiness and productivity, I will have to rely on my students’ subjective reports on their anxiety levels at work.

To get these reports, students will keep a journal throughout the course. They will record when they were unhappy and unproductive at work, what the circumstances were, and what their anxiety levels were during those circumstances.

As they learn EFT, they will record when they practiced it and what their anxiety levels were before and after a tapping session.

Give a lot of thought about the outcomes you want to measure and the best way to measure them. Some outcomes are quantitative and easy to measure, such as losing weight, learning to play the guitar, or typing faster and more accurately.

Others are qualitative and will resist measurement. Happiness, stress, and anxiety levels are examples of these.

Sure, our EFT teacher could hook up her students to machines to measure their heart rate and blood pressure throughout the day, but that’s impractical and unrealistic. And so, after looking at how researchers measure these things in scientific studies, she decides to use subjective reports.

Whether your outcomes are quantitative or qualitative, or even a combination of both, it helps to look at how others are measuring them, so you can select the measurements that make the best sense to you and your students.

For example, weight loss is typically measured by weight, but others may claim that it’s better to measure it by waist size, BMI, or even how your tightly or loosely your clothes fit!

Ultimately, you get to decide how you will measure your students’ outcomes. If you find that it’s inadequate, you can always improve in the next iteration of your online course.

3. Work backward from the assessments to determine what content to teach.

Now that you know how you will measure your students’ outcomes, you can better determine what content you need to teach.

The question for you in this step is: In terms of knowledge or skill, what do your students need to learn in order to achieve the desired outcome?

Going back to our EFT teacher, she ponders this question and comes up with this list of topics:

  • what is EFT
  • history of EFT
  • how EFT works
  • proof that EFT works (published research)
  • how EFT helps with stress
  • how to do EFT at work
  • specific EFT techniques for specific situations
  • common problems when doing EFT and how to address them

The first 3 steps above follow the process laid out by Marjorie Vai and Kristen Sosulski in their book, Essentials of Online Course Design. Danny adds two more steps:

4. Work backward again to determine the scaffolding required.

This step will help you avoid the dreaded “curse of knowledge” among teachers and instructors.

The curse of knowledge refers to our tendency to take something we know for granted. We think it’s basic and simple and practical common sense. And so, we assume that everyone else knows it.

But the truth is, not everyone knows it and your students probably don’t, either. And sometimes they need this knowledge to comprehend and assimilate what you’re trying to teach.

This step is all about identifying the prerequisite knowledge, skills, and experiences needed for your course.

The questions to ponder in this step are: What background knowledge do you take for granted, that might be beyond the student’s grasp? And what can you do to bridge that gap for them?

Going back to our EFT practitioner, she might answer that question this way:

It would be helpful to my students to know when to do EFT. I’m assuming everyone knows when they’re stressed out, when the stress is harmful, and when they need to use tools to manage stress and mitigate its potentially damaging effects.

But it’s possible that not everyone knows all this. When someone is hard at work, they may not recognize the signs of negative stress.

I can bridge the gap by adding a lesson about negative stress and its various signs and symptoms.

I’m also assuming that everyone knows how do journaling so that it

doesn’t take a huge amount of time but is still reflective and insightful. I can bridge that gap by giving prompting questions for journaling.

Based on this, she decides to add the following lessons:

  • how to know when you need EFT
  • how to use the journal in 7 minutes a day

After answering these questions, add the new topics you’ve come up with in your draft curriculum.

5. Prune the curriculum to include only what is critical to your students’ understanding and success.

By now, you should have a nice list of lesson topics in your curriculum.

Beware: your tendency is to want to teach everything you know about your course topic. You think you’re being magnanimous and helpful, but in fact, you may be doing your students a disservice.

When asked what kept them from learning effectively from an online course, one of our survey respondents said:

Overkill and overwhelm are two huge problems with online courses…. When a course has 10 main steps/levels/phases (etc) and the student goes inside the course to find out that each step/phase/level has within it [has] 5-10 videos, tasks, homeworks, etc., it just gets to be too discouraging…. There has to be more reasonableness… people get the info they’re looking for… feel like they’re getting results… without having to ignore sleep, health, family or bringing home the bacon on their day job.

~ Respondent, 2018 State of Online Learning

This final step will keep you from overwhelming your learners.

“In the context of learning, there’s no such thing as content that is nice to have,” Danny wrote in Leveraged Learning. “Everything is either critical to the understanding and success of your students, or an opportunity for them to become distracted, confused, or overwhelmed.”

The question to answer in this step is: What do my students need to learn to achieve the learning outcomes I promise?

Mulling over this question, our EFT practitioner may decide to cut out the following lessons:

  • history of EFT
  • how EFT works
  • proof that EFT works, published research

Instead, she decides to create a resources page in the course site, with links to these additional topics about EFT. And she will use the research on EFT in her marketing content.

This is an option for you as well. Remember, you can always provide additional content during the course, based on the feedback you get from your learners.

With your curriculum drafted, you can work on the second layer of your course design:

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Step 2: Teach Your Students Success Behaviors

This is when you teach your students the skills they need to consume and complete the course–something other online course design processes completely ignore.

Even though the outcome you promise is valuable enough for your students to enroll and pay for your course, it’s not always enough to see them through to course completion.

That’s because changing old habits and replacing them with new ones is hard. Consuming your lessons and applying what they learn are new behaviors your students need to become habits.

It’s time to add the layer that will teach them the success behaviors encompassing fortitude. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as it sounds.

Here are the steps to bake fortitude into your course design:

1. Anticipate the roadblocks.

Put yourself in your learners’ shoes and imagine what things might come up that can prevent them from progressing throughout the course.

It may also help for you to think back about the courses you took. What prevented you from completing any of them? What caused you to get stuck? What made you give up or lose interest?

Using her knowledge of her students, here are the roadblocks our EFT teacher came up with:

  • not having enough time to watch the lessons and attend the live calls
  • getting too busy or forgetting to write in the journal
  • feeling too self-conscious to do EFT at work (especially if they don’t have their own office)
  • falling back into old habits for dealing with stress (e.g., smoking, drinking more coffee, emotional eating)

2. Identify the success behaviors and other tools they will need.

When you have a pretty good idea of what might cause your students to fail in the course, you can then identify the tools, skills, or behaviors they will need to overcome those challenges.

Going back to our example, the success behaviors could include:

  • scheduling time in their calendars for the lessons and live calls
  • writing a contract specifying the time they will write in their journal every day
  • installing an app that reminds them to do journal writing
  • brainstorming places in their workplace where they can find the privacy to do EFT
  • remembering why negative ways of dealing with stress are destructive

3. Insert those behaviors into the curriculum.

Decide at what point you will teach these success behaviors in your course. For example, scheduling time and signing a commitment contract can come in the foundation module, even before you dive into your first lesson.

Other success lessons can come in appropriate places throughout the course. From the above example, brainstorming private places in their workplace can be included in the lesson on when to do EFT. Just make sure to teach these skills before your students need them.

You may also decide to structure your course in a way that has distinct subject matter content and success behavior content. 

4. Help students anticipate challenges and pre-plan an effective response to those challenges.

Try as you might, you cannot anticipate every challenge that each of your students may encounter. That’s why it helps to teach them the skill of anticipating their own challenges and preparing a response to these obstacles.

Making these advance mental commitments (or “behavioral preloading”) has been shown by research to significantly increase the success rates of people seeking to change their behaviors.

One simple way to do behavioral preloading is through Gabrielle Oettingen’s WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan) method.

Using the WOOP method is as simple as filling out a form like this:

How to do WOOP by Gabrielle Oettingen

If you think this will be valuable to your students, add WOOP or a similar exercise into your course curriculum.

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Step 3: Decide How to Deliver Your Online Course

The next layer of your online course design is delivery or how you will present and share the lessons. Most instructors get bogged down in this stage, particularly the learning technology at their fingertips and incorporating as many bells and whistles as they can.

It’s true, today’s course creators are blessed with access to powerful technology for presenting ideas in highly engaging ways. You can use interactive video, hot-linked maps, quizzes, and games without hiring your own IT team.

But the choice of formats and technology is less important than figuring out how you will make the lessons as understandable and actionable as possible. Once you know how you’re going to do that, then you can go out and find the best technology to use.

Before you caught up in the dizzying world of online learning technology, go through the two steps in planning how you’ll deliver your course:

1. Craft your explanations.

Decide how you will explain the concepts, information, and knowledge you want to teach.

“Explanation,” Lee LeFever writes in The Art of Explanation, “is the practice of packaging facts into a form that makes them easier to understand and apply.”

An effective explanation lowers the cost of understanding and makes people care. And “people who care about an idea are often more motivated to learn more,” he says. This is why becoming a great explainer is a crucial skill for any teacher.

The key to a great explanation, LeFever notes, is empathy or the ability to communicate from your audience’s perspective. This means that, as you’re figuring out the best way to craft your explanations, you must begin where your students are standing–from the foundational knowledge, background, and attitudes they have about the topic.

Explanations fail when you make the wrong assumptions about their audience. Remember the curse of knowledge we talked about earlier? When you take for granted that your learner already knows Concept A and launch into an explanation of Concept B, then your explanation will fail, no matter how clear, insightful, or inspired it is.

In the following scale of understanding, you, the instructor, are probably on Z (maximum understanding), while your students are on the lower end of the spectrum:

Scale of Understanding by Lee LeFever

Your challenge is to bring them closer to you.

LeFever suggests using the following elements of explanation. They act like stepping stones to bring your students from A and closer to Z:

Agreement – These are statements you and your students agree with. (“Smoking, drinking, and emotional eating are destructive ways of responding to stress at work.”)

Context – This is the backdrop for your ideas that makes them valuable and meaningful to your learners. It usually answers the question, “why,” such as “Why must I learn this?” or “Why should I do it this way?” and “Why is this important?” (“You cannot escape stress, but mismanaging it can wreak havoc on your health, relationships, and success.”)

Story – Where facts provide substance, stories bring meaning. LeFever shares a basic storyline that can be adapted to various subjects. It goes something like this:

  • Meet Bob. He’s just like you.
  • Bob has a problem and it makes him feel bad.
  • Bob has found a solution. Now, he feels good!
  • Don’t you want to feel good like Bob?

Alternatively, using stories can also be as simple as sharing ideas through the lens of a person’s experience (“Since Marty started tapping before each board meeting, he has become much more confident and has received compliments on his reports.”).

Connections – This entails connecting the new idea to an old idea your learners already know and understand, through the use of analogies, similes, and metaphors. (“You know how the traditional Chinese healing system, acupuncture, works by stimulating energy along the most important parts of the body. EFT works similarly and is combined with positive affirmations.”)

The elements of context, story, and connections are especially useful when your learners are at or close to the A end of the scale of understanding. For those who are closer to the Z end, you’ll need this next element.

Descriptions – Descriptions are explanations that focus less on the “why” and more on the “how.” They are appropriate for learners who already understand a concept. (“The basic idea behind EFT is to stimulate or tap different energy points on your body while saying….”)

Conclusion – This summarizes the explanation and tells students what to do next. (“Now that you know how EFT works and the basic procedure for tapping, it’s time to learn how to do it, step-by-step.”)

Note that you don’t have to use all of these elements in every explanation. And explanations won’t be enough for teaching. Where appropriate, augment your explanations with:

  • definitions
  • instructions
  • recipes
  • elaborations
  • examples
  • demonstrations

2. Create opportunities for students to practice and apply what you teach.

The next step in planning the delivery of your course is devising ways for your students to apply what they’ve learned.

You have many options, including:

  • activities
  • case studies
  • assessments
  • discussions
  • journal writing
  • simulations
  • debates
  • delivering presentations

In our EFT course example, aside from journaling, the teacher could have students videotape themselves practicing the tapping procedure. The recording could then be evaluated by the teacher and/or other students.

Sometimes, though, you may be teaching something that students won’t be able to practice or apply until after the course. In this case, you can use what’s called formative assessment.

Formative assessments are different ways of evaluating your students’ comprehension and understanding as they go through the course. It’s “formative” because you adjust the course design based on the insights you glean from the assessments.

Examples of formative assessments include:

  • quizzes
  • summarizing
  • “exit tickets” or questions at the end of each lesson (e.g., What did you learn? What did you find interesting? What questions do you have?)
  • self-assessments
  • metacognition or processing what they did (e.g., What did we do? Why did we do it? What did I learn? How can I apply it? What questions do I still have?)
  • videos or screencasts

There are several great assessment tools available online, providing pre-built templates for the most commonly used types of assessments.

When you’ve planned this layer of your course, you’ll already be ahead of the majority of online course creators.

But your job isn’t done yet!

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Step 4: Consider the User Experience 

User Testing, a company that specializes in testing and optimizing user experience, says:

User experience is how you feel about every interaction you have with what’s in front of you in the moment you’re using it.

Applied to your course, user experience is how your students feel about every interaction they have with your course at the moment that they’re consuming it.

Again, it’s easy to focus solely on technology when you think about user experience (also referred to as UX). After all, it’s often used within the context of making websites and apps more user-friendly.

But as with course delivery, this layer requires first thinking about what kind of experience you want to provide… and then finding the enabling technology for it.

User experience is not just about the LMS you use to create your course. It encompasses your students’ experience from the time they find out about your course, to the time they enroll in the course, to how they get help and support from you, and what happens after they complete the course.

The ideal user experience has several elements.

Peter Morville, a pioneer and bestselling author in information architecture and user experience, summarizes them through the User Experience Honeycomb:

The elements of user experience are:

1. Useful. Does your course provide everything your students need–nothing more, nothing less–in order to achieve its learning outcomes and objectives?

Making your course more useful may mean allowing different students at different levels of skill or experience to choose different learning paths. For example, if they can demonstrate fluency in the key concepts in Module 1, they can skip ahead to Module 2. This also means allowing students to consume the lessons in the best way they learn, whether through reading, watching videos, listening to a recording, or any combination of these.

2. Usable. Is your course usable and available when your students need it?

If most of your students use tablets or their phones, then your course must be consumable on those devices, without sacrificing quality. This aspect of UX also includes your course site’s “uptime” or the percentage of time that it’s available (regular maintenance, hardware failures, and malicious attacks can cause downtime). When you shop for an LMS or web host (if you’re building your course on your own site), ask them about this. The ideal uptime is 99.9%.

3. Desirable. Is your course pleasant to consume? Does the course design make students want to learn?

This is the emotional aspect of user experience. Failing in the other aspects of UX makes your course less desirable, so do your best to be useful, usable, etc. Beyond that, certain design considerations can make your course site more pleasing and delightful to your students. Addressing different learning styles also makes your course more desirable.

4. Findable. Can students find what they need, when they need it?

Consider how many “clicks” it takes for students to find specific lessons, additional resources, ways to get help or support, and anything else they might need. This means making your course site intuitive, creating a simple but useful navigation bar, using breadcrumbs, and hyperlinking text where appropriate. It also means knowing the words and phrases your students typically use so you can use them throughout the course site as well.

5. Accessible. Can people with disabilities access your course?

One of the greatest benefits of technology is giving people with disabilities access they’ve never had before. Work with your LMS, email, and payment vendors to investigate the features that can make your course more accessible.

6. Credible. Does the course inspire students to trust and believe in you?

Poor visual design, typographical errors, factual errors, and technical glitches can erode your credibility over time. Seek to minimize them. Nobody can achieve perfection, but it pays to deliver the best that you can in terms of both form and substance.

7. Valuable. Does your course deliver the value you promised it would? Does it improve student satisfaction?

One of the ways to make your course more valuable is to determine the timing of the course. Course content can be either intentional (delivered at a specific date and time) or interstitial (available on-demand). Cable TV is intentional, while Netflix is interstitial. You may want to deliver your lessons on a schedule–but is that the way that’s most valuable and useful to your students? Usually, you’ll find that a combination of both works best. For example, lessons are available on-demand, while group coaching happens on specific dates and times.

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Step 5: Help Keep Your Students Accountable 

The next layer of course design is accountability, or how you will help your students stay on-task by making them take responsibility for their learning and success.

This is important because it provides what Seth Godin refers to as “the motor”:

The growth of audiobooks is outpacing reading. Why? Because audiobooks come with their own motor. Even readers are pointing out that they’ve forgotten how to read. But of course, that’s not true–we can still read a word, or even a sentence, it’s pushing ourselves through a chapter that’s difficult.

The internet is the greatest self-teaching resource ever developed. But few take advantage of it, because it doesn’t come with a motor. No tests, no certificates, no cruise control.

Unless your online course is mandatory (such as if it’s required for professionals to get continuing credits or as part of a corporate training requirement), you’ll need to build this “motor” into it.

You can do this in two ways:

1. Forced minimum progression

This means adding structure that forces your students through some kind of progression. Examples include having definite start and end dates for the course and imposing deadlines.

Seth Godin’s own online leadership program, altMBA, uses forced minimum progression. The four-week program is cohort-based, which means each group of students begins and ends together, on specific dates. They’re required to complete 13 projects, with 3 projects due every week and one big one at the end of the program. Virtual meetings and sessions take place at specific times, so students need to choose a time zone they want to work in.

The result? altMBA has a completion rate of… wait for it… 96%!

2. Higher stakes

Another way to increase accountability in your course is by raising the stakes. Put a “cost” to missing out on the lessons and the work. Begin by having students sign a commitment contract that they will block out time to go through the lessons and complete the assignments.

And then set deadlines and decide on consequences for missing deadlines.

The idea of imposing deadlines and assignments might scare you, but think about it: in college, you pay to attend courses. If you don’t do the work, you get either a failing grade or dropped out of the course. And if you fail or drop enough courses, you get kicked out of the program altogether–and you don’t get your money back!

We’ve been trying some form of this “tough love” in some of our programs at Mirasee. In Strategy School, a paid program, each missed deadline earns you a strike. Get three strikes and you’re out of the program. The stakes are high even in our free course, the Business Ignition Bootcamp: One missed homework gets you booted out.

So far, the results are encouraging.

Completion rates in the Business Ignition Bootcamp hover around 60%. As of this writing, Strategy School isn’t finished yet, but it looks like we’ll have a graduation rate of at least 95%.

Think long and hard about how you can increase accountability in your online course. You don’t have to be as tough as a college instructor. Explore and see how other online educators are doing it, and try some on your own courses.

One important caveat: Accountability cannot compensate for other weaknesses in online course design!

For this reason, you’ll work on the accountability layer after designing content, success behaviors, delivery, and user experience.

You still have one, final layer to complete.

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Step 6: Provide Ongoing Support to Your Students

The support layer covers the help and coaching you will provide students to maximize their chances of succeeding in your course.

The power of one-on-one tutoring is well established.

In 1984, educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom discovered a way to make students in one classroom perform better than 98% of students in a traditional classroom where the main mode of teaching was lecturing: through a combination of mastery learning and one-on-one tutoring.

Mastery learning means a student moves to the next lesson only after mastering the current one, no matter how long it takes for them to do so.

And one-on-one tutoring means just that. Each student has their own tutor working with them to help them gain mastery of the lessons.

This combination of mastery learning and one-on-one tutoring was found to be extremely effective.

Benjamin Bloom 2 sigma

You may be wondering, why are we still teaching people through traditional methods when we could be doing so much better? As you can imagine, it would be extremely expensive to provide one-on-one tutoring in schools.

And how can one teacher manage so many students who are all progressing at different paces?

But it’s more feasible for you, the online course creator. Through scaffolding, you’ll be applying mastery learning in your course. Letting students progress through the course at their own pace is another way to facilitate mastery learning.

And you can provide one-on-one tutoring, or something close to it, through the use of various technologies, such as:

  • email support
  • mentoring through Skype, Slack, or Zoom
  • group coaching sessions, such as weekly office hours on Zoom or Facebook Live
  • peer feedback

While support is the last layer of your online course design, it is by no means the least valuable.

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Designing Online Courses: Common Mistakes 

Now that we’ve covered the “Dos” and laid out a step-by-step process for how to create a killer online course, let’s talk about some of the “Don’ts.” Because really, you can get the majority of the things we’ve talked about above right and still have your online course under-perform. Let’s not let that happen to you!

Here’s our list of the top 10 mistakes online course creators make:

  1. Not Building an Audience Up Front: Too many course creators fall for the “Field of Dreams” fallacy–they believe that if they build it, they will come. But if you haven’t been building a following up front, how are they going to even know you have a course available? It’s really hard to reach out to cold contacts and try to sell a course. If you have an audience who follows you on social media or who consumes regular content you put out, it’s a lot easier to convert those people into course attendees.
  2. Not Building an Email List in Advance: This takes the item above to another level. It’s one thing to have people who kind of, somewhat, loosely follow you on LinkedIn; it’s another thing entirely to have an in-house list of raving fans that you communicate with regularly by email. These people should be the first people you reach out to when you’re announcing your new course. Likely the majority of your sign-ups will come from this source–but only if you’ve actually built a list in advance.
  3. Not Pre-Selling the Course: If you want to launch your course on a particular date, don’t wait until a week before launch day and start sending out emails. Start several months before and use all the channels at your disposal (social sites, email, guest blog posts, guest podcast appearances) to first hint about your upcoming course, then talk about it openly to generate interest, and finally to allow people to join a pre-launch list. This process should ensure more sign-ups, and the more people who sign up for the waiting list, the less anxiety you’ll have about whether you’ll get enough people to make your course a go.
  4. Not Charging Enough: There’s too much to say about this topic to get into it here, but all we’ll say is that you need to be aware of what similar courses are charging, run the numbers, and figure out what you need to charge to make the course worth your time. Putting months of work into designing a course and only having it make you a small income can be deflating, so create a course that’s valuable to your audience–and then charge based on that value.
  5. Not Setting Clear, Measurable Goals: As far as the course itself is concerned, we’re going to be a bit redundant here. Yes, we’ve already talked about setting clear, measurable goals in our step-by-step process above, but it bears repeating because, believe it or not, many course creators don’t do this. Bottom line, if you don’t set standards for what you define as success, how are you going to know if you’ve met those standards?
  6. Not Dividing the Course into Small Chunks: Some course designers create big chunks of content that are overwhelming for many students–probably because in the course designers’ minds, they see how this is related to that and both of those are related to this other item…. Problem is, your students won’t see all of those connections, at least at first. You need to spoon-feed them the content in small bites, let them digest it, allow them to have little wins along the way, and then, if you sequence the content well, they’ll start to see the patterns.
  7. Not Incorporating Assessment: Many course designers don’t include an assessment element in their courses because they’re afraid that doing so will chase students away. But holding students accountable is actually one of the best ways to keep them engaged, so courses with an assessment element tend to have better retention rates than those without.
  8. Not Providing Enough Support: Some course creators don’t provide enough support for students who have questions or are struggling with the course content for some other reason. And if they hit a snag and they don’t get the support they need, they’ll likely stop showing up. So build in “office hours” or Q and A sessions. Give attendees your email address. Do whatever you can do to support them.
  9. Not Building a Community: Support that comes from the course leader is one thing. But in some ways, support from one’s peers (other students) can be even more valuable, as those peers are going through the same challenges. This is why it’s smart for course designers to build in a community element, whether it’s a private Facebook group, a dedicated Slack channel, or some other approach.
  10. Overemphasizing Gamification: In recent years, many course designers have fallen in love with gamification. The tools now exist for you to run challenges, to award little tokens or send little celebratory gifs to students when they turn in an assignment. And all of that is fine–as long as all those bells and whistles aren’t a cover for thin content. Without solid content that helps your students achieve their goals, all of these gamification tricks simply come across as “fluff.”

Avoid these mistakes as you create, promote, and run your courses, and you’ll be ahead of 99% of the course creators out there.

Learning Designing Online Courses in the Age of AI

Now that you have your “to-do” list, as well as your “don’t” list, you’re just about set to go. But in today’s course creation world, there’s one hot new trend that you need to be aware of and learn how to use: generative artificial intelligence (AI).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you’ve no doubt heard about ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. Perhaps you’ve felt like the whole thing would be over your head and you’ve avoided checking into it before now. Perhaps you’ve dabbled with it and been disappointed with the results. Or perhaps you’ve found it useful for some of the writing tasks in your business.

No matter what your level of experience with AI is currently, if you’re looking to create an online course, you need to know some of the ins and outs of using AI specifically in the course creation process. This is because, used correctly, AI can knock weeks or even months off your course creation timeline.

Now, you’re probably saying, “That sounds great! I want in!”

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. Before you can use AI well, you need to understand what it can and can’t do. 

The Pros and Cons of AI

First, let’s talk about the limitations:

  • Most fundamentally, you need to understand that, while it’s called artificial “intelligence,” it’s not intelligent at all. It’s merely an algorithm (though a very powerful one). When you prompt it with a question or a task, it searches all the data it has access to–most of what’s on the internet–and provides you with the results, lightning quick.
  • Unfortunately, those results may be less than satisfactory because much of the data it pulls information from is uncurated junk (because that describes much of what’s on the internet). 
  • ChatGPT and other AI writing tools have zero ability to question or evaluate the information in its data set. As a result, what the AI provides you with may be old information, inaccurate information, or even fake information.

Given the list above, you might now be thinking, “OK, so maybe this AI thing isn’t going to be useful, after all.” 

But you would be wrong. Because, despite these limitations, AI writing tools do offer some amazing benefits. Here are the main strengths:

  • The main benefit you gain from using ChatGPT or other AI writing tools is speed. If you feed it good, specific input, it can produce what you asked for in a matter of seconds. An article or sales page or video script that would take you hours, if not days, to write will take the AI a matter of seconds or, at most, a few minutes. Now, that content isn’t going to be usable right out of the machine (more on that in a minute), but you’ve saved hours to days on the first draft. From there, you’ll need to do a little honing…
  • Once you’ve started a discussion with ChatGPT, you can then give it follow-up inputs to alter the original material. For example, if you asked it to write an article about the benefits of content marketing for an online business and you think the tone of the piece it produces is too stiff and professional, you could prompt it to rewrite the article in a more conversational tone–and it will do so in a matter of seconds.
  • You can have ChatGPT produce additional material and quickly build out entire online courses and all the marketing materials to go with them. For example, you might start by prompting it to generate a list of 10 titles for an online course on X topic. You then take the title you like best and tell it to create an outline for a six-week course on that topic. Next, you ask it to take the first subtopic in the outline and create a video script for a lesson on that topic. You can then ask it to create a homework assignment for the lesson. After working through this process to create all of the course content, you could ask it to write a sales letter for that specific course. And maybe the script for a video you want to add to the sales letter. And you could probably do all of this in a matter of hours!

So, how do you go about tapping into the power of these amazing new tools while avoiding the negatives?

AI and Online Course Design: What to Know

There are two essential understandings that will guide you through the process:

  1. Understand that the biggest difference between you and the AI is the difference between information and expertise. ChatGPT is great at finding and cranking out information on a topic. But you, the human element in all of this, have the life experience and subject matter expertise to evaluate the material the AI cranks out and adjust it to be truthful and helpful for your audience.
  2. The second big understanding flows from the first. Since the AI will produce raw material that will need to be evaluated, and since only a human with expertise on the topic at hand can adequately evaluate the content the AI produces, this leads to the inevitable conclusion that you should only have the AI create content on a topic about which you have expertise.

As we move into this brave new world where human creators will be partnering with artificial intelligence tools, there will inevitably be unscrupulous course creators who are out to make a quick buck. These shady characters will likely use AI tools to quickly create a flood of courses on topics about which they have no expertise. And unfortunately, some people will undoubtedly fall for this AI-produced content and waste their money.

But markets have this amazing ability to course correct. When this glut of substandard courses hits the market (and it will), people will quickly become disenchanted with online courses, which will likely give the entire field a black eye temporarily.

But if you, the subject matter expert, create courses only on topics within your expertise; if you use AI the right way, to generate quick rough draft material as a starting point; and if you then use your expertise to craft that raw material into valuable content for your audience, your courses will rise to the top while the scammers fall out of the market.

This course correction may take a little time, but if you do things the right way, you will be left standing in the end.

Go Start Designing Your Online Courses!

We started out this article by saying that the overarching goal of creating a course is to have an impact on your students’ lives and deliver the transformation they’re looking for.

That’s a big goal, but you now have the online course design approach that will take your course from good to great, from ordinary to remarkable, from informational to transformational. With the information in this article, you truly can change your students’ lives for the better.

To do so, you’ll need to incorporate all six layers of the Leveraged Learning model:

  1. Content
  2. Success behaviors
  3. Delivery
  4. User experience
  5. Accountability
  6. Support

With these six layers as a kind of online course design checklist, you’re in an excellent position to create the online course that both you and your students have always dreamed of… one they will enjoy taking and will walk away from with changed lives.

We’ve also given you a list of the top 10 mistakes course creators make that can make even the best-designed course a flop, and we’ve given you some guidance on how to use cutting-edge AI tools to massively accelerate your course development.

With all of this information in your hands, you are better positioned for online course success than the vast majority of course creators out there.

Best of luck in your course creation efforts!

If you want to take your course design knowledge to the next level, we highly recommend our free Hybrid Courses Bootcamp, where our CEO, Danny Iny, walks you through the process we teach here at Mirasee.

Let’s Start Building Your Online Course!

In our FREE Hybrid Courses Bootcamp, we’ll walk you through how to transform your knowledge and expertise into a profitable online course… one your students will love.
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14 thoughts on Designing Online Courses: The Complete 2024 Guide


Thank you for the great information in this article! I have two questions. 1) What are the success and completion rates for the Mirasee courses/labs/bootcamps? 2) Do you think that the success rates should be included in the sales materials so that people have realistic expectations?

Lexi Rodrigo

Hi Petra, thanks for those excellent questions! The completion rates of Mirasee’s courses and programs are difficult to determine because we’re not always able to get feedback on students’ implementation. For example, we have Course Builder’s Lab students who go on to pilot their course and build their full courses without letting us know. In cases where we have been able to track completion, we’ve achieved at least double the industry completion rate. As for using success rates in sales materials, I would recommend doing so only if you’re confident about the accuracy of your numbers. This is feasible when the class size is small and the instructor is able to keep track of every student. Even then, it should be taken with a grain of salt because the instructor doesn’t have complete control of students’ behavior and success.


Thank you for this article! It is so incredible helpful and thorough. I will definitely be using your suggestions and appreciate you taking the time to put this together.


You’re welcome! Thank you for the kind feedback. I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂

Mardi Boettcher

This is very exciting information! Many thanks to you and Danny for getting this information out there and to the Mirasee Team for modeling successful online education practices. So much online education is disappointing due to lack of attention to mastery and lack of mentoring. Danny’s work gives me hope that things will improve now and the industry will reach it’s full potential. You Go!

Lexi Rodrigo

@Mardi Boettcher – Thank you for that terrific feedback. I’ll definitely pass it on to Danny and the rest of the team.


Hey Lexi,

This was incredibly useful and well written.

Thank you

Lexi Rodrigo

@Brad – Thank you for the kind words!

Margaret Daway

So very insightful indeed! Deeply grateful for this ton of advice. Will definitely share it with my colleagues in edtech and those who may explore the online course industry.
Congrats for a great work of art Lexi.

Lexi Rodrigo

@Margaret Daway – I’m so happy you liked the post and will share it with your colleagues. I’m super thrilled that you called the post a “work of art.” Thank you!


The educator in me approves of this post. Great job!

Lexi Rodrigo

@Jeri – Thank you! That means a lot to me 🙂

Virginia Reeves

WOW – that is a HUGE amount of useful and specific information shared with us. Lexi, you did a great job pulling all that together. Thanks so much.

Lexi Rodrigo

@Virginia Reeves – Thank you! Let me know when you get to apply some of this 😀

Comments are closed.