Guide to Creating Online Courses

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Throughout the last decade, online education has progressed from “simply” a camera at the back of a classroom to a social, gamified, and multimedia-rich experience that can be accessed around the world. 

One of the most fundamental building blocks of online education is the online course. Online courses take many forms and may be taken:

  • For academic credit
  • For professional continuing education credits
  • For fun or interest
  • To learn a specific new skill
  • To step through completing a project or making a product
  • To onboard new employees
  • And more

Regardless of the purpose of an online course, course takers have come to expect a wide range of interactivity, gamification, social components, and quality of production in online educational experiences. 

Luckily, the explosion of online education options within the last decade has provided some best practices that can be employed, as well as a huge range of tools that individuals can use to create their own courses. 

Here at OnlineCollegePlan, we take pride in staying “on the beat” of online education in any form. This means years of experience and research in online education. Additionally, the author of this guide has created several online educational experiences, including a best-selling course on the Udemy platform.

In this guide, we’ll step you through concrete steps to take you from discerning whether or not you’re a good candidate to create a course, whether your idea for a course is sound, whether you’re employing the best practices for creating a course, and how you can set your course up for success online.

Should I Make An Online Course?

There’s really no right or wrong answer here. But if your goal is to make a “successful” online course, then you’ll want to take a look at a few factors that can make or break an online educational offering. 

When you’re creating an online course, you want the subject matter to be so fresh on your mind that you can focus on truly “performing” and delivering your material in an instructive way. The best online course instructors don’t stutter over their statements, they don’t pause to check notes, and they are able to break down course materials in a way that makes it clear that they thoroughly understand the material and have a great deal of experience in the discipline at hand. 

This isn’t to say that you can’t rehearse material that’s not as familiar to you to the extent to where you can present the material flawlessly. But courses are more than just the audio and visual delivery of content. The top-rated courses on many online course platforms include:

  • Valuable “cheat sheets” or handouts
  • Quality feedback to those taking the course (if the course platform supports this)
  • Moderating forums for course members (if the course platform supports this)
  • The opportunity to work on well thought-through hands-on projects
  • And more

With all of these other aspects of course-making to focus on, you simply don’t want to set yourself up to be running “uphill” the whole time learning to present on a topic you don’t know through and through. 

Put succinctly, you’ll want to evaluate the following questions before deciding to start on an online course of your own:

  • Do I know the subject matter of the course well enough to quickly and easily come up with instructional content?
  • Do I have the time to commit to making quality course materials that are as valuable or more valuable than competing courses? 
  • Do I either have the ability to take on speculative unpaid work on a course, or a publisher willing to pay me for course material? 
  • Do I have the time to follow up with updates to course material, and community-building or feedback-related aspects of managing a course?
  • Do you have time to market your course, or have you looked into an arrangement where a course platform markets your course in exchange for a share of the profits?
  • Do you feel technically proficient enough to produce multimedia content and learn to master an online course making platform? 
  • Do you realize that many course makers start with an (or multiple)  initial free course offering(s) to build up an audience before they monetize on courses?
  • Is the potential subject of my online course a topic that lends itself well to online instruction? 
  • Is my topic already saturated with online courses? Do I have something unique to offer online learners within the topical area of the course? 

If you answered “yes” to most of the above, you’re in great shape for starting your first online course! If you responded with your fair share of “no’s” don’t fret! If you’re motivated by the chance to turn one of your passions into a lucrative and fulfilling educational business, you’ll find the motivation to learn what you need to and ways to compensate for any current gaps in your skillset. 

How Do I Generate A Quality Idea For An Online Course? 

You may already have a topic decided, or an entity that’s paying you to make a course on a specific topic. For example, you could work as a corporate trainer who has been assigned the task of creating a course on building teams within your organization. Or you could be a college professor who is hoping to convert an existing course into an online delivery course. If this sounds like your situation you may not need help generating an idea for your course. 

If, however, you’re like most individuals who want to get into the lucrative and fulfilling world of creating online courses, you likely started with the vague notion that you can monetize one of your skills with the creation of educational content. 

If this is the case for you, there are a number of strategies you can employ to hone your idea. Much like you wouldn’t write an article, or a book, or create a product without some glimpse into what is out there, to craft a truly successful course it’s likely you’ll need a “method to the madness” of course creation. And this starts with finding a great idea for your course. 

As with any product, you’ll want to verify that there’s demand. In short, is there a potential audience for your course? 

Verifying there’s a demand for your course

There are a number of techniques you can use to discern whether or not there’s a demand for an online course topic. After all, there are many different channels (as they’re called in marketing) through which individuals can look for courses online. 

One of the quickest ways to verify there is some demand is by searching for the topic you’re interested in on some of the larger online course platforms. Locations including Udemy and SkillShare are two of the largest online course platforms that aren’t affiliated with for-credit or university-based options. Simply search for your topic, and if you see a wide range of courses on the matter, consider your demand validated. 

Additionally, many online course platforms provide tools for course creators so that they can find opportune niches to create a course in. Behind Udemy’s Teacher Hub Login there are a number of tools for discerning how many students the platform believes are interested in a given topic.

One final note is that not everyone creating a course wants to utilize one of the major course platforms. There are definite pros and cons to working with or without a platform. One of the most noteworthy is that platforms tend to already have a lot of qualified traffic, and your solo effort may not. On the other hand, online course platforms typically take a share of your profit.

If you’re looking for information on whether individuals use search engines to look for education in your topic you can use a range of SEO tools that can provide you a glimpse of how many individuals search for a given topic. Or you can use Google Adwords to see how ads on the topic are priced. Typically topics that have high demand and competition will have higher ad costs as well as be harder to rank your site for through content and SEO. Google’s Keyword Planner is a great resource for discerning some of this information, as well as SEO tools including Ahrefs and SEMRush.

Choosing a topic that’s not too competitive

It takes most course makers time and often several courses within the same subject area to start to gain a following. If you’re trying to enter a topical area where there are many other content creators you’ll be facing an uphill battle to have a first (or second, or third) course that is truly a success. The good news is that you can circumvent this challenge by finding a topic that’s less competitive. 

In the previous section, we noted techniques for discerning how much demand there is for a course. How competitive a course topic area is often related to the level of demand. But occasionally you can find a course area that has plenty of demand with very little competition. Coupling this scenario with a quality course and course marketing is one of the best ways to make a truly successful course. 

Aside from the techniques and tools listed in the last section (which do provide some data on the level of competitiveness of a topic), another technique is to become highly specific with what you want to teach. 

For example, there may be thousands of courses on digital marketing. There may be hundreds of courses on digital marketing in Spanish. And there may be three courses on digital marketing for restaurants in Spanish. If you find that your ideas are setting you up to be a small fish in a big pond, then getting specific is a great way to stand out from the crowd!

Choosing the scope of your course

Another important factor in differentiating your course from competitors and appealing to your potential audience comes through establishing the scope of your course. Here you need to think like an educator as well as like a future (or currently learning) member of the field you’re teaching in. Just as beginners in learning English don’t immediately pick up Moby Dick, you’ll have to think long and hard about what type of course will actually be valuable to your expected students. 

Some questions that can help to generate ideas about the scope of your course include:

  • Is this a topic people learn best through hands-on projects?
  • Does this topic typically require a social aspect for the student to succeed?
  • Is there a practical reason why a certain course length is better (say, a certain number of required continuing education credits)? 
  • How comprehensive or compact are competing courses? 
  • Are there downsides to running through course material quickly? 
  • And related questions. 

What Tools Should I Use To Create A Course?

Online courses today are often comprised of a wide variety of media, live sessions, testing tools, identity verification (for certification purposes), collaborative efforts, and useful study materials. 

This isn’t to say that every course needs all of these components. In fact, a majority of courses may utilize some educator-to-student feedback, no live video, and project-based learning supported by videos of the instructor. 

For-credit courses, as well as online boot camps, are the likeliest to incorporate live interactions. And this is typically handled by the online course platform that your organization chooses to use. 

When choosing which tools you utilize to create an online course, your range of choices will largely be dictated by whether (a) you’re self-hosting your course, or using an online course platform, and (b) the range of tools or “hand-holding” an online course platform provides. 

For example, many online course platforms handle billing, marketing, analytics, tracking of testimonials, and a host of other tasks that are often required to pull off a successful online course. 

Even in this case, in which a variety of aspects about creating a course are taken care of, you’ll still need to find quality tools in the following areas: 

  • Video creation and editing
  • The editing of media such as graphics or handouts
  • An intuitive and easily shareable format through which to share learning resources

If you’re working with one of the major online course publishing platforms, a variety of services are often provided for you. These can include audits of your video quality, suggestions for how to position your course messaging, and what may be of interest to students. Additionally, most major course platform providers provide a suite of tools through which to provide interactivity, upload additional resources, and facilitate video editing. 

If you are hosting your own course or the online course platform you are working with does not provide tools you need, a great range of guides are available online that can help you to find tools at every price point and for every technical ability level for the following:

  • Video editing
  • Audio editing
  • Note taking
  • Graphic Design for course materials
  • Interactive presentations
  • Quiz and Poll-Building tools
  • Landing page builders and course marketing tools
  • And more

What Are the Best Practices For Creating An Online Course?

Online courses are a unique example of traditional pedagogy (the science of teaching) mixed with modern-day marketing and content creation. While what is considered a “top-notch” online course changes from year-to-year, typically the trend has been to utilize the best of online media technology with up-to-date teaching skills. 

Online courses can take on many forms. Some are essentially video productions of existing college classes. Others are entire custom apps or onboarding experiences for products. Accordingly, these experiences imply entirely different standards of success. At their heart, however, online courses are traditionally built so as to lower barriers to learning present in traditional in-person learning and to obtain educational objectives. 

Regardless of the objectives of your course, one good starting point for your best practices is to know your audience. This will dictate your response to many of the following best practices. And will also dictate which metrics can be used to track the “success” of your course. For example, continuing education credit-centered courses may aim to provide ease of access, engaging content, and to meet educational requirements set forth by an accrediting body. Skill-centered courses may judge success by the number of students are able to successfully create a hands-on project. 

In short, two initial best practices include:

  • Learning about your audience early on
  • Discerning what metrics you will use to judge the success of your course

A second set of best practices related to the organization of information for your course. As online courses are often a web of interconnected resources, you may need to suss out which resources rely on others for optimal learning outcomes. The creation of a storyboard can be a great way to figure out when the best time to interject different media types or facts may be. 

Additionally — assuming you’re experienced in the subject matter you’re teaching — you’ll need to clearly understand what level your audience is. Understanding what skills you need to cover to make the central themes of your course practicable is very crucial for audience retention.

“Big picture” organizational best practices include:

  • Using storyboards to discern a logical flow to when different media types and facts are presented
  • Understand what prerequisite skills will be needed to understand your course and whether you need to cover these prerequisites

One final set of best practices relates to “smaller” details about how course material is set up. While to some these may seem like “no-brainers” if you aren’t an online media producer than you may find that it takes you some time and effort to stay true to these more “nitpicky” elements. 

These elements are geared towards making your course easy to participate in and professional looking. Best practices within this category include:

  • Utilizing standardized fonts
  • Making a decision on whether you speak in videos or only provide written materials
  • Discern a course structure and stick with it through production
  • Creating professional quality (or close enough) video
  • Establishing a policy on interactions with students (that you can stick to)
  • Crafting some sort of community element to your course (even if just a mailing list)
  • Break up content into smaller chunks
  • Realize that many students don’t thoroughly read but “skim”
  • Make your content visually interesting

How Do I Make My Online Course Successful?

As we detailed to some extent in the last section, there is a range of metrics by which one may choose to measure the success of a course. Courses built for business purposes or personal gain will in all likelihood have entirely different measures of success than courses for academic organizations. 

With this said, most online courses judge success at least primarily by enrollment numbers and completion rates. For these vastly important metrics, there are two general areas that can drive improvement: 

  • Placing your course in front of qualified leads and providing a value proposition that resonates with them
  • Creating course materials that meet audience expectations

The first of the above areas is truly a marketing problem, and one that for many online course creators is dealt with through two methods:

  •  The first is to utilize an online course platform that will help you market your course for a share of your course profits. Most large course platforms provide this service and are able to place you in front of what is likely a much wider range of potential students than you could generate on your own (unless you’re a skilled marketer). 
  • The second way to get your course in front of more qualified leads is to build up an audience over time. Many successful course creators release several free courses to begin with, build up reviews, and then start selling to recurring students. 

The second general area that can improve course success boils down to just making a course that is of higher quality than competing courses. Doing so doesn’t guarantee your course will be a success but should lead to higher ratings than lower quality courses for the same number of participants. 

Finally, some individuals may find that they wish to take on the challenge of marketing their own course. This is particularly common for courses built for organizations or to help explain individual products. Here advice on building a funnel for leads for your course aligns more with general marketing techniques. Some of the most common include:

  • Social media marketing and marketing within communities that share a common interest with that covered in your course
  • Search engine optimization marketing, by building up content that users want to read you can start to show up in search result rankings
  •  Paid marketing includes running ads or paying for placement in other publications that provide access to qualified individuals

Regardless of how you choose to create and market your course, keep in mind that the creation of pieces of media as large as a course takes time and a great deal of effort. It’s important to align courses with areas where you have verified interest and where you yourself like the subject material. 

Interested in other online course content? Explore the rest of OnlineCollegePlan for up-to-date and comprehensive online education commentary that has helped thousands of students and instructors to obtain their educational goals online. 

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