How to Create Online Courses


I have been teaching online courses for a few years now.  Before that, I taught in-person for years.  In addition, I also tutor students both online and in-person.

To teach online courses, there are some key steps you should take.  First, decide what you will teach.  Next, develop a syllabus for your course.  Then, split the course into modules.  Then, develop content for each module.  Finally, advertise the course and enroll students.

Below, I detail some of the specifics for the steps above.  I also provide examples from the courses I have developed and taught.

Decide What to Teach

Before you do anything else, you need to decide what to teach!  This will depend on a few factors.  You should consider what you know.  You should also consider what your audience wants to learn.  Finally, you should check out the competition in your space.

What do you Know – Formal Education

First, think about your education.  Perhaps you have a degree in a particular field.

Make a list of the classes you took and the topics covered.  Is there any material that people might want to learn in an online course?  If so, do some research online or in the library to find good sources.  Then, read as much as you can, and take notes on the important points.  Keep all of this together for later!

Example

I have a Master’s degree in Mathematics, and I have taken courses in Algebra, Analysis, Calculus, Statistics, and Probability.

Algebra and Statistics courses are always in high demand for students in many disciplines.

In fact, Algebra is the course I teach online most often.  Many degree programs require Algebra, so there is always a solid enrollment in this course.

What do you Know – Work Experience

Also, think about your work experience.  Throughout the years, you have acquired skills from all the jobs you have had.  Some of these skills might include project management, data analysis, copy writing, accounting, computer programming, and proofreading.  Even if these skills are routine for you now, someone may need to learn them!

Example

If you have experience as a video game programmer, you might be able to teach a course on game programming.  The course could include game logic, graphics, artificial intelligence, and algorithms.

You could also include bonus material in your course.  For example, you could provide sample code so that students can easily start making their own games.   You could also offer a preview of your own side project.

You could also talk about what it is like to work on a video game team.  As a manager, you could talk about how to manage a team of programmers, artists, and testers.

What do you Know – Life Skills

In addition, you have learned many skills in your daily life, even if you don’t realize it.  There are people out there who would love to learn these things from you.  Your course can help them to avoid months or years of dead-ends and wasted time!

Example

Maybe you have learned how to effortlessly strike up a conversation at a party.

Perhaps you know how to ask people on a date with a high success rate.

You might even be an expert at cooking a few staple meals in your diet.

Remember, you don’t have to have to be the best in the world to teach others.  All you need is a solid foundation in the skill or knowledge that you wish to teach.  Create a great course that gives people what they are looking for, and they probably won’t care how you learned it yourself.

Credibility

Finally, consider your credibility.  You can’t teach a topic unless you know it!  However, don’t let this discourage you.  There are many ways to learn about a topic before you teach it.  Also, remember that you don’t need to have a Ph.D. in Math to teach people about arithmetic or algebra.  You do need to know the material, but providing a helpful resource with accurate information is your main goal.

What does the Audience Want to Learn?

This step involves doing some market research, to see if there is demand for your course.  Let’s say your idea is to teach people how to cook your favorite vegan meals.  First, you should make sure that other people like these meals as well!

You should also make sure that enough people are looking to learn this skill.  Ask if people you know have any interest in learning the skill.  You should also check out forums online, to see if there is anyone asking about how to cook these meals.  If so, you might be able to fill an unmet need with your course!

If there is enough interest in the material, you need to find out how much people are willing to pay.  They might be fine dropping $5 for a short e-book with some interesting recipes.  However, they will not be so quick to fork over $100 for a premium course.

Check out the competition to see how they are pricing their material, and make sure you are in the right ballpark.  You need to have material that is significantly better if you want to charge a huge premium.

Even if people are willing to pay, they will want to know that your material is good.  This will require giving them some type of preview.  More on that later in this article, under “Develop a Syllabus”.

How is the Competition?

As in the previous step, you will want to do some market research here.  Check out the competition.  You should look at online course websites such as Udemy, Coursera, and Lynda.  You should also look at sites like YouTube.

Is there any competition at all?  It may be a bad sign if nobody has made a single course or video on your topic.  It could also mean the topic is ripe for the taking.  Use your best judgment here.

If there is too much competition, it may be hard for your course to stand out.  In that case, consider a smaller or related topic, also known as a niche.

Example

You want to create a course based on fitness, but you see that there is a ton of competition.  After doing some research, you find numerous paid courses on Udemy.  You also find several free videos on YouTube, which look very good.  Even if you can create great content, potential students might not hear you above the noise from established players.

You decide to “niche down” to a smaller topic, and search for courses on body weight exercises.  There are still quite a few courses out there, and some decent videos on YouTube.

You niche down even further, and look for courses on body weight exercises for pregnant women.  There are only a few courses and videos that you can find, and the quality looks questionable.  This is an area where you might be able to help people out with valuable content!

If finding a viable smaller niche proves impossible, then it might be time to find another idea.  Very rarely will you find a topic with no competition at all.  Instead, use your research on the competition to give you new ideas to work with.

Look at the comments on existing courses or YouTube videos, and see what questions people are asking.  Reach out to content creators and ask them what people want, but cannot find.

Remember that in order to succeed, you must create a better resource than the competition.  This means that you should have knowledge in the course you want to teach.  If you don’t know anything about workouts for pregnant women, then you should not create a course on them!

Put it All Together

To create a successful and helpful online course, you need to find the intersection of the above three questions.  Teach a topic you know, that people want to learn, where the competition is reasonable.  Don’t worry if some of your ideas fail this test.  Keep on trying, and come up with new or related ideas.  Also, try to think of a spin you could put on the material.

Develop a Syllabus

You should divide your syllabus into four main sections.  They are the introduction, format, outcomes, and course calendar.  The syllabus will most likely be publicly available, which allows potential buyers to get a preview of the course material.  Of course, you can always leave out a few things and market them as bonus features, if you want to keep things hush.

Introduction

The introduction for your syllabus should contain the basic course information.  Your introduction should include the course name, instructor name, contact information, course description, and prerequisites.

The course description should give an overview of what the course will cover.  This is not the place to go into great detail.  Instead, mention the high points and broader topics that the course will cover.

You should also mention any prerequisites, and any knowledge that you are assuming that students already have.

The following example gives a sense of what I include in the course introduction for my syllabus.

Example – Introduction

Course: College Algebra

Instructor: Jonathon D. Madore, M.A.

Contact Information: jdm@qc.edu

Description: This college level algebra course expands upon a student’s knowledge by further developing algebraic concepts. Topics include graphing equations with an introduction to functions, factoring polynomials, operations on rational functions, simplifying rational exponents, and solving quadratic equations. Students must complete homework assignments using a web- based computer program.

Prerequisite: Appropriate score on the placement test or successful completion of PreAlgebra.

Format

The format section of your course should include information on how you will deliver the course.  First, you should include information about learning materials.  This could include e-books, video and audio recordings, PDF or Word handouts, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint slides.

You should also include a description of checkpoints to make sure that students are learning.  This includes homework assignments, quizzes, tests, knowledge checks, and any other assessments.  Quizzes are really to see what the students are learning, what they are missing, and what to review.

In addition, you should include any group exercises, activities, or forums that are part of the course.  For example, there might be a Facebook or LinkedIn group with access confirmed by you.  There could also be a component where students work together on an assignment, or offer each other constructive feedback.

Finally, you should include a description of how you will deliver the course.  I deliver my online courses in Canvas.  Canvas is a learning management system used by many colleges.

You could deliver your courses as a video lecture series on YouTube.  You could keep the videos private, and give out the links only to members of the course.  You could also create a course on Udemy or Lynda.

Another method is to give access to the course on your website.  You could do this with some type of special access sign-in.  You might even automatically email students every day and attach the assignments, reading material, etc.

Example – Format

This is an online course. All aspects of the class will take place in the online portal rather than in a classroom each week. Instructional features include discussion questions, assignments, assessments, other activities, and opportunities for questions and answers. There are no on-campus meetings scheduled for this course.

Lectures: a weekly lecture will be posted for students to view.

Readings: various readings from the textbook and other sources will be posted each week.

Discussion Questions: at least one discussion question will be posted each week. Students are expected to post a substantive response (250 words or more) by Sunday. One or more substantive responses to fellow classmates (150 words or more) should be posted by Tuesday.

Quizzes, Tests, Exams, Papers, or Projects: various formative and summative assessments will be used in this course. See the Assignments list for specific items.

The web-based homework system called MyMathLab is required for this course.  An access code is needed for the web-based system.  It may be purchased with the textbook bundle at the College Bookstore.

MyMathLab is accessed through Canvas.

You might also format the course so there is a component where students can interact with you in weekly or monthly coaching sessions.  For more information about this, check out my article on how to coach someone remotely.

Outcomes

The outcomes section of your course should make it clear how the course will transform or change the student.  This may sound corny, but your goal as an educator is to change your students for the better.

You know those “before & after” photos you see in fitness and diet program advertisements?  Well, you want to do something similar here.  The outcomes should explain what students will know after completing the course.  Then, students can compare “before” (current knowledge) and “after” (what they know after taking the course).

Example – Outcomes

At the completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • Graph equations by plotting ordered pairs.
  • Graph lines using the slope-intercept form.
  • Determine the slope of a line given any two points on the line.
  • Determine if two lines are parallel, perpendicular, or neither.
  • Write the equation of a line given various pieces of information.
  • Evaluate a function using function notation.
  • Solve a system of linear equations using the substitution or addition method.
  • Add, subtract, multiply, divide, and simplify polynomials.
  • Factor quadratic expressions including special cases.
  • Add, subtract, multiply, divide, and simplify rational expressions.
  • Solve rational equations.
  • Simplify expressions with rational exponents.
  • Evaluate radical expressions and functions.
  • Add, subtract, multiply, divide, and simplify radical expressions.
  • Solve radical equations.
  • Add, subtract, multiply, divide, and simplify complex numbers.
  • Solve quadratic equations by completing the square, or using the quadratic formula.

Perhaps this example is a bit too academic, so here is something more concrete.

Example – Outcomes

At the end of this course on website design from the ground up, you will be able to:

  • Buy and register a domain name from Bluehost, GoDaddy, or other registrars.
  • Get up and running with WordPress.
  • Install WordPress Themes.
  • Learn how to format pages on your website to stop visitors from bouncing.
  • Master the art of keyword research, to find topics that people want to read about.
  • Discover the secret to writing killer content that keeps readers engaged.
  • Figure out how to tweak WordPress settings to make your site run smoothly.
  • Set up Google AdSense, Amazon Affiliates, and other monetization methods.

Whatever you teach, make sure your students know what they are getting for their money.

Course Calendar

The course content section of your introduction should include specific information about what you will cover, and when.  This means either a calendar, for a time-constrained course, or a timeline, for a more flexible course.

The following example shows the calendar for my online Algebra course.

Example
Date

Details

Sun Jun 3, 2018
Tue Jun 5, 2018
Fri Jun 8, 2018
Sun Jun 10, 2018
Tue Jun 12, 2018
Thu Jun 14, 2018
Sun Jun 17, 2018
Tue Jun 19, 2018
Fri Jun 22, 2018
Sun Jun 24, 2018
Tue Jun 26, 2018
Thu Jun 28, 2018
Sun Jul 1, 2018
Tue Jul 3, 2018
Fri Jul 6, 2018
Sun Jul 8, 2018
Tue Jul 10, 2018
Thu Jul 12, 2018
Sun Jul 15, 2018
Tue Jul 17, 2018
Fri Jul 20, 2018
Sun Jul 22, 2018
Tue Jul 24, 2018
Thu Jul 26, 2018
Sun Jul 29, 2018
Tue Jul 31, 2018
Fri Aug 3, 2018
Sun Aug 5, 2018
Wed Aug 8, 2018
Fri Aug 10, 2018

Split into Modules

In order to give your course structure, you should split it into modules.  In the same way you divide a book into chapters, you divide a course into modules.  Chapters make books easier to write and read.  Modules make online courses easier to create and consume!

Modules as Outline

Think of this as the “outline” for your course.  Creating an outline is a little bit of work that goes a long way.  An outline helps you to organize your thoughts on the course material.  It also makes it easier for you to create content later on.

You should also consider prerequisite modules or courses.  Let’s say that you want students to complete modules in a certain order.  Set up the course so that Module 1 is a prerequisite for Module 2, and so forth.

You can also ask that students take a course, such as Algebra, before enrolling in your course.  That way, they know what knowledge they need for the course.

Time-Based Modules

A module can be based on time periods, such as days, weeks, or months.  This might make sense if the course is time-sensitive, or if a tight schedule is part of the course.

For instance, “Lose 10 Pounds in 5 Weeks” might require daily milestones for students to complete the course on time.  In that case, it makes sense to break the course into 35 modules, one for each day.

Content-Based Modules

On the other hand, you can also split up the material into modules based on subject matter.  For instance, let’s say you teach a “Calculus from the Start” course.  You might start with a module on prerequisites, such as algebra, trigonometry, and geometry.

Then, you could have a module on limits, one on derivatives, and one on integration.  Finally, you could wrap up the course with applications of calculus in other subjects.

Example

Module 1: Prerequisites (Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry)

Module 2: Limits

Module 3: Derivatives

Module 4: Integration

Module 5: Applications

You don’t necessarily need to split hairs with the modules, because you can further divide each module into parts.  Going back to the book analogy, you can split each chapter into subsections.  This makes it even easier to read and digest your course content.

Create Content

Now to the part that is fun, but also plenty of hard work!  Creating content probably takes the longest time out of all the steps.  However, if you started off with a good syllabus and outlined your material into modules, it will be much easier.

Follow Your Outline

Start off with the first module, and create the content you need.  Make sure that the order you present your content makes sense.

For instance, you might have an introduction video explaining what the module contains.  Then, you might have a video explaining Key Concept 1.  You could follow this with a worksheet to see if students understand the concept.  They should be able to check the answers to see if they are on the right track.  Continue with a video explaining Key Concept 2, and then some type of worksheet or knowledge check.

At the end of a module, a quiz can ensure that students are learning the material.

Take Time to Edit

Writing text, recording audio and video, and creating other course content will take up a good chunk of time.  Another task you should not ignore is editing.  Make sure that your content is free from typos, mistakes, and outdated information.

If grammar is not your strength, consider hiring someone to go through the course and check for these mistakes.  You want to make a good impression on your students throughout the course.  Typos or other errors will prevent you from doing so.  Take the extra time and effort to make your work perfect!

Advertise

Now for the tricky part: advertising your course!  For people to take your course, they have to find it somehow.

Channels

If you have your own website, you can advertise the course on some (or all!) pages of your website.  You can also ask others in your niche if they would be willing to promote your course on their websites.  You will need to decide on a fair commission structure to offer if you go this route.

If you host your course on a site like Udemy, they will do the advertising for you.  Of course, they will also take a commission for bringing the traffic to your course.

You can also try other traditional online advertising methods, such as Google AdSense and Facebook ads.  You could also try to promote your course on YouTube, LinkedIn, or other social media channels.

Copy

Regardless of the channel you use to advertise your course, you will need to produce advertising copy.  You can do this yourself, or hire someone to help you.  One place to look for inspiration is your course description.  If you can condense this into an advertisement, it might help to sell your course to people who see it.

Another place to look for inspiration is your course outcomes.  You can even choose different outcomes to display in different ads.  Then, see which ones bring you the most traffic, and use those to promote the course.

Conclusion

Creating an online course takes a lot of work.  However, if you have the patience and persistence, it can pay off.  You can help students to learn about a topic, while also earning money for teaching what you know.

Using online courses, you have the potential to reach millions of students online.  To help ensure their success, check out my article on how to succeed in online courses, and share some of the ideas if you find them helpful!

I hope that this article gives you a good idea of where to start when creating an online course.  If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.

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