The 5 Essential Steps to Authoring Your Online Course (Case Study)
In this case study, Nasos Papadopoulos, founder of MetaLearn, walks through the process he used successfully for authoring an online course: Make Me a MetaLearner.
The prospect of authoring an online course can seem daunting when you’ve never done it before.
Do you script the whole thing or improvise some of it?
How long should the course be and how many videos do you need?
What material should you include and what should you leave out?
And how should you structure it so that students will achieve their goals?
The process of authoring and producing my first course, Make Me A MetaLearner, was a great learning experience for me.
As a university lecturer I’ve spent plenty of time preparing lessons and delivering them to students, but authoring an online course is a completely different ball game.
Creating my course helped me find my own answers to all the questions above and more…and it taught me a lot about what making high quality online education involves.
Looking back, I can see that a big part of the process could be broken down into five main steps, which I had to figure out by trial and error.
These steps will work for you whether you’re a beginner who’s writing your first course, or an experienced online educator who’s done it plenty of times before.
Here are the 5 steps for authoring your online online course that will take the guesswork out of the process and have you ready to record in no time.
1. Commit to the Process
Producing an online course is a process – it’s not something you sit down and do in a couple of days.
You may have reached an expert level in the subject you teach, but structuring your knowledge so that others can learn is another thing entirely.
And if you want to do it properly, it takes time. It takes commitment.
I started my own content platform MetaLearn back in 2015, and my ideas for a course had been brewing for some time before I finally pulled the trigger in the summer of 2017.
I knew I was going to produce a course – and had sample structures stored away, some of which I’d shared with friends and people in the learning space.
Many of them told me it was good to go – that I should just go and record it.
But it wasn’t until the middle of 2017 that I felt ready to actually script and record the course. Now, was ready to commit to the process.
Could I have created the course sooner? Probably.
But would it have been as good if I had? Probably not.
Entrepreneurs and online business owners are constantly advised to ship things before they’re ready because of our natural tendency to procrastinate.
But with online education you need to find a balance between quality and speed. And quality is usually a function often time you spend on something.
When it comes to educational content, you have a responsibility to your students, because teaching them confusing information or the wrong thing could lead to them wasting time at best and making critical mistakes at worst.
So, commit to the process – know that you’ll never feel 100% ready and don’t procrastinate but make sure that when you release that course, it’s something you’re proud to put your name behind.
2. Brainstorm Your Structure
When you’ve chosen what you want your students to achieve from taking your course, it’s time to put together a skeleton structure for the material.
This is like writing the table of contents for a book, and it’s an extremely useful exercise because it forces you to focus on the most important high-level concepts and how they fit together.
Grab a blank sheet of paper and list down the key sections in the course – stating what they’ll teach and how they’ll move the student closer to those desired outcomes.
If you’re having trouble doing this, go and check out some of the other educational materials in your niche.
Check out the other courses on Teachable, Udemy and Coursera and notice what they have in common in their curricula.
Go on to Amazon and use the Look Inside feature to see the way that authors have organised their ideas.
Pretty soon, you’ll start to notice some patterns – there will almost certainly be some overlap between the different educational materials.
Based on your own brainstorming and research, put together an initial skeleton plan that you’re happy with.
You need to feel confident enough with it to move forward without spending hours on end agonising over it.
Because further down the road, once you start authoring the course, the structure will probably change again!
3. Plan Your Lessons
Once you have an initial structure, the next step is to fill that skeleton in and put some meat on those bones.
This means planning your individual lessons for each section, which is best done using a modular system, either online or offline.
If you’re a paper and pen guy like me, buy yourself a set of 6”x4” index cards and a box to store them in.
Then, write down all of your ideas for individual lessons on separate notecards, with a couple of sentences saying what the lesson will achieve and any references you’ll be using from books or research.
Once you’ve done this the course will start to take shape – you’ll be able to move the index cards around in the box depending on the order you want to organise your lessons in.
If you prefer seeing and storing all of this online, Trello, is the app I’d recommend. If you’re not familiar with it already, it’s a digital vision board that allows you to organize projects using flexible lists of cards.
It may also be a good idea to repeat the step of going through other materials here to make sure you’ve covered all your bases.
Go back to Amazon and use the “Look Inside” feature to scan the index. Go back to Teachable, Udemy and Coursera and look at the curricula.
If all books and courses on your subject have included certain topics and you haven’t, it might be a good idea to work those in.
Otherwise, you should have a very good reason for not including them!
Note that if you’re struggling to come up with any material for the lessons without first consulting other resources, you may need to go back to the drawing board and spend some more time reading and thinking about what you’re teaching.
4. Write Your Scripts
Once you’ve got your structure and lesson plans, it’s time to get writing.
The most important thing to do here is just to start.
Don’t edit yourself as you go along, because that part is best done later. Get down everything you need to for each of the lessons and try to write in an informal style that will translate well to video.
You don’t have to script everything word for word – if you prefer to use bullet points for some lessons and riff off of those, that’s fine.
But be warned that improvising an entire course is much harder than improvising one short video.
I consider myself to be pretty good at speaking off the cuff now that I’ve done 100+ podcast episodes for the MetaLearn podcast.
But when there’s so much information you want to communicate, having a detailed script can actually take the pressure off you and allow you to record the course in far less time.
Once you’ve written your initial scripts, the editing process begins.
I like to print off the entire script and go through it with a red pen, making changes to the wording and structure as I go along.
But you can just as easily do this on the computer if you prefer.
As you edit, read the script out loud. Remember, you’re going to be speaking these words so they need to sound good to the ear.
Very often you’ll find sentences are too long, or too repetitive and you may need to shorten them up or replace a word you’ve overused.
You can only fully appreciate this by reading aloud!
Once you’ve gone through the whole thing once, your course will start to take shape.
All you have to do now is package it up in the best way possible.
5. Build a System
If you really want to produce a course that will add value to your students, you need to build a system for them that takes them from A to B and helps them achieve their desired outcomes.
As you’ll have found from your research process, there are very few niches, which don’t already have multiple “How To” guides or educational materials for them. The content, in most cases, is pretty similar.
So the thing that will differentiate your course from the other ten already out there is the structure.
It’s the system you build that helps people navigate the ups and downs of that educational experience effectively.
And once again, the only solution here is time in the trenches.
Now that you have a draft script and your box of notecards or Trello board, start spending some time thinking about how the material could be better structured for the student to understand and take action.
If you already feel like you’ve got the perfect structure and you’re ready to record, then great – get started!
But if you’re being thorough enough, there will always be several things you want to switch up.
One section may work better before another. One lesson might be better placed here not there. And so on…
I actually recorded the first version of my course and decided it wasn’t up to my own standards after recording it.
I’d spent a few hundred dollars on renting a good quality camera and two full days of shooting.
Conventional wisdom would have told me to just get it out there.
But after watching back some of the videos and putting myself in the shoes of a student, I knew that this wasn’t just fear of judgement or perfectionism – the course was missing something.
It was missing a system.
If you look at any successful online course, they all have this in common. The different parts fit together seamlessly to form an integrated whole that takes the student from A to B in the most efficient way possible.
So I went back to the drawing board. I discussed the material with more people. I read some more books. I moved my index cards around.
And then one day, the hard work paid off.
The new structure came to me – it made sense intuitively and I knew I was good to go!
I made the changes to the script and moved a few things around and before I knew it, I was in front of the camera again, presenting the course.
(Check out this post to find out how to record and produce your course)
From my experience, this process flat out works.
Despite being my first course, I was proud to put Make Me A MetaLearner out there and it’s been a success already, just a few months after launch.
As with most things that matter in life, the best shortcuts are to do things properly to the best of your ability.
So save yourself the time and guesswork, commit to the process and get researching and writing now!
Nasos Papadopoulos is the founder of MetaLearn, a content platform that helps you learn faster and more efficiently so you can pick up the 21st century skills needed to thrive in work and life.
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