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)

Conclusion

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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It’s an important because one of the main reasons course entrepreneurs get bogged down and don’t achieve the success the could is because they just don’t have the time themselves to create courses.

And, even if they have staff or contract help, these often aren’t people who have the skills necessary for developing online courses.

So, what to do?

You can, of course, try posting contract jobs on big sites like LinkedIn. Or on more niche sites like the eLearning Guild, but my experience is that you are likely to get flooded with resumes from either over-qualified or under-qualified people, many of whom really want a permanent position.

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Benefits of blogging. Or, is your blog the asset it should be?

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The benefits of blogging are huge.

If I had to name the three things I’ve done over the years that have enabled me to break free from working for others and create an income and lifestyle based on my own terms, consistently building e-mail lists and speaking – whether at conferences or via digital channels – would be number two and three on the list.

But number one – by a long shot – would be blogging.

That may go against what you hear in other places. Blogging just isn’t as trendy as it once was, and truth be told, I don’t spend quite as much time on it as I once did (more on that in the future). But when I reflect on what has fueled the success I’ve had to date, it’s clear to me that nothing else has been as big a factor.

There are at least three huge benefits of blogging.

1. Blogging Develops and Showcases Your Expertise

The first is that if you blog consistently and do it reasonably well, you will build a body of work that showcases your expertise.

The market for online courses and other knowledge and learning products increases daily. If you expect prospects to fork over money in exchange for your expertise, then you need to demonstrate your expertise clearly and work to elevate it over time. A blog is one of the easiest, most straightforward ways to do this.

Writing blog posts helps you to develop and focus your expertise and figure out which parts of what you know are most valuable to your prospective audience (through Google Analytics, comments on your posts, and tracking which posts gets shared the most, just to name the most obvious options).

The feedback you get as a result of effective blogging is invaluable for ensuring that you ultimately develop the right offerings for monetizing your expertise.

As a bonus, the content you develop for blog posts can very often become content that you use in other offerings, including courses and books.

In fact, I encourage you to think strategically about blogging as a way to create larger offerings. Create an editorial calendar that is essentially an outline for your course lessons or book chapters and use it to guide your blogging over the course of weeks or months. By the time you are done, you will have made a huge leap toward creating your course or book, and you will have valuable content posted on the Web that will help bring people to you.

Which leads to my next point.

2. Blogging Gets You Found In Search Engines

Building a body of high quality content is also your ticket into getting found on Google and other search engines.

You can spend all sorts of time trying to figure out the latest and tricks for search engine optimization, but the one factor that has remained consistent over many years is high quality content. Write content that people find value and publish through a highly optimized distribution platform like a blog, and you will be found.

There is a good chance, for example, that you got to the Learning Revolution site originally because you found this post – which drives thousands of unique visits per month – through a search engine. (This entire site, by the way, is built on WordPress – the world’s most popular blogging platform – using StudioPress.)

Now, in most cases, simply publishing a blog post isn’t going to drive huge amounts of traffic to you over night. It will take time, and along the way you will need to pick up some basic knowledge about topics like search engine optimization. But if you keep at it, you will build a major asset for your business, one that will help make it sustainable by driving search traffic to you over time.

3. Blogging Puts You In Control

And that leads me to my final point: your blog is a powerful point of conversion, one you totally own and control.

This is a key reason I don’t advocate betting too many of your chips on platforms like Udemy. They can be valuable parts of your marketing mix, but you really need a home base where you call the shots – including how you price your course – and control all of your valuable data – like customer e-mail addresses. That way, no matter what course platform you use – or switch to in the future – you won’t lose any of the valuable Web presence you have built up over time and that is critical to long-term, sustainable online business.

A blog-based Web site, built on a platform like WordPress (free, open-sourced software), is almost always your best bet, whether you are looking for e-mail sign-ups, social shares, or e-commerce sales. WordPress, in particular, is very flexible and offers any number of plug-ins to help you accomplish just about anything. Really, it is a full-blown content management system, but at its core, it has some of the best blogging capabilities available.

Upping Your Blogging Game

One of the inspirations for writing this post was that I noticed that Darren Rowse over at Problogger had launched a “new incarnation” of his 31 Days to a Better Blog challenge. 31 Days to a Better Blog is completely free (though Darren does also offer a related paid product) and there’s no telling how many people it has helped. I remember following along way back in … hmm, 2007? … when I was building my first blog, Mission to Learn. No one knows blogging like Darren.

(The “new incarnation,” by the way, is that 31 Days is now being delivered as a podcast, one of my favorite channels for content.)

I encourage you to check out the 31 Day challenge podcast.

Jeff

Photo Copyright: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

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