There is a lot information out there about how to market online courses and about the various online course creation tools and online course platforms that are available. I hear quite often from readers, though, that it is much harder to find high quality information on how to create an online course.
In other words, how do you take your ideas and actually turn them into a course experience?
I’ve heard about this need enough from readers – and seen so much fluff advice out there – that I decided it was past time I wrote a comprehensive post on the topic. So, that’s just what this is: a comprehensive post on how to create a successful online course.
But first …
Everything I write in this post is based on the assumption that you have at least one course topic in mind and it is one about which you already have solid knowledge.
I’m also assuming you have good reason to believe there is demand for the course you plan to create. If that’s not true, you will benefit from taking steps like validating your market before jumping into online course creation.
Create An Online Course with A,D, and DIE
I’ve been in the learning industry for more than 20 years at this point, and I prefer not to reinvent the wheel any more than necessary. There are, as you might guess, already very established and widely used approaches for how to develop an online course. Arguably the most established and most widely used is ADDIE, which stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation.
I won’t bore you with a detailed discussion of each of those elements. The basic idea is that you figure out what issue really needs to be addressed and for whom (Analysis), you come up with an effective approach for teaching people how to address the issue (Design), you build it (Develop), have learners go through it (Implement), and then figure out how well what you built addressed the issue (Evaluate). If you see room for improvement, you go back to step one.
It’s hard to argue with the basic logic of ADDIE, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. The main issue I have with it is that, traditionally, too much faith tends to get placed on the initial Analysis and Design stages. As a result, course creators tend to over-invest in the Development and Implementation stages and it takes far too long to get to the Evaluation stage – where, more often than not, you will find significant potential for improvement.
So, I follow a modified ADDIE process to create an online course, which can be laid out as follows:
Determine the major positive outcome you seek to help your learners achieve while being very clear about who your learners are and why the outcome is important of them
Map out what will the learner need to do to achieve the major positive outcomes and the methods you will use to facilitate learning. Determine the types of activities most appropriate for helping learners acquire or develop the knowledge, skills, and/or behaviors you have identified.
- DIE (Develop, Implement, Evaluate)
Assume that you have gotten parts of the Analyze and Design steps wrong. Develop the minimum viable version of your target learning experience and test it with target learners. Based on feedback, revise the course experience. If necessary, test it again with target learners. Only after an appropriate number of DIE cycles do you develop a full “go to market” version of your course.
Now, this may not seem like a huge departure from ADDIE, but lumping the last three parts together and treating them as a rapid test-learn-repeat cycles can really make all the difference between a ho-hum (or outright “fail”) course and one that is a tremendous success.
A,D, and DIE with an Example
Now let’s look at these steps in more detail. As we do this, I’m going to reference a course I am currently designing as an example. The working title for the course is “How to Select the Right Platform for Selling Your Online Courses.”
In the analysis phase, you want to make sure you are crystal clear about what I call the “major positive outcome” you are trying to create, why, and for whom. From these points, you will develop your course focus statement.
Start by asking yourself, “What positive, meaningful change will I empower my learners to achieve? Then state your answer as clearly and concisely as you can. Spend some time refining and editing, as needed, so that you get it down to a single, compelling statement.
Here’s my statement for my platform selection course:
I will empower aspiring course entrepreneurs to identify and select an appropriate learning platform with maximum confidence and minimal stress.
Notice the key elements of this statement.
First, it clearly states what learners will be able to do once they finish the course: identify and select a learning platform.
Next, I have identified who the learners are: aspiring course entrepreneurs. This is not a course for corporate trainers or academics: it is a course for entrepreneurs, people who want to sell courses. What’s more, it is not a course for seasoned course entrepreneurs – i.e., people who most likely already have a course platform: it is a course for people aspiring – i.e., who are just beginning their journey as course entrepreneurs, and possibly as entrepreneurs in general.
The “who” is extremely important because it helps you determine the scope, level, and tone of the content that will go into the course. In my case, I’m going to stick to foundational topics because I can safely assume that most of my audience will not have a lot of “prior knowledge” (official learning theory term) about course platforms and would only be confused or distracted if I get into advanced topics like learning analytics or psychometric testing. Because my audience is made of entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs I can also assume, with reasonable confidence, that most of them are not going to want a lot academic language or rambling information about the theoretical underpinnings of my course.
Finally, the course focus statement statement implies a compelling “why” by incorporating the concepts of “maximum confidence and minimal stress.” I know from a lot of interaction with Learning Revolution visitors that choosing a platform stresses people out and that most people just don’t feel all that confident when making a choice.
The power of getting your focus statement right up front really can’t be overstated. It will – as the name implies – help ensure that you truly focus your efforts and develop the right content, for the right people, and for the right reasons. Only with your focus statement right can you start to identify the right structure for your course.
To arrive at your structure, you need to break your major positive outcome down into its essential sub-elements. If that is starting to sound a bit like a chemistry lesson, that’s because it kind of is. Think of your major positive outcome like a molecule that is made up of multiple atoms. That’s how most major positive outcomes work, after all. They don’t result from just a single action or behavior, they result from the synthesis of multiple actions or behaviors.
In the case of my platform course, these include:
- Understanding what a learning platform can do
What it is reasonable to expect, what not? I’m keeping my “who” in mind here – most of my learners are going to be novices.
- Understanding why and how to develop clear objectives
I know from a lot of experience that many selection processes start going of the rails at the very beginning because the objectives are poorly, if at all, understood.
- Understanding what “requirements” are and how to generate and document them
Most of my learners will not have had much experience with selecting complex technology platforms. They probably aren’t all that familiar with the concept of requirements or how you create and use them.
- Understanding how to find and narrow the choices
What I am teaching is fundamentally a decision process. Having covered the objectives – i.e., what making a good decision will ultimately achieve – it is now important to understand how to identify the best alternatives for achieving the objectives.
- Understanding how to vet the choices and make the final decision
Once alternatives are identified, learners need to feel competent at comparing the alternatives in a meaningful way and making a clear, rational decision.
Now, there are plenty of other areas I could cover in a course about selecting a learning platform. I could, for example, add in a whole section about e-learning industry standards. Or, I could talk about the different approaches to designing and programming learning platforms. Or, … well, the list goes on.
Covering any of these areas might give me a nice ego boost by showcasing how much I know, but they are far from essential areas for my target learners – they would not contribute meaningfully to the major positive outcome. Which leads to a fundamental rule of course creation:
Do not teach everything you know. Teach only what your learners need to know to achieve the major positive outcome.
So, at this point, if you have followed the advice above, you have your course focus statement and you have broken your major positive outcome down into the components that will make up your course. Hopefully you are starting to feel like you have a fairly clear roadmap that will guide you in how to write an online course. Now it is time to start filling in the details.
As you may have noticed, we have already taken a significant step toward design by breaking the major positive outcomes into sub-elements in the previous phase. (Instructional design purists may quibble that the sub-element break down really belongs in the Design phase. Let them quibble. I think it is an important part of Analysis, and most of the purists have never sold a course anyway.)
At this point, you will want to:
- review each of your action/behavior areas and clarify the learning objective(s) represented by each
- break down each of these areas into the sub-elements that will support achieving the learning objective (just as you broke down your major positive outcome into sub-elements)
- For each sub-element, identify appropriate media (and media (e.g., text, recorded, discussion board) and instructional activities
Let’s look at each of those areas a little more closely.
Review and clarify learning objectives
Depending on how well you have stated your learning actions above, you may or may not need to do much work in this area. It’s easy to get bogged down when addressing learning objectives – it’s a topic academics love to debate – but all you really want to do is make sure that:
- there is a clear objective (or objectives) for each of the action/behavior areas you have outlined,
- that you have some reasonable way of determining that the objective has been achieved – for example, by testing your students – and
- that the objective truly contributes in a necessary way to the major positive outcome for the course
So, look at each of your action/behavior elements and ask:
- have I been clear about what the learner needs to achieve here?
- how would someone know the learner has achieved it?
- is achieving it really a necessary part of achieving the overall course goals?
If I look at my third element above – “Understanding what “requirements” are and how to generate and document them” – my responses to the above questions would be:
- Yes (Of course, there is debate about whether a word like “understand” can really be used as a learning objective. If you really want to dig into that debate, I highly recommend this video on learning objectives from Dr. Will Thalheimer.)
- Good: by having the learner identify well-stated vs. poorly-stated requirements Better: requiring the learner to provide reasons for identifying requirements as well or poorly stated. Best: by having the learner generate and submit requirements for my review and feedback.
- Yes, this is absolutely essential. Well-stated requirements are essential for identify the right technology.
Breaking objectives down into sub-elements
In most cases, it will be possible to break your objectives down into elements that contribute to achieving the objective. For example, if I want my students to understand what requirements are and how to generate them, it will most likely be useful to:
- Explain what requirements are and how they are used in a selection process
- Explain how objectives are used as the basis of requirements
- Provide examples of clear, objectively stated requirements and contrasts them with ones that are not
- Illustrate what can happen when requirements are not clear and objectively stated
Remember my analogy above? At this point, you have broken that molecule down into atoms and the atoms down into electrons, neutrons, etc.
Not into chemistry analogies? Then think of your course like a book. While you definitely should not create an online course that is little more than an online book, it can nonetheless help to think of your course as structure as: Course Title | Chapter Titles | Sub-Chapter Titles | Sub-Chapter Bullets.
Again, keep reviewing all of this to make sure only what really needs to be there is there.
Identify appropriate media and instructional activities
We’re now getting into the area that hangs many would-be course creators up when trying to create an online course. Many are convinced that their course has to have a lot of video in it, and for a variety of reasons they just don’t feel comfortable shooting a lot of video. Or, they have hear that courses have to be highly interactive and assume that means they have to have video-game level programming.
The fact is, there are nearly always multiple instructional methodologies – combinations of media (text, video, audio, etc.) and activities – that can be used to achieve a learning objective and there is not always clearly a “best” methodology. That means you have options, and many of those options can be quite straight forward and low tech. Some key rules of thumb to keep in mind are:
- Make sure the activities and media are truly appropriate for what you want the learner to achieve. This will help protect your budget – and time – and also make sure you are not simply distracting the learner with unnecessary or – worse – ineffective course elements
- Include a mix of media and activities in your courses. Doing this will help keep the learner attentive and engaged and it also helps to reinforce learning by engaging different areas of the brain.
Let’s once again look at some of the elements in my example course and see how the above points play out.
For my first sub-element above – “Explain what requirements are and how they are used in a selection process” – my student will mainly need is information. This is an instance in which it is appropriate for me to simply lecture – i.e., tell them what requirements are and how they are used – but as part of this lecture, it will be valuable for me to show them what well-crafted requirements look like.
So, for this element I may use a combination of text and images (media) and require them to read (activity). Or, I may use video (media) and require them to watch (activity). There are other possibilities, but there is also no need to over think it. At this point, I am aiming for a relatively low level of learning – i.e., basic comprehension and absorption of facts. I don’t need to over-engineer and, in fact, throwing in anything but the most basic facts and examples may be distracting at this point and thus hinder the learning process.
On the other hand, when I move into the other elements – for example – “Provide examples of clear, objectively stated requirements and contrasts them with ones that are not” – there is almost no way that learners will fully “get it” without some opportunities for apply and practicing the information that I provide. I’ve actually already hinted at some of the possibilities above. My media and activities here might include:
- An auto-graded quiz – have the learner identify well-stated vs. poorly-stated requirements
- An teacher-graded quiz – require the learner to provide reasons for identifying requirements as well or poorly stated.
- Graded “homework” – have the learner generate and submit requirements for my review and feedback
Obviously, the options present trade-offs between your learning and your business goals. The first one is most scalable from a business standpoint, but least effective from a learning standpoint. And the reverse is true for the third one. These are the types of trade-offs that, in my opinion, the best course entrepreneurs will really take to heart and try to resolve in favor of the learner to the greatest extent possible. For example, if you really want a highly scalable course model, then you will put significant time into crafting quiz questions and automated feedback for option one above that help make that approach as effective as it can be.
(As a very important aside, a key part of choosing the right learning platform is having some understanding up front of the media and activities you will likely want to use and vetting platforms to figure out which ones best support your learning and business goals.)
Now, I’ve stuck with pretty common media and activity combinations above, but there are, of course many, many possibilities, and I encourage you to explore them as part of making your courses more effective and making them stand out in your market. For suggestions for learning activities, I suggest starting with:
- Telling Ain’t Training by Harold Stolovitch
Harold runs through a long list of instructional activities in chapter 8 of this book (which I highly recommend, in general). While most of these are geared toward face-to-face training, most of them can also be adapted to online training with a bit of imagination.
- The Thiagi Group
You’ll find a wealth of games, activities and other resources on this Web site. Again, these were mostly developed for the classroom, but can be translated to online easily in many cases.
As a general rule, for any information you present in a course, strive to provide activities – even very simple ones – that support the learner grasping and retaining that information, making it into something he or she can actually use in every day life/work.
So, we’ve just devoted quite a lot of space to just two letters: A and D. I believe this is appropriate because I’ve seen from experience that these two areas – analysis and design – rarely get enough attention outside of professional instructional design circles.
Course entrepreneurs, in particular, often do little more that regurgitate all of the information that they have amassed with little attention to refining their objectives, much less providing appropriate activities to support those objectives.
Of course, the downside of devoting so much attention to analysis and design is that you may be tempted to over think and, as a result, become a victim of “paralysis by analysis.” Resist that impulse. Really, the opposite should happen: everything I lay out above is, when you really think about it, glaringly obvious and logical. The key is simply to focus, roll up your sleeves, do the work to:
- identify your major positive outcome
- identify the elements that are truly necessary to support it
- ruthlessly prune away everything else
- align appropriate media and activities to your course elements
Simultaneously, you need to stay aware of VERY important fact. Namely,
You don’t have to get it right!
In fact, it is almost certain you will not get it right. Paraphrasing what has been said about business plans (which rarely survive their first encounter with actual customers), few course designs survive their first encounter with actual learners. So, this is where the “DIE” part of the formula comes into play.
Once you have your basic design and content together, you don’t just head into full-blown course production. Rather, you do as I have suggested before: you pilot your course.
You can read about piloting here, so I won’t cover at length in this post. The main point about piloting to make here is that it is an approach to moving rapidly and flexibly through cycles of the development, implementation, and evaluation phases of ADDIE. So, you don’t waste a bunch of time and money to create an online courses that doesn’t fly with your learners.
To stay with my example, I’ll note that I have piloted the platform selection course in a couple of ways. First, I have run Webinars devoted to the topic in which I have walked through an abbreviated version of everything I describe above. I have also run a more full-blown multi-week program with live Webinars and assignments in between. At this point, I’ve had enough experience with the content and with actual learners to feel confident in putting together a (mostly) self-paced version of the course.
If you happen to be interested in learning about the platform selection course when it becomes available, just enter your e-mail below and I’ll notify you as soon as it is ready.
Next Step: Course Production and Delivery
As suggested above, I am an advocate of keeping it simple when you pilot a course. As you move beyond the pilot phase, however, you will like want to consider course production and delivery options beyond a Webinar platform. In case it is not clear already, the options you consider should be driven by the design decisions you made during the process outlined above.
If, for example, a high degree of interaction with your learners is essential for the success of your course, then you probably need to find an online course platform with strong discussion board capabilities.
Similarly, if “show and tell” type video is an essential learning element, then you will want to find a screencasting tool that fits your needs.
Given that I have written about course development and delivery tools in a number of other places, I’ll wrap up this post by pointing to some of those other places for additional guidance:
Course Production Tools
I cover various categories of tools in my free Learning Revolutionary’s Toolbox, including:
Course Delivery Platforms
The following lists of online learning platforms will help you find the perfect platform for selling and delivering your online course.
- 15 Platforms to Publish and Sell Online Courses
- 10 True Alternatives to Udemy for Selling Online Courses
- Learning Management Systems for Small Businesses to Sell Courses
If you have questions or comments, submit them in the comments area below.