Over the past decade, I’ve created over a dozen successful online courses. Many of these courses have done considerably well in terms of viewership, revenue, feedback, and learning outcomes.
I also watch a lot of online courses in my free time, so I’m constantly analyzing the teaching methods of other instructors to see what techniques are most effective for learning new skills.
So, to help those of you who are either teaching via online courses or considering becoming an online- course instructor, here are my top recommendations for creating great online courses.
First, you need to ask yourself two questions: why do I want to create this online course, and why would someone want to take my online course? Do you love teaching? Are you an expert on this topic? Are you a great teacher? Will this course build your street cred? Or, are you just in it for the money?
Unfortunately, creating online courses isn’t nearly as lucrative as it once was. The market is now saturated with authors and low-quality content. So, if you’re just in it to try to make a quick buck, you might want to save yourself and your audience a lot of time and hassle by doing something else instead.
However, if you love teaching, you’re a great teacher, and you’re an expert on the subject, then creating an online course might be right for you. Effective teaching is hard and creating online courses takes a lot of time and effort. If you don’t love teaching, the process will be painful for both you and your students.
Knowing your audience is a critical aspect of effective teaching. Every decision you make in creating your course should be made for the benefit of the learner — not for you or your ego. If you don’t understand who they are, what they know, or what motivates them, you can’t teach them effectively.
Once you know your audience, you can narrow the scope of your course to just what they need to know. Then use the language, examples, and stories your audience understands to teach them new skills. Your primary goal as an instructor is to create audience-centric content that achieves learning outcomes.
You also want to be as inclusive as possible with your content. Include diverse representations of people and cultures. Your audience wants to see themselves represented in your content. Be inclusive in your language, characters, examples, etc. Make your audience feel that the course was created just for them.
Unnecessary complexity is extremely frustrating when you’re trying to learn new skills. Unfortunately, many online courses make things way more difficult for the learner than it needs to be. This is often because the instructor has not invested the necessary time and effort to remove unnecessary complexity.
Instead, you want to strive to make everything as simple as possible — but no simpler. Use the simplest explanation for each concept, use the simplest scenario for each example, and use the simplest data sets and demos that everyone will understand. For example, scenarios involving movies, cars, ice cream, etc.
Then, grow complexity gradually. You want to make the learner feel as smart as possible — especially at the beginning. This motivates them to continue pushing through the more difficult concepts and skills in later modules. It also creates a smooth learning curve that benefits the learner.
Use progressive disclosure of information — show one bullet point at a time rather than a wall of text. Explain important concepts multiple times in different ways. Use the Rule of 3 for examples, cases, explanations, etc. Two examples are often too few, and four examples are often too many.
Don’t waste your audience’s time and attention with unnecessary complexity. This includes unnecessary content, jargon, chart junk, animations, colors, etc. Your course should contain only what is essential for the learner to achieve the learning outcomes. As the old saying goes “you must kill your darlings“.
The human brain evolved to learn via stories. As a result, our brains are hard-wired to prefer learning through narratives. At minimum, you should start each course or module with a quick story to help motivate the learner. At best, you should have an over-arching narrative told throughout your course.
The story archetype called The Hero’s Journey works very well for teaching new skills. Metaphorically, you put the learner in the role of “hero” and invite them along with you on a learning journey (i.e. “the call to adventure“). Then structure the content as a journey through the “special world” of the unknown.
Think of each module like a level in a video game. The learner fights small battles and picks up valuable skills along the way. Each level ends with a mini-boss that you fight (i.e. a quiz or assignment). Finally, the course ends with them fighting the final boss using all the skills they’ve learned (i.e. a final project).
Beyond overcoming obstacles, it’s important to have friendly characters along the way. I often have my students help fictional characters using their new skills. For example, helping a fellow coworker finish a project by applying your new data analysis skills. People like helping other people — it’s in our nature.
Adding stories to otherwise bland educational content allows you to inject natural conflict into your courses. This conflict creates dramatic tension. Resolving this tension creates an emotional response in the learner. These emotions help motivate and then solidify the newly learned skills in their memory.
Learning concepts is only a small part of learning new skills. Practicing your skills is much more important and time-consuming. However, many online course focus on teaching you concepts at the expense of practicing skills. This is unfortunate because practice is how we learn to use our skills.
The main focus of your course should be on practicing new skills. Start each module by quickly teaching the concepts that will be necessary to practice the skills for that module. Use readings, lectures, and slides to teach these concepts. Next, use short quizzes to test for understanding of those concepts.
Then, create lots of opportunities for learners to practice their skills. Use on-screen demos to show your students how to perform the new skill. Next, use exercises, assignments, projects, etc. to help your students practice those skills. Finally, review to ensure that the skills are solidified in their minds.
In the real world, what you can do is more important than what you know. So, I recommend using Bloom’s taxonomy when writing learning outcomes. These action-oriented outcomes will help you frame your content as skills to be developed. In addition, it helps the student know what they will be learning.
When creating online courses, there are a lot of tools involved. In addition, there are too many possible tools out there to learn them all. So, it’s important to know a few of the popular tools and understand their various pros/cons. Then, always choose the simplest tool for each job and automate the busy work.
First, I recommend you always use a script. Practice your script enough that it sounds fluid and natural but not so much that it sounds rehearsed and artificial. If you need to record live video, then use a teleprompter. I use a Glide Gear teleprompter with a Samsung tablet and PromptSmart software.
Next, get a high-quality microphone and find or build a quiet environment to record in. Depending on what I’m recording and where I’m recording it, I use a Shure SMB7, Rode NTG-1, or a Rode Podcaster with shock mounts, pop filters, and boom arms. I also hang blankets on all four walls to reduce noise.
If you’re recording video, you’ll need a decent video camera and an environment to record in. I use a Panasonic Lumix GH5s with a 25MM lens and microphone adapter. I also have 8 x dimmable LED studio lights, and a greenscreen in my studio.
For screen capture, I use Camtasia Recorder. For video editing, I use a combination of Adobe Premiere, Vegas Pro, and Camtasia Studio. Each has its pros/cons, so I use each where it makes the most sense.
Finally, choose the right platform to publish your online courses. The platform’s active audience is its biggest asset and is the most important aspect for you to consider. Most platforms provide roughly the same basic features, but some provide more advanced features that might be of specific benefit to you.
All creative endeavors are a highly iterative process. Creating an online course is no different. Expect to perform many iterations on your course and continuously improve your content as you go. My general process for online-course creation is as follows:
First, I create a rough outline of the course. It’s just a text document containing the course title, purpose/objective, learning outcomes, module titles, and bullet points for each concept or skill. If there are demos, I create these before I create any other content — since these demos drive the narratives.
Next, I create a skeleton slide deck for each module in the course. I include one slide per concept, idea, or skill to be taught. Typically my skeleton slides are just a title and no content. Sometimes, I include ideas and quick notes as bullet points. However, I don’t add any actual content, graphics, images, etc.
Then, I create a script for each slide. I refine this script over several iterations. I practice the script by reading it aloud, use a stopwatch to time each section, trim/refine the script, and repeat this process many times.
Next, I create the final high-quality slides for the slide decks. I add on-screen text, charts, graphs, images, videos, animations, etc. I also format the script so that it’s easier to read on a teleprompter.
Then, I practice my script and record my delivery of the content. I record two takes of each video clip so that I can choose the best of the two takes and patch in any fixes if I made a mistake on the best take.
Finally, I edit the videos, add on-screen callouts, clean up audio, fix any errors, re-record patches (if necessary), and master the final video clips and course assets.
I typically start out with 2x to 3x more content than what ends up in the final product. By the time I’m finished, I’ve gone over each line of text at least a dozen times — continuously simplifying, trimming, and refining the script with every iteration. In the end, just the most essential elements remain.
These days I only create online courses based on content that I’ve previously delivered as a presentation or an in-person workshop. So, by the time I start converting it into a course, I’ve already delivered it numerous times, gathered audience feedback, and used their feedback to improve the content.
There are definitely other important tips that I would like to share with you. However, to keep things succinct, I’ll just quickly summarize a few of them here:
There are many other excellent resources available for learning how to create great online courses. I personally recommend the book Make It Stick by Peter Brown. It teaches you how to be an effective teacher based on our modern scientific understanding of how learning works.
I also recommend watching other high-quality online courses to see how the best teachers in the world are teaching most effectively. My previous article contains a list of the best online courses I’ve seen in recent years. In addition, feel free to check out any of my online courses for reference as well.