How to Create an Online Course

In this step-by-step guide to creating online courses, we’ll tell you all there is to know about how to create an online course for free.

1. Identify the Subject and Audience for Your Online Course

2. Gather and Structure Your Knowledge

3. Create an Online Course Outline

4. Choose a Platform or Software for Your Online Course

5. Create the Course Content

6. Make Sure Your Content is Engaging

7. Create a Community for Your Online Course

8. Gather Feedback for Your Online Course

9. Adapt, Improve and Update

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

Antoine St. Exupery

In order to compile this article, we gathered all of our combined knowledge and expertise in online courses. It took weeks of work to put together this article, and it took years of effort to gather the knowledge necessary.

In this guide to making an online course, we’re going to teach you how to become effective online teachers. Even if you’re not planning to create and sell any online courses right now, we hope it’ll still be illuminating and instructive to see what goes on in the making of the courses we love.

When you create an online course for the first time, make sure that you follow this guide closely, and that you don’t skip over any of the steps mentioned here. Creating a high-quality online course takes time and effort. If you want to become successful in this industry – then you will have to be willing to work hard.

1. Identify the Subject and Audience for Your Online Course

Course Subject and Audience

In all significant endeavors, you need to plan. Your plan for making an online course should begin with:

Making it up as you go along has a high chance of ending up with you flat on your face unless you’re dead sure you know what you’re doing. Think through these two initial steps very carefully – they will be the foundation for the online course you will be building.

Think of this next section as a checklist for how to develop an online course. Once you’ve got most or all of this stuff on hand, you’ll be ready to start on actually making an online course.

Choose a Course Subject

Okay, we’re starting with the obvious, but it’s actually got a purpose here. You can’t just meander around a general breadth of a particular subject for your entire course; it’s a waste of time for both you and your students. You’ve got to consider exactly what you’re going to teach, and how deep you’re going to go into the subject.

The course subject determines your audience, your method of teaching, and a lot more factors. It’s crucial that you decide on a specific course subject in the beginning phase of creating your online course. 

A course on the basics of sewing is going to be very different from a course on advanced French linguistics. Both will have their similarities, but teaching strategies that work for one type might not always be the best for another.

Depth also affects matters. To use our previous example of sewing; Intro To Sewing should be easier to grasp and should be aimed more for newcomers, while Weird Stuff You Can Do With Fabric may be a shorter, more concise course that can do with less hand-holding, as it’s intended for an audience that already knows how to sew. Or, if you have a course that really digs deep into the subject (The Ultimate Online Course On Sewing?) that’ll be built a bit differently compared to a more basic Intro To Sewing course.

Identify Your Target Audience

Related to the above, what good is your work if no one’s going to read it? Plus, it’s just plain depressing to see all your effort and hard work go nowhere. If you’re going to supply something, there should be some demand. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your time and resources.

Generally, the more obscure your topic is, the better it will be to start with a lighter introductory course before making a deeper, meatier course for those really interested. You can go straight into specifics only if the basic subject is well-known, or if you’re aiming at a particular audience.

So, how do you do gauge interest? There’s a lot of possible ways, but this is where social media comes in. Other platforms exist and can be used to the same effect, but nothing works so well in establishing contact as social media. Put up a post and measure the response. What defines a healthy response will depend on your field (British Tanks After World War 2 will have a different audience compared to How To Get More Instagram Followers), so adjust accordingly.

We will share you one excellent method of using social media for audience analysis:

  1. Find Facebook groups in the topic area you are planning to teach.
  2. Make a group post which describes your wish to make an online course
  3. Ask the people who interact with your post for a one-on-one interview. Alternatively, you could setup an online course survey.
  4. Gather data about the audience and their learning wishes
  5. Analyze the data and try to find similarities between the answers from different people
  6. Voila! You now know who is your target audience and what they want to learn.  

2. Gather and Structure Your Knowledge

Gather and Structure Your Knowledge​

Once you’ve determined what you’re teaching, that you do have people to teach, and that you can teach them something useful, then you can get started on the course itself. Which means you need to get your knowledge together.

You’ll need to know enough that a newcomer to the topic can learn a good deal from you, plus a little bit more than that. There always will be those students quicker on the uptake than others, or those who need just a bit more of the picture to really understand the lesson. To help them out, you’ll need to have enough puzzle pieces on hand to give to them.

Knowledge alone is not enough. You also need to know how to deliver it in a way that makes sense to a student, in a manner that a student can understand. Just dumping facts doesn’t work for most people, otherwise, we wouldn’t need schools and teachers.

So, once you do have the right amount of knowledge and understanding, you’ll have to package it up. What should be learned at the beginning, and what should be saved for later? What logically connects one subject to another? At what point can a student be considered as having learned enough about the subject? These are all questions you have to consider while making your online course structure.

This is just as much for the student as for you. With proper structure and connections, you can teach with ease, and the student will have an equally easier time understanding what you’re trying to impart to them. The retrospective will also be much easier with more natural connections.

3. Create an Online Course Outline

So, you’ve got your knowledge all organized – fantastic! Now it’s time to think about how you’re going to deliver that knowledge to the students. Outlining, as Teachable explains, is similar to structuring, only this time, we’re going to start coloring in the blanks. You know what you’re going to teach, but now you need to decide how you’re going to teach it.

Put simply, this is how to create an online course outline:

  1. Identify the primary learning outcome
  2. List the skills necessary for achieving the primary learning outcome
  3. Use the skill checklist to create course modules
  4. Set learning goals for your course modules

If you’re struggling with creating an online course outline, then you might want to consider:

Identify the Primary Learning Outcome

Ask yourself this: “After my students complete this course, what will they have learned?” What can they demonstrate after having completed your course? What skills can they now apply? This dovetails with the above two; having chosen your topic and gauged your audience, you then have to ask, what sort of value can they derive from your course?

This helps both you and your students. For you, it’ll help with organizing your material, since you should be asking yourself at every step: Will this serve the outcome I want? Is it relevant to what they’re supposed to be learning? This is key to designing an online course, as direction and a definite endpoint are key.

For students, it’ll give them a concrete goal to work to, instead of just flailing around with new information in their heads and no purpose to put it toward. Plus, if they know how your course is going to help, they’re going to be more motivated to complete it.

Create a Skill Checklist

In order to create an effective online course outline, you need to start by determining which skills are the most crucial for your students. Here’s where the previously determined learning outcome comes in handy. If you haven’t decided on a learning outcome yet, then take a moment to think – what is the main skill you want your students to take away from your course?

Once you have set the learning outcome for your online course, continue by asking yourself the following question:

What skills are necessary for achieving the learning outcome?

Answer this question by creating a checklist. A checklist which covers ALL of the skills, knowledge and competences which the student needs to have by the end of the course. 

Use the Skill Checklist to Create Course Modules

After you have created a checklist of the skills necessary for achieving your desired learning outcome, you can start making online class modules.

Continue by grouping closely related skills in the checklist together, as this will enable you to create more effective modules within your course. Also, try to avoid bloating your course with more content than is necessary. When compiling the checklist, keep asking yourself which skills are truly necessary for achieving the desired learning outcome.

Then, rearrange this checklist according to the complexity of the skills. Keep the basic skills in the very beginning, and leave the advanced skills towards the end. Keep grouping closely related skills together, and what you should end up with is groups of skills which act as steps towards an end goal – the final learning outcome. 

Once you have done all this, you will have created a basic modular outline for your online course. Great job!

Set Learning Goals for Your Course Modules

One of the most important components of creating an online course is setting a learning goal for the course. However, there’s more to it. Every online course consists of various sections, and each individual section also needs to have a clear learning goal.

Try to view sections and lessons for an online course in a similar way as you would look at modules inside a university degree. For example, a degree in Medicine might contain modules on Biology, Chemistry, Nursing – all of which have specific learning goals. Online courses should be structured in a similar way, with each section having an individual learning outcome for the student.

Each course section in your online course should transform the student in some way. Some transformations will inevitably be smaller than others, but even small transformations can make or break a student’s desire to continue through with your course. Make the sections of your course progress in a natural way, with each section building on top of the previously learned materials.

Brainstorming Ideas

When struggling with creating an online course outline, try to answer the following questions:

  • What underpins your subject?
  • What’s an introductory lesson that shapes the rest of the course?
  • How do you follow up from there?
  • Where does your course end?

Think about these questions, and see how they shape each of your lesson plans. Remember to keep your end goal in mind. You need to put in just the right amount of lessons to impart the outcome you’re aiming for. Too few lessons and you end up with students who haven’t learned enough; too many, and you risk putting irrelevant info, or worse, fatiguing your students.

Online Course Outline Templates

Below is a list of some excellent online course outline templates which are available for free.

Online course outline templates:

  1. ConvertKit’s Online Course Outline Template
  2. Rachel Reclam’s Online Course Outline Template
  3. San Diego Community College District’s Online Course Outline Template

University course outline templates: (while these outlines were not designed specifically for online courses, they can still serve as an excellent foundation to build on)

  1. University of New South Wales Course Outline Template
  2. Algonquin College Course Outline Template
  3. Lethbridge College Course Outline Template
  4. University of North Carolina at Charlotte Course Outline Template

4. Choose a Platform or Software for Your Online Course

Choosing Platform and Software for Online Course

Where are you going to put your stuff? On a website of your own? Or on an existing platform like Udemy? Each choice has its own ups and downs, and considering your platform is part of how to set up an online course.

Your own portal means you have total control: of your site, of your brand, your pricing. Of course, you also have to deal with the headaches of marketing, getting the word out, attracting students, dealing with payments, and a dozen other matters.

An existing platform has a different set of headaches. A marketplace will happily offer your course right next to a competitor, and its pricing options will be a lot more restrictive. You’re limited by the platform’s own capabilities. Even Udemy provides a unique problem; with so many successful online courses in its database and so many students already on it, it’s entirely possible you could fade into the mass of courses available, and never get another look.

We cover the appropriate software in the next section, but you do have a multitude of options available, especially now that online courses are an established phenomenon. Udemy? Google Open Online? Teachable? There are options available depending on your preference.

Online Course Software

There is software available that can create online courses. We already have an article on online course software here, so we’ll just give you a short overview of the best options in this article.

Just about the biggest platform for online courses is Udemy. They have not just an excellent creation suite for you to use in putting your course together, but they also offer a great deal of support in both creation and marketing. They have their Teach Hub with tutorials, and even have a Facebook group for instructors to chat and discuss online course ideas with. They’re a great option if you’re looking into how to create an online course for free, but they do take a 50% chunk off every sale of your course.

For building your own platform, there’s Teachable. It offers a set of tools fit for all levels of expertise, whether a newcomer to web development or an experienced webmaster. With Teachable, you have ultimate flexibility all the way from your site, to your content, to pricing. They also let you create online courses for free, with a transaction fee for paid sales, and you have the option to purchase several types of premium plans if you like the basic plan and want more options.

You might be wondering how to create an online course with WordPress, the answer is the same as everything to do with WordPress: “There’s a plug-in for that.” You’ll want to look for Learning Management System (LMS) plug-ins, and the top-rated of these is LearnDash. It’s got a good suite of features to control the course, it’s user-friendly, it works with a lot of online course design templates, and it’s got a lot of options for monetization.

And these are just a few of the options on the market. Creating an online class has never been easier.

5. Create the Course Content

Congratulations! With the structure out of the way, you’re all set to start building your online course! This section covers the nitty-gritty of the actual creation of the course.

Types of Online Course Content

That is, how will you present your lessons? You’ve got a lot of means to choose from, each with their own ups and downs. There’s a wealth of options at your disposal, and how you want to do it is entirely up to you.

Here’s a little pro tip, though: If you want to create a truly engaging and effective online course, then you should try using more than one type of online course content. 

Here are the three primary types of online course content you can create:

Combinations of text, video, images, and screencasting make for the most engaging online courses. Screencasting content might not be necessary, though, depending on your course subject. 
Now, let’s have a closer look at each type of online course content.

Text Content

There’s always classic lectures, which consist of text. The least effort possible would simply be to deliver a series of text-only lectures, ideally leavened with a set of recommendations for further reading. 

Of course, this would be terribly boring; you’ve basically just written a book, or a series of blog posts (and can do it just as effectively if you went that way). 

Not to say that you should avoid text entirely – text content is a crucial part of most online courses. However, you should add more types into the mix. Not because text content is boring, but because learning by reading alone isn’t particularly effective. To accompany the bread of text, we need other ways to add essential nutrients to our diet of learning.

Video & Image Content

An easy way to make online courses more engaging is to stimulate the student visually. This means pictures and videos. The simplest method of using picture and videos in an online course would be constructing your online class more like a PowerPoint presentation:

  • Toss in some relevant videos (or even better – create your own)
  • Add relevant images to accompany blocks of text
  • Talk through each “slide” with a good microphone and solid articulation
If you do all this, you’ve got the beginnings of something solid.

Of course, the above treats the internet and an online course as a book. Which is valid, but it’s not taking full advantage of the capabilities you have on hand. While presentations are arguably more captivating than plain text, they still remind students of boring school classrooms. 

Video is an integral part of how to design an online course, and these days, a half-decent camera and good-enough video editing software won’t set you back too much. Thus, you can film your own lectures and add your own voice to your visual element. With text, video, and the literal voice of a teacher guiding them, you can really begin to replicate the feeling of a personalized lecture. How to make a good video can take up an article of its own, like this one. Video-based online classes are some of the most popular types currently out there, and it’s for good reason. They are easy to follow and captivating. Plus, they allow teachers to form a stronger connection with the students.

Screencasting Content

And, of course, since you do have a computer of your own, you’ve got another option. Screencasting is still considered video, but this time it’s not video of yourself, but rather your computer screen. You can optionally have a second camera focusing on you if you have physical material you’d like to show the students as well. In this case, you will show your computer screen to the students while leaving a small window to show the teacher. We have found that combinations of screencasting and “teacher cams” work wonders for student engagement. Give it a try.

Screencasting works particularly well for courses dealing with online matters (How To Get More Instagram Followers, for instance), as you can demonstrate exactly what it is you’re lecturing about in real-time. You really can’t overlook screencasting when you’re thinking about how to make an online video course.

Writing, Recording, Editing

Once you’ve determined how you want to deliver your knowledge, you’re finally ready to start creating the lessons!

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to have the entire course material ready before you go live. Some teachers finish creating their course while running it for their first batch of students—basically, they put together a structure, and just improvise from there. This can be risky; if you seem apprehensive about your direction, your students may become dissatisfied. Some may drop out entirely if they’re not confident that you actually know what you’re talking about.

That being said, you don’t need to create all of the content for your online course before you start selling it. It’s always better to start off with a smaller batch of content, as this will allow you to take in feedback from your students and make improvements accordingly. All too often, we have seen cases where course teachers create dozens of hours of content, only to find out that their camera lighting was set too low, or their voice was too quiet during the video creation process. Start off small, and make improvements as you go. It’s easier to remake 3 hours of lecture content, rather than 30 hours of content.

Just as important, though – don’t procrastinate content writing! Some teachers get too hung up in course structures and outlines that they never leave enough time for planning the lessons individually. Your content writing can make or break your course, so you need to put a good amount of effort into its creation. It’s hard work, and it’s not something that’s just going to ‘come to you’.

Grading & Assessments

Grades in typical schools rely a lot on tests because that’s how the schooling system measures how much you’ve learned. If you’ve been paying attention, a pop-quiz is a breeze; if not, then you’ve been slacking and need to pick up the pace. Assessments can take many forms, from a quick pop-quiz right after you finish the lesson, to the final project that determines your grade at the end.

What sort of assessment you choose to employ should depend on what subject you’re teaching, and how you would like your students to prove their knowledge. If you’re teaching a history subject that’s mostly about facts, then a by-the-books multiple choice quiz might be all you need. But if you’re teaching English literature, you might need to create something a little more engaging and demanding.

Of course, assessments are optional, and whether you choose to employ them depends entirely on your teaching style, but keep in mind that a little sense of accomplishment early on can keep a student engaged.

6. Make Sure Your Content is Engaging

Engaging Course Content

Engaging the students who enroll in your online course is absolutely crucial if you want to become successful in the e-learning industry.

Focus on What’s Important

Remember, teaching is more than just imparting knowledge. Never in human history has so much knowledge been so accessible to anyone with such a low barrier for entry. Just on your phone, you can bring up a wealth of information about Nuclear Physics with just a few keystrokes. Fifty years ago, you’d have to break out an encyclopedia or a book dedicated to the subject, and it’d be just as much work to get another point of view on the same topic.

With enough effort and discipline, a person can self-teach, but not everyone has the time or will to do that. Your job as a teacher is not just to bring knowledge to your students: it’s to distill all the raw knowledge gathered from that very wealth of information and deliver it in a concise, structured manner to your students. Your value is that you know the good stuff from the bad, you’ve already sorted the wheat from the chaff, you know what works and what doesn’t. A complete understanding of the subject is the key to being an effective teacher.

Provide Early Results

The thing with online courses is that it’s a lot easier to drop out of them: you just stop, and there’s no consequences at all, nothing to bite you for not completing. This understandably damages completion rates. A study examining sixteen online courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania revealed that the average completion rate was 4%.

Now, that doesn’t paint the whole picture, but it’s a pretty grim reminder that you have to keep your students engaged if you want to create a successful course. One way to keep your students engaged is to provide an early return on their investment. If a student feels they’ve learned something just from the first module alone, they’re a lot more likely to stick around. Nothing gets someone down faster than them feeling stupid or unproductive, which is very easy to do in a learning environment. Give them feedback, and an ongoing sense of accomplishment, and they’ll stick around.

Set Measurable Goals

This relates to the last point. A student must be able to measure their progress so that they can feel they’ve learned something and not just wasted their time. Remember our point about structuring knowledge? This is why. Breaking down your body of knowledge into individual, learnable pieces means that students can look back and see actual progress. It’s also the reason quizzes and tests are a useful tool: they help to measure learning and improvement.

Plus, this helps in structuring lessons. Each lesson should be about teaching one skill, or about discussing one particular aspect of the topic. At the end of the lesson, a student should have learned something useful. Always remember to keep adhering to your online course outline.

Increase Retention Rates

Retention rates for online courses have been a subject of heated debate for many years now. A study by Techcrunch found that about 6.5% of students who enrolled in massively open online courses (MOOCs) actually ended up finishing the curriculum. A study by Katy Jordan sparked a little more optimism, with the average rate of online course completion hovering around 15%.

However, retention rates should never be the primary indicators for measuring the effectiveness of an online course. A study by HarvardX has shown that only around 58% of students actually intended to finish their online courses and earn a certificate. 

Online course student’s enrollment intention factors are further demonstrated on this infographic on online course completion rates by HarvardX:

Reconsidering MOOC Completion Rates. Source: HarvardX

As this infographic demonstrates, many students who sign up for an online course don’t have the intention of finishing the entire course. Instead, many students enroll in an online course with the intention of completing only very specific modules. Therefore, don’t become demotivated when you see that your courses don’t have very high retention rates.

With that being said, there are still many strategies to increase online student retention which are worth considering.

7. Create a Community for Your Online Course

Creating a Community for Your Online Course

Humans are social animals. There’s no overlooking that in a learning environment; even introverts need their social time. This is where technology steps in once again. Whether it’s a Facebook group, a Discord channel, Udemy discussion group, or whatever other means you can think up, you should establish a community for your students.

What purpose does this serve? A lot. A community beyond your lectures and modules gives the students a platform, and that is a huge advantage. Building a solid community is an important part of how to create an online class.

For instance, let’s say you’ve got a student who didn’t quite understand the last lesson. He’s got a few ways to solve that, but most are problematic. They might be hesitant about approaching you, the teacher, for a dozen reasons. Self-study has its risks, as he or she might not have the motivation to go ahead and re-teach themselves. But if you give this lost student a place to interact with fellow students, they can ask their peers to help them out with the gaps in their knowledge, and before you know it they are back on track.

Another reason is feedback. With a social platform, you can gauge how your students are doing. Check out who seems to be always lagging behind; you can see at a glance which student might need a bit of extra help. If there seems to be a lot of complaints about one particular lesson, maybe you should ask them what they found difficult and change it up. Everyone is learning, even the teacher.

8. Gather Feedback for Your Online Course

Online Course Feedback

Teaching is a two-way street, and to properly gauge how effective you are, you need the means to check that your students are understanding your lessons correctly. Good feedback is an integral element of how to design an effective online course.

When you’re dealing in a field where you’re an expert, it can be hard to recall the times when you were still new to the subject. What’s obvious and easy to an expert might not be the same to a new learner. This is why you should check with others. Ideally, you’d want two different people to look at it: First, a fellow subject matter expert, who can examine your material and comment on your approach; check if you’re missing anything, if you’ve accidentally provided incorrect information, that sort of thing.

The other should be someone who matches your intended audience. In fact, you could well do a trial run with a small crop of interested testers. Finding Facebook groups in your topic area is an excellent way of finding testers for your online course. However small or large you want this stage of checking to be, you need the student’s point of view to be sure that you’re transmitting your knowledge correctly.

It’s Okay To Be Unpolished

Like the title says – it’s totally fine to be unpolished – especially for your first run of things! What you need to be on the first go is feature-complete: everything important is there and it roughly looks like it’ll fit. You will want to change things up here and there, and respond to anything your pilot class tells you. Leaving it unpolished means that there’s more room to make changes, and the less there is set in stone, the better it will be for your efforts.

Besides, if you’re inexperienced in creating content, going through the stressful early stages is the only way you have of getting the seasoning you need. Don’t worry about it, just make sure you do take note of any criticism and recommendations for improvement. 

9. Adapt, Improve and Update

Adapting, Improving and Updating Online Courses

Creating an online course takes a great deal of time and effort, and it requires a lot of flexibility. You’ll constantly be adjusting your methods depending on a multitude of factors. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, to pour your skill and your soul into your work, then building online courses is a great way to dip your foot into the world of teaching.

Getting everything perfect on the very first online course you create is practically impossible. Therefore, your workflow as an online course instructor should always include listening to the feedback of your students and improving your product based on that feedback.

Don’t take negative feedback personally – even if your face is on all of the video material in the courses. When students leave reviews for your course, you should always try to make the most of it. Successful course teachers take all feedback into consideration, and they are able to adapt to the needs of the students. Negative feedback is an unpleasant but necessary part of improving your online courses.

It should also be noted that no course will stay relevant forever. The learning needs of students change constantly, and so does the competition from other teachers. This means that course instructors can’t just put out one high-quality course and expect it to perform well for 10 years without making any changes to the material.

Being ready to adapt, improve, and update your online courses on a regular basis is the single most valuable ability you can have as a teacher. Don’t take your students for granted!