The world of online courses can seem complex at first, leaving many newcomers with a load of questions to figure out.
A common starting question I often hear is: how does an online course actually work?
As a student, you just need to find an online course you want to take, sign up and make a payment, and log in to access your content. For course creators the process is a bit more in-depth. You’ll need to come up with a profitable topic, decide on your learning outcomes, create your content, and deliver it.
In this article you’ll learn how to find and sign up for an online course as a student. As well as the steps that an instructor needs to go through to create an online course of their own.
As a student, there are a few steps you need to take before you can get started with an online course.
What do you want to learn, and who do you want to learn it from?
Do some research and find some recommended online courses that cover the subject matter you’re interested in.
These courses might be offered by universities and other educational institutions. Or if it’s a less academic topic you want to learn about, they might be taught on e-learning websites like Udemy or Coursera. These days you can also find high quality courses taught by experts or small business owners in their respective fields.
If I wanted to learn about photography for beginners, I’d first find the top 3 to 5 courses available on that topic.
I’d compare the different topics covered in each course, how reputable of a source I think it is, and the price.
Then I’d make a final determination on which course I wanted to take. If it’s a tough choice and multiple courses seem to have lots to offer, I might even consider taking two of them!
Once you’ve decided on the online course you want to take, you’ll need to sign up.
Most online courses make this a very easy process. You’ll be able to register, pay online, and activate your account all in one step. Usually you’ll get instant access to the course so you can start right away.
After you’re all signed up, you should receive your login details for the course in an email, as well as confirmation that you’ve paid.
Courses usually have an introduction that will give you an overview of the course and how you’re meant to work through it. Follow along, and it should all be quite intuitive.
Some courses give you full access to every module at once. While others release parts of the course on specific days, or a set amount of time after you’ve completed the previous module.
Each section of the course will likely have a video you need to watch or text you need to read, along with potentially an assignment or test that needs to be completed afterward.
The great part is that you can work through your online course when it’s convenient for you, and don’t need to show up to class at a specific time each day. Although pay attention to any deadlines or due dates, especially for more academic online courses.
Most online courses have some way to communicate with other members. Whether it’s a comment section, a forum, or a private Facebook group.
This is a great way to get any potential questions you have answered by your instructor or by other students, and to join and become part of the community of students on your course.
If you’re thinking more about creating an online course yourself, there’s a lot more work to do besides just signing up!
Having an online course is a great way to establish yourself as an expert in your field and create a (semi) passive income for yourself. So it’s very much worth the effort.
In essence, the way it works is that you create a set of videos on a specific topic, host these on an online course website and then sell the course to students who want to learn what you are teaching.
After you’ve made the course once, you can sell it over and over again – so aside from marketing your course and supporting your students with follow questions, it can become a semi-passive income stream.
There’s no limit to how many people can take your course, so if it works well you could have thousands of students learning from you without you needing to actually deliver lessons over and over again yourself.
Here’s a very short overview of the main steps you need to take as well as some links to more in-depth articles for further advice.
Make sure you’re creating a course about something you enjoy and have a strong interest in.
You’re going to be spending many hours creating your online course, as well as potentially adding to it and expanding it later on.
It might be super profitable to make an online course teaching yoga to grannies. But if it’s something you hate, there’s almost no point in doing it.
If you aren’t passionate about your course, it will show in the training you create. It will be uninspired and boring to your students.
Do some market research. Before you start making your course, see if it’s something people might actually be interested in paying to learn. If there are other online courses that already exist on your topic, that can be a great indication that it’s a profitable one.
Click here for more info and guidance about how to choose your online course topic.
You need to set the learning outcomes for your course.
People won’t want to hand over money if they don’t know what they’re going to get in return.
If you make a course about “fly fishing” and don’t offer much other detail, people don’t know what to expect. Some people might be looking to learn the proper technique for casting a fly fishing rod. While others are looking for a course to teach them how to tie their own flies at home.
If you aren’t clear about your course’s learning outcomes, you risk ending up with unhappy and frustrated customers when the course didn’t meet their expectations. Don’t leave any grey areas. Explain exactly what your course is all about and what they’ll learn!
Clearly explain what they’ll be able to do, feel, and know when they’ve completed the course. That way you’ll have higher customer satisfaction and end up with less requests for refunds.
Becoming really clear on the outcome of the course will also help you in targeting the right audience of potential students and with how you market your online course too.
Next you should brainstorm which content and ideas will be in the course. Think through all the steps someone needs to go through or understand to get to the final outcome of the course.
The it’s time to create your course outline by grouping it together into different lessons and modules. Try to put together information with similar ideas and themes.
Lay out modules in a logical way so that they flow together and progressively build upon one another.
Try to make your content into bite-sized chunks that people can sit down and complete in just 5 – 10 minutes at a time. An hour long video can be overwhelming and lowers the chances of people actually completing it.
For larger courses, you might even want to break one giant course down into several mini-courses included in one package.
There are many options when it comes to how you deliver your content to students.
You can create written lessons, or you could make audio-only content.
However, I highly recommend making video lessons as they have a higher value and massively increase engagement.
After a student has finished a module, you might also want to include a downloadable PDF that summarizes what they learned and the key points they should take away from the lesson.
Be mindful that different people learn in different ways, so it’s good to use a mix of different mediums. Offering video lessons, alongside downloadable pdfs, spreadsheets and audio files can create a rich learning experience.
This is a part that some course creators might find really fun, while others might really dread it.
Most likely your course content will be made up of a series of video lessons with perhaps some additional downloadable resources. So, you’ll need to plan and record your videos, edit them and create any supporting spreadsheets or pdfs to accompany.
You should have your course outline of lessons and modules all laid out. Now it’s time to present them in an informative and engaging way.
Depending on the type of course you’re creating, you might just make “talking head” videos where you’re presenting a lecture to your students in video format. Or you may have an over-the-shoulder or screen capture video when you need to demonstrate specific software or techniques on the computer for your students to see.
You might opt instead to do a powerpoint or series of animations to get your message across.
Now your course is all finished. It’s time to get it online and available for purchase!
There are a few different routes you can go. Check out my guide on online course platforms for more info, but in essence it boils down to the following options:
The best way to launch your course is to build an audience of people who are interested in what the course teaches and offer them a discount and collect feedback from the first batch of students.
An online course is a great way to make some passive income whether you’re a small business owner, a Youtuber, or a blogger. You can set up an online course once and then it will continue to sell many times over.
Jacob has a background in finance and engineering. Outside of his day job, he is a lifelong learner, who enjoys reading, taking online courses, and writing about what he's learned.
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