How To Structure Your Online Course

By Adam Sayner | Online Course School

Feb 25
How to Structure Your Online Course_1

Structuring your online course content is a pretty straight forward part of the course creation process.

It helps you focus on the most important content for your course, and creates a lot of clarity for when you come to the follow up step of actually recording and making it.

Focus On The Big Picture

​But before we get stuck into the specifics of outlining your course content, let's just remind ourselves of a couple key points from our previous article on choosing the right course topic:

1) People buy online courses because:

  • they want to learn from an actual person with experience
  • the information is put together in an easily digestible step by step system or format
  • the course can produce a clear outcome that they desire

    2) The key to a great online course is:

  • that it teaches 'one big outcome' or transformation
  • has a specific audience in mind

Keep these points at the top of your thoughts as you outline your course structure.

Ask yourself: "is this bit of content necessary to help teach the one big outcome of the course?". If not, then don't include it.

Your course should deliver your students to the main outcome or transformation in the simplest and quickest way possible. Don't be tempted to add in everything you know - it will probably make your course too long, jumbled and lacking in focus.

Choose An Online Course​ Format

There are three main formats that you could use as a basis for your online course structure:

1) A step by step program

2) A week by week program

3) A reference course​

1) A Step By Step Program

This is probably the most common online course format and it works well in taking your students on a clear step by step journey from where they are now to where they want to be.

Each step builds on the previous one, working in a logical sequence towards the end, where the goal is accomplished.

For a short entry-level course, you probably want to focus on just 3-5 key steps or modules that will make up the backbone of your course. Each module or step will then contain a number of lessons within it that teach the actual content.

Breaking it up into a handful of key modules is just a simple way for your students to recognise the main stages they'll move through as they reach their outcome.

To arrive at an outline of these steps, you can either:

1) start with the main outcome of the course and work your way backwards through the steps needed to get there

       or if you prefer:

2) imagine your former self before you gained the knowledge you now have, and then plot out the key steps you have taken to get to where you are today.

An Example...

For example, the course my company created about how to grow mushrooms on coffee waste has the following 5 modules (key course steps):

1) The Big Idea – let nature do the work (this is a kind of introductory module)

2) Meet the Mushrooms – the original recyclers (laying the foundational knowledge about how mushrooms are cultivated)

3) Get Growing (this is the meat of the course where we cover a step-by-step process for how to grow mushrooms on coffee waste)

4) Caring For The Growing Cycle (this follows the next steps of the process on through to the final result – harvesting your mushrooms)

5) Help I’m growing mould – the troubleshooting module (this covers all the most likely problems people may encounter along the way and how to rectify them)

By the end of the course, people know how to grow mushrooms on coffee.

They understand the theory and concepts behind it, and they have the practical knowledge and steps they need to implement it.

They can keep coming back and dipping into the troubleshooting module if or when they have a specific problem that arises from their growing.

The exact structure will be different for each course depending on the content – this is just an example to help you understand how a short course might be set out.

For each key step in your course outline, you should then draft the key micro-steps or points to include, so that when you come to actually make the course material, you just have to follow this framework, rather than making it up as you go along.

2) A Week By Week Program

This is actually pretty similar to the step by step course structure - the main difference is just that your course is organised over a specific time scale, with modules and lessons for each given week of the program.

For example, you might have an 8 week meditation course or a 4 week web design course.

It enables you to teach a process that will take a specific amount of time to learn or complete, and gives your students a chance to carry out tasks each week alongside.

It's a great way to deliver a specific goal in a specific amount of time, and can help you in working out the progression your students will need to go through to get from A to B.

This approach doesn't work so well if what you are teaching is more conceptual. Teaching how to build a better connection with your child would lend itself more to a step by step course for example, where you walk your students through a set of ideas that they need to learn.

3) A Reference Course

Any course that doesn't easily fit into either a step by step program or a week by week structure will probably fall under this category.

A reference course is pretty much exactly what it's name suggests. It is a collection of knowledge and information bundled neatly together and well organised, which people can refer to relevent sections of whenever they wish/need.

Often the info in a reference course might already be out there for free on the internet, but in a disorganised and low quality way. By pulling it all together in one place and teaching it in a clear way, you create real value and help to solve people's problems.

Learn Scrivener Fast by Joseph Michael is a great example of this type of course. Joseph's course is a complete resource of tutorials and tips for how to get the most from the excellent (but difficult to use) writing software, Scrivener.

He now makes a full time income from his course - proving just how much people value having complete guides and resources to quickly and easily refer to.

Include Additional Resources

In addition to the core course content, you’ll probably find that there are a couple of additional resources you can offer which will really make your online course offering complete.

This could be a one page PDF with a list of key equipment, tools or resources that might help your participants.

Or it could be a series of worksheets for people to fill in for themselves alongside the course.

Or an additional video or audio file that teaches a particular skill or technique complimentary to the core subject matter.

For example, in my company’s mushroom growing course, we have a couple of additional short videos about what type of growing bags and spawn you should use and a PDF file with links to suppliers.

These additional resources can be pitched as free ‘bonuses’ when it comes to selling your course, and they are the little extras that make your course offering distinct from others. Often they are the additional features that tip people over the line into joining your course.

We’ll cover more of the sales stuff in another article – Promoting & Selling An Online Course.

Structuring Your Content

So, hopefully you'll now know what type of structure you are going to base your online course around: either a step by step program, a week by week program or a reference course. And you might have an idea for some additional resources you could include.

Brainstorm

Your next step is to sit down and brainstorm the main points you want to teach in your course. To begin with just write down whatever comes to mind....try writing each idea on a separate post-it note.

Post It Notes

Someone's Jumbled Up Post-It Notes In Need Of Organising!

Organise

Then rearrange all these brainstormed ideas into a logical structure that delivers your courses' one big outcome or transformation. You should find that your post-it notes can be bunched together in related groups - and these become the main modules for your course.

Finalise

Write out a complete draft outline for the structure of your online course. Then leave it for a couple of days before sitting down to review it again. Walk through it in your mind and ask yourself:

"does this all makes sense?"

"is there anything missing?"

"are there more steps than necessary?"

"are there any sections that could be taken out and turned into an additional resource instead?"

Once you’re satisfied with the answer to these questions, you should have a great course structure outlined.

It will deliver your students a big outcome or transformation in a simple, clear and easy way, in the shortest time possible.

Now you have a structure to work to - it’s time to dig in and get started with actually making your online course.

About the Author

Hi, I'm Adam. I'm a big fan of creating online courses as a way for you to share your knowledge and earn some good income. I'm here with some tips to help you create a great online course & to choose the right online course platform for your needs.