How To Structure & Outline Your Online Course - Online Course How

How To Structure & Outline Your Online Course

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Structuring your online course content and making an online course outline is a vital step in creating an online course.

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.

Outlining & 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.

Your next step is to create some order to it all by creating an online course outline.

1) Brainstorm Your Course Ideas

First up: 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!

2) Organise Them Into Groups

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.

These groups will become the main modules for your course, with each idea or topic an individual lesson within a module.

3) Finalise Your Course Outline

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.

And it will help you to create your course in a logical step by step way, breaking it up and recording one lesson at a time.

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

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a good online course?

A good online course requires a few things to make it worth the investment of time, effort, and money people are willing to invest in themselves and improving their skills.

Ultimately, an online course needs to provide value to the student and this comes in a variety of forms.

Online courses need to be providing useful information in a timely and effective manner, they need to be engaging and encouraging to increase student interest and progression and they also need to be well structured and well taught by a knowledgeable instructor or tutor.

All of these are important elements that form the bedrock of a valuable and successful online course, that brings opportunities and improvement to the life of the students who undertake them.

Additionally important to these foundations are a few other things, however.

The promotion of students agency and independence is the best way to ensure that students have the confidence to put their new skills to the test, while present and active tutors will help give your students peace of mind that they are being actively tutored and are not simply being processed, which is a feeling that many students tend to sometimes feel and can lead to hugely unsatisfactory results for both tutors and students.

Its something that even traditional academic environments are struggling with, so adding those personal touches makes a huge difference in building trust and understanding between teachers and students.

How long should a course outline be?

A course outline is a really important component of any prospective online course and it needs to fulfill a few different and important roles.

An outline, as its name suggests, needs to be brief, and give your students all the relevant information about what your course provides without any filler at all. It’s a sketch of your course, its topics, and what it offers.

That being said, the course outline needs to be detailed enough to entice your prospective students, garner interest and curiosity and convince them that the information and knowledge you are offering is worth their time and money.

It’s a complex and difficult balance to strike, but a well-written and well-organized outline will make your course unmissable and highly sought after if it is clear, direct, and succinct. 

What is the difference between a course outline and a syllabus?

These are both very important but very different tools with quite distinct purposes, and they certainly shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

The outline, as mentioned above, is intended to benefit students and tutors, setting expectations and garnering interest without giving too much away. It is intriguing and informative, but not an in-depth catalog of the course’s whole content package and what it offers.

The syllabus on the other hand is a much more formal and dense package that typically serves as both a record of intended course material and a way to categorize achievements and goals for a course. 

A syllabus is a planning tool that makes it easy for tutors and students to see what they have in store for themselves over their course of study.

What should a course outline contain?

A course outline should contain several things. Ideally, it will include some basic information about the tutor such as name, contact information, and other relevant information.

After this, a schedule, outline of content, intended outcomes and goals as well as weekly session breakdowns are all common ways to indicate the value of a course and garner interest.

Information about assessments, codes of conduct and academic standards as well as required course materials should also be included to give prospective students all the information they need to decide if this course is really for them.

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About the Author Jacob M.

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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