How to Create an Online Course: A Step by Step Guide

Everything You Need to Know to Design and Launch a Digital Course

eLearning is a booming industry, and when you consider that teaching and selling online courses is easier than ever before, is it any wonder?

Digital courses offer a convenient learning experience that students of all walks of life desire. Similarly, instructors can create content from the comfort of their own homes, sell it, and enjoy a passive stream of income – freeing up their time to do more.

If that sounds good to you, and you have knowledge or skills to share with the world, you've probably considered teaching an e-course, and you might be wondering how to create an online course.

If so, look no further, because we've created a step-by-step guide exploring everything you need to know on how to get started.

We'll be exploring:

  • Why you should dabble in the online education market
  • How to choose the right course topic
  • How to create a profitable course
  • Whether to use course marketplaces or utilize a SaaS to create your online school

That's a lot to cover… so let's jump straight in!

Why Bother Creating Online Courses?

how to create online courses

Education is changing radically, especially where adult learning is concerned. In the past, education was a straightforward and often-times restrictive process. Go to school, maybe go to college, and perhaps you’ll enroll in an evening course while progressing through your career.

This no longer has to be the case; learning is more accessible than ever. Professionals and hobbyists alike are taking advantage of e-courses. Not only are they more convenient, but they're (usually) cheaper than in-person classes. Online courses are flexible, can typically be completed at your own pace, and often provide content that's easier to digest than traditional spoken lectures.

It's not just individuals who are benefiting from digital learning; more and more companies are using these kinds of resources to train their staff. In fact, in 2017, 77% of US companies used online learning to educate their employees further. When you consider this poses a quicker, cheaper, and more convenient solution than ferrying teams to training days, we can't see this trend changing anytime soon.

Okay, so the benefits of online courses for students are apparent – but how about instructors?

There are plenty of reasons why you should create and sell a digital course, and we've taken the liberty of listing some of them below:

  • Free online courses often make high-converting lead magnets – so if you're looking to build your list and dabble in email marketing, this kind of content is certainly worth considering.
  • Online courses help position you as an authority in your industry, which works wonders for building credibility and enhancing your brand.
  • Eventually, you could create a passive income stream – each new course will make money on its own without repeating the teaching-hours!
  • You can work from anywhere, at any time when managing an online school.
  • Turn a passion into a profit. Chances are you already have a beloved hobby worth sharing – online courses are a great way of doing just that.
  • Creating and selling only courses doesn't require much in the way of financial investment.
  • The online course market can be more profitable and faster-paced than other digital business ventures like blogging or YouTube. According to data from Teachable, instructors that make an income with them earn an average of $5,000 selling their courses.

Does that sound like something you want to try? Great! Let’s look at the basics…

How to Create an Online Course: Choosing the Right Topic

Before creating your first course, ask yourself what you actually want to teach. If this has you stumped, look for inspiration. Market research is a fantastic starting point – do some digging to find which courses are the most sought after. What do they cover?

Hint: Many revolve around professional development. This niche is thriving – there are so many adult learners wanting to expand their skill sets, make themselves more employable, and excel in their careers. So, capitalize on this!

Popular subject matters include:

  • Project management
  • Online marketing
  • IT essentials (Excel, Google suite, etc.)
  • Team management and leadership skills
  • Interview skills

But it's safe to say; there's plenty of people who want to dabble in more creative fields or pick up a new skill entirely. That’s why popular categories also include:

  • Graphic design
  • Coding languages
  • Game development
  • Photography
  • Illustration

People love online courses that teach skills they can apply immediately, i.e., from home. Students can learn the skills they need and then create a project at home. Make sense?

Either way, the bottom line is simple: A great course starts with the right idea.

Find a Problem

Once you know which niche you want to focus on, the best way to come up with a specific course topic is to identify a pain point that you know how to solve. Maybe this is something your friends approach you about regularly? Or perhaps you've seen others ask for advice about a particular issue on Facebook groups and online forums, and you know how to help! This could be an excellent starting point for your online course.

Ask Your Audience

If you have an audience already, ask what they’d like to see in an online course! Whether it's an existing mailing list or a budding social media following, use this to your advantage. It's as simple as creating a Google Form, sending it out, and asking, ‘What would you like to learn about?’

Sometimes, you don’t even need to reach out.

If you've been operating your business for a while, there's a good chance you receive the same questions again and again. Compile these FAQs into a document, and see if any particular topic(s) stands out. If there is, there's a good chance that this is something your audience would love a more in-depth take on.

how to create an online course

Online Research

If you're familiar with content marketing, you can adopt the same process you use for finding and validating potential blog topics, as you do for the subject matter of your course.

Use a keyword research tool to see what people want help with. What do people want to learn? What questions do they want answers to? You can also see which topics are ‘hot' right now by using software like Google Trends, or visiting sites like Quora to see what others are asking about.

How to Create an Online Course: Validate Your Course Idea

Once you have a few ideas for course topics, you need to test them to see if they're ‘valid.' By this we mean, researching into whether your course topic(s) have profit-making potential.

One way to do this is by creating a ‘smoke test.’ This means selling your course before you've even completed it, which entails setting up a landing page with pricing plans and a prominent ‘buy now' button and then marketing it.

The process should take a few days, and then you can check in with the data. How many people clicked through to try and purchase your course? You should be aiming for at least a 5% click-through rate. Once you have the validation you need, it’s time to create an outline for your course and kickstart the content creation process.

Creating an Outline for Your Online Course

Crafting an outline is often the trickiest part of the entire course creation process, especially if you don’t have any experience teaching.

No pressure…but the structure of your e-course can make or break your student's learning experience, so it's essential to do a good job. After all, your outline lays the foundation for the rest of your content. So, permit yourself to take all the time you need to revise it until you’re perfectly happy. This takes time, effort, and perseverance, but trust us; it'll be worth it in the end!

Repurpose Old Content

If you're unsure where to begin, look at some of your old content. Restructuring and repurposing some of your previously published work is typically a fantastic starting point for forming your course outline.

Needless to say, starting from scratch demands a considerable amount of effort and doesn't always amount to anything significant. Whereas, focusing on past content that's proven valuable to your audience, is more likely to be a winner.

All that's left to do is structure these pieces, so they flow in a logical order, spruce them up, and fill in any missing gaps.

Research Your Topic In-Depth

Next, it’s time to look at what's already on the market. Do some research to see what's out there about your topic. After all, if you're going to position yourself as an expert in your field, you'll need to keep fully up-to-date on the subject.

Not only will this task enhance the quality of your overall lesson content, but all the info you're taking in will help you craft a more robust course outline.

Create a Rough Outline

Having done all the above, you'll now be in a better position to start piecing together a rough outline of your course. Remember, at this stage, it doesn’t need to be completely perfect (yet!), nor does it have to be incredibly detailed.

For now, just aim to settle on the titles for your core modules and their respective order.

For instance, if you're teaching students an ‘8 step process', why not create a table specifying each of these steps? Then accompany each stage with a few lines about what you'll teach, why it's essential, and how students can apply their new-found knowledge, etc.

As you go about doing this, bear in mind the transformation your students will undergo. In theory, they'll start by understanding nothing (or very little) about the topic, to establishing a basic foundation of the subject, to becoming more proficient, to feeling comfortable with whatever new knowledge/skill they've learned. Let this learning curve fuel the structure of your course outline as your brainstorm ideas for potential module titles.

Structuring Lessons

Each lesson should push students further towards reaching whatever the goal of your course is. For example, if your course aims to explain ‘how to launch a freelance writing business,' with every lesson that passes, your students should get a step closer to achieving this goal.

Make sense?

With that in mind, this poses the question of how to structure each lesson, to ensure students make adequate progress as the course unfolds. We think establishing the following in each lesson will help you achieve exactly that:

  • The learning objective
  • How students can apply this knowledge
  • The key takeaways students should take from the lesson

By including all the above, you shouldn't go too far wrong!

How to Present Your Course

Once you have a course outline, there are many ways you could present your content. So, carefully consider your options and evaluate which format(s) best suit your topic.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Audio, text and video content
  • Quizzes and questionnaires
  • Powerpoints
  • Webinars
  • Downloadable materials (worksheets, checklists, guidebooks, etc.)
  • Discussion boards
  • Q&A sessions
  • Group coaching

Just to name a few. Of course, there are loads of other content types, but you get the idea!

At this point, it's worth thinking about the kind of learners your course will attract. Audio and visual content is great for providing digestible chunks of info, but transcribing this work into text is often a welcome addition. That way, students who prefer to read aren't left out!

You may also want to add an interactive element to your lessons. For example, can students contact you with their questions? Will there be a discussion board where they can post their comments? Are they encouraged to discuss their thoughts and queries with other students? Is there a quiz for them to do? Homework? Action steps to undertake?

You get the point we're making – these are just a few of the many ways you can encourage interactivity at the end of each lesson. Whatever you decide on, don't forget to remind students what they should be doing at the end of each lesson!

Compliance Standards and Certifications

Depending on your field of instruction, you may wish to offer students a certificate for completing your course. This often goes hand in hand with ‘compliance standards,' i.e., any prerequisites students need to demonstrate before or during your course. These requirements might be necessary for you (or whatever organization/board you're working for) to consider the course ‘completed.’

For example, have students passed the quizzes you've set them? Have they completed all modules and engaged with the content? These are typical examples of ‘compliance standards.'

Many online course building platforms (more on these in a sec) allow you to set your own compliance standards. Of course, not every class is so severe as to require certifications, gradings, or compliance standards – instead, you may just want to share a hobby to help others grow. Or you might simply want to issue certificates as a nice gesture. It's your course – the choice is yours.

However, setting compliance standards doesn’t hurt, especially if you're trying to offer a more traditional classroom-like experience. It's also worth noting; the self-paced, do-it-in-your-own-time eLearning market is actually declining. It's predicted to decrease by $33.5 Billion by 2021. Why? Because when there isn't a time limit, students are less likely to complete your course. So bear that in mind as you consider whether compliance standards are necessary for your own course.

How to Create an Online Course: Setting the Right Price

Pricing any product or service is always a tough decision, especially if you’re just starting out. But it’s essential to ask for the right amount of money to recompense you for your work.

Bear in mind; students like spending money on courses. This may sound counterintuitive, but stick with is. Premium prices give the impression of expertise; as such, they're often deemed more trustworthy than what can be found online for free.

The first step to pricing your course is researching what competitors are charging for similar content – this should provide a rough ballpark figure to get started with.

It's also worth asking yourself how much someone would spend to find the solution to the problem you're fixing. For example, a course that solves a small issue, for instance, how to master a particular yoga pose, and simply explains what to do, could be priced up to $50.

Whereas a course teaching something more involved, i.e., how to scale an entire business could fetch more money. Namely, because this might include providing several solutions to the problem, in-depth explanations of how your methods work, advice on how to avoid issues in the future, etc., courses like these could go for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars!

In short, if the problem your course aims to solve is complex and demands more detailed and expert information, this price should go up accordingly.

How to Create an Online Course: Beta Testing

Once you've finished creating your course and you're at the point where you're considering marketing it, it's time to beta test. This process highlights whether your finished product provides value to your target audience – and if it doesn't, you can adjust your content accordingly.

Your first batch of students will act as beta-testers. So, it's worth interacting with them as much as possible through surveys, discussions, and Q&A sessions. Record all this info to draw data, and turn any further questions your students have about the topic into potential lesson outlines.

You may also get some fabulous case studies about how your course has helped your students. Compile these testimonials and publish them on your sales pages, landing pages, websites, etc. Social proof works wonders for boosting course sales!

Build a Community Around Your Course

While learning is a personal experience, it still benefits students to offer a social element. By this, we mean providing your audience with somewhere they can ask questions, bounce ideas off one another, and discuss your course content.

This is especially important if you're time-poor and can't be at the constant beck and call of your customers. If that sounds like you, it's all the more imperative you build a community around your course so that students can support each other as they plow through your learning materials.

Many online course builders make it easy to integrate a forum or discussion board inside of your digital school. In addition to that, you could also create a group on whatever social media platforms best suit your students.

Post prompts inside of your forum/Facebook group/discussion board to help get conversations flowing, and encourage students to introduce themselves and get to know their fellow learners. You could also ask your audience to post about their experiences (either with your course, your industry, their background, etc.). You could even engage them in your own challenges to help your students put what they've learned into practice.

Not only will you be able to draw useful insights from the conversations your students are having about your course, but you'll also provide your audience with a better learning experience- win-win!

Keep Your Course up to Date – Always

As we've already said, yes, online courses are excellent for generating passive income for years to come, but this only works if your course remains valid and up-to-date. Things in your field may change, the pain points of your audience may evolve, or your students might outgrow your course.

If you find yourself facing any of the above scenarios, it’s time to reevaluate your course.

From course materials to structure to presentation – keep everything up to date as best as you can. There's always something new to add as your own knowledge expands. Your online course should be a living, ever-changing project.

This is especially true if you're teaching within an industry that's continually evolving – for instance, marketing trends and social media algorithms are always shifting. Without regular updates, courses teaching outdated methods quickly become obsolete.

In light of that, we suggest basing the majority of your content on evergreen content (if possible). For the uninitiated ‘evergreen content' is just a fancy way of referring to ideas that will remain relevant, popular, and unchanging, even as time passes.

Not only should you prepare to tweak your course content as time marches on, but you may also have to modify your teaching style(s). For example, offering live Q&A sessions and group coaching to smaller numbers of students might be feasible to begin with, but this will be trickier to manage as your student numbers grow. Eventually, you may have to transition to a pre-recorded format and rely more on your community.

Bolster Student Engagement By Rewarding Achievements

Whenever we accomplish something, we feel great. Even ticking off something for our to-do list can bring a smile to our faces. This is precisely how you want your students to feel when they complete your courses.

Why?

Well, not only does this confirm you've created and provided something of value for your audience, but students will be more inclined to purchase another one of your courses.

But, most online courses are never completed at all. In fact, average completion rates for digital courses are often as low as 4%!

That’s because the majority of online learning experiences are entirely self-sufficient. Some students find it difficult to motivate themselves to keep going.

So, how do you drive them to complete your course?

The key is to celebrate your student's achievements and to communicate the progress they're making with each lesson.

This is made lots easier when your lessons focus on an action point that guides the user through accomplishing a specific task. That way, with each lesson they complete, they're a step closer to meeting their goal.

For example, if you're teaching how to set up an ecommerce store, ensure each lesson sets a task that brings them closer to setting up, improving, and launching their online store. It stands to reason, that when students see the end goal is in sight, they're more likely to stick your course through to completion.

You can further help students evaluate their progress by setting quizzes to test their new knowledge and by rewarding certificates when they reach certain milestones. After all, receiving a certificate is more tactile than learning just for the sake of it; there's somewhat of an incentive to prompt students to finish your classes.

How to Create an Online Course: Choosing a Course Building Platform

Online course builders (also known as learning management systems) make it easy to upload all your content in a structured and well-presented way. But, when it comes to finding a platform that provides all the features you want to create, host, market, and sell your course – there is lots to consider!

First of all, there are two main ways you can sell your online course:

  1. Via an online marketplace
  2. Through your own website

Both have their pros and cons, so let’s look at them in detail…

Online Marketplaces

Just like Amazon is an online marketplace for e-commerce products; similarly, there are digital marketplaces for e-courses – for example, Udemy.

Udemy hosts thousands of courses that are created by different instructors. They're separated into several topic categories, so learners can browse through the available classes and purchase the ones that appeal to them.

However, most online marketplaces set parameters that their instructors need to follow—for instance, minimum course requirements or pricing limits. But once you have your course up and running, you'll benefit from the marketplace's existing SEO ranking and the stream of customers it attracts.

The advantages of selling courses via an online marketplace:

  • More exposure. If you don't have a following and you're struggling to drive traffic, it might be hard to find customers. This is where online marketplaces come into their own. They often run promotions that might attract learners to your content.
  • No financial investment required. Some marketplaces take a revenue share rather than a subscription fee. This is true for Udemy.  Put simply, you can create a course for free, and the marketplace will take a cut of your profits. If you’re worried about financial losses, this is a safe method for testing the waters.
  • They're easier to use: Marketplaces usually take care of your web hosting and domain name. You also won't have to spend as much time and effort marketing. Consequently, marketplaces are fab for selling e-course for the first time, if you're intimidated by other elements of running an online business.

The disadvantages of using online marketplaces to sell your course:

  • Marketplaces restrict your freedom. Some marketplaces cap how much you can charge students, or how long or short your course has to be. Also, some platforms only accept specific categories of content. The bottom line: If you want complete control over your online course, a marketplace isn't the best choice.
  • Building an audience of your own is more laborious. As your customers find and engage with you via the marketplace, it's harder to make your own email list and social media following.
  • Revenue sharing can significantly limit your earning potential. Sure, signing up and creating courses might be free, but when you start raking in sales, a hefty portion of your profit goes to your marketplace. Often, this more money than a subscription to a SaaS might cost (more on those in a sec).
  • You'll face more immediate competition. As you share a marketplace platform with thousands of other course creators, you might struggle to compete against more established courses.

To Recap: Who Should Use Online Marketplaces to Sell Their Courses?

If you're just testing the waters, an online marketplace is a great choice. They offer exposure for anyone that doesn’t have an audience of their own, and they provide a cheap alternative to getting started with online course creation. They also suit more casual sellers who enjoy selling their skills and knowledge, without going to the trouble of building a fully-fledged business.

Online Course Builders

The alternative to an online marketplace is investing in an online course building SaaS. These services typically provide a full set of tools for building and customizing your online school and sales funnel. Usually, you can host your e-course on their servers, while using your own domain name. Plus, many providers also offer marketing tools to boot!

In short, these kinds of platforms provide everything you need to build an online school from the ground up and transform it into an independent business. Some solutions even allow you to add instructors and staff, and the option of downloading and utilizing third-party plugins to extend the functionality of their services.

More often than not, you have the creative freedom to brand your website and build your own audience. Some SaaS' even provide affiliate management tools to further extend your reach.

Examples of popular online course builders include Podia, Teachable, and Thinkific.

Usually, these providers offer a free trial or limited freemium package, so you can ‘try before you buy.' After that, you'll have to pick a plan that best suits the needs of your business, where you'll be charged a monthly or annual fee. Needless to say, if you want access to more advanced features, this is typically more expensive.

Some providers also charge transaction fees whenever you sell a course – so keep an eye out for that!

There are loads of platforms out there, so research the various features on offer, as well as their pricing options. This may take time, but it's the only way to make an informed choice that could save you a substantial amount of money in the long run.

Using a SaaS to build your course – the advantages:

  • You're free to design your brand, develop and expand it, and grow your following without limitation!
  • It's up to you how much you charge for your courses. Also, plenty of SaaS's enable you to create payment plans and membership sites that run on a subscription basis.
  • Your profits are your own. Aside from transaction and subscription fees, you keep all the money you make selling your courses. As such, there's higher profit-making potential than online marketplaces might afford you. Once your monthly expenses are covered, it’s all profit from there.
  • You can expand your business without limits. Using your own website, you can grow your business to any size. You could sell just a few courses, or you could build a massive online school featuring several instructors – the ball is entirely in your court.

But, here are the drawbacks:

  • You'll have to shell out for monthly payments even if you're not making money. If you’re just starting out, sales might be harder to come by. But, you'll still have to pay for the platform each month, which may set you back around $40 depending on your plan. You'll also have to purchase your own domain name, and if you wish to expand your marketing potential, you might have to invest in other tools like email service providers and paid online ads. To put it bluntly, any month you don’t make a profit, you'll incur a financial loss.
  • You're reliant on your own marketing. SEO, social media, and driving traffic is all be down to you. If you don’t have an existing audience, this might be a slow grind to the top. On the other hand, if you already boast a following, you might find this transition to selling courses online easy. Marketing is a continuous and time-consuming effort, so if you don't have any experience in this department, be prepared to learn several new skills!
  • The initial setup takes longer. It takes a while to build your own site, course, and sales funnel. It's much quicker to get started on a marketplace where some of these elements are taken care for you.

Using a SaaS to Create and Market Your Online Course Suits the Following:

SaaS's are best for course creators who are willing to handle their own marketing and website maintenance. If you know how to build a brand, an online community, and scale your business to reach higher profits (or you're willing to learn), an online course builder is a fab route to take.

If you want to transform online course creation into a full-time business and you're willing to invest money along the way, you can't go wrong with purchasing an online school building subscription.

Are You Ready to Launch a Successful Online Course?

We hope this guide has brought you a few steps closer to creating your own online course. Whether this is a fresh idea or you’ve been toying around with it for a while – there's no better time than today to get started.

Brainstorm a topic and create your outline following the tips above. Don’t forget to think about your target demographic and how you'll market to them. Do you already have a following, or are you building your audience from the ground up? The answer might influence whether you utilize an online marketplace, or take the plunge and kickstart your own online store.

Do you have any experience with teaching courses online? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below. You can also browse our website for more articles like this. Enjoy!

Rosie Greaves

Rosie Greaves is a professional content strategist who specializes in all things digital marketing, B2B, and lifestyle. In addition to e-commerce platforms, you can find her published on Reader's Digest, G2, and Judicious Inc. Check out her website Blog with Rosie for more information.