Online courses are a fantastic way to transfer your expertise into the willing hands and minds of would-be students. However, starting one can be easier said than done.

How do you quantify and “package” a span of information that for you likely comes as second nature? While creating an online course can seem challenging at first, it is ultimately a rewarding – both personally and financially speaking – goal that carries the strong potential to be self-sustaining for years to come.

What exactly are you offering to your students?

Don’t fall prey to the “Field of Dreams” fallacy – if you build “it,” they may come… but what exactly are they leaving with?

Voluntary courses with a price tag attached should always be framed in terms of their benefits to the end consumer. Your course description and marketing needs to clearly answer questions like these:

  • How will the lessons your students learn help them, personally or professionally?
  • Will you offer any sort of certification or proof that they’ve completed the course?
  • Are deadlines rigid, or is the learning experience easy to schedule around?
  • What sort of technology and availability will be needed for the course?
  • Are there any prerequisites for understanding and learning the material?
  • How available will you make yourself for questions and clarification on lessons?

If a student enters your course with a full understanding of course expectations and requirements then he or she will start the material with far more confidence, increasing their chances of success.

How much information should your online course offer?

Once you start getting into fleshing out your course you may find it hard to stop. Still, it is important to temper your momentum and enthusiasm with long-term plans.

Ask yourself questions like these for clarity as you organize your course materials and determine a pace:

  • Will this be my only course on this subject, or do I want to develop levels?
  • Will this amount of information be overwhelming to my target student?
  • Does this amount of information match up well with similar courses on this subject?

This will help you develop a “big picture” for the impact you’d like your course to have. Remember, your students will be looking to the example you set for guidance. The best favor you can do for yourself is solid organization and tone from the start.

For example, knowing that you’d like to offer an intermediate or expert version of your course later can help highlight areas in beginner course content where you should allude to this material to pique interest from beginner students.

How should your students display proficiency?

In traditional grade school and high school classrooms proficiency is determined largely by test and quiz scores, but this may not be a good fit for your course. If your students were up for your job, what kinds of questions or tasks would you ask of them to determine if they were ready to take that job on?

Tests and quizzes should still be sprinkled throughout the course for memorization’s sake, but adult-aimed courses should take learning a step beyond. The older version of “show your work” short projects or essays may help you single out students that “get it” or students that are struggling with core concepts and need extra help. For the best results you should time these open-ended opportunities after the closure of tricky concepts so as to tackle potential comprehension issues sooner rather than later.

Is there any danger of academic dishonesty (and does it matter)?

Cheating isn’t a pleasant consideration, but in today’s digital learning environment it’s unfortunately a necessary one. You will need to have safeguards in place for determining that your active students are actually the individuals they claim to be, and that papers, essays, or open-ended answers aren’t being plagiarized. Seeding your comprehension tests with multiple-choice style answers will also help highlight numerical scores that are suspiciously perfect for further examination.

Ideally, you should partner with a course platform that offers tools to eliminate these issues: doing so will increase student trust and integrity in the benefits of your course.

However you approach the issue, determine and enforce consistent repercussions for discovery of academic dishonesty. This will set the right example for the rest of your course students.

Your course has a lot to offer, and walking through these questions before students tackle your own will build a positive, rewarding experience on both sides. Remove these small obstacles before you start your academic journey and you won’t need to contend with bigger problems later on.

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About Justin Ferriman

Justin Ferriman started LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Justin's Homepage | Twitter


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Thank you so much for these hugely important, and well thought out blog posts. You and Laura are doing an awesome job! I always try to delve straight in, once the email hits my inbox or, as in this case, mark for further reading.

I am currently working on my first online course (once I have been giving in the classroom for nearly 10 years), and your point “Will this be my only course on this subject, or do I want to develop levels?” is causing me to stop and think before I record. Thank you!!

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