How to Create an Online Course: Expert Insight and Surprising Software

Online courses earned over $107 billion dollars in 2015, and most of that money showed up in someone’s bank account while they were doing something besides teaching a course.

Some of these course creators are living the dream: sitting on a beach cashing the checks that roll in from a class they created years ago.

The stories are certainly compelling, but creating an online course is a time consuming process. And, if you decide to use high-end software, it can require a big up-front cash investment.

So before barreling ahead there are two things that potential online teachers need to decide:

  1. Is an online course the right fit for your expertise and business goals?

  2. Do you have a strong enough commitment to your course to see it all the way through?

Here we’ve compiled the best advice from experts around the web to help you answer both of those questions. Then, if online course creation is right for you, we’ll show you a simple, cost-effective way to get started using software you might never have expected: SurveyGizmo.

Deciding to Create an Online Course

There are basically two models for paid online courses:

  1. Courses that are stand alone products. Your ultimate goal is to get customers to spread the good word about your course, and hopefully to sign up for any future courses that you create. You want to become a professional online educator.

  2. Courses that have a larger purpose. These are still stand alone class that solve a problem or teach a skill, but their goal is to drive people to hire you in person or make another larger scale purchase. You want to use online courses to drive prospects further toward a separate conversion.

If you aren’t interested in either of these outcomes, online courses may not be a good fit for you.

If, on the other hand, one (or both) of these goals fits in with your larger business objectives, you may be on the right track.

Harnessing the Power of Online Learning

There continues to be controversy about recent studies comparing online and classroom instruction, but a growing body of evidence seems to show that online learning serves most students better.

The New York Times reported that a study conducted by SRI International for the US Department of Education concluded that, “On average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.”

More recent reviews of the academic literature have raised concerns that lower performing students may do better in a classroom setting, but few studies have been able to determine whether those students would get lower scores regardless of setting or if their decline is actually a function of online learning.

The lead author of the study, Barbara Means, told the Times, “The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing — it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction.”

Choosing the Topic for Your Online Course

The first rule of online courses: create things that people need to learn about. To achieve this somewhat daunting goal, you’ve got to understand your audience’s problems and how you can help empower their solutions.

Brian Clark puts this really well when he says, “it’s hard to create a valuable learning experience when you think from your own perspective rather than from the student’s perspective.”

He suggests that we consider how our courses will transform its students, and why they would be interested in this transformation.

“Transformation” is a powerful word. If we’re striving for this rather than regular old “education,” we have a much better chance of creating online courses that create meaningful changes for our students. And that gives us a better chance of getting outstanding reviews, word of mouth marketing, and viral success.

Finding the Transformative Intersection

Each person has unique expertise, but having knowledge isn’t the only prerequisite for finding a revolutionary topic for your online course. You need to find a topic that meets several crucial criteria:

  • Something you do/have done a lot. We naturally get good at what we do repeatedly.

  • Something you’re genuinely passionate about. You’re going to be spending a lot of time working on this topic. If you don’t love it, the content will ultimately reflect that.

  • Something people ask you advice about. Colleagues, friends, strangers on the bus — if you find yourself having the same conversations or giving the same advice over and over again, you may be onto a good topic.

  • Something people have actual problems with. It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening problem, but your topic does need to address a real problem. Abstract concepts (think philosophy, sociology) are much tougher sells.

  • Something people are willing to pay for. This is closely tied to the “actual problem” criterion. If you’re not solving a fairly serious problem you’re likely to encounter more resistance when it comes time for people to enter their credit card information. It’s no coincidence that many online courses are about how others can credit profitable online courses.

Reaching the Potential Audience for Your Online Course

Having trouble finding something in that little tiny sweet spot? Don’t worry. Your audience already knows what they need; all you have to do is ask them.

If you have an existing list of email addresses from people who are interested in your content then you can send them a simple, one-question survey asking:

“What’s your most pressing problem?”

Hint: The people who answer your survey will make a great audience for your pilot program. More on that shortly.

(Ready to send out that survey right now? Go for it.)

If you don’t have a prequalified list of your own all is not lost.

All you need to do is find highly engaged groups on social media that are interested in the problems you think you could solve.

Join them as a genuinely excited member, not as a skeezy salesperson, and once you’ve earned some social media cred you can then send a link to your survey to collect feedback from community members.

Creating An Online Course: Pilot Edition

Once you have your topic ironed out, it’s time to structure your course and come up with your lesson plan.

Generally you’ll have three parts to your course:

  • Course: the broad topic you’re covering

  • Module: a sub-topic, like a book chapter

  • Lesson: even smaller topics within a module

If this seems like overkill for your course, you can always stick with just a course made up a few lessons.

How Shorter Courses Can Teach More

David Siteman Garland of The Rise to the Top recommends keeping it short and sweet:

When it comes to the amount of modules and things like that, I don’t believe you really want to go over 12. If you can do it in 8, do it in 8. If you can do it in 6, do it in 6. At the end of the day, once you go over 12, even if they’re shorter, it starts to creep into people’s minds, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t think I’m going to buy it.’”

This “less is more” approach can be difficult for first-time course creators because you’ll want to deliver huge value to people who are paying for your knowledge and experience.

You’ve also hopefully chosen a topic you’re passionate about, and that passion may lead you to share everything you know.

These are great problems to have, but online course guru Brian Clark is once again here to remind us to be prudent: “Sharing everything you know is not necessary. Go back to the objective of your course, and ask yourself, ‘What’s the minimum students need to learn to fulfill that objective?’”

Actionable Lessons are Key to Online Course Success

Once you’ve got your lesson plan ironed out, make sure that each lesson ends with clear, actionable steps that your students can take quickly.

Consider your own plan of attack when performing the tasks from your lesson, and give it to your students in bite-sized pieces. Tell them exactly what their assignments are for each and every lesson in your course.

By emphasizing action, you’ll benefit both yourself and your students:

  • Students will see real results from your course and be happier customers.

  • These success stories can be turned into reviews, case studies, and evangelists for your current and future courses.

Online Course Pilot Program Structure

Before you spend dozens of hours marketing your online course, and possibly even hundreds of dollars advertising it, you want to be sure it resonates with your audience.

This is where you can go back to those folks who were kind enough to answer your survey asking for the biggest current problem or challenge. Invite them be part of your pilot program, which works as follows.

Thanks to Danny Iny for creating a version of this structure for testing your completed online course through a pilot program:

  1. Collect information. This includes surveying your audience and gathering data about your topic.

  2. Reach out to your target audience (survey responders or other high-value segments). Present your offer as a response to the problems they shared with you. Describe the course and make sure to emphasize how they helped bring it to life.

  3. Listen to their answers. Are they ready to sign up now that the course is available? Or do you get very little response? If there isn’t much enthusiasm, you may need to tweak your course description, objective, or content. This is one of the most important components of the pilot program, so don’t assume your carefully planned course will be an instant hit. Use data to validate your ideas!

  4. Open a brief registration window. Once you start accepting registrations for your course, be sure to maintain a sense of urgency with follow-up emails. Answer any questions that your pilot audience may have (and record them for future marketing efforts), give them any additional information they need, and then close your registration precisely at the deadline.

  5. Deliver the course and collect feedback. This is why your course needs to be complete before you solicit insight from your target audience. You’ve got to be prepared to release it to them after they pay!

Creating a Feedback System for Your Online Course

It’s quick and easy to setup an NPS survey for each module/lesson as well as at the completion of the course

Make sure to respond to all of the detractors (those who give you a low score) as quickly as possible to try and intercept negative online reviews. You can configure the NPS survey to fire an email to you whenever you get a score below a certain threshold, or anytime you get any sort of feedback.

You should also thank promoters (those who give you the highest scores), and possibly incentivize them to share the course with others by offering discount codes or affiliate programs.

Finally, review your NPS scores regularly to make sure you’re delivering value in your course. Significant fluctuations need to be investigated quickly; they can indicate technical or content problems that could undermine your online course’s chances for success.

How to Quickly Create a Powerful Online Course With SurveyGizmo

Yes, the software is called “SurveyGizmo,” but it’s really an information exchange tool that can streamline your online course creation workflow from start to finish.

Here are some of the most powerful ways that SurveyGizmo can help you create your online courses:

Create Your Online Course in a Beautifully Branded Environment

It’s amazingly easy to make your course look, feel, and behave however you want using SurveyGizmo’s styling and branding options.

Add your own color scheme, logo, and images without any need for an outside designer.

Or, if you’ve got some CSS knowledge, you can take things even further and dive into all the nuts and bolts of your course design.

You can even get a totally branded subdomain to host your online course, so no one needs to ever know that you’re running it using survey software. (Don’t worry — we won’t tell.)

Setup Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced Tracks Within the Same Course

With some simple survey logic you can let your students decide if they want to follow a basic, intermediate, or advanced path through your course.

If you want you could even let them change their choice for each lesson within the course.

This will allow your students to get exactly the kind of information they’re looking for without requiring you to research, create, and market three separate courses.

Share Your Course However You Like

If you’re using an existing email list to promote your course, you can easily share a survey link once or through automated messages (which you can send through SurveyGizmo or through your own email service provider).

Looking for students via social media? It’s simple to share your course’s link on any network. You can even adjust the URL’s appearance to match your course’s brand.

Create Scarcity With Expiring Registration Links

As we saw from our online course experts, you’ll get the best registration numbers by closing your registrations after a limited sign up period.

SurveyGizmo makes this super simple: Just set up an open and close date for your link, and students will only be able to access your sign up form during that time. Once the link expires you can easily redirect them to a landing page of your choice.

As a bonus, that landing page could be another survey that collects their contact details so they can be notified when the course reopens!

Accept Payment for One Course or Many

With our handy Stripe integration, SurveyGizmo makes it easy for you to collect payment for your online course before you give new students access.

Once you have a few courses available you’ll want to make sure students only get access to the one(s) they paid for. You can do that easily by passing a payment confirmation into the survey/course that unlocks only their proper course(s).

Want to offer discounts to students who purchase multiple courses? You can unlock multiple courses at once by passing the appropriate information from your payment form into your survey/course.

Test Different Versions of Your Course and Measure the Results

Wondering about the best order to present your course’s information? With SurveyGizmo you can create a split test of your course, specify what percentage of students should get each version, and then test how each version performs.

You can give students a brief quiz at the end of each version to see which version of the course taught them the most, or you could ask them to rate the lessons and see which version get the highest ratings from students.

Get Instant Feedback From Students

Speaking of ratings, SurveyGizmo courses can collect instant feedback from students in real time without disrupting their experience with the course.

You can create a simple NPS (Net Promoter Score) question and invite students to answer it after each lesson or after they have completed the entire course.

Real time feedback will help you constantly improve the courses that you offer, and it can also prevent students from venting about negative experiences on social media. Make sure to follow up with both positive and negative responses as soon as you can!

(An NPS question is typically phrased something like, “Based on the lesson you just took, how likely are you to recommend this course?” Respondents rate their likelihood on a scale of 1-10. For a full overview of the NPS question, please see our guide.)

Maintain Ongoing Engagement With Automatic Invitations

As students finish each lesson of your course, you can use SurveyGizmo actions to fire off emails reminding them to continue on to the next section.

Remember, the more students who implement your insightful suggestions the more reviews, referrals, and repeat customers you’re likely to get. Automatically sending emails at key points in your course will help students stay engaged and excited to follow your advice.

Let Students Pick Up Your Course Right Where They Left Off

Finally, don’t make your students cycle through the first three lessons when they’re ready to login for lesson four. With SurveyGizmo’s save and continue option your students can stop their lesson at any point and email themselves a link that will send them right back to where they left off.

You want to make your course as easy to consume as possible, so removing every point of inconvenience is crucial. Sending students right back to their most recent point of activity is an easy, yet crucial, way to enhance their learning experience.

Want to try making your own online course with SurveyGizmo? Start a free 7-day trial and see how easy it can be.