How to Create an Online Course

How to Create an Online Course: Tips from One Teacher to Another

You can make a living teaching others what you know.

I recently spoke on the Matt Report podcast about how to create an online course and that inspired me to write about the process in more detail. In this article, I’ll share lessons learned from the last 15 courses I’ve created and taught online and how those lessons can help you plan your next (or first) online course.

Before we get to the good stuff, here’s what this article does not cover:

I’m not deep-diving into the various tools you can use to publish your course online (i.e. Teachery,  Zippy Courses, etc.). That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax that deserves its own post.

Please note this article contains affiliate links. They won’t bite.

How to Plan for an Online Course

Captain ObviousI’m going to be Captain Obvious here, but all successful projects, including an online course, start with solid planning. Long before you ever dust off the microphone, you’ll want to ask yourself these questions:

  • What topic will I teach?
  • Will I cover the topic in-depth or generally?
  • Who is my intended audience?
  • What format will I use?

What topic will I teach?

Online courses are suitable for a variety of topics, so how do you pick the right one for your audience? I suggest you pick a topic that meets the following criteria:

  • It’s something you’re comfortable with. You don’t need to be an expert at the beginning of the process (trust me, you’ll know your material through and through by the end), but naturally, you should select a topic you’re knowledgeable about.
  • It’s something there’s not a lot of training already available for. Unless you’re a really special snowflake with a unique approach, I would not go for a topic that’s already been taught a million times (unless everything that’s out there sucks). You’ll have a hard time selling it. On the other hand, if there are no online courses or training available for a topic, that could be a sign that there’s no demand. Which leads me to the last point…
  • Something people are wanting to know more about. You want to make sure there’s an available market for what you’re planning to teach. This involves some research. Don’t be afraid to ask your audience directly!

If you’re needing some topic inspiration, here are some places to look:

  • Your blog. What are your most popular posts? Would an expanded version of those posts make for a good online course?
  • Your FAQs. What are the questions that people ask you the most?
  • Your own learning. What was the last thing you had to teach yourself where you wished you’d had an online course to help you? Other people could be looking for that same thing.

Will I cover the topic in-depth or generally?

Once you’ve nailed down your topic, consider the level of detail you want to hit in your course. For instance, are you thinking about a 30-minute conceptual overview of a topic or a 3-hour deep dive into one particular aspect of a topic?

While high-level overviews are great, I’ve found that type of information is better to give away. Write a blog post or give an interview – something that establishes you as an authority on a topic.

When it comes to creating online content that people will buy, give them something very specific. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lengthy, but it should go deep.

Who is my intended audience?

Consider the knowledge level your target audience needs to have to get the most out of your course. Pre-requisites, if you will.

For instance, a course called Your First Garden in North Texas assumes that students have no prior knowledge of gardening (and that they’re interested in gardening in a very specific region). On the other hand, a course called Advanced Unit Testing for E-Commerce Sites assumes some very specific programming skills.

You want your students to be successful, so consider what level of subject knowledge you want them to have prior to taking your course. Be sure to include that information in your marketing materials.

What format will I use?

You can use a variety of media to teach an online course. You could use:

  • Audio (+ captions + transcript)
  • Video (+ captions + transcript)
    • You doing something (i.e. you planting a flower)
    • Your screen (i.e. you writing some code)
  • Written tutorials
  • Templates or worksheets
  • Slides

You could also include supplemental resources:

  • Book
  • Forum / Community

During your initial planning, you’ll want to think through which types of media will be most effective for teaching your topic.

For instance, if you’re teaching someone how the heck to get on a Smittybilt seat cover in a Jeep Wrangler JK, you want to show them exactly how it’s done (I actually watched/used this video and, for the record, getting those seat covers on was harder than putting on Spanx).

In the seat cover scenario, a Powerpoint presentation wouldn’t be helpful. On the other hand, if you’re going to teach me how to optimize my site for search engines, I don’t need an over-the-shoulder view of you Googling around. A combination of slides and written instruction does a better job of communicating the message.

Use whatever combination of media you think will get the point(s) across best for your students.

David Kadavy shares some great insights on what type of media to use in a course based on his experience.

How to Prepare to Teach an Online Course

Okay! You’ve got your topic and you know what level of detail you want to give in your course. You know who you want to teach, and you’ve got some ideas for your teaching format.

Next, it’s time to prep yourself (and whatever materials you’ll need) to teach the course.

Here are the basic things to prep:

  1. Table of contents
  2. Script (or your talking points)
  3. Slides, handouts, etc. you want to use.

Create a table of contents

This is where your course will really start to take shape. Get your text editor, a piece of paper, or whatever note-taking method you prefer and start creating a table of contents for your course. Just like a book, divide it into logical chapters and sub-sections.

Inigo Montoya quote from the Princess Bride - "Let me expalin. No, too much. Let me sum up."Going through this process will help solidify the material you want to teach and give you a way to determine whether you’ve sufficiently covered your topic.

Several times I’ve gotten to this part of the planning and changed my mind on the level of detail I want to cover in a course. I bit off more than I could chew, so to speak.

What I thought I could cover in a few hours is entirely too complex, so whack a portion of the content so that cover the remaining portions in sufficient detail. (Remember: You can always do a beginner-oriented course and then add a more advanced one later – series for the win!).

Write your script (or your talking points)

What’s your plan when it comes time to hit that record button? Are you going to read from a script? Will you wing it with nothing more than your outline and a few bullet points?

There’s no right or wrong here – it entirely depends on you.

I’m not very good off the cuff (I tend to ramble), so I fully script my courses. It’s very time-consuming, but when it comes time to record, this method helps me make sure I hit all the details I meant to and am succinct in my explanations.

On the other hand, my friend Chris Lema can open his mouth and out flows an awesome course. (I’m not jealous of this or anything).

You might start by practicing with your outline and some key talking points. If that feels good to you, then keep going. Otherwise, try writing down what you want to say first.

Create any slides, handouts, etc. you want to use.

Since I script my courses in advance, I always want to make sure that my slides match the progression of my script. I make notes in my script about when I want to switch from a slide to maybe showing a browser window or a code editor, etc.

As always, if you’re using any images or music as part of your materials, make sure you have the appropriate license (or are giving any required attribution) to use them.

How to Record an Online Course

You’ve planned. You’ve prepared. Now it’s go time!

The format you’ve chosen for your course will impact how you record it. The only times I’ve shown my mug in a video are for the introductions (and sometimes the goodbye’s). To record your face, you can go as simply as the webcam on your computer or as fancy as a professional film crew. (Hint: webcam is much less expensive). 🙂

I’ve watched other courses where the instructor is on-screen the whole time. This has the benefit of being more engaging, but I find that much harder to record.

Recording Software

For the regular audio/video portion of my courses, I like to use Screenflick (Mac). This simultaneously records audio input as well as screen capture. You might also consider Camtasia (Windows or Mac). Note I haven’t used Camtasia, but I have heard good things about it from others.

p.s. Apparently Camtasia makes captioning quite easy.

Audio Quality

You don’t need a fancy microphone to create an online course, but I do recommend using something a little better than your computer’s built-in mic. I started out with the AudioTechnica ATR-2100 USB mic ($79) and have since switched to the RODE Podcaster ($349 with the boom and shock mount). I host a weekly podcast, so it made sense for me to upgrade, even though the AudioTechnica is a great little starter mic.

If you want to dig deeper into the technical aspects of recording a screencast, Shawn Hesketh shares some great info.

Tips for a better recording experience:

  1. Have a block of quiet time available when you know you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Make sure social media, phone, or anything else that makes alert noises around you is turned off.
  3. Do short takes (I aim for about 5 minutes).
  4. Use a hand clap to mark spots you need to go back and edit (you’ll be able to see these in your audio track).
  5. Have some hot tea nearby to soothe your throat (those vocal chords are your money makers!)

Once you record your course, the next step is to edit it and package it up to sell. But that’s a topic for another day…

What else would you like to know about how to create an online course?

7 thoughts on “How to Create an Online Course: Tips from One Teacher to Another”

  1. Great post Carrie, especially around the video creation component. I often come across some really fantastic course ideas but the execution of the media components is – well – lacking (and unfortunately it reflects poorly on the entire course experience).

    I recently listened to Zac Gordon talk about his experience in creating video/audio in his course on Joe Casabona’s “How I Build It” podcast. I’ve included a link to it below as I think that it makes a good compliment to the tips you shared.


  2. Carrie, it’s reSEARCH, deTAIL, deFAULT and recoMMEND, not REsearch, DEtail, DEfault or REcommend.
    it is very annoying and distracting to listen to someone consistently misplacing the stress. Pass it on to your buddy mor10 too.

    1. Andrei,
      You might not be aware, but language pronunciation differs greatly by region. I would suggest finding written courses so that you’re not annoyed and distracted with the audio.

      REspectfully yours,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Carrie Dils uses Accessibility Checker to monitor our website's accessibility.