The Way to Make a Course Online

Tears. Months of hand wringing and fretting about deadlines. Constantly wondering if the payoff is worth all the work. These are things you will deal with on your venture to create an online course. I recently finished my first ever online course. Its a 3 and 1/2 hour romp through IT security. It was difficult, more difficult than I realized. It was worth it, not just in a monetary sense. You should consider putting one together.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

I firmly believe that everybody has in interesting story to tell. You probably have a niche or a few niches that interest you. You may be more of an expert in that area than you realize. If you have a topic on which you’re capable of talking for hours and putting your family to sleep, you can probably assemble an online course. Try not to put the audience to sleep though.

Why you should create an online course

Building an online course requires more than an idea and presence behind the mic (though that helps a lot.) The process will test many skills. Writing, outlining, project management, editing, design and being able to receive feedback to name a few. Lots of honest feedback is the key to a great course.

Don’t be intimidated though. You’ll be able to hone these skills as you go. There are some great reasons to create a course:

  • Testing and expanding your mastery of a topic
  • Spawning other ideas
  • Great opportunity to develop speaking skills in a low pressure environment
  • Video/Audio editing skills come in surprisingly handy
  • Develop the ability to clarify thoughts and topics
  • Create an asset for yourself that can potentially pay you for a long time

I thought I knew a lot about IT security. I was wrong. There were many times I had to stop and reread some books or do some research. Through building this course I feel like I’ve really cemented some concepts and also learned some new ones.

I came away with 1 or 2 ideas for each hour of material developed. I have another course idea. I have an idea for a book. I have 2–3 skills I want to either learn or develop further. Its interesting that such focused effort on one topic can branch into ideas in other domains.

I’ve never focused on speech. The course was such a great opportunity. I would often do a retake of a line or paragraph to try different energies and inflections. I would often feel flat and it came out in my delivery, I had to make little tweaks like modulating my voice in key parts. It was an opportunity to hear how I sounded effectively creating a feedback loop for speaking skills.

I started the project with limited editing skills. I’d used audacity some years ago and I’d done some graphic editing as a hobby, that’s about it. Getting started with video editing was easy, there are some great video editing products out there, such as Camtasia, that can get you to a good enough skill level within a few hours.

I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop and really think through what I was trying to convey to the audience. Sometimes I would try to dive into too much detail without setting it up. Sometimes I needed to be less wordy. I tried to introduce major concepts with no more than 3 paragraphs. If it took more, I was being too wordy, or I needed to break the concept down further.

Finally, one of the top reasons to take on this project is money. This course will pay me a completion fee and royalties for several years. There are a lot of things on which we can spend our time, money, and talents. Why not spend some time building an asset? It seems like a lot of work up front, but take the long view. 3–6 months of work for 3–5 years (or even more) of getting paid is not a bad proposition.

Selecting a topic

What do you love talking about. Don’t even worry about demand or money yet. Write down the things you love talking about and sharing with people. Write down some ideas for courses. Don’t judge the ideas as you put them down. Let them out and write them down with the same indifference you would a shopping list.

You may need to do this a few times before you come up with some solid ideas for a course. At this point you may want to start looking into demand. Notice that I said demand, not if there are other people already creating courses for the material. People will likely have already created courses if there is demand plain and simple.

Demand is a good sign. And don’t be discouraged if there are already others doing it. Change your mentality to abundance. There is plenty to go around and you are going to create a great course that stands out. Do take note of the other people creating courses for another reason. There may be opportunity in the future to collaborate or cross promote.

Sometimes demand isn’t immediately evident or the niche is smaller. Don’t give up in that case, just find the pockets of demand and see how passionate they are. I’ve recently taken an interest in Diesel engines and didn’t expect to find a course on Udemy about that topic. I was wrong. Guess who has two thumbs and just purchased that course.

You will start to narrow down to a few ideas that you keep coming back . At this point you can start jotting down some ideas and considering how you’d like to distribute your course.

Considering platforms

When it comes to online courses you have a few options, they’ll all have their pros and cons. You can release through an e-learning site based on the knowledge domain you’ve chosen. You can go with one of the online course repositories like Udemy. You could choose to distribute yourself.

Domain Focused E-Learning Sites.

Depending on the content you are planning to create, there may be an instructional provider focused on that domain due to the demand. For me ,being in the IT field, there are sites like Linux Academy, Pluralsight, and CBTnuggets that need authors. I’ve seen a similar trend for accounting/CPAs, just depends on your topic.

The upside of these sites is they have a customer base and a distribution platform, your course will get exposure. They’ll probably have a process and pipeline created so you won’t struggle as much through the process. They will probably dictate the look and feel of your course to meet their brand, this could be a good or bad thing.

The downside is you will have to go through some auditions and probably prove a certain amount of experience. They will probably own your material outright and you won’t own 100% of the profits from your course. Quality of support will vary from platform to platform. I have 0 gripes about Pluralsight, they’ve been amazing throughout my first course.

Online Course Repositories

These are sites like Udemy and Lynda. I haven’t done much research on these, but I have taken some of their courses. The quality differs and it appears the authors have some freedom in the design. I imagine there will be some differences in how your material is promoted. Though you have a platform, it seems you will still need to do some hustling/promotion to get eyes onto your course.

Distributing on your own

This is an area I intend to do more research, its appealing to me to have full control. Going back to my Accounting/IT examples there are sites like Real Python and Accounting Coachthat offer their own courses and material. The down side of this is requiring some technical know-how or paying people with technical skills to achieve your vision. The upside is full control.

Another route I see is to create series on youtube. This seems to be decent option because you place a series out there which will get views in perpetuity and you can monetize your videos. This is potentially a good way to build a following on youtube that you can also send to your site.

The Tools

The studio/workstation

As long as you have a decent laptop or computer, you can get everything you need for a couple hundred dollars. I did not want to spend a grip of money on equipment on my first course. The following equipment got me through:

  • Camtasia $250 — Video recording and editing
  • Seinheiser SC-60 Headset $40 — Mic for quality audio, headset for consistent distance from mic to mouth.
  • Notebook — For designing slides/concepts and taking notes
  • Google docs — For outlining and scripting
  • Google keep — For ideas on the go
  • Powerpoint — For running slides, animations, and illustrating concepts

I also had to record some demos, but these may or may not be necessary for your course. I used free IT resources for those. Depending on your course I would suggest using demos because it gives the learner a chance perhaps to follow along and gives you a “hands-on” aspect to the course.

Outlining/Visuals

Example slide from my course

Depending on the method of distribution you will need to provide some visuals for your course. Some courses opt to split between slides, videos, and the author recording themselves on video. Since I was distributing my course through Pluralsight, they provided slide formatting and standards, I provided the content.

Whatever method you choose, just make sure its not death by powerpoint. Make sure there’s some means of engagement and movement throughout the course. Do not use cluttered, word filled slides, that is a sure fire way to lose the viewer. Use visuals and short phrases to outline the major points. Use templates to ensure a consistent look and feel.

When planning slides, think about flow. Set the slides up so you don’t spend more than 30 seconds on a static screen. You can also achieve motion and visuals during post editing in camtasia. I would often add boxes or arrows on the screen to highlight what I was talking about.

Once you’ve decided on the visual aspects of the course you can start outlining. I kept the outline of my course simple. I created a “module” or section for each major topic and a description. Then I added a couple bullets describing further some of the major points.

As I was outlining I tried to get a good idea of how long the section would be. I was shooting for 20–30 minutes per section. It is tough to estimate length. This gets easier as you start recording, but for your first course you will probably have no idea. To help you estimate, I’d suggest putting together a short practice reel.

Cut about 10 minutes of sample material with an intro, some visuals, and a demo if you are using demos. This will give you an idea of how long it takes to generate 10 minutes worth of material. It typically took me 6–9 pages of scripting to build 10 minutes of material.

Scripting

Example script from my course

Once the outline was finished I set to work on scripting. I did not try to script out the whole course at once, I feel this would be moot. You’d simply be setting yourself up to waste a bunch of time editing and reworking the script in the future. You’ve already set the rough outline, now let the course flow out of you and be adaptive to changing it, iterating it, making it better.

I would generally script out 1–2 modules ahead, then record/edit the module before moving on to the next. I did it this way because I would often get ideas and concepts while working on a module that I would want to share in later modules. In this way future modules would almost write themselves.

I wrote the script in the conversational tone I would be using for my course. I would read through the script for a video out loud once before recording to make sure it made sense. I used simple cues in my scripts to remind me to do something while I was talking. Italics are a slide change. Bold is a bullet point or slide animation.

Since this was my first course I experimented with writing out every word I wanted to say vs using talking points. I like them both. I do like talking points better because it lets me improvise a little and it feels a little more energetic. I would write word for word in areas I was struggling.

Something I plan to incorporate in the future is to add a cue to take a breath. Breath control is incredibly important in your course. It lets your delivery be strong and clear. Adding a cue for a breath will help control breathing/mouth sounds during recording, which cuts down on editing later.

Recording and Editing

This was the most difficult part for me. You have to worry about background noise. You have to worry about delivery. You need good energy and mindset. You have to think about setting yourself up for success during editing.

I live in an apartment. There are cars driving by, dogs barking, and neighbors upstairs that have sledgehammers for legs. I started off with a unidirectional microphone, but I found it picked up too much background noise. I switched to the Seinheiser SC60 and put a pop filter on. It picks up very little background noise.

You must have great content, but you must also have great delivery. I don’t mean you have to come across like a 90’s infomercial, but you have to make a connection. Reach out through the course, try to talk to the listeners directly. Deploy empathy to think about the type of people who will take your course. Tailor your delivery to a person who is struggling with a topic, they saw your course as a chance to learn. You have a duty to them.

Finding your style is tough. Don’t try to be somebody else. Be who you are, but bring the energy up a few levels. Amplify yourself. Have you ever heard a recording of yourself talking and you couldn’t believe you sound that way? Fix that.

Listening to compelling speakers like Andy Frisella, Barak Obama, and Steve Jobs. They have different styles, different deliveries, but they are interesting in their own way. Work on your deliver so you hear yourself talking afterwards and you think, “That actually sounds pretty good.”

I was taking singing lessons while I was working on the course. The breathing and projection of singing while amplifying your speaking skills. The voice is an instrument. You have to warm it up. You can exhibit range and emotion. These bring quality to your course. I also drank tea and water while I was recording which kept my vocals clean and strong.

If you do a good job during scripting and recording, editing becomes a snap. There were times I was rushing through the script and recording. I paid for it dearly during editing. Any time I gained from rushing was lost during editing, in fact, rushing the script and recording portions ended up increasing overall time in the long run.

If you take the time to script, you don’t get as many verbal ticks, awkward pauses and umms that you have to later edit. You deliver a sentence in a clear manner and you only have to do it once unless you really flub up. If your delivery is clear and you are focused on delivering a concise point, your breathing falls in line. Your edits become easy. All you have to do later is go back and edit out breaths (which you’ve accounted for) and any major flubs.

Photo by Wahid Khene on Unsplash

For the most part editing is very straight forward, cut out the flubs, unnecessary stuff, and make sure everything makes sense. I used camtasia for editing and screen and audio recording. Make sure whatever editing software you use has:

  • Hotkeys — These will save you SO much time during editing as opposed to click and dragging and accessing edits through menus
  • The ability to split audio and video — After you record a section you will want to split audio and video. Sometimes your video is fine, but you just want to edit out a tick or a background noise. In this case you want the ability to edit just the audio track
  • Simple graphics overlays— You will need to be able to add some highlight boxes, arrows, and text.
  • Audio Shaping — At a minimum you’ll need the ability to make audio louder, softer, and filter background noise.

Review

After editing a video you should go back and review it. If possible break up your course into video chunks between 2–10 minutes. This will keep it short and engaging for viewers and make editing easier.

After you review it you will need to have somebody else review it. Not your mom who loves you and will tell you its great. It needs to be somebody who will give you honest feedback.

Distributing through Pluralsight means I had several layers of honest feedback coming to me for every video I committed. I believe this is absolutely critical to building a quality product. Don’t build it in a vaccuum and get feedback after the fact. Get feedback for every video you commit.

Getting the word out

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

OK your course is published on Udemy or your website or whatever, you’re not done. You have to get the word out and continue getting the word out. The course will fail to meet its earning potential if you don’t have some means of marketing the course. Therefore you should consider a portion of your profits and/or money to go back into ad buys on social media platforms.

You should look at distributing the course through your social media platforms. Heck you might even make some cold calls to institutions that could use your course to train their people. If you’re on a platform like udemy, Pluralsight, or even youtube there will be some built in search optimization. You may even get a bump from their internal marketing strategies.

Regardless you should look at distributing through your network. If you have neglected social media like I have, now is a good time to start up some accounts. People that listen to your course will follow you. You’ve published an online course! You are a person with ideas and something to say! You will gain a following over time.

Fin

Its too soon to say if I want to start building another course, but I can say its rewarding, you should just do it. You have to spend your time doing something, learn some new skills, build an asset. If you have a laptop there is no reason you can’t start brainstorming ideas right now.

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