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How to Create an Online Course in 2021 (Step-by-Step Guide)

People see online course creation as an easy way of making money online. If you have extensive knowledge about a certain topic, you can create an online course and sell them through your website or third-party course platforms.

But what does it take to launch a successful online course? And what does the course creation process look like?

In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about creating an online course from start to finish. By the end of this post, you should be able to make an online course and have it ready for your first few students.

Let’s get started.

1. Determine the Topic of the Course

Creating an online course starts with developing a course topic. The first step isn’t that easy though. Why? Because not only do you need to be familiar with your course content, but you’d have to create and sell online courses that students need.

You also don’t want your course topic to be too broad either. While you’ll find a lot of opportunities in the online learning space, there is also a ton of competition. To stand out, your first course will need a unique selling point.

For reference, SkillShare’s most popular courses of all time (as of June 2021) are:

  1. The Fundamentals of DSLR Photography
  2. Adobe Photoshop CC — Essentials Training Course
  3. Adobe Illustrator CC – Essentials Training Course
  4. Video Editing with Adobe Premiere Pro for Beginners
  5. Productivity Masterclass: Create a Custom System That Works

How Do You Differentiate Yourself?

The key to a good course plan is finding an in-demand topic with little to no course content about it.

Let’s discuss this topic further using an example.

There are plenty of course creators that write business-related topics for students who wish to become entrepreneurs. However, it is too broad of a subject matter.

Possible topics include strategies, operations, marketing, branding, market research, finance and accounting, and competitor research. And you can even break down these topics further into subsegments.

So your best bet is to build a course outline that focuses on a specific topic. Looking at Udemy’s business courses, the most popular results cater to a particular niche.

Udemy Business Courses
Source: Udemy Business Courses

Some instructors at Udemy still publish content about business fundamentals. But by focusing on a specific business type, they managed to stand out from competing business courses. One of the top performers is a course about selling natural skincare products while the other is a guide to starting a coffee shop business.

Over at Coursera, the most popular business courses help students develop a particular business skill set.

Coursera Business Courses
Source: Coursera Business Courses

It’s a good idea to think along these lines. Find a topic that suits your strengths and go for a unique angle that will set you apart from other content in your field.

Where Do You Find Good Topics?

You can easily create a list of topics through research. The most objective way to find topics is through keyword research.

For the unfamiliar, keyword research is a search engine optimization (SEO) strategy where online marketers look up the value of a keyword to determine which ones they should target to rank higher in search engines.

In simpler terms, it’s a strategy that shows what keywords people look for the most on Google.

For course instructors, it can reveal what course topics people search for online. This process will also show you related terms that you could generate ideas from.

Google Ads has a tool called Keyword Planner. You can use this to get started with your keyword research. It’s a free tool. All it requires is for you to have a Google account.

So how do you know a keyword’s value?

Google Ads
Source: Google Ads

You start by entering a keyword. Once entered, Google will show you the average monthly searches for the term you entered as well as the data for keywords related to your topic. The higher the average monthly search volume, the more look up the keyword.

There’s also a column that tells you how competitive a keyword is. If there’s too much competition, you might want to consider focusing on a subtopic or researching another topic altogether.

In our example, Google Ads tells us that the term “graphic design course” is a highly competitive keyword with 100 to 1,000 average monthly searches. But a relevant term, “graphic designing”, gets up to 10,000 searches a month but it has low competition.

There are also keywords that include the term “certificates”, meaning the usual audience is only interested in courses that offer certificates.

You can use this information to figure out how to market your online courses.

But how do you use Google Ads to find topics? You simply replace the keyword with your course topic.

Google Ads Search Screen
Source: Google Ads

We entered the topic “how to start a flower shop” and saw that there isn’t much demand. It only has up to 100 searches a month on average. But it has low competition so it might be worth exploring.

It’s also interesting to find similar terms like “how to start a flower shop online” and “how to start a flower business from home” which are interesting angles to take. This could be how you separate yourself from other courses about opening a flower shop.

But since most of the topics suggested have low monthly searches, you could continue brainstorming topics and using Google Ads to verify if they’re worth pursuing.

It’s worth noting that there are other marketing platforms—free and paid—that offer their own keyword research tools. Some of them could yield better results than Google Ads.

If you’re not comfortable with keyword research, you can research topics through other means. Quora and other Q&A sites are full of people who want to learn. Go over the most frequently asked questions about your topic. From there, you can develop a course outline.

Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn can also be valuable resources. If you find a Facebook group that centers on your niche, you’ll find lots of possible ideas there.

Not only will you find your core audience on social media, but you’ll also find insight as to what they’d like to learn.

2. Identify the Type of Course to be Used

Once you have a course idea, you’ll have a better idea of what type of course you should use.

There’s more than one way to create an online course. You’ll have to know which course type will work best with your content. Selecting the right type of course makes it easier for a student to grasp your lessons.

Here are some of the most commonly used course types and their purpose.

  • Assessment Courses — These are courses that are meant to test a student’s knowledge of your topic.
  • Bonus Courses — These courses are complementary resources, usually provided to students as a sign of gratitude for taking part in the program.
  • Bundle Courses — These courses are a compilation of different but related courses aimed to provide students more value for their money.
  • Certification Courses — These courses award students a certificate upon completion so all takers must meet the requirements set by the instructor to validate their grasp of the lessons.
  • Demonstration Courses — These courses showcase the skills of the instructors in their chosen field such as cooking, painting, and music with the goal of imparting knowledge to their students.
  • Drip Courses — These courses are divided into sections. Each section is released in stages based on the instructor’s preference (daily, weekly, etc.) so that all students take the lessons (and finish the course) at the same time.
  • Guest Courses — These courses promote online learning by featuring guest speakers/lecturers who are experts in your topic.
  • Live Courses — These courses are commonly in video format and broadcast live. Students and instructors are able to interact with each other in real-time.
  • Mini-Courses — These courses are compressed versions of their full-version counterparts. They give a student an idea of what to expect when they sign up for your courses.
  • Pre-Sell Courses — These courses are promotional in nature. They’re designed to generate leads that you could sell your main courses to.

You don’t have to rely on one type. Most instructors gather feedback and use two or more of these course types depending on the results.

3. Research the Topic

You can now start building your online course through topic research. Like we mentioned earlier, you need to learn how to create a course plan that’s unlike any content that already exists. Also, you want your course to be as factual as possible. That’s where research comes in.

There are many advantages to properly researching your content. One of the biggest ones is credibility. Students want to learn from instructors that know what they’re talking about. And they’ll be able to tell the difference between experts and frauds. Doing research gives you an advantage over your competitors.

Competitor Research

If you want to create a course like your competitors’ then you should start by looking at their course content.

An online school will display what its courses contain. Use this to your advantage. Look at what they’re teaching and use this information to come up with a more comprehensive program.

For example, if your course is going to be about street photography, you’ll find a few courses about it on SkillShare. Look at each one and see what it offers and what you think is missing.

SkillShare Course
Source: SkillShare Portrait Photography on the Street

By going through each course, you’ll get an idea of what the class is all about, how long it is, what students will learn, and what bonus content/activities are included if there are any.

word image
Source: SkillShare Portrait Photography on the Street

You’ll also find information about the course instructors and their credentials.

SkillShare Profile Example
Source: SkillShare Zun Lee Bio

How you use this information will depend on you and your experience. You’re the one who’s gonna know what the course is missing.

In the SkillShare course we featured above, the course goes into great detail teaching students how to take photos of strangers with confidence. If you’re working on a similar course, how can you improve on that?

Some students might want to know about fair use. When can they use the images they took for commercial use? Can they get sued for that? That could be something you could add to your course.

You can also use Google or go on forums to find more information about your topic.

4. Outline Your Online Course

All courses are divided into subtopics. Not only should you pay attention to what your subtopics will include, but you also have to think about the order in which they’re presented.

If a student goes through your course landing page and finds your outline a mess, then you might lose a sale.

How to Make a Strong Course Outline

Here are some tips on how you could make your course outline more compelling for students.

  • List Down Your Goals — What do you want students to learn by the end of the course? This will make it clearer to you what subtopics you need to create to get your students where they need to be.
  • Identify Your Target Audience — Who is your course for? Are your students beginners? Then you need to introduce basic concepts at the start of your course. If your students are knowledgeable about the topic, then you have more leeway. You can jump right into more complex topics straight away.
  • Reinforce Your Lessons — Jumping from one subtopic to another can get jarring for some students. So you could insert filler content in between. Quizzes are a popular option since they both summarize what the students just learned and prepare them for what’s to come.
  • Arrange Subtopics in a Logical Manner — Make it easier for students to visualize the journey you’re about to take them on. A cleaner landing page will make your online school more appealing to potential customers.

What Other Information Should You Include?

Making the following information available can help you sell your online course faster.

  • Course Description — It’s a brief summary of your course. It describes what it’s about, what students can get out of it, and what lessons you have laid out.
  • Author Bio — This is where students can learn more about you and your background. Make sure to emphasize what qualifies you as an instructor. If you have published works or an online portfolio, you can link to them in this section.
  • Pricing — Detail how much your course will cost. It’s also a good idea to list down freebies if there are any.
  • Grading Information — If passing quizzes are a requirement for students to get a certificate, you should explain how you plan to grade your students.
  • Policies — Make it a point to state your student policies. For example, if attendance is required (especially for live classes), let your learners know how many absences are allowed.
  • Equipment — Let students know if they’ll need access to specific equipment in order to follow along with your course.
  • Prerequisite Skills — This is important especially for advanced courses. List down all the skills or knowledge that your students need to have before they enroll in your course.

Caution: shameless plug ahead! Continue reading below ↓

teachable 1

Create your first online course using a free 30 day trial from Teachable!

5. Establish Course Goals and Objectives

We’ve talked about making your course goals clear for your students. It’s important because it lets them know what they can expect from you. So let’s discuss it further.

How do you do it?

While having an overall goal is good, you’ll need to have goals and objectives for every subtopic in your course. You can use video to explain what students will learn from your course. But a bullet list might be better.

Udemy Photoshop CC Training Course
Source: Udemy Photoshop CC Essentials Training Course

In the example above, you’ll notice that every Photoshop skill that students will learn is clearly defined. You’ll want to be as specific as possible. The list even goes beyond explaining the skills they’ll learn. It also mentions practical applications such as removing people from images and creating realistic shadows.

So if learners are looking to do a particular task like retouching people to appear slimmer, they’ll know if your course is worth taking right away. It also helps students open their eyes to learning techniques that they didn’t even know were possible.

You can also use this opportunity to let students know if they’ll have to answer a quiz before they finish the course.

6. Build the Course Content

Now’s the time to create an online course. There are different formats to explore. You don’t have to rely on text alone. Most course creation experts use a combination of text, images, and videos.

Here are some of the most popular mediums for sharing knowledge with a student.

  • Slideshows — Students control the pace at which they consume your content. The presentation feels similar to that of viewing a Powerpoint presentation. They’re great for refresher courses because students with working knowledge of the topic can digest the content faster.
  • Videos — It’s the most popular format because it keeps students engaged. It’s also beneficial for instructors since they can be as creative as they want with this format. The only downside is that you’ll need additional equipment, preferably professional-grade cameras and microphones if you want to compete with the best video courses available. You might also need video editing software or hire someone who has skills to do it for you.
  • Webinars — This is the right format for those who’d like to do live sessions. It’s also more accessible than standard videos since you can host a webinar as long as you have a webcam and a decent microphone.
  • Screencasts — It works the same way as a webinar. The difference is that you’re presenting and sharing your computer screen at the same time. You’ll find this useful if you have a technical topic like how to diagnose and troubleshoot a desktop computer.
  • Podcasts — While podcasts are better known for their entertainment value, some instructors use them to create courses that learners can consume while on the go.
  • E-books — These are great because you can use them to provide supplemental content or as a freebie for students who complete your course. You can also use them to generate leads for your online course business.

For slideshows and e-books, you can create them using Microsoft Office or a third-party platform. And because you can repurpose existing content to create these types of online courses, you can launch them in a couple of hours if you’re quick enough.

But for course formats that require audio and video recording, you’ll need additional tools like a screen recorder such as Camtasia or Filmora. Investing in good audio capture devices like a Blue Yeti will also improve the quality of your course content.

The format you choose should match your content. If your topic covers a lot of ground, then videos could be the right format to choose. Casual students who are just looking to listen to something as they move about would prefer courses in podcast form.

This is also one of the reasons why you should get to know who your audience is. It makes it a lot easier to determine which course format would best suit their needs.

7. Choose a Course Platform

A course platform is what helps instructors promote and sell their content. This is where students go to find and buy a course. There are different types to choose from, with each one having its set of advantages and disadvantages.

If you don’t have a platform where you can host your online courses yet, here are your options.

Self-Hosted Platform

Self-hosting an online course means you’ll have to build a site from scratch. If you already have a WordPress site, you can install an LMS plugin which makes the whole process a bit easier.

This isn’t the route you’d want to take if you’re not comfortable setting up a website. It’s a lot more complicated than the other available options. And should anything go wrong, you won’t have anyone to turn to for answers. You also won’t have a built-in audience, meaning you’d have to find students by yourself.

It’s more suited for large businesses that already have the infrastructure in place.

It does have its perks though such as better control over your marketing and you’d earn 100% of your profits.

LearnWorlds is one of the most popular WordPress LMS plugins for those who opted to self-host.

Online Course Platforms

If all you want to do is upload your course videos and let somebody else do the marketing and selling, then you should look into online course platforms.

These are websites that let you submit courses while they take care of the backend operations. You won’t have to set up payment gateways, marketing, and hosting your courses. They also have a marketplace where their users can browse through different courses including yours. That makes it easier for students to discover your courses.

Just keep in mind that if you do go with an online course platform, you won’t have much control over things like pricing. They also normally take a cut from your sales.

SkillShare, Udemy, and OpenSesame are popular online course marketplaces.

Learning Management Systems

Learning Management Systems (LMS) are platforms that combine the best features of self-hosted and online course platforms.

They’re flexible like a self-hosted platform would be but they’re easy to set up like an online course platform. They can take care of backend operations and yet they don’t require you to give them a cut of your sales. They make money through recurring membership fees.

Thinkific and Teachable are great standalone LMS examples. If you want to find out more, read our complete buyer’s guide to the best online course platforms.

8. Collect Feedback From Early Adopters

The course you created might be great. But you wouldn’t know for sure until you collect feedback from early adopters.

Before selling your course, have a few people look at it and see if everything makes sense to them. You could even let your friends and family have a look. Have them tell you if they’re unable to follow along with your course.

It would be ideal to have people who know nothing about your topic review your course if it’s meant to be for beginners.

If you’re having trouble finding reviewers, you could release them to your email list. Offer them free access to the final version of your course once it’s released to the public as an incentive. You can also give them lifetime access to future courses as well.

To make the processing of responses more convenient, you can use an online form to compile all of the feedback you get. There are different solutions available including Google Sheets. You can also use a paid tool like Typeform if you have the budget for it.

You can include their feedback in the testimonial section of your online course landing page.

9. Price Your Course Properly

After you create an online course, you can think about how much you’re going to sell it.

You’ll need to find the sweet spot. You want to make a good return on investment but still make your course affordable for students. It’s a bit tricky but there is a way to do it.

How to Price Your Online Course

If you’re not sure how much your courses should go for, you can always look at your competitors.

Prices can get high depending on several factors including their length and complexity. If the instructor is well-known in the community, then students might consider paying a premium to learn from someone they admire.

But if similar courses run for about the same price, it wouldn’t make sense to price yours higher than the average rate. So it’s important to do your research so that you don’t overprice your content.

The Dangers of Pricing Courses Too Low

Those that are new to selling online courses might want to consider setting their prices lower as part of an introductory offering. Just enough to get the ball rolling.

This strategy has its downsides though.

For instance, it can discourage you from marketing your online course since you’re not earning enough from its sales. It can also leave students the impression that your content isn’t that great since it’s so cheap.

You’d also have to think about advertising costs. If your courses sell for so low, you won’t have enough budget for paid advertising.

Then there’s the bigger impact on the online course industry. If everyone starts pricing their courses too low just to compete, then there won’t be enough profit for all instructors.

Subscription Model

You can offer a subscription model if you’re planning on adding more courses in the future. While it might pressure you to constantly add new material to your online school, it’s a great way to make sure that you have a recurring stream of income.

Sales Fees

You also have to remember that some course publishers get a sales fee. So you’re not getting all of the money that a student pays. You have to give the platform a cut of your earnings.

Keep this in mind when you price your online courses.

Caution: shameless plug ahead! Continue reading below ↓

teachable 1

Create your first online course using a free 30 day trial from Teachable!

FAQ: How to Create an Online Course

Conclusion

People want to know how to create an online course because it’s a great way to earn a living. And you’ll also end up empowering students that want to learn a skill that you’re an expert in.

Creating an online course isn’t as hard as some might think. But it does require a lot of research and planning. So long as you remember to do both, you can get paid to share your knowledge with other folks.

Did you find this useful?

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Christopher Benitez
Christopher Jan Benitez is a freelance writer who specializes in the digital marketing field. His work has been published on SEO and affiliate marketing-specific niches like Monitor Backlinks, Niche Pursuits, Web Hosting Secret Revealed, and others.

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