Course Content vs Course Materials: What’s the Difference?

When you’re getting into a new industry or starting a new venture, it’s easy to get caught up in all the new terminology. In the world of creating online courses, we certainly have some terms which may not be used elsewhere. Ones which perhaps have different meanings when used in online learning.

Let’s examine two of the most common terms we use throughout our marketing and teaching: course content and course materials. We’ll examine how they differ, why we use them, and how you can be confident in their meaning when you use them yourself.

What is content?

Content (noun):

  1. usually, contents.
    1. something that is contained: the contents of a box.
    2. the subjects or topics covered in a book or document.
    3. the chapters or other formal divisions of a book or document: a table of contents.
  2. something that is to be expressed through some medium, as speech, writing, or any of various arts: a poetic form adequate to a poetic content.
  3. significance or profundity; meaning: a clever play that lacks content.
  4. substantive information viewed in contrast to its actual or potential manner of presentation: publishers, record companies, and other content providers

The definition of the word “content” is rather broad but the majority of these definitions have one thing in common: they centre around information or ideas.

Your content refers to the ideas or information you’re going to be teaching your students.

Your content is separate from the format used to deliver it, the platform you’ll be serving it on, and the way you use marketing to get people to consume it. Your course content is the sum of the knowledge you wish to teach and is the most important part of your online course.

What course content isn’t

Content is a broad word used by marketing and writers online, let’s make sure you don’t get overwhelmed bythe term when you’re creating your courses.

Course content is not:

  • the quality of your videos
  • the delivery of your audio files
  • the perfect social media post
  • your email newsletter broadcasts
  • the launch formula you’ll use

All the items above are either a) course materials or b) distractions.

When you’re creating your course content you need to focus on the crafting and explanation of ideas and knowledge. All that other stuff will have to wait until you’re sure you have a course with great ideas you’d like to share.

What are materials?

Material (noun)

  1. the substance or substances of which a thing is made or composed: Stone is a durable material.
  2. anything that serves as crude or raw matter to be used or developed: Wood pulp is the raw material from which paper is made.
  3. any constituent element.
  4. a textile fabric: material for a dress.

From the definitions above you can see material is a more concrete term. It focuses more on objects and physical constructs than it does on intangibles like ideas or information.

Your materials are the physical/digital items that go with your ideas to support them in their delivery.

Your course materials will take your ideas and present them to your students in a manner they can absorb and process. They are used as aids and can take on a wide variety of formats.

What course materials aren’t

Course materials can’t stand on their own. They need the support of your content to make sense. They best serve your students by developing ideas first put out in your written, video, or audio content.

Think of course materials as guy wires. My husband works on tall communications towers, and often these towers have support wires to help them stand and weather the wind.

Without the guy wires the tower would be flimsy, and a big gust of wind could knock it down. The wires anchor the tower to the ground, making sure it doesn’t go anywhere.

Same with your content materials – they anchor your course information in a student’s mind so it doesn’t falter when they go to apply it (a big gust of practical wind).

Another way to put it would be that course materials are not the benefits of your course – they are the features. You should tout the benefits your students will see after they put your content into practice. Then further solidify your position by offering the features of your course materials to back it up.

Definitions aside

Let’s look at some practical ways we can frame these two words so you can be more comfortable using them in your own day to day.

When you first sit down to create your course, you’ll be focusing on creating your content. You’ll be writing down your ideas and presenting them in many ways to teach those ideas to your students.

Once done, you’ll decide how to help your students absorb the information better with course materials. Perhaps using an interactive worksheet, an animated video, or supporting elements like branding.

Your course content is the most important part of a course. Making sure the information you teach is valuable and high quality should be your first priority. Your second priority should be making sure your students can effectively learn your content, applying it to their lives to see a transformation.

Why the distinction matters

This distinction matters because it’s going to save you a lot of stress when you’re creating your course.

Sitting down to create a course can seem hugely overwhelming – so many ideas! Plus video! Should you have a worksheet here? Would this module be best served with audio?

When you break down your course into two main parts – content and materials – it’s easy to see what is content and what is materials.

Not only does this streamline your process by getting you to focus on creating your amazing content first, but it takes a bit of a load of your mind – you don’t need to worry about creating ALL the things right away. It becomes a logical process to get the ideas down first, and then support their absorption with specific materials.

I feel better already about my own upcoming course (sneak peek: we’re slated to start work on the first Copper Letter course in mid-May!), and think this concept will help you when you’re creating your own courses.

What are your thoughts on the content vs. materials ideas we’ve discussed here? Do this you think this will help you in your course creation process? We’d love to hear your thoughts on it!