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Starting to plan your online course is like travelling to a new country. You’re rather familiar with certain major cities and famous landmarks, but the finer details are murky at best.
And like a traveller, you’re aware of some of the general tasks and milestones when creating an online course but some of the details are a bit murky.
Smart travellers use a map or a guide to make their travels easier so why don’t I give you one to use when creating your next online course?
I’m going to go over the process I give to my clients when they first start creating their course. These four steps come way before I come into the picture and should be the first steps when you’re transforming your knowledge into a great experience for your students.
Over the next two days, you’ll use these steps to identify what your course is going to cover (and more importantly, what it won’t.) Plus how you’ll organise it and the experience your students will have by the end of it.
Day 1 – Brain Dump
This is the part where we all imagine ourselves as mad scientists. Throwing chemicals into beakers and writing on see-through white boards with coloured markers.
Not too far from the truth as this first step is both the most fun – and the hardest.
Your brain works better when you can visually process everything you’re writing and when you engage the movement of your body. We’re going to start out by creating a mind map or list of absolutely everything we think we want to include in our course.
Write until you absolutely can’t think of anything else, or your hand has spasmed into a pen grip of death (whichever comes first.) Leave lots of room to branch out and cover subtopics.
Go on tangents, links topics together. Include everything that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous it may seem to be.
When you think you’ve got it pretty well covered, leave it alone.
Close the page and go get a drink or do some other work or play with the kids – we’ll come back to it later when your brain has had time to recharge.
You’re now done day 1.
Day 2, Step 2 – Trimming the Fat and Vetting Your Brilliance
Fresh and clear on day 2, we’re going to examine your brain dump with a fresh set of eyes and a head that’s had a chance to sleep on it.
Take a good look at everything you wrote down and expand on any ideas that have fermented overnight.
Grab your favourite red pen.
It really should be red – trust me.
It’s incredibly freeing seeing ideas crossed out in red pen. Once they’ve been marked or edited, your brain is free to move on and put it’s processing power to use somewhere else.
Take that red pen and cross out the bad ideas (what was I thinking?) or the ones that are extraneous (where was I going with that?) and the ones which are too much of a stretch (I don’t even know how to operate one of those!)
When you’ve made your way down the list of ideas and topics, you’ll get a much clearer picture of what your course will be covering. This works wonders for taking the giant, obtuse, indescribable beast of a course floating around in your head and turn it into a wild animal you have a hope of training.
Adjusting ideas for student situation.
When I mentioned before how the hardest part of teaching is making sure your topics reach your audience – what I meant was that it’s incredibly hard to be a beginner again.
Most of us take for granted that the people we’re teaching don’t have the acquired knowledge and level of experience to make the jump from concept to concept. Go back through your list of topics and make sure they’re suitable to the level of experience your students will have when taking your course.
If they’re a beginner, you’ll need to make sure you explain the basics first. If they’re at an intermediate level, you can safely assume certain levels of knowledge and skip over the 101 level lessons.
Day 2, Step 3 – Organising Your Topics
Now to tame the beast.
We have a list of vetted and edited topics, ideas and concepts you want to teach and are appropriate for your desired students level of experience.
At this point its time to take that list and model it into a course.
There are two methods to use when organising your course into modules and lessons – backwards building and skill stacking. At the heart, they’re the same thing – just different directions. The one you use will depend on your own preferences for how you see and organise things in your mind.
Some people incorrectly refer to Instructional Design as backwards building, but this technique is just one in an instructional designer’s tool chest so it would be limiting to assume that’s all instructional designers do.
In backwards building, we are in essence starting from where you want the students to be or what you want them to know when they’re complete the course – and working our way backwards step by step until we arrive at where they are when they start the course.
“In order to learn this, they must know that” is the motto of backwards building and tends to be most effective in knowledge-based topics or fields of learning.
Skill stacking works the same way – only forwards.
This way of organising a course is helpful when we’re teaching technical or skill-based topics and is a common way people think about creating a course or series of teaching topics.
Whichever method you decide on, go through your list of topics from your edited brain dump and start to stack or build them together into a logical progression of knowledge your students can follow as they go through your course.
You’ll see where each topic fits in relation to others and how they come together to create a cohesive course your students can use to change their lives.
At the end of this step, you’ll have a semi-solid list of the modules and lessons you’ll be including in your completed course – ready for the final step and a spit shine.
Each step we take, we’re getting closer and closer to a finished plan for your course.
Day 2, Step 4 – Create Your Course’s Learning Objectives
When I create my course plans I do this step last – which often gets me flack from other instructional designers because it’s not the norm in our industry.
We’re told to create our learning objectives first, and then create the content around those objectives. This is fine for corporate learning, where you’re meeting certain internal or external regulations or perhaps needing to meet legal obligations for your workplace training.
But in the case of online courses, I’ve found that when you start with the knowledge and the student journey through learning it and then build your learning objectives – you see a higher completion rate from creators making their courses.
Doing it this way is of no benefit to your student – it’s for your benefit.
Learning objectives are hard to distill into bite-sized lessons and ideas for an average subject matter expert – we tend to think too broadly with them.
For example, if you’re an exceptional dog trainer then you would have an excellent resource of ideas and topics to teach your students – so starting with how to use a click trainer, when to use food as rewards, how to handle stressful situations, what to do when your dog won’t come – these ideas come naturally to you.
But when asked to start with a learning objective, that same dog trainer will say something like “the student needs to know how to train a dog.”
Not very helpful right?
That’s why I start with topics and then focus on the learning objectives – much easier for the average bear.
Create Learning Objectives of Your Own
Take a look at the modules and lessons you’ve laid out in your almost complete lesson plan and start to formulate your objectives.
Ask yourself: “If I could sum up the main purpose of this module, what is it?”
It could be as simple as “they’ll know the basic terms used in the dog training industry and why they’re used.” or it could be as complex as “the student will be able to clearly understand the different methods of dog training available to them and have identified which one will be their main focus for working with their dog throughout the rest of the course.”
Remember these objectives are not being graded, but rather are going to be used as a kind of mantra as you create the content and resources for each of these modules and your course in general.
Used as a rudder, a learning objective can help you become less attached to your content. If it’s not clearly helping you achieve your learning objective, then it’s not a big deal to omit it from the final product.
Keep asking yourself as you go through the next stages of creating your course content and materials “Does this really serve the learning objective I chose for this module or lesson?”
Planning is not very sexy
Everyone wants to skip to the end part of creating an online course and just start making money already.
But you can’t get to the end part until you’ve done the beginning and have slogged through the messy parts in the middle. By having a clear plan, you’re going to be like a tourist with GPS – never getting lost and always knowing where you’re going next.
Start creating your course plan today by grabbing the pdf worksheet I’ve included below. It walks you through all four of these steps and will help you get a clear and concrete plan in place for your course so you can create it faster, easier and get to the end part sooner.