How to Structure An Online Course

If you structure an online course well, you'll keep people engaged

Have you ever sat in a lecture – clearly presented by an expert – only to discover that you're bored out of your mind and can't stay awake? In my series focused on online courses, we've covered who should create a course, and how to come up with course topics, but now we need to work on keeping an audience engaged. That means we have to look at how to structure an online course.

If you do it right, people will not only love you, but they'll tell everyone they know about your course. If you don't do it right, you'll sell it to 6 people and wonder about the life choices that brought you here.

Two mistakes you want to avoid

When you're structuring your next course, there are two mistakes that you have to avoid. Let's make sure we cover those quickly.

First, most people won't become experts just by taking your course. So stop trying to create the course with the absolute most details ever. Feel free to name your course (in your head), “An introduction to…” as that will help you steer clear of creating an overwhelming amount of detailed content.

Second, most people don't have unlimited time to watch your lessons. So stop recording hour long lessons. Create content that is consumable in shorter amounts of time (2-3 minutes for some, 5-15 minutes for other topics). Allowing people to consume content in chunks doesn't mean you can't let them watch for an hour straight. But if you record an hour, people will wait to watch the lesson until they know they have the time – which is never!

Ok, now that we have those out of the way, we can get into the process of creating a structure for your online course content.

First, start with the goal

People sign up for an online course because they want something. They want to be able to do something they've already tried to do without you, or they're trying to do something they've never tried. Either way, the place to start isn't step one. The place to start is the end.

By doing this, you help them see what taking your course will do for them. They'll think, “If I can do this when I finish the course, it will be worth it.”

If you're structuring your next course without this, if you start at the pre-requisites, or step one, you're likely jumping into the material too quickly. And a result of that is that people feel the pressure early and not the hope you want them to have.

So start with the end in mind.

Then, articulate a strategy

Let me pause for a second and address another insecurity you might have. We talked yesterday about the insecurity of knowing others out there have created courses like yours already.

Today I want to highlight that the way you go about doing something, the something you're teaching, may not be the only way. And you may feel stressed about that. You may worry that you're showing people how to create a landing page without coding, and the “without coding” part stresses you out.

I hope that's not happening. But I hear it a lot.

So let me introduce you to a great element to put early into your course outline. It's the “strategy” component.

After you hit the first part of your course – where you talk about the goal and end result – I find it helpful to articulate why you're going to approach the problem the way you're going to do it. And why you're not approaching it another way.

This is where you address “why” in your course outline. It's powerful because you present it early. And it can eliminate your worry and insecurities.

For example, if I'm creating a course on landing pages, I might create a lesson called, “Why I embrace the no-code approach by using page builders.”

Helping people connect with the strategy behind your approach may also help your customers by eliminating questions they may have had.

Now, present common challenges

Think about the last course you took. No wait. Think about the last “tutorial” video you watched on YouTube. Had you already tried to solve the problem on your own?

Most of the people who buy your course may have already tried things. And when they struggled to accomplish their goal, they may not have understood why things hadn't worked as they expected.

As I mentioned in my post the other day, introducing frameworks after initial efforts helps with sense making.

So my approach to your course outline is to help them understand why those things didn't work. I explore it by looking at common mistakes or challenges that we regularly face.

It helps people understand what hasn't worked, and gets them excited that you know the way to get past these challenges. Again, it delivers hope – which helps students stay engaged and want to keep moving forward.

Next, help them move forward

When it comes to the structure an online course, all the previous stuff is critical, but it's just setting the stage for this section. You needed the other stuff earlier, so you can point back to it. You needed it to set the stage for this.

But this is the core of the material that helps them move from A to B.

Don't give them every possible path or route. Stick to the main roads they'll need to travel. Focus on the main approach to learning what they need to learn.

And be ruthless about eliminating anything that is a distraction, or right for the experts. It won't help you.

Focus on how to help people take the simplest steps to move forward. It's the instructional component of the course.

Lastly, connect people

Group projects. Ugh.

Just writing the phrase makes me shiver. But there's power in bringing people together and having them work collaboratively. Not because you want to see the results. But because you want different people, with different experiences, to bring more than your single feedback loop to the table.

Of course, if you don't have a facility for cohort learning, then you have to approach community differently.

I'm not saying you have to have a Facebook Group – but you need a way for people to connect with each other. The community aspect of your course is something you may initially think of as extra – but I want to highly recommend it. Because it helps people move thru the material easier when they're working with others.

Does this sound familiar?

Have you watched the video of my Bridge Framework? Because as you read this post, I hoped you started thinking, “wait, I've heard him talk about this before.”

That's right, this structure is what I use for talks, for posts, for webinars, and even for course outlines.