The Ultimate Guide to Online Courses
In this article, you'll learn:
- What makes online courses such powerful learning tools and how different types of learning courses can create different impact for students
- How online courses work, fundamentally, and what you need to consider in order to bring one to life or improve the one you’ve already created
- Different examples of stellar online courses you can take inspiration from when designing your own learning experiences
We’re living through the learning Gold Rush: Anyone, anywhere, can create an online course or participate in one to develop new skills, hobbies, or habits that will inspire them both professionally and personally.
The learning industry is more flush with cash than it has ever been, so new online courses are being created every day by industry leaders, experienced professionals, and other course creators who are aiming to get a piece of this soon-to-be trillion dollar industry.
But online courses are far more nuanced than their namesake would lead people to believe. These experiences create transformative learning opportunities for students, and unbelievable opportunities for founders to generate revenue and change people’s lives. Creating the best online courses requires great care, intuitive online course software, and sharp marketing skills to generate buzz and have a steady line of prospective students out the (virtual) door.
Let’s dive deeper into what an online course really is, what the different types of online courses are, and what makes them so beneficial to both those who create them and those who participate in them.
Online courses are just one type of learning experience you can offer as you scale an entire learning community. These communities are life-changing for both those who found them and those who attend. Read our ultimate learning community guide here.
What is an online course?
An online course is a learning program that takes place virtually and consists of a set curriculum broken into different units. Anyone from solopreneurs to leading companies can create their own syllabus and begin teaching courses.
Whether for personal development, professional development, an opportunity to learn in demand skills, or as an alternative to higher education, these are advanced courses that rival world class education at top universities.This curriculum can range from anything super informal to accredited material that awards learners certification once completed.
Online courses also differ by their delivery or student time requirements, as well as cost. Some are completely free, while others charge a one-time payment or an annual monthly fee for lifetime access.
What are the different types of online courses?
No two online classes look the same, but one of the biggest differences that sets online courses apart is whether they are self-paced courses or cohort-based courses.
Self-paced courses, otherwise known as asynchronous courses, allow learners to work through course material at their own pace. There are no live lectures or course times to attend, so responsibility falls on the student to complete assignments, tasks, assessments, and other course content.
Self-paced course benefits for learners
Asynchronous work can be really positive for learners who are eager to learn but need the flexibility of on-your-own work. It opens up accessibility to learning for those who work full-time, are parents, students, or have other responsibilities that would hinder them from participating in more of a live learning experience.
Many free online courses are asynchronous because they don't require a lot of instructor intervention.
Self-paced course benefits for founders
Self-paced courses are also easier, operationally, for founders to run. They aren’t required to be present during course time and can rather support from afar and update curriculum as needed.
Downside to self-paced courses
Creating accessibility to learning is one mission course creators and other founders are aiming to solve for. Self-paced, asynchronous work can be one answer to solving that problem.
But asynchronous work is just that — it’s solo work. Students have only themselves to lean on and don’t enjoy another huge benefit of online learning, which is community. Communal learning is critical to making the future of learning bigger, better, and more positive for all.
On the other hand, cohort-based courses, or synchronous courses, are rooted in community. As the name would suggest, these online courses are cohort-based, meaning students are put together in small, intimate groups or in large virtual classrooms to learn alongside one another. Oftentimes, cohort-based courses meet on a regular cadence, requiring learners to participate during live courses or lecture times.
Cohort-based course benefits for learners
Synchronous work presents one of the biggest opportunities in online learning. The ability to learn alongside people from different backgrounds and cultures to share new ideas, questions, and solutions is equally as important to the learning material itself. This only improves the learner experience and creates deeper, richer understanding.
Cohort-based course benefits for founders
Though running a cohort-based course requires founders, teachers, or instructors to be more present during live class time, these experiences are typically more intimate and more enriching. Founders can really curate each cohort to reflect the type of people they want to bring into their community and, as a result, charge more of an entry fee to generate more revenue.
It’s important to note that courses aren’t simply synchronous or asynchronous; many combine blended learning styles, or a bit of both cohort-based and self-paced work, to create a robust yet flexible learning experience.
How does an online course work?
In order for an online course to get off the ground and be successful, founders will often use a tool like a learning management system or an online course platform to host their learning experiences as well as any community features for members and course alumni. While not a requirement, these tools are especially helpful so founders can focus on fostering their learning community and delivering enriching coursework.
If they don’t use an online course software to manage their material, many course creators will simply use Dropbox, Google Drive, or other solutions and manage their community separately.
Online courses don’t work unless you recruit members to join them. Marketing is just as critical to this small business as it is to any business. In addition to learner acquisition, there are important administrative tasks like learner onboarding, curriculum creation, course duplication, and progress reporting to understand how students are faring in your course.
It’s important to put these systems in place before you start your first course. That way, your focus can be on providing maximum learning impact for all learners in the community.
What are the benefits of online courses?
There are a number of benefits to founding an online course and just as many to joining one. With the growing number of online learning experiences growing by the day, the list of benefits will continue to expand!Let’s start with the upsides to building or founding an online course:
Why build an online course?
For founders of online courses, there are significant financial benefits as well as cultural ones that are worth considering.
The financial incentive
The learning industry is set to hit $1 trillion by 2030, and there’s been a major cash infusion into virtual learning. Course creators can supplement or entirely replace their income by creating online courses and developing curriculum around any sort of niche or expertise.
As a founder of a course in an industry that is free from the regulation and rules of traditional learning, you can determine how much you want to charge for entry to your online course and collect any profit once you’ve paid out for technology, staff, and other necessary business expenses.
Moreover, founding an online course is a great way to evolve your personal brand. In addition to being a professional in your given industry, adding “teacher” or “founder” to your resume is a great way to curate your reputation and, as such, expand your network and other professional opportunities.
The cultural incentive
As an online course founder, you have the chance to increase affordable access to learning and help people develop skills they would have otherwise never had the chance to learn.
This is especially true for underrepresented and marginalized communities. Because online learning doesn’t require in-person attendance, anyone, anywhere, in any timezone can participate in these virtual learning experiences and change their lives through new skill education.
In addition to having full say over the cost of your learning experience, you also have full say over the culture. You can determine who, when, and how students are admitted to have your course in an effort to foster a tight-knit community of kindred learners.
Unlike teachers in a traditional classroom, founders of online courses get to develop a unique curriculum and distribute it however they want. You'll create a practical application of skills that will translate into student success and, ultimately, help everyone in your community achieve the goal that you set them on the path towards.
In return, learners get to choose the type of courses they’re most interested in and develop a personalized skill set. Let’s discuss:
Why take an online course?
There are a number of positive aspects to being a member of an online course.
Full learning control
In traditional schooling, students adhere to a curriculum set by a state and learn only the skills they’ll be tested on that year. So little of that learning is made to be sticky, practical, and usable in the future.
By opting into an online course, you get to choose how and when you learn in demand skills. Whether for personal, professional, or cultural development, there are countless online courses to attend with enriching material to soak up.
You can truly personalize how you learn, when you learn, and what you learn, as well as how you apply that learning moving forward.
The online learning format has been critical in helping the future of learning expand and become as successful as it is.
Now, regardless of where you live, you can join an online course from anywhere in the world at any time. Asynchronous learning allows you to access course material on your own time, while cohort-based learning opens up access to new people for building your network.
Different types of online classes create different types of accessibility but, regardless of the delivery method, online courses create deeper, often more affordable, accessibility to education than ever before.
With thousands of free courses being made available every day, you can start to curate the knowledge you're learning and apply it to different areas of your life.
What are examples of online courses?
Every online course is different; they teach different skills, serve different audiences, and create entirely unique experiences.Some examples of skills training these courses might cover include:
- Web development, computer science, data science, and other digital skills in technology
- Creative skills like graphic design and video production
- Business analytics and information management
As mentioned earlier, online education can be created by one individual entrepreneur, a small team of founders, or even by an established community or organization looking to expand their offerings.
There are thousands of online courses in the virtual space, but these are a few we’ve gotten to know through interviewing their founders and watching their businesses scale:
- Dribbble: The established design community created their Product Design Course, a cohort-based course for learners who want to enter the product design field and need the foundational skill set to back it up. Design is one of the fastest growing fields in the world, and Dribbble was ahead of the curve in creating a learning experience dedicated to the craft.
- Write of Passage: This cohort-based course, founded by David Perrell, doesn’t just teach people how to become better writers; it changes the way they think, learn, and make decisions to ultimately make people more informed workers and leaders.
- App Academy Open: One of the pioneering coding bootcamps of the 2010s, App Academy later introduced a free self-paced coding curriculum as a means to expand access to programming education for those who weren’t able to afford or attend their synchronous bootcamp programs.
- Practical Utopias: The enchanting Margaret Atwood brings together a lineup of guest lecturers and students who want to change the world as we know it through sustainable hands-on practices.
While these individual online courses boast their own content, curriculum, and goals, they overlap in their mission to teach practical, applicable skills students can use in their lives and careers. Plus — they all had to start with the basic building blocks.
How can you start building an online course?
Online courses don’t simply appear out of nowhere. They’re carefully crafted and meticulously planned to create the best experience possible, and every founder starts by asking themselves a set of questions, like:
- What is the subject I want to teach?
- Is this a niche subject, or are there other courses that teach the same thing?
- If the latter, how will my course be different?
- Will this course be cohort-based or self-paced?
- What’s the goal I want people to achieve upon completion of this course?
- Will applications to this course be open to the public, or more curated for select members?
- What do I want the community around this course to look like? How will I manage it, nurture it, and grow it?
There are plenty more considerations to make in addition to these, but the perfect online course software can help solve many of them. In fact, the best online course platforms can take a lot of the operational load off of you and allow you to focus on building, operating, scaling, and monetizing a bustling online course and community to boot.
Choose Disco for building, hosting, and scaling your online courses
There has never been a better time to found an online course and seek out the best solutions possible for bringing it to life.
At Disco, we believe that bringing learning and community together can create seismic shifts in the lives of your students and in the future of learning altogether. As such, we’ve created a platform that prioritizes both aspects when creating online curriculum and coursework for your students.
Try Disco free for 14 days to see why it’s the best possible online course platform for budding and established founders of virtual courses and other impactful learning experiences around the globe.