In this article, you’ll learn:
- The important questions new and existing online course creators need to ask themselves as they begin to design their learning experiences
- How to design meaningful course content around a specific niche topic or idea
- Create curriculum that’s tangible, actionable, and applicable to whatever goal you want learners to achieve
- Ways to break down barriers to education by creating free and affordable access to your online course
- Why it’s critical to meet the specific needs of your learners by remembering to create human-first experiences
- How to build a learning community that supports and nurtures the learners within it
- Why it’s important to adopt a flexible, experimental business strategy so your course can always be the best it can be
Online teaching goes beyond simply delivering content. You have to consider all aspects of course design, curriculum building, and student-teacher interaction.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to creating online classes and teaching it to your learning base. The best part about the online learning space is that you're free from the rules and regulations of traditional education.
But that freedom can leave people with a lot of questions:
- Who am I designing this online course for?
- What do they need to learn? Why do they need to learn it?
- What tools do I need to provide to improve learning outcomes?
- How am I going to foster meaningful student-teacher connections? Student-student connections?
- How will this course adapt and change overtime?
Answering these questions is just scratching the surface on what it means to create a transformative online course. It’s important to tailor the learner experience to exactly what your students — current and prospective — are looking for.
If you get the course design part of your virtual learning business right, the revenue will quickly follow.
In our conversations with some of the most successful and the brightest up-and-coming founders in learning over the last few years, we’ve learned it’s important to look for inspiration from those who are already making waves in the industry.
We'll get to the six online course teaching tips for creating exceptional, expansive learning experiences and motivating students, but let's look at what's different between teaching online and the teaching techniques in traditional education programs.
Teaching online versus teaching higher education
Teaching students new skills in online education courses is very different from typical university format. One isn't necessarily better than the other, rather they should be complements to your learners' overall professional learning experience.
Rather than teach to a textbook and graded assignments, online courses focus on teaching personal and professional learning skills.
Students learn strategies they could only learn through hands-on collaboration, and participate in discussion forums to really solidify their learnings with students who are all interested in gaining the same knowledge.
College degree vs certificate
In many industries, a bachelor's degree or even a master's degree are still required to find employment. But, overtime, more and more industries are accepting of candidates who have a certificate in tech skills, business development, or other topics in place of or in addition to their degrees.
Online courses go into great detail teaching skills that are applicable to what companies are looking for, and the experience these candidates bring is just as meaningful as those whose education comes from traditional universities.
Online teachers are less focused on educational policy and more inclined to teach what's most relevant to helping students reach their goals.
As such, new teachers and experienced teachers alike are creating online teaching courses to better connect with students, expand access to learning, and create more relevant curriculum than you'd learn in the classroom.
We've learned from some of the world's best teachers and founders of online classes what tips they've used to earn business success and the respect of students in their courses:
6 online course teaching tips for exceptional learning
Design course content around a specific niche
Founder of SaaS Academy Dan Martell said it best: Riches are in the niches.
His online course is the perfect example of finding your target audience and creating a curriculum designed to their needs. By working specifically with leadership of B2B SaaS Businesses, Dan can cater his content directly to their specific needs, questions, and use cases.
If you’re creating for all, you’re creating for none. Not only will you burn through precious money and resources trying to create a course that’s for everyone, you won’t be able to create material that’s deep enough to really resonate with anyone’s unique learning wishes.
It’s important to find a niche — whether it’s within your own realm of expertise, or in an area where you see a particular need — to design your online course around. In order to do this, it’s important to conduct thorough customer research.
This research can unlock insights you weren’t aware of and, in some cases, can entirely change the trajectory of your course design. This happened for the brothers-turned-founders of School16:
“We had a lot of assumptions as to who [our members] would be. The pandemic had just started, and we had people in healthcare, retail, teaching, and other industries completely reconsidering what they were doing because they were not being served by their employers.”
“We decided, ‘Hey, people want to learn from other people that are already in these jobs. We have built a good network of people over the years — why don't we bring them to the people looking for these jobs and they can ask questions directly?
Through that process, we got to interact with probably close to one hundred job seekers, career changers, and recent graduates over a very short period of time, which means our learning was very condensed and very powerful.”
The best way to get answers to the questions you have about who your target audience is, what they want out of an online course, and what their goals ultimately are is to ask them directly.
Plus, this information will help inform how to design your curriculum and ways to distribute it to learners.
Pro tip: Once you’ve carved out your niche, you can start to leverage some serious marketing strategies for getting your online course into the world. Check out our handy guide.
Make your curriculum interactive and actionable
When people are seeking out your online course, it’s for a reason. They have a goal in mind. As Eliot Gattegno, On Deck’s former Head of Education, says “Value is achieved based on you helping people achieve the outcomes and goals that they’re hoping for.”
Whether that goal is to change careers, upskill, reskill, or simply master a new hobby, it’s important that your curriculum is as hands-on as possible.
This is where traditional education and virtual learning differ; where the teaching you do in school is rooted in theory and rarely actionable, virtual learning allows you to teach lessons that are applicable to whatever your learners’ goals are. You can ensure mastery by having them create projects, case studies, use cases, and complete other tasks that are directly related to their desired outcome.
Coding bootcamps like Bloom Institute of Technology coined actionable, hands-on training over a decade ago (and trade schools long before that). For aspiring tech professionals, a coding bootcamp cuts the fluff of a typical computer science degree and teaches only what’s most applicable to being hired in tech. As Matt Wyndowe, Bloom CBO, puts it:
“There are things that happen in a traditional four year school that we do not do. There are liberal arts things. You take courses in other areas, you walk to class, you have time in between classes, you have different schedules, you participate in social things. All those are great. That's not what we do.”
Instead, programs like Bloom take only what’s most applicable to achieving that goal of upskilling into a tech role and create their world-class curriculum around it. Every day, students are writing code, working on projects, and creating portfolio pieces that hiring managers can look at when it comes time to find a job.
Dribbble’s Product Design Course is another example of how impactful more direct, interactive learning can be.
During the duration of the course, learners strategize and execute 3 projects for their portfolio and participate in a career prep week at the end of the course, connecting learners to hiring managers so that they can land their first job in product design. It has become one of their most successful courses, and they’ve continued to model similar curricula off of it because it was praised so highly.
These models are worth replicating if you want to create sticky, memorable learning experiences for any student that comes to your (virtual) door.
But what makes a learning experience even more memorable? When it’s affordable (or, better yet, free).
Create open, unabashed access to learning with a free course or affordable options
Founders of learning communities differ in their teaching philosophy and style, but they all share one meaningful goal: Expand access to learning for underrepresented and underserved communities.
Every day, new online courses are being created and, as such, barriers to access are being lowered. The virtual format means students don’t have to participate in person, so anyone with a stable Internet connection and the means to get online can join these courses.
But there needs to be more access than that; developing a free course, a more affordable option to your other priced tiers, or creating different payment plans that allow learners to access your learning now then pay for it later when they have the means to are all ways of creating access to learning.
We’ll use Bloom Institute of Technology again as an example, who was one of a handful of coding bootcamps that pioneered the income share agreement. Through this, learners are able to go through the entire bootcamp program and get a job in tech before they start paying for that education:
“Now, you go into debt 40, 60, 80,000 bucks to get an education. Whereas in this [income share agreement], you pay nothing upfront. You're not taking on that financial risk.
We’ve accomplished the same thing in around seven months the traditional models took years to do. We believe we give you an equivalent for your education in seven months,” Matt says.
This is not to say you have to make your core online course free or cheapen the learning experience in order to provide access. You can create free mini courses, affordable lesson plans, or other means of allowing people to pay for access to your course in ways that are better aligned with their interests.
Because — at the end of the day — your learners are humans, and they have specific need cases you want to create curriculum for.
Pro tip: Take in some additional course design tips with our additional design articles so you can ensure you’re doubling down on creating the most transformative experience.
Remember that your learners are humans with specific needs
We touched on some of the questions in the intro to this article you should be asking yourself in terms of online course design and format, but there are even deeper inquiries you should be making to ensure that you’re designing a course that puts your learners’ needs most in mind.
Some of those questions might include:
- What skills, technology, and abilities are most relevant to learn for what these learners hope to accomplish?
- What goals are my prospective members hoping to achieve?
- How soon are they wanting to achieve these goals?
- What tools will members need to achieve these goals?
- What type of certification, portfolio, projects, or proof of learning will they walk away with?
It’s important to design your course content based on what your members truly need, not because you’re trying to replicate success. Business-design course d.MBA achieves this by creating feedback loops to adapt their curriculum with every cohort:
“There’s reasoning by analogy versus reasoning by principles, especially now where there are many online courses established out there. We cannot just see what's already working and want to copy it. What works best is that you actually listen to your community and your customers and see what works for them. By using the reasoning by analogy, you’re just copying the format, the length, or whatever from somebody else, which may not fit very well for your content.”
Just as important as it is to meet their goals within the course, you need to meet their needs outside of it, too.
Consider your members' lifestyles and careers outside of your virtual course to ensure you’re designing not only the right content, but the format of it, as well:
- How old are your learners, on average? Are they college students? Parents? Spouses?
- Do they have careers outside of taking this course?
- If so, does this course need to be self-paced?
- Can you guarantee your learners will be available for live lecture times if you choose a cohort-based course?
- Do they need additional learning experiences to capitalize on mastery of material?
Pro tip: You can learn about the different formats — and why they are so beneficial, in general — in this ultimate guide to online courses.
Really getting to know the type of students who are joining your online course is imperative to designing the perfect situation for them. Once you really know who they are and what their motives are, you can start to curate a community that only improves their experience.
Build a learning community around your online course designed to support, inspire, and engage
Community is so critical to learning.
In fact, multiple studies have been conducted around why bridging the gap between community and learning is so important.
If your members are having a fabulous time participating in your online course, it could be a good idea to start putting time, money, and effort into creating a learning community.
Pro tip: You didn’t think we’d leave you hanging, did we? We created the ultimate guide to learning communities and everything that comes with building, scaling, and monetizing one.
Depending on the format of your online course, community may come naturally or it may be something you need to curate.
But curating a community involves more than simply putting people together on a community platform and hoping they’ll engage on their own. You have to give them different spaces to engage within — including channels, feeds, direct messages, and otherwise — and fodder the fires of conversation with kindling like Q&As, polls, and other conversation topics.
In some cases, your online course will naturally bring people together in a cohort or other groups. It’s important, though, that you intentionally pair kindred students together in smaller, more intimate groups for more impactful learning.
As Christian Peverelli, founder of WeAreNoCode, shares:
“I do think it starts with smaller groups. Then you allow those smaller groups to participate in a larger community, as a whole so they can feel heard, but then they can also go out there and venture. And some people in our community are looking for co-founders, they're looking for study buddies, they're looking for friends. They want to exchange skills sometimes.”
Like everything with creating a learning community and designing really powerful coursework, it will likely change over time.
Thrive on experimentation: New products, new price points, and new teaching methods
Any good founder of any business will tell you it’s important to always be flexible to change.
You should experiment regularly with every aspect of your business. whether it’s different price points, different teaching formats, different teachers and instructors, or any aspect of your business that could warrant testing.
School16 adopts an experimental mindset regularly, and it’s something they credit for their success today:
“When we started School16, we started with a $15 tuition and a two-month product. We already knew in our heads that we were probably going to offer more classes down the line. But we didn't know when that would be; we needed to get to a certain volume of students and to a certain level of outcomes for students to get there.
We were able to start offering additional classes this year because we got to that level. I think it's really important to have that sort of Northstar of the impact you want to have and work towards it.”
“It's very important to have a healthy mix of both paid and organic acquisition channels that you constantly experiment with to figure out how to grow to make sure that your blended cost of acquisition remains relatively low.
That's what we're constantly doing — we're figuring out how to have low to no cost acquisition channels where the only cost is our sales process and a healthy mix of acquisition channels that are paid but not so expensive that we're barely breaking even.”
Being open to experimentation and the results those experiments can uncover can mean the difference between hosting a good online course and one that’s transformative, impactful, and powerful.
Pro tip: There are some key nuances to keep in mind when you’re building the structure of your online course. We created the ultimate guide to doing so, which you can read here.
Start building your online course today
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