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The Best Tools for Developing Online Courses

The Best Tools for Developing Online Courses

So you want to create an online course. Good news: online education is more popular than ever, and MOOCs are thriving at both universities and online learning platforms. Still, with the high supply of online courses, competition can be fierce, and for developers, simply being an expert in the subject isn’t enough. Successful online courses need:

  • Targeted Market Research
  • A Clear Curriculum
  • The Right Platform
  • High Production Quality
  • Community Engagement

Below, let’s investigate why each of these points is key to course development and explore the best tips and tools to help kickstart your online course.

1) Know Your Market

Before you even begin to create a course, ask yourself:

  • Who is the course for?
  • How many people are realistically interested the course?
  • How many people are realistically interested in enrolling?
  • Why?
  • You sure?
  • Ok, how do you reach these potential students?
  • Ok, how do you convert potential students into enrolled students?

That may sound like a lot, but don’t be intimidated. Addressing these issues at the start will save you a lot of trouble once you’ve got your course up and running.

The first question is the most important. If you don’t know your audience, it’s difficult-to-impossible to create an effective course. Are there online courses on similar topics? If not, you’ve either discovered an untapped market (hooray!), or there’s no demand. Given the general surplus of online courses, the latter is more likely. Consider expanding the topic to appeal to a wider audience, or reach out on relevant social media, discussion boards, and other platforms to ask if anyone would be interested in the course. (This is also a good way to crowdsource suggestions for lesson plans, delivery style, etc. More on community engagement later.)

If similar courses already exist, that’s good news. Yes, you’ll have competition, but you’ve also got proof of concept and helpful comps. Take a good look at the available courses. What works? What could be improved? What do the most popular online courses have in common? Review student feedback, and consider taking the course yourself. The best way to find inspiration for new ideas is to revisit old ones. (Side note: if you want to develop an online course but have never taken an online course, please do so now.) Quality comps will serve you throughout the course development process, and offer insight into the “who,” “where,” “why,” and “how many” of your target demographic. Use them!

A lot of your market research will be plain due diligence: roll up your sleeves, and the hit the digital pavement. But there are a few tools worth highlighting, most of which are designed for small businesses and startups:

  • Think With Google: Leverage a half-dozen marketing tools, including Market Finder, Google Trends, and Consumer Barometer, plus analytics resources, blog posts, and expert insights. Free.
  • Survey Monkey: The world’s best online survey software is a great tool to find your market and tailor course development. If you don’t have a pre-existing audience base, they’ll find you one. Free, or plans starting at $35/month.
  • Facebook Audience Insights: Tap into Facebook’s data trove to learn more about your target demographic. Free.
  • Social Mention: One of several real-time social media search engines available online. This one is especially simple and offers actionable granular data. Free.

2) Develop a Clear, Precise, and Marketable Curriculum

Now that you know your target demographic and potential gaps in the market, you can start to develop the course curriculum. Obviously course content itself is contingent on the topic, but let’s run through a few basics of planning and design (which might be obvious, as well).

First off: return to the comps! Review the best available online courses in your field, and mark the most common lesson plans to outline a standard curriculum. This is the course skeleton – now flesh it out. (Bear with the bad conceit here….) Is something missing that you can add? Maybe there are too many bones and not enough meat: trim down the total lessons, and bulk up individual ones to create a leaner, more robust curriculum. Again, go back to other online courses and review the feedback for clues. If you’re unsure how detailed your curriculum should be, err on the side of caution for now. A highly structured plan helps your organization, but over-planning in early development can create false starts and dead ends. Leave room for flexibility and maneuvering; as with any class, online or on-campus, teachers have to adapt to individual students’ needs and develop an improv instinct.

On a separate but related note, online course creators need to consider the actual look of their curriculum, as well. That is, what are potential students going to see when they’re shopping for classes. (We’re veering into production quality a bit, but since we’re on the subject….) For a large portion of students, the curriculum will be the deciding factor, so this step is as much marketing-related as it is pedagogical. Needless to say, your copy should be clean and concise (and ideally optimized for SEO). Go through several drafts, and, once again, aim for balance. You want to convey enough to pique student interest, but not so much that the curriculum appears busy or overwhelming. As for content, emphasize actionable lesson plans and program objectives. Students are here because they have questions; you need to offer answers and solutions, particularly if your course covers a specific skill.

As with market research, curriculum development is labor-intensive, and frankly, this isn’t a step you be should shortcutting. Still, a few resources worth checking out:

Be sure to check social media and threads on e-learning platforms, as well. Which leads us to the next step….

3) Choose the Right Online Learning Platform

Realistically, this section warrants its own page, but let’s review a few popular e-learning platforms. (Depending on your needs, you’ll choose between standalone, all-in-one, marketplace, or enterprise platforms; or WordPress or LMS plugins.) If you’ve never heard of these, or you don’t have at least some idea which platforms work best for your course, you might need to return to the drawing board.

  • Udemy: With over 12 million students and 20,000 instructors, Udemy is one of the world’s most popular e-learning platforms. Its bread-and-butter is hard-skill business and tech training, but there’s a growing community of lifestyle, health and fitness, music, and traditional liberal arts courses, too. Free to use with tiered revenue share.
  • Teachable: Classes tend to cover skill-building for creators, business professionals, authors, and niche experts. The platform’s functionality and design are top-notch, and instructors have earned over $100 million. Plans start at $39/month.
  • Skillshare: As the name implies, Skillshare is for practical instruction, from learning MailChimp to inkdrawing techniques. Instructors also get personalized support to customize classes and can build shareable portfolios. Free to use with revenue share.
  • LearnWorlds: An end-to-end platform featuring sales tools, community engagement, advanced analytics, and customizable front-end course development, allowing course instructors to host a personalized URL. Free trial period with plans starting at $24/month.
  • Thinkific: Similar to the above, Thinkific helps you create, market, and sell online courses from your own website. With 25,000 current instructors, Thinkific emphasizes top-rated customer service, course customization, and streamlined development tools. Free to use with a 10% transaction fee, or premium options starting at $49/month.

Again, there are dozens of great e-learning platforms. The key is to find one that fits your needs and budget, and can attract your target demo.

4) Produce High Quality, Content-Rich Videos

Now that you’ve done all your homework, the fun can begin: it’s time to create an online course!

Provided that your lesson plans are in order, the first order of business is scriptwriting and storyboarding, which of course has different meanings depending on subject matter and personal style and preference. For instance, if you’re developing an online course in digital illustration, your script may consist of a general outline, featuring a progression of illustrations you want to appear onscreen coupled with instructions on technique, etc. The outline itself may be intricately structured, especially on video cues, but the instructions, or voiceover/audio, may be spare to encourage a conversational tone. After all, this is an art course, so a casual format makes sense, whereas an online course in SaaS analytics could be very different. (Or not: again, it’s both a stylistic and methodological decision.)

In any event, the scenario above would only need a basic AV Script – i.e., a document with two columns dedicated to audio and video – in which case any word processing app works. If your video concept is more demanding, try using a more traditional TV/film script format and storyboard. There are several premium programs you can buy, but it’s hard to justify the cost. Celtx is an excellent all-in-one program with a free option, or try Amazon’s relatively new Storywriter.

Or do whatever suits you – and don’t get too distracted by the scruples of screenwriting. What matters is the actual production, and in all likelihood, that’s going to be trial-and-error.

I know, I know. Not what you wanted to read on an article purporting to offer a step-by-step guide for online course development. And yet….

The best advice for beginners is to keep it simple. A course can have high production value without advanced audio/video techniques, and a straightforward approach suits online education better, anyway. Many platforms offer production support, and if you insist on developing your production skills – well, take an online course or YouTube tutorial! (Adobe Premiere and Final Cut are the most popular premium video editing tools, but iMovie is solid option for tight budgets.)

The main thing is to keep the videos polished, professional, and content-rich, by which I mean packing maximum punch. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the optimal length for e-learning videos is 6-9 minutes. That means each video should address one specific topic – or, framed another way, answer one specific question – from which you can divide the video into separate sections or “beats”: Part 1 of Answer, Part 2 of Answer, Part 3, etc. It’s up to you whether you literally break the video into beats, or simply organize the script that way.

At the same time, videos need to strike a balance. Too much content crammed into 6 minutes is information overload; too little content spread out over 12 minutes risks losing the audience. Aim for compactness, and utilize all your tools. (A helpful tip: use onscreen content to reinforce offscreen voiceover. Show and tell.) The goal is to deliver the lesson in the most efficient, natural manner possible. If you’re breathless at the end, you’ve done it wrong.

5.) Engage Your Community Online

This step can’t be stressed enough. The most successful online course creators stay engaged with their students, from start to finish. Ask for comments and/or requests. Suggest supplementary reading, or recommend other online courses. Many e-learning platforms offer built-in community tools – which is great! – but don’t stop there. Foster an open-door social media policy, and encourage your students to develop their own online communities to collaborate and review each other’s work.

Above all, keep things fun and lively. The most popular MOOC instructors highlight the importance of interaction, both within the course and the community. Other than pure scale, online education’s biggest benefit is the ability to create a dynamic learning environment, in which the relationship between students, instructors, and course material combines in a unique form – certainly different than a whiteboard.

So take advantage!