Online Course Planning: How to Develop an Online Course

When you're starting an online course business, the course planning process can seem daunting. But with careful thought and some advanced preparation, it doesn't have to be difficult whether you're creating your first online course or you already run an online school.

Online Course Planning: How to Develop an Online Course

When you're starting an online course business, the course planning process can seem daunting.

But with careful thought and some advanced preparation, it doesn't have to be difficult whether you're creating your first online course or you already run an online school.

Almost anyone can create an online course with the right planning. By following a few simple steps, you can develop an online course that is both educational and engaging for your learners. In this post, we'll walk you through the process of planning your very own online courses.

Before we begin, it's important to understand that the online course creation process is iterative. That means you'll keep going back to an earlier step in the process as you get to later steps. For example, you might plan out your content only to find later that you've put too much into a single week and need to either take some content out or add more time.

Don't get frustrated if that happens since it's a normal part of the process and all of those ideas you don't end up using can be the start of future online courses.

35mm photo negatives

Develop your online course idea

When it comes to planning perfect online courses, one of the most important things is to choose the right topic. The topic you choose should be something that you're interested in and passionate about. It should also be something that you're knowledgeable about and can teach others about.

Think about the online course you would like to create.

What topics would you like to cover?

How can you make your online course interesting and valuable for learners?

What tools and resources do you need to get started?

You probably already have a pretty solid idea for your main online course topic. The goal here is to dive a bit deeper into that idea and improve it while categorizing some of your course ideas into subtopics in your course structure.

Another goal is to help you create a course where students enroll so you don't spend time creating a course that no one wants to buy.

Consider your target audience and what you hope to achieve with the online course.

Are you looking to teach a specific subject?

Or are you hoping to create a more general online course?

Are you planning on creating more online courses about similar topics in the future?

What to consider when planning your online course

There are three main things to consider when planning your online course.

Your target audience

Knowing who you are teaching will help you to determine the best way to teach them.

For example, are you teaching adults or children?

There are many different ways that you can tailor your teaching methods to best suit the needs of your learners.

If you are teaching adults, you may want to focus on more interactive activities that allow for discussion and collaboration. If you are teaching children, you may want to use more games and activities that keep them engaged.

The subject matter

Some subject matter lends itself to different teaching styles.

Are you teaching an online course about video production? Then your online course will probably need to have a lot of video content.

Are you teaching an online course about meditation? Then you'll probably need audio content.

Are you teaching a course about writing? You guessed it. Your course will need a lot of written examples.

Trying to decide what content to include in your online course can be difficult.

You don't want to overwhelm learners, but you also want to give them enough information that they can learn the material.

Learners usually like to learn in the shortest amount of time possible, but some teachers like to make the process take longer to appear to be more of an expert. Don't be that teacher.

Real experts can teach complex topics in shorter amounts of time rather than the other way around.

Tailor your course to your audience and include the right amount of content.

The learning objectives

What do you want your students to learn?

Make a list of specific learning objectives that you can refer to as you develop the online course.

A learning objective states what learners should understand or be able to accomplish after taking a course. These can be pretty broad goals. You can get more specific in a later step.

Soccer goal

How to determine the goals of your online course

When planning your online course, it's important to determine its goals.

What should your students be able to do as a result of taking your online course?

One way to determine your goals is to take a look at the learning objectives of the online course.

What are the specific learning goals that you want your learners to achieve?

Another way to determine your goals is to consider the desired outcomes of the online course.

A learning outcome is a lot more specific than a learning objective. A learning outcome is a statement that describes what a student is expected to know or be able to do as a result of participating in a course.

That sounds a lot like a learning objective, but the learning outcome must also be measurable and specific and use measurable verbs.

So a learning objective might be for a student to do better in math, but the learning outcome would be to increase a student's SAT math score by 10 points.

Okay, that was a bit too much into the weeds of instructional design than we normally like to go. To be completely honest, I felt that writing learning outcomes was a complete waste of time when I worked at an accredited online school.

The main point is that you can either use big general goals or more specific ones. And if you love to get deep into educational theory, then these objectives can be a great planning tool in your course creation framework.

Personally, though, I feel that course creators can get to the same place without the time-consuming process of writing such painfully specific learning goals.

They seem like they're made to impress other instructors or accrediting bodies rather than really help most students learn.

Notes on reminders

Create your online course outline

Once you've determined your goals, it's important to create a plan for how you will achieve them.

Start refining your plan further.

What topics will be covered?

What format will the course take - video, text, or a mix of both?

How much time will learners need to complete the course?

What activities will you use in your course to help your students learn the material?

You should also consider the features present in your learning management system. After all, it wouldn't be a wise choice to spend time developing course materials that you can't implement in your learning management system of choice.

Once you have a general idea of what you want to teach, it's time to start developing a course outline. This is where you'll map out the specific topics that will be covered in the course, as well as the order in which they will be presented.

Create a good online course outline that covers the key topics and concepts your learners need to know to fully understand the main topic.

If you need more help, you can read more about how to create a course outline.

How to structure your course content

Think about how you will structure your online course.

Will it be a series of lectures, or will students be able to interact with one another?

How much work will learners be expected to do on their own?

There are a variety of ways to structure your course content. You can create a mostly lecture-based course, or you can include activities and assignments for students to complete.

Another option is to create a mainly interactive course, with learners working on projects and sharing their ideas with each other or with the instructor.

Whichever approach you choose, make sure that the structure of your online course is clear and easy to follow and that you have plans on purchasing the course tools required. If students are going to collaborate then you want to give them the platform where they can communicate and not expect them to pick up a cell phone.

Plan your lessons

Develop learning objectives for each lesson or module, and make sure the activities you choose are effective in helping learners meet those objectives and learn the skills or remove the pain point promised by your course.

Attention written on multicolor blocks

Tips for creating engaging and effective lessons

Creating effective and engaging online lessons for online courses can be a daunting task. However, by following some simple tips, course creators can create lessons that are both informative and interesting to learners.

The five tips below should help you to easily create engaging and effective lessons.

Keep it engaging

One of the most important things to keep in mind when creating online lessons is to make sure that the content is engaging.

This means using multimedia elements such as videos, images, and interactive content whenever they can help your students learn.

Don't be intimidated, though. You typically don't need your own home studio to create the simple videos required for online learning.

Instead, you can start production using simple screen recording software or use video editing tools that come free with your computer like iMovie on a Mac or Windows Movie Maker.

Additionally, be sure to vary the types of activities you include in your lessons. For example, include both discussion questions and opportunities for students to practice new skills.

Consider additional resources like downloadable files, infographics, or other extra materials that can help students feel engaged with your course topic.

Not only does this keep the attention of your students, but it also helps you to teach to different learning styles and provides students with bonus content about your course topic that they can easily reference later.

Ice sculptures in Utah

Create a clear structure

Another key element of effective online lesson design is creating a clear structure for your lessons.

This means including an introduction, body, and conclusion, as well as separating different types of content into clearly labeled sections. Teaching online is a lot like teaching in person, but it's on a computer screen and you have a lot more time to carefully structure your entire course.

If you have an expansive topic and are looking for an example structure, feel free to look at the most popular books on the topic. You wouldn't want to copy them, but looking at how their chapters are structured can help you to cut down on the time invested in content creation for your courses.

Man assembling wooden furniture

Provide clear instructions

Additionally, be sure to provide clear instructions for students on how to complete activities. This will help to ensure that they stay on track and don’t become lost in the lesson.

A lost student can't be successful in your course and will never be able to learn the skills that you are trying to communicate to them.

Test your lessons

Finally, it is important to test your lessons before releasing them. This will help you to catch any potential problems and make necessary adjustments. There might be typos or other errors present even if you have reviewed the individual lessons yourself. Have someone else look over your lessons to be sure you haven't overlooked anything.

Collect student feedback

Additionally, it’s a good idea to get feedback from students after they have completed the lesson. This can help course creators to gauge their students' understanding of the content and determine whether or not the lesson was successful. One easy way to collect feedback is through assessments.

White board with post-it notes on feedback board

Ideas for assessment and grading in online courses

Students need to have clear feedback on what they've learned in an online course. One way to do this is through assessment and grading.

Assessment involves evaluating a student's work, assessing the quality of what was done, and looking at the extent of their understanding or mastery. Grading involves assigning a letter grade (A+, A, A-, B+, B, etc.), percentage, or another symbol of evaluation to the work.

Student fills answers on bubble test sheet

There are a variety of ways for course creators to assess and grade online courses. One option is to have learners complete tasks or assignments and then submit them for grading.

This can include essays, tests, projects, presentations, and more. Instructors can then provide feedback on the work, letting learners know what they did well and where they need to improve.

Another option is to use a quiz or survey tool. This can be done periodically throughout the online course, or at the end, to measure how much was learned. Instructors can use quiz results to give feedback and to help learners focus on the areas they need to improve.

Grading can also be done through peer assessment. This involves having students grade each other's work and then providing feedback. This can help learners learn how to evaluate others' work and give constructive feedback.

No matter which method is used, it's important to ensure that learners have a clear understanding of what is being assessed and how they will be graded. This will help them to be successful in the online course.

Managing the workload for yourself and your students

One of the things you'll need to determine is how long your online course should be. This will depend on a variety of factors, including how much content you have and how much time students will have to complete the online course.

Tired businessman

You'll also need to consider how much work you're willing and able to put into the online course yourself. There's no right or wrong answer, but it's important to be realistic about what you can manage. You don't want to make time commitments that you are unable to keep.

Once you've set a time frame, break your content down into manageable chunks. This will help your students stay on track and avoid overwhelm.

This might mean creating weekly modules with specific goals or simply dividing your content into sections that can be completed over a month or two.

How to create a timeline for your online course

Creating a timeline for your online course is an important step in breaking your online course into manageable chunks. Online courses can get overwhelming for learners if they are not planned out well.

Asian woman using laptop

By plotting out the different modules of the course, you can ensure that each one is given enough time to be properly completed and that no tasks are left unfinished. Additionally, by having a timeline to refer to, you can more easily track your progress and ensure that you are on schedule.

There are a few different factors to take into account when creating a timeline for your online course.

The first step is to decide how long your course will be. This will help you determine how many modules the course will need to be divided into, and how much time should be allocated to each module.

If the course is shorter, you may need to combine a few modules or reduce the time for each module. Shorter courses can be just as effective at teaching as longer courses. Students usually don't care about the length of a course; they care about actually learning the material.

The next step is to divide the course topics and learning outcomes into modules. Each module should have a specific goal or outcome that is to be achieved.

Additionally, each module should be given a specific timeframe, which will help your learners stay on track and ensure that each one is completed within the set timeframe.

The last step is to create a checklist of tasks to be completed during each module. This will help you ensure that each task is completed within the set timeframe and that no steps are missed.

Putting all of this together, your timeline for your course should look something like the following example:

  • Course length: _____ weeks/months
  • Module 1: _____ weeks/months
  • Module 2: _____ weeks/months
  • Module 3: _____ weeks/months
  • Tasks to be completed in Module 1: _____
  • Tasks to be completed in Module 2: _____
  • Tasks to be completed in Module 3: _____

By following this template, you can ensure that your course is well-planned and effective.

If you find that you've put too much for students to complete into a module, go back a few steps in the course content creation process and modify. You don't have to rework the course structure for your entire course.

If you need more help, you can read about creating online course content in another article.

Create a launch timeline

Create a timeline for yourself so you can stay on track and have everything ready to go when your course launches.

Rocket ship launch

You can use a traditional course launch or an evergreen launch. The purpose of a traditional launch is to gain high market demand for the course before it is available, but this can also be done with an evergreen model.

In either case, it's important to put a date on your calendar and start letting others know that you are releasing a course.

This helps build interest in your course and helps you to stay on track because you have made a commitment to launch your course on a specific date.

Once you know when you are launching, you can work back and determine your schedule for your modules and individual lessons. Putting dates down on your calendar helps you to stay focused and stay a step ahead because you probably won't have a boss making sure that you hit your deadlines.

Online course creation practice

If this process seems a bit intimidating, then there are options where the goal is a much shorter course which will give you practice making courses that you can apply toward creating larger courses in the future.


A good way to make the course creation less intimidating is to begin your course creator journey with creating a mini-course. A mini-course is a short course to walk students through a simple task.

Group dog training

If your larger course is about dog training, then an example for a shorter course would be how to teach your dog one specific trick.

Mini-courses can form the basis of a business model for an online school since they can also work as a way to grow your audience so you can pre-sell your larger course later once you gain more confidence in your course creation abilities and have more people to offer your course to.

Your planning process will be much easier and your course outline will be much shorter. It's literally the mini version of what we just worked through above.

A mini-course can also be a free program that introduces you to your students so that they trust you when you try to sell them a more expensive course later.

Yellow email sign on pink background

Email courses

You can deliver an email course if don't want to invest in additional resources like a learning management system until your online school gains some momentum. All you need is a valid email from your learners and a way to send email courses. Tools like GetResponse offer free plans to help you get started.

Idea of business plan

Online course business planning

You might be creating one course to help your customers better use a product or service that you already sell, but most course creators are looking to create an entire business.

If that's you, then the planning process doesn't stop with the creation of just one course. There are many courses in your future. Think about an overall plan for related courses and when you will release them.

You might have discovered several new course ideas throughout this process, but if you didn't that's okay too. Your students are going to ask a lot of questions as they complete your course. Some of those questions will help you to improve the course that you just created, but others will give you inspiration for new course topics that you might not have thought of on your own.

Take all of these new topics and work through this process again to meet the needs of your learners and better help them on their journey to success.

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