When you’re creating your first online course, there’s a lot to get excited about. Between planning and creating beautiful slide templates and writing scripts for your live promotional webinars, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself.

Before you can sell a course, though, you need to have a course. Or at least an idea of what your course is going to cover, should you choose to presell.

With that said, you need to plan your course content. This can seem like an intimidating task for those of us who don’t have teaching degrees and have never lesson planned in our lives, but I’m here to ease your worries and assure you that it’s easier than you might imagine. 

You’re qualified even if you're not "an expert"

Some people get hung up in the planning stage. I think every online course instructor has had that moment of panic that says, “Who am I to be teaching this? I’ve only just learned it myself and I’ve never taught anyone anything! I’m not even an expert!”

Deep breaths, my friend. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to have experience teaching. What you do need is to be an authority and at least one step ahead of your audience.

The more recently you were in your students’ shoes, the better you remember their pain points, and more importantly how you overcame those pain points. 

It’s easy to get that feeling of “Oh no! I’m an imposter!” but push those voices to the back of your head and keeping pushing forward.

Now, moving forward:

Narrowing down a course topic

For the purpose of this post, we’re going to imagine that you already have a pretty solid idea of what you’re going to teach, but before we go any further, let’s refine it. 

Oftentimes we see our course instructors trying to be everything for everybody, and that is something you want to avoid. It’s tempting to want to create the biggest, flashiest, most comprehensive course on your chosen topic ever, but we’ve found that’s not actually what most students want.

Most students have a very specific pain point they want solved. They don’t need to know knitting 101, they don’t have any interest in knitting anything other than afghans, so while your modules on mittens, and scarves, and ponchos may all be great and informative, your audience won’t care to watch them. 

Instead, solve their specific pain point. Reach out to your audience directly and see what it is they’re struggling with and would like to know and go from there. You can post a tweet asking your audience what they’re struggling with, or send a survey out to your email list.

Wherever your audience is hanging out, meet them there and find out their problems. 

Planning your course content creates a solid foundation for your entire course business, and here is the fool–proof guide walking you through how to do it.

You’ll likely find the same pain point will come up again and again. Focus there. 

If you’re bent on creating the ultimate resource on your topic ever, consider creating a course bundle in the future. That means you can combine 5 different courses about knitting and combine them into an ultimate bundle. This gives your audience the freedom to choose what they want to learn based on what they already know.

Settled on a course topic?

Great! Once you know what you’re teaching, we can get into the nitty gritty and actually plan your course content.

This might seem intimidating or overwhelming, but trust me when I say that you’re more than equipped to get started.

Deciding who your course is for

When you’re planning your course, you need to decide what level your audience is already at. If they already know the basics of your topic and you’re going to help them advance in their skills or apply them in a new way, you don’t need to spell out the very beginning steps. 

On the other hand, if they’re completely new to what you’re teaching you’re going to have to put yourself back into their shoes and think about your struggles when you were just getting started.

Again, this is a good time to look towards your current audience. Do they already know how to knit and want to apply those skills to making afghans? Or are they complete novices with big afghan dreams? This is something you can also clarify when you’re asking them about their pain points.

Once you choose your audience, we’re ready to start planning. 

Creating your course structure

We’re going to use our mental time–machines for this one. Take yourself back to when you knew what your target audience knows and nothing more. Now, start writing down every single step you took to get to where you are now, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.

Pro tip: It’s easy to gloss over the things that now feel like second nature for you. Really try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. The things that you don’t even think about now may have been what you struggled with the most when you were starting out.

Once you’ve created a list that is thorough you can start grouping like steps into sections or modules. That might look like this, with your steps on the left, and the grouping on the right:

Planning your course content creates a solid foundation for your entire course business, and here is the fool–proof guide walking you through how to do it.

Creating your video outline

Once you’ve broken your course topic down to steps, you’ll need to buff each individual step out further. 

For example, sticking with our knitting example, casting on is more than just “casting on.” There is some twisting and tying and looping and pulling. List out every single thing involved in each step. Don’t treat anything like it’s too obvious.

Again—get really nitty gritty with this. No step is too insignificant. You may think creating a loop–knot is a basic life skill that everyone already knows, but that might be your experience talking.

By filling out the small steps within each main step, you’re effectively creating the video script that you’ll use when it comes time to record.

Decide how you’ll present your content

You may find that a lot of what you’re trying to teach is easier shown than explained, so you as you fill out the steps, decide whether you’d rather create a slide with bullet–points or a talking head video where you sit and physically show your audience what you’re trying to teach them.

Depending on the niche, you may find that all of your videos are very visual or that all of your videos are slides with text. Others may find that their courses are a mix between the two. Just make sure you’re noting how you want to present your content as you fill out the steps. 

It’s easier to do so now while it’s fresh on your mind than it would be to make an entire extra step of this process later.

Put it to the test

Before you go all in and commit to recording everything, consider asking a friend you trust (who doesn’t have experience with what you’re teaching) to take a critical look at your outline. Ask them what questions they might have or what gaps need filled.

I’ve said it before—but you may very likely gloss over the things that are just so simple and so obvious to you after gaining experience that you often need a fresh pair of eyes to let you know what is missing.

The most important question you need to ask your friend: Would you feel comfortable executing what my course is teaching after reading this?

If the answer is no, ask them why and work with them to fill in the blanks.

Pro tip: We all have that friend who is too nice for their own good. Don’t ask them because they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Ask someone who will be critical.

Planning supplemental materials

A lot of online course instructors like to add bonuses to their online course. Things like workbooks, checklists, online communities, and whatever else they can dream up.

These bonuses help increase the value of your online course and sweeten the deal for people who might still be debating whether or not they want to take the plunge and purchase.

But as a word of warning: You do not want to create bonuses just for the sake of having them. They should add to the overall message of your course and bring extra clarity to your lesson.

That’s where your friend’s feedback can come in handy. Maybe they were really having trouble grasping your “Adding Fringe” lesson in your course. If you’re handy with Illustrator (or want to outsource to someone who is) you can create an entire diagram that visually takes your students through the various fringe–creating methods.

Planning your course content creates a solid foundation for your entire course business, and here is the fool–proof guide walking you through how to do it.

Keep in mind, that some of these resources come with their own sets of pro’s and con’s. For example, if you decide to create an online community that is something you’ll have to maintain indefinitely and you should charge accordingly.

And for bonuses like partner discounts, there will be a lot of coordinating with businesses and you have to count on them to uphold their end of the deal. For example, if they agree to give you a 30% coupon code for your students, you advertise that, and the brand pulls out last minute that is going to reflect poorly upon you. 

Outlining your bonuses

Again, you’re going to want to use that time–machine of yours to go back and put yourself in your students’ shoes. What would have been the most helpful piece of content for you? 

Think about what you wish you had when you were learning, and make that for your students. 

For example, when I was learning photoshop I signed up for an incredible online community where you could post your questions and get instant feedback from the people in the group. There were nearly a thousand of us in the group, all at different skill levels, so chances were that you’d have an answer within half an hour.

If you think instant feedback is what your students need and are up for maintaining an online community, think about how you want to structure it.

You can create daily threads, or a set list of rules so that the group doesn’t dissolve to chaos. You can also plan on hiring or enlisting a community manager to help you maintain the group, depending on the budget.

List every single thing you want the group to accomplish, and then decide how you’ll accomplish that. 

Maybe online communities aren’t your thing. Another valuable bonus you can consider is creating a shopping list. Keeping with my knitting example, make an easy to shop list of everything your audience will need from start to finish.

You can create an Amazon store to make things easy for them and link to it, or just list products and provide links to where they can find them.

The planning stage is finished…

...Now what? It’s finally time to bring your online course to life and start production. This is something you can be thrifty with, but it’s also something that can end up being very pricey if you decide to outsource or hire a production team. 

Personally, I’m all for penny pinching while still focusing on quality. Believe it or not, you can actually set up your own home studio without breaking the budget. 

Planning your course content creates a solid foundation for your entire course business, and here is the fool–proof guide walking you through how to do it.

Once you’ve figured out your studio, the planning stage is officially finished. Now it’s time to execute your creation and then your launch. If you want to start thinking about your launch, we’ve got plenty of resources here on the Teachable blog.

Any questions? Leave them in the comments. I’ll be checking back and answering each one!

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Morgan Timm

Written by Morgan Timm

Morgan Timm is a content marketer at Teachable with a background in blogging and social media. She runs Mostly Morgan, a life and style blog that reaches an audience of 40,000 people monthly.