How to Design an Effective Online Course (Even If You’re Not an Academic)

how to design an effective online course

Two years ago, there was a prediction that customer experience would soon overtake both price and product as the key differentiator between brands…

That prediction has come true.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of e-learning and membership sites. When e-learning was less popular, the only real touch points you had with a client was in the “in between” moments – pre-sale, thank-yous, and when they emailed you with some issue here or there.

An online course multiplies your customer touch points, and the quality of your customer experience depends on the entire course, from start to finish.

It opens up a world of opportunity for your online business… but will it be effective enough to make you stand out from the competition?

It depends a lot on whether or not you know how to design an effective online course.

The good news is that you don't have to be an academic or instructor to get the job done.

First Check: Why are you creating an online course?

Answer this question:

Are you creating courses primarily to make more money, or as a way to help people achieve new and amazing things?

Be honest.

There will always be some grey area and blurred lines; you do have a business and you are in it to make money.

But if 90% of the reason why you're creating courses is because of the money potential, stop reading now.

Nothing else in this article will make sense. There are other great guides for designing courses for people who want to make an impact, and this is one too.

It sounds counterintuitive, but:

The primary goal of any profitable course is the success of your client first. Money second.

The main result or benefit that you choose to focus on will serve as your guide through the rest of the process.

Take a moment, and write down your goals for this online course. Make a list of one main benefit that you want your course students to experience when they take the course.

Example: After taking this copywriting course, I want my students to be able to write a landing page that converts well for their business.

Identify potential roadblocks

There's a high level of success that you want your students to achieve. You'll do anything to get them there.

Take time to identify some of the roadblocks that might keep them from experiencing this success after enrolling in the course.

You'll likely find that the potential roadblocks fall into one of two main categories:

Category 1: Roadblocks related to course material and format

  • Lack of clear, succinct information in course content.
  • Confusing structure: student is uncertain how to put together each piece of information given
  • Poor teaching methods: the course material is incomplete and lacks important pieces needed for the student to understand the concepts
  • Etc.

All the roadblocks in this category are 100% under your control as the course creator. The more potential issues you can identify in the planning stages, the better you will be able to implement solutions later on.

Category 2: Roadblocks that are personal to the student

  • Short attention span: student is unable to focus on a full lesson
  • Time constraints: student does not have enough time to consume all materials at a time
  • Busy schedule: student wants to focus on course, but has other responsibilities
  • Difficulty organizing notes: student takes copious amounts of notes, but has difficulty reviewing them
  • Difficulty staying motivated: student loses enthusiasm and motivation for course mid-way through
  • Etc.

As a course creator, you have no control over the schedule, motivation, commitment, or personal lives of your online students. However, you can consider what they're likely to have going on in life, and utilize tools like gamification to help them overcome personal obstacles.

Huge shoutout to Andre Chaperon here, who begins his Sphere of Influence course (which is amazing, by the way) by giving course students real, practical tools to help them overcome personal roadblocks…in the screenshot below, you'll see the first “lesson” of the course emphasizes the importance of dedicating enough time to course material.

Preach it!
how to design an effective online course

After identifying roadblocks, it's time to move on to creating the content itself…

Planning Effective Course Lessons

The “Lesson Plan” is likely the part of course creation you thought of first: how many lessons, what to include in each lesson, etc.

Let's just assume that you already know what you want to teach, and how you're going to teach it (i.e. the intermediary steps of information required before your students can grasp the final concept).

This information needs to be further broken down into an effective course lesson format.

1. The proper length/depth for each lesson

One of the biggest trends bursting into the e-learning scene this year is the concept of microlearning versus lengthier lessons.

Microlearning breaks lesson material down into bite-sized pieces that are easily consumed by your students. It gives their attention span a break and makes it more convenient to participate in your online course by reducing the time commitment required.


Keep in mind that both lesson length (video length, content amount, etc.) and lesson depth (the complexity/number of concepts taught) should be taken into account as you break down your material into individual lessons.

A quick, 5-minute video that packs a ton of complex information might be as exhausting for your students to consume as a boring, 50-minute video that's filled with super basic info.

2. Create lessons that build on each other

After you decide on the amount (and depth) of material that you want to include in each lesson, you can create a mockup for each lesson of your course.

Set up your lessons so that they build on each other; each lesson increasing in difficult and challenge, almost like a staircase.

how to design an effective online course

This format is especially important for skills-based courses, like learning a musical instrument or language, where the material stars extremely basic and grows exponentially in complexity as the study goes on.

3. The First Module Matters Most – Here’s How To Make Sure Yours Is Effective

In online courses, the word “module” is often used to refer to a lesson (or group of lessons). We'll use those terms somewhat interchangeably as we talk about setting up your online course.

Your first module or lesson can make or break the success of your entire course.

According to Make Learning Whole by David Perkins, giving students a big picture overview of the whole concept you’ll be teaching (instead of breaking things down into parts and teaching each part separately)…you provide the best chance for success.

how to design an effective online course

The first module gives a full overview of the course concept. Each consecutive module goes into more detail.

That might even mean that for some students, the first module is all they’ll ever need…and they’ll dive deeper into the next sessions as it makes sense for them to learn more specifics.

Uplevel your course from “good” to “great”

At this point, you should have a solid foundation, prepped and ready to implement. The next few steps are all about uplevelling in key areas that will make your course truly effective in the online sphere.

The effectiveness of your online courses are greatly affected by pairing rock-solid content with psychological motivation.

Improve memory retention

Many students (myself, included) struggle to maintain an accurate memory of course material. A lesson learned one day might be totally forgotten–or remembered imperfectly–the next day.

Two ways to help your students combat this struggle are:

Add low-stakes quizzing to your online course material. This can help kickstart retrieval of material from memory.

You might want to drip-release or otherwise space course material over time. This method also helps students to absorb and retain the knowledge.

Motivate with “wins”

Give students an easy win early on, to motivate them to keep going… whether that’s a simple quiz, a quickstart video, etc.

Known as the endowed progress effect, it's a tactic that makes people feel they have made some progress towards a goal…and results in students becoming even more committed towards its achievement.

Variate Your Method of Delivery

Though neuroscience has long since proven that “learning styles” are a myth, there is some merit to variating the method of content delivery in your online course.

For example, even if you choose video as your primary delivery method, you include written materials (PDFs and other downloads), interactive quizzes, etc.

Though it might not directly help your students learn better, it may give them the variation they need to stay motivated to complete the next lesson or module.

Click to get the 6 membership site models and case studies

Eliminate overwhelm and confusion with good course layout

The more materials you include in your online courses, the more you risk confusing your students. Spend some time planning out your course layout and pages to reduce overwhelm.

Have a plan for your student data

More and more course creators are realizing how important data is for creating and improving online courses.

To increase the effectiveness of your online course, you'll want to be paying attention to various trends with your students, so you can identify problem areas quickly.

An Effective Online Course Starts Strong…And Continues to Grow

With this information, you can create a powerful, effective online course for your students.

But remember:

Online courses are not static. They require consistent monitoring and tweaking for maximum impact.

If you're paying attention as your students grow and evolve over time, you'll find that there's always new opportunities popping up (like Danny Iny's new training, for example) for you to increase the amount of value your online courses deliver.

The future is wide open. Build your course and go meet it.

© 2014-2019 Nathalie Lussier Media Inc. dba AccessAlly™. All rights reserved.