Online courses. Er'body's making them. They're a great way to share what you know about specific topics, while earning some passive income in the process. But online courses can be beasts. I've said it before – "passive" income is a bit of a misnomer because it glosses over the amount of work that goes into creating the product in the first place. For each of my online courses, I spent a good 4-6 months creating the content + promotion that went into those product launches.
The InDesign Field Guide and Etsy on Autopilot are my two online courses, and both of these had A LOT of material to cover. The concepts + strategies taught covered a wide range of topics, so making sure it was organized in a logical way for my students was vital to the success of each of them.
Organizing your content is an important first step as you begin to create your online course. This is the step that a lot of people get hung up on. Maybe you know you have knowledge on a specific topic, but you don't know the best way or order to communicate that to a student who's eager to learn. I’ve got one main method that I used to create both of my online courses, and it gets you away from the screen and down on the floor... with good old-fashioned notecards.
My notecard method to organize an online course (or other large digital product / program).
1. Brain dump.
Write out every specific topic you want to cover, each one on a separate notecard. Don’t worry about organization at this point, just brain dump onto those notecards. Try to keep your smaller topics somewhat grouped together for things that are obviously related. Here's an example of what I mean:
For my course The InDesign Field Guide, rather than writing character size, character spacing, line spacing, character width, etc. on different notecards, I already knew that all of these topics would need to be taught together and they fit in the larger category of just Character Styling. So I just used one notecard for that topic, labeled Character Styling, and then I wrote out a few of these smaller items on the same notecard as a reminder to myself later.
2. Group 'em up.
Once you have everything you think you want to cover written out on your notecards, start organizing the notecards into groups and orders. For ideas on how to organize your groups, here are five common ways to divvy it up:
Sequential / Chronological – go in order, step 1, 2, 3, 4; everything builds on the previous thing
Cause + Effect – think problem + solution; great for teaching how to troubleshoot or solve problems
Simple to Complex – start basic and build to more complex ideas; gives a good foundation and confidence that they can tackle the next thing.
Big Idea to Specific Idea – start with a big picture view of your topic, then start to get more specific and more specific with each additional piece of content; could also be viewed as showing the “whole” first, then elaborating on each “part” that makes up the whole.
Categorical – topics that generally fit in the same category are grouped together; chronological order doesn’t really matter, just that the groupings naturally go together.
3. Type your outline.
Type up all your categories + notecard topics in an outline form – and here’s your outline for your online course! The groups + categories you created become your lessons (or some people call them modules), and the notecards in each group become the content for that lesson. You could use Word, Pages, or Google Docs to type up your outline, but I prefer Evernote (here's why).
Once you have a handful of lessons organized, you can break down each lesson even more by grouping similar content together again. This will help you develop some sub-lessons and break your content into smaller bites for your students to digest.
4. Fill in the gaps.
Once you have your outline, you can start expanding on each section with more ideas and content to further expand on your topics. Think of different ways you could present your information. Is a PDF best, or would a video be better to explain this point? Would a worksheet be helpful for the student to fill in their own answers, or would something more visual like a chart or map better fit that section? Here’s a quick list of five common types of content that you could use to share about your topic:
lists — pros/cons, quick tips, top ten
reference guides — quick start, shortcuts, glossary, cheat sheet, how-to
interactive — checklist, worksheet, form, planner, fill-in-the-blank, homework
samples — examples from your own experiences or case studies of others’
video — screenshare tutorials, slideshow presentations, workshops, webinars
5. Set up your notes.
For my online courses, I then create a separate note in Evernote for each lesson + sub-lesson – you could use separate documents or pages if you’re using a word processing program. It makes for a lot of notes / documents, but it lets me see everything I have to expand on for each lesson in one quick glance.
You may also have a miscellaneous category for things that don’t quite fit in your other categories. This is okay! You can use these as bonuses, extra resources, or even freebies to promote whatever your course. Don’t scrap those ideas just because they don’t fit. Get creative with how you could use them to add value to your product.
These methods don't just apply to online courses – you could use this same notecard method to organize your content for an e-book, a webinar, an email course, or even a live event.
For more info on creating an online course, check out this post which includes a free download for some unique content ideas.
How do you organize content for larger products like online courses? Anyone else love getting away from the computer screen and getting back to the basics with pencil + paper every now and then?! Just me?
Free Email Course — The Digital Product Roadmap
Organizing your content for an online course is only one piece of the puzzle, and frankly, the rest of it can be kind of confusing + overwhelming. If you’re curious about all the other pieces of that puzzle, check out my free email course, The Digital Product Roadmap. This free course walks you through the 8 checkpoints for driving your digital product from idea to launch, and includes resources + action steps for each checkpoint (organizing + writing your content is Checkpoint #4, FYI). Signup below, and we’ll get started this week!