While the exact structure of your online course depends on various factors, such as subject matter and teaching style, this blog will give you a general idea of how to go about designing your course.
Before we discuss how to structure an online course, we should first deep-dive into our audience’s pain points. What is the customer’s main predicament? The only reason someone would purchase a course is to solve a problem they have or if they believe it will improve the quality of their life.
The course should be addressed to audiences that have demonstrated a need for your content and should teach them actionable strategies for overcoming their pain points.
Keep these points in mind as you go about outlining a structure for your online course.
Group Similar Ideas into Modules
An effective way to get your content to learners is to organize content based on the similarity of characteristics. This technique is easy when all the information is equal (without a specific sequence). Grouping content into categories reduces screen clutter by bringing together similar content. These groups can then be called ‘modules’.
Note: Modules do not have to be of equal sizes. Some of your modules can have 3 lessons in them. Others may have over 20. And that’s completely okay.
Once you have your modules together, you should decide their order based on the difficulty level. You can also arrange the models in a specific order, based on the type of content you’re creating. Your content will be your lessons. They don’t have to come in a certain order and depend on what you are teaching.
Wondering how to structure an online course based on modules? Here is an example:
A progressive flow that depends on the order
Lesson 1: How to structure an online course. Step 1
Lesson 2: How to structure an online course. Step 2
Lesson 3: How to structure an online course. Step 3
A collection of tips – not dependent on order
Lesson 1: 5 tips on organizing an online course
Lesson 2: 7 tips on online course structure
Lesson 3: Major tips on making a profitable online course
As you can see, the order of your content depends on the nature of your learning material. You can always go back to the content and restructure it in a way that you feel is most natural. You may realize when you look at them that you have missed something valuable, so do add extra tips if you think it can make your content more informative.
Once you are happy with the order of the content, you can move on to the next steps: choosing an online course format.
Cause and Effect
Another great way of getting students to access your content is to organize the course with a cause and effect. There are three ways of organizing content this way:
There is a single specific event with multiple connected causes
There are multiple effects connected with a single cause
There are several causes and effects
The third approach may work best in engineering when analyzing a problem with multiple causes and effects.
Select Type of Content
You can produce your online course in more than one format. Classes can be on slideshows, video, documents, and so on. Videos are usually preferred by students because they make the course more interesting and dynamic.
Other types of content include:
Live Broadcasts: Live broadcasts give you a chance to interact with your students in real-time.
Slide: While the video is always better for engagement levels, there are times when text and images are just more convenient for everyone.
Audio: We recommend using audio for brief explanations. You can also add a link to a more in-depth podcast to talk about the class.
PDFs: If the online course has supporting material that students need to refer to the side by side, it usually comes in the form of PDF documents.
Organize Online Course by Choosing a Format
You can choose from three main formats as the basis of your online course structure.
A step by step course
A week by week course
1) A Step by Step Course
The step by step program is the most popular online course format that works by taking your clients on a clear journey and provides a more accurate estimation of the endpoint. Each step builds on the last one, contributing to specific goals as it reaches the end, where a learning objective is completed.
For a shorter course, you probably only want 3 to 5 main steps or modules that will comprise the bulk of your course. Every module contains several lessons that teach the actual course.
Breaking up your content into a handful of separate lessons is useful and helps students recognize the main stages they will have to move through as they progress through the course.
To arrive at an outline, you can either:
Start with the main goal of the course and slowly make your way back to the beginning. This will identify the steps needed to achieve your goal.
Put yourself in your client’s shoes and try to guesstimate the easiest way that appeals to them. Then map out the main steps you have to take to get to your desired outcome.
Here’s an example that demonstrates how to structure an online course:
Suppose your course is about organic home gardening. It can have the following 5 modules (main steps in the course).
An introduction to organic gardening
How to select plants that are easy to grow in a garden
How to grow plants (this is the main objective of the course where you will cover a step by step guide for how to grow plants in the backyard)
Caring for the growing plants (this follows the next steps of the process that involve harvesting)
Help, my plants are dying (this is the troubleshooting module that covers all the problems a gardener may face along the way and how to solve them).
Once they reach the end of the course, students will learn how to grow plants in their backyard. They will have a greater understanding of the theory and concepts backing it, as well as the practical skills and steps needed to grow plants. They can easily jump from one section of the course to another if or when they have a specific issue that needs to be addressed.
Pro tip: The exact nature of the structure will be depending on the course and content itself. The above layout was just an example to demonstrate how you can create a short course. For each step in your course, you should also create micro-steps to help you move along at a faster pace.
2) A Week by Week Course
Week by week course is very similar to the step by step course. The main difference is that the course structure is organized over a specific period, with time-sensitive modules and steps for each given week.
For example, you may have a 10-week gardening course or a 5-week web developing course.
Week by week structuring is a useful way of organizing the course if you have to teach a skill that takes a certain amount of time to learn. It also gives your students plenty of time to practice their newly acquired skills before moving to the next stage.
This approach does not work so well if your content is more theoretical. Teaching how to grow plants, for instance, lends itself to a step by step approach where you take your clients through a set of sequential steps they need to learn.
3) Reference Course
If your course doesn’t fit into either of the above two structures, then it may be classified as a reference course.
A reference course, for the uninitiated, is a collection of content that is neatly organized together, in which students can jump to separate sections of the course whenever they need to.
Oftentimes, the information in a reference course may be available for free elsewhere on the internet, albeit in a disorganized manner that may require more research by students if they were to do it on their own.
An organized online course structure presents the content more engaging and helps you provide more value to your students.
Providing Supportive Content to Students
In addition to the main content of the course, you may also want to provide a few additional resources that can make your course more complete.
This could be a single page with a list of key tools or equipment needed. It could be a series of PDFs and worksheets that students can complete to support their journey along the course.
To let your clients know that you’re going out of your way to provide more value for their time and money, you can pitch the additional resources as ‘free bonuses’. These little extras can make your course more distinct from others and increase conversions.
Consistency is Important
Once you choose your course outline strategy, the best thing you can do for your students is to be as consistent as possible.
For instance, with in-person teaching, students are in the habit of going to class at the same time and same place every week. In the same vein, online students need to form those habits to maintain consistent performance throughout the course. This means making sure that assignments are always due on the same day and modules begin on the same day of the week.
Students will also appreciate having an overview of each module that describes what they will do and learn. You can place an overview at the beginning of each module as an advance organizer. The overview should also include a list of reading material and links to assignments, discussions, and quizzes.
Add a Link for Discussions
Online discussions among students and teachers have been identified as a cornerstone of online course effectiveness. A common practice to facilitate high levels of interaction is to place direct links at the end of each lesson for the course. The discussion should be based on the module and encourage student participation. These tools are more effective spaces for technical troubleshooting and are often preferred over email because the information is easily viewable to the entire class.
Some online courses require students to take exams to prove that they learned something. You can organize exams through various learning management platforms. For obvious reasons, exams are time-sensitive and must be completed before a specific deadline
Here are other ways of encouraging engagement around online training courses, including, but not limited to:
Giving users assignments and exams to complete before proceeding to the next module
Q/A sessions done weekly
Badges for completing activities
Optional: Video Conferencing Tool
If you are using a video conferencing tool in your course, the best setup for most teachers is to use the Recurring Meeting feature on Zoom. Besides the added security, the main benefit of using Zoom links is that you can keep your students from accidentally joining the wrong course.
Review (and revise) the Course Outline
With the structure of the course outline complete, it’s now time to take a breather.
Leave the course for a few days and sit down again to review it. This will allow you to see your course from a fresh pair of eyes and make more informed decisions about the course structure. To determine if the course is properly arranged, ask yourself the following questions:
Does the course outline make sense?
Is there anything missing from the course outline?
Does the course have more steps than is needed?
Are there any modules that could have been used as an additional resource instead?
Once you have all the answers, you will get a better idea of your current course outline.
While answering the question of how to structure an online course effectively you may also want to ask yourself how to create an online course?
Now that you’ve learned how to structure an online course, it’s time to start building one using our Open edX platform. Educate your learners in a hyper intuitive learning interface. Click here to get started.