I continuously ask people in various online groups and forums what their biggest struggle is when it comes to creating their first online course.
And occasionally I get this response: “I don’t know what the right format for my course should be.”
This actually puzzled me. To me, there was pretty much one format – video. I’ve taken dozens of online courses before creating my own, and I know that most premium courses, and even many free ones now, are based on video.
But this is just one piece of the puzzle. Things are a bit more complicated than that and there are many various elements for you to keep in mind when creating an online course. So I decided to look into various formats and when they could be appropriate.
I apologise for the quality of my audio at times. This turned out to be much longer than I planned, I had to cut a lot of stuff out to make it shorter. So occasionally there are ‘audio disconnects’. I hope they’re not too distracting. Thank you for watching (and reading, if you prefer – see post below).
Online Course format, type 1: Text-based
When online courses were taking their baby steps a few years ago, a lot of them were text-based. Some were delivered by e-mail lesson-by-lesson, daily or weekly. Some were simple downloadable ebooks or .pdf files labelled ‘courses’.
Is it a good idea? Text-based may still be appropriate for free courses (though a lot of even free courses these days are video based). It’s probably not the best choice for a paid course.
And if your premium course is video based, it may be a good idea to create a video-based free course, too.
A free course is almost a ‘preview’ of your premium product. And you want to communicate the kind of quality and delivery methods that students can expect from you. And it’s a good idea to build in that ‘wow’ factor into your free course.
Another situation where text may still work, is when you rely mostly on direct interaction with your students.
For example, in a closed facebook group or an exclusive member-only area or forum. When the biggest value of your course or your program comes from direct interaction with you and other students.
Text might be OK to give your students the general outline of the course, assignments they need to complete, theory, explanations, examples, and whatever else you might want to share with them.
Online Course format, type 2: Audio
I’m not a big fan of audio-only information, but if that works for your audience, this could be fine, too. For example, if you run a popular podcast, and your audience enjoys absorbing information this way, then having audio-based course may work.
However, I would still capture the best of the two worlds and turn your audio files into video. It is so incredibly easy to do! You could simply create some images and text to go along with your audio, and put them together in a video-editing program, like MovieMaker (Windows) or iMovie (Mac), both are free.
This could take you just a few minutes and significantly widen the audience for your course to people like me, who prefer visuals (and that’s 65% of people on the planet, according to scientific research).
Online Course format, type 3: The Golden Standard – Video + downloads
This is what most online courses look like today: videos + some downloads.
There are different types of video, e.g ‘talking head’, slides (e.g. Powerpoint or Keynote) or screen recordings. Most phones these days can record videos, there are also lots of free programs that allow you to record your screen and edit videos, so creating videos shouldn’t be a problem.
Downloads are often in .pdf format and accompany your main video presentation. These could be worksheets, checklists, follow along guides, and any other types of files that your students can print out, fill out, take notes, complete assignments etc.
Another type of downloads could be files relevant to your topic. For example, I have a course on powerpoint, and the downloads I offer inside are the actual powerpoint presentations (.pptx files) that we create in the course. If you are creating a course on graphics design, you could include some images for downloads etc.
I want to stress again that this format (video + downloads) has emerged as pretty much the golden standard of online courses these days. This is what most students are expecting from you. If you stick to this, you should be absolutely fine.
Online Course format, type 4: Interactive
In my over 17 years of corporate career I’ve seen a lot of interactive courses (I worked in HR and Learning & Development, so I’ve seen a LOT of courses!) These are the type of courses where you can click various buttons and make them do something, and they are usually created using special software, e.g. Adobe Captivate or Articulate Storyline. They look almost like a separate software program.
If you want an example of what this type of course looks like, you can check out this free online course by BBC.
Interactive courses are difficult to create. They often require special technical skills, and they are also quite difficult to host online, because they often need special plugins and software running in the background to enable the interactive functionality.
If you come from a corporate background, this is what may be confusing for you. You may be used to seeing these types of courses and feel intimated to create one. And rightly so! Often it takes an entire team of tech professionals to create a course like this!
Good news is that these courses exist pretty much only inside corporate walls. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a course like this outside the organisational environment.
Phew! No programming skills for you to learn. Isn’t that a relief?
Combining several formats:
Many courses use a combination of text, audio, video, and even some type of interactivity. Most LMS platforms (LMS stands for Learning Management Systems) give you at least an ability to create quizzes, some include other functionality to make your courses more interactive.
If you want to learn more where to host your online course, check out this video by yours truly.
Other important considerations for course formats:
These aren’t necessarily separate course formats, but important elements of your course you want to consider.
How much personal interaction with you are you planning to offer?
Is your course going to be 100% self-study? Or do you give an opportunity to your students to interact with you?
Most platforms at least have the ability for students to leave questions in the comments section, just like you would on any website page or blog post.
Some platforms, like Udemy, have a dedicated Q&A area.
Do you want to go beyond just comments and create a student member area? You don’t need to over-engineer that. Just a closed facebook or linkedin group available only to your students may be enough.
Some instructors prefer to go fancy-pants and create their own branded forums and membership areas. I don’t think that’s necessary at all. First, it’s a technical headache for you to put together and maintain. Second, if your students are already on Facebook or Linkedin (or any other social media platform that allows to create closed groups), it is easier for them! One less place on the internet to remember to go to and log in and do something.
I’ve recently paid over 2,000 GBP (that’s over $3,000 USD) for a program that consisted of a few recorded videos and a very intense interaction in a closed facebook group. Nothing technically fancy. Worth every penny! I’d do it again, and I recommend this programme to everyone (not affiliated).
So don’t assume that you have to create some technically sophisticated membership area and all signing all dancing fancy materials to create a premium course or a programme. Solid super-useful step-by-step material and lots of personal support – that’s what students are looking for.
Is your course going to be evergreen or do you open and close enrolment on certain days?
That’s another important consideration when you create your course or a programme. When can students join?
If you’re planning to open enrolments on certain days, how often do you plan to run your programme? How long will it last? What materials do you need to create for your launch?
Keep in mind that if your course or a programme has a start and end date, students are much more likely to expect some sort of personal interaction with you and other students. It would be weird (and disappointing!) to log in to a course that has a start and an end date and discover that it’s 100% self-study!
If it’s evergreen, what incentive will provide to your audience to join now? When there is no deadline to enrol, people tend to indefinitely delay their decision. So think about some time-limited bonus you could offer every once in awhile to give people a gentle nudge to join!
Some instructors like giving discounts. This isn’t my favourite method, because it trains your audience to wait for discounts, and if you do them regularly, then no one will buy at a full price.
Will students be able to access your content all at once or step-by-step?
Unfolding your content gradually is known as ‘content dripping’ or ‘drip feed’ function. It’s kind of similar to having lessons delivered to you regularly by e-mail to your inbox. Some platforms allow you to make certain content available only on certain dates or after an x number of days after students join the course.
For example, Teachable recently implemented drip feed functionality (only for paying members).
This is how it essentially works:
When students purchase your course, they immediately get access to module 1. After a couple of days, module 2 becomes available to them. Then module 3 etc.
Many instructors prefer to give their students access to all materials at once. And a lot of students prefer that, too.
Which way should you go? Depends on the type of course you’re running, whether it’s self-study or instructor-led and many other factors. You decide what would work best for you.
So, what do you think?
I hope I’ve given you lots to think about. Was this useful? Did I miss something?
If you have any questions or want to share your experiences either creating courses or being a student, go ahead! I’ll see you in the comments!