Create and Sell Online Courses on a Budget

If you’re an expert at something, creating an online course is a great way to make a scalable product that will generate returns indefinitely. And with online learning platforms that will not only deliver but market your course, you can just sit back, relax, and watch the money roll in. Of course, you also have the option of doing your own marketing and making even more.

So let’s say you have an idea and want to create a course. Now what? Read on—this post will walk you through the whole process step-by-step.


First, a little about me, just to assure you that I know what I’m talking about. I started creating online courses in 2012, starting with Udacity’s introductory statistics course (which they’ve now split in two: Intro to Descriptive Statistics and Intro to Inferential Statistics). When I asked them the number of students enrolled in 2013, they said 70,000. So I’m assuming there are a lot more now. After working at Udacity, I worked at Stanford GSB where I worked with Professor Josh Rauh on a MOOC (massive open online course) called The Finance of Retirement and Pensions. 40,000 students across the US enrolled in that. Then I moved to NYC and worked for the newly started McKinsey Academy, creating online courses for McKinsey & Company clients. I quit after two years to start an edtech consulting company, and worked for 15+ companies over the next three years before joining Applied Materials to lead online course development.

While I mainly help businesses create online courses, on the side I enjoy creating my own. In fact, my course on cursive penmanship is the #1 penmanship course on Udemy. I’ve also made a course on chess and algebra—just some things that I enjoy. Throughout my career, I’ve developed courses that cost anywhere from $0 to $100K; from very little polish (Udacity) to extreme polish (McKinsey and Stanford). As an individual course creator, I’ll assume you have a few hundred dollars at most to invest into this endeavor. So let’s dive in.


Step 1: Write the learning objectives

What do you want your course to help people do? Finish the following sentence: “By the end of this course, students will be able to…” Start with a strong action verb, e.g.,

  • Make money through blogging
  • Cook healthy meals
  • Play guitar songs with the chords C, D, and G

Not only does articulating the learning objectives help guide your course creation; your target students will read tangible outcomes and likely be more interested in your course. (A lot of times, people write a learning objective “Understand xyz.” Try to think beyond this and articulate what students should be able to do with the understanding of xyz.)


Step 2: Outline the course

Now, create a course outline with lessons and sub-topics. Write a descriptive title of each lesson. You can always change it later, but it’s useful to write something so that you remember what the focus of each lesson should be. Within each lesson, decide what points you want to drive home to the learners. You can see an example on my website.


Step 3: Create the delivery outline

Step 2 is what I call the “curriculum outline” because it shows the order in which information will be presented. Now you have to decide how you will deliver this information—the delivery outline. Most learning platforms for individual course creators offer videos and HTML (text and static images). (The more advanced platforms that businesses use offer a host of other digital interactions, which I won’t get into in this post.) So, decide how you’ll mix up videos, HTML, and quizzes (which I call “units”) to create your course. Will you start with an introductory video? Or, perhaps a challenge question that students have to think about before diving in? Or will you start with some text that gives an overview of the course before they watch the first video on the first topic?

Here’s a template you can use to develop the delivery outline. Examples are written for the first four units.


Step 4: Create the course materials

Now that you have a good idea of the course flow, write out the text word-for-word and create the graphics and videos. 

Text

Ultimately, you’re telling a story. Text should connect all the units throughout the course into a coherent storyline. For example, students might read, “You’ve now learned about a, b, and c. [List some key takeaways from a, b, and c.] Now, learn about x, y, and z, which are critical to doing ____.” This way, students know where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they’re going. Writing should be clear, concise, and personable. 

Graphics

I often use PowerPoint shapes to create graphics, but have also used Illustrator or even drawn my own graphics on my Wacom Cintiq 13HD tablet using the software Sketchbook Pro. I’m not the best illustrator, so PowerPoint is my go-to. It helps to have a style guide with a color palette and fonts to keep all the graphics in your course consistent.

Videos

There are two primary ways you might make videos:

1. Film people
Let’s say you plan to film yourself on-camera. Decide if you want to look right at the camera, or slightly off-camera in a documentary interview-style.

Introduction to Astronomy: Crash Course Astronomy #1 by CrashCourse

If you’ll be looking right at the camera, maybe you’re good at speaking and don’t need a teleprompter. Many people do need one (myself included), in which case you can use a teleprompter app and position the camera directly above or below it. Before that, of course, you’ll need to script out exactly what you want to say, and it’s a good idea to read it aloud to ensure it sounds natural before you film it. 

Bill Gates 2.0 by CBS News

You might use an interview-style video to film guest experts, for example. In this case, the interviewer would be off-camera, prompting the presenter with questions that will later be edited out of the final video. Just make sure that the interviewee pauses for a second before answering the question and repeats the question so that students know what was asked. For example:

For this style, you don’t need teleprompter notes because it should be more conversational. You will, however, need to spend some time in post-production selecting the clips you want to use, which can take a lot of time. In the case where teleprompter notes were prepared beforehand, editing should be quite simple and quick since you already pre-determined exactly what will be said.

2. Record your screen
You could use screen recording software to create videos on how to use a software tool or navigate a website. I use Camtasia, which includes extremely easy-to-use editing software. You can import images, delete clips, speed clips up or slow them down—more than enough options for course creators. You could also create motion graphics with PowerPoint and then do a screen recording of your presentation to create a simple animated video. To make the Udacity course, I used the Wacom Cintiq 13HD tablet using the software Sketchbook Pro to write equations and draw distributions, and we filmed the screen and then edited out the parts where I was just drawing. We also had a camera above the screen that filmed my hand drawing. Cisco’s technology news site, The Network, created the video “Behind the Scenes of a MOOC” on how I made the course.

While your smartphone will probably be perfectly fine for the visual, you may need to invest a bit to ensure you have high-quality audio. For footage in which the speaker is shown on-camera, I use a Zoom H4n and a lavalier mic like this. For footage that just requires a voiceover, I use an old M-Audio Producer USB with a pop filter.

Quizzes

These can take a lot of thought to write well. They should focus on the most important points that you want students to remember or internalize. Quizzes shouldn’t simply force students to regurgitate the same information through low-level memorization; rather, they should push students to use what they’ve learned to answer an even more challenging question. For this reason, quizzes can be powerful learning moments if done well. And, the beauty of online learning is the ability to provide instant feedback, therefore immediately validating their correct train of thought or recalibrating potentially erroneous thinking.


When you’re done creating all the course materials, you should have:

  1. A document (which I call the “course script”) that has all the course text and quizzes written out word-for-word, image and video filenames placed where they should occur in the course (I also like to insert the image itself underneath the filename), and video transcripts (if pre-determined)
  2. Images in png or jpg form
  3. Videos (usually in mp4 form)

Now you’re ready to build your course into a platform! 


Step 5: Build the course

If you want to sell your course, here are a few platforms you can look into:*


ProsCons
Udemy• They do a lot of marketing for you
• Functionality includes videos, text, and quiz questions that allow feedback for each answer choice
• They take a whopping 50% of the sale price unless someone purchases your course with your unique link (learn more)
• No surveys
• You can’t include promotional material within the course
Thinkific• You can create the first 3 courses for free with no revenue cut
• More functionality than Udemy, including surveys
• You can customize your site to create your own “school”
• After creating 3 courses, you must purchase a subscription of at least $39/month (learn more)
• They don’t do a good job marketing your course
BrainCert• You can create unlimited courses with unlimited students, and they take a cut of 8% plus credit card fees (learn more)• Not very user-friendly
• Unsure how good they are at marketing your course
Pedal• I built it 🙂
• Extremely user-friendly
• Free
• Build courses on-the-go with just your phone
• You cannot sell courses on it (yet)—for now it is just for those who want to share their knowledge

*Know of more that you would recommend? Send me a link and I’ll review them and add to this post!


I recommend building your course onto multiple platforms—after all, you spent so much time and energy creating the content; why not get it out there via as many channels as possible?


Step 6: Publish and promote

Once you’ve built your course, set a price, and done all the logistical things such as link your bank account so you can get paid, all you need to do is hit “Publish” and then promote it! For me, that’s the most exciting part—when it’s finally released into the world, and I’ve posted a link on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Then just wait for people to start enrolling! 

Once you have students, you can start building the community by checking in with them, sharing additional articles and resources…you can get creative. I love engaging with my students. For my cursive penmanship course, I’ve invited students to share their cursive with me, and I provide personalized feedback on what they’re doing well and what they can improve. It takes up a lot of time, but it’s very rewarding to see people learning new skills thanks to my efforts.


Have questions on the course creation process? Comment below—others probably have similar questions! Happy course creating!

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