How does an online course work?

October 7, 2021
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An online course is a self-paced, independent study opportunity that allows online students to interact with material through audio, video, and text.

In this blog post, I'll cover how the basics of how an online course works. I'll share the basic structure of an online course, how to tell if an online class is right for you and your business, and how to prepare to create your first online course.

Do online courses work?

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Yes, online courses do work to help most people learn new content. Online courses are an effective way for professionals to learn new skills or keep up with industry best practices.

Online classes are popular because they are accessible to many people. Students can complete work at their own pace and go back over the material if needed. Online classes are typically more flexible than traditional school schedules, and learning online can be cheaper than taking a traditional class or enrolling in an online program at a college or university.

Is an online course right for your business?

Man Viewing Online Course on Tablet with Coffee

You may be wondering if creating an online course is a good fit for your business. Is your content ideal for online classes, or would it be better suited for an e-book, webinar, or face-to-face training?

Here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you decide if online classes work best for your audience:

  • Am I an expert in a specific topic that a large number of people want to know about? Just like if you were teaching traditional courses in a traditional classroom setting, you should have expert-level knowledge of the course content you plan to deliver. People who seek out an online class are looking to improve their skills in a specific area, and they will look for a course instructor who has proven experience in the topics covered.
  • Is there a need for the content I want to share? This is a critical thought to consider. Even if many students want to learn about your content, it may be hard for your course to gain traction if the market is already saturated with quality online classes on the same topic.
  • Do I have a way to market my course to a broad audience? Creating an online course takes time, money, and resources. To make online learning profitable for your business, you will need to sell enough courses to recoup the time and money you spent to create it.

Do you already have access to an extensive email list? Do you plan to market your course online with a learning management system that will do some of the advertising for you? Do you have a budget for marketing your course?

Before you begin creating your course content, make sure there are enough people who will purchase your course and that you have the resources to reach them.

  • What resources or materials will I need? In addition to the basics like a reliable internet connection and a personal computer, creating online classes may require additional resources or software. For example, if you plan to include video tutorials in your class, you will most likely need access to a decent video camera and some screen recording software.

There are so many types of online classes, and studying online has become a popular way for professionals to sharpen their skills and stay up-to-date with best practices in their industry. It is essential to do your research and figure out what structure will work best to deliver information to your audience.

Everyone's online learning journey will be different, and some programs may work better for your topic than others.

Many people wonder if online classes are easier than in-person learning opportunities. The answer depends on the learner as well as the content being delivered. Some online classes will be more challenging than others based on the length of the course, the content being delivered, and how much engagement there is with the course instructor.

Most people who take online classes like consuming content on their own schedule, which is especially attractive to busy professionals who have hectic schedules.

What does an online course look like?

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Taking classes online has become a favorite way for professionals to stay up-to-date with industry best practices, complete professional certificates, or stand out from others in their field by taking courses that will teach them new skills.

Online classes are designed to allow students to access digital course materials that they can use to learn a new skill or gain new knowledge. Learning online has become more popular as people have increasing access to technology through personal computers, tablets, and mobile devices.

Basic Structure

The basic structure of online classes isn't all that different from traditional learning or in-person classes. There is usually an outline of the content to be delivered, broken down into chapters or modules. If you are teaching someone how to do something, it makes sense that the content would be delivered in the order you want your students to do it and grouped into logical steps.

Depending on the content you plan to deliver, your chapters or modules may be arranged differently. The key is to group content into logical chunks that are easy to consume.

There is typically an overview or introduction at the beginning of the course and a conclusion or summary section at the end. Checks for understanding like quizzes or questionnaires are usually spread throughout the course so students can track their progress and ensure they are retaining the information. If students find that they are getting questions wrong on module quizzes, they can go back and rewatch or re-read certain parts of the module.

Here is an example of a basic online course structure:












Online classes are delivered in various ways, and many online programs use a mix of video, images, text, and audio to deliver information. Online learning requires self-discipline and self-motivation, so having plenty of short, engaging videos and a mix of media will ensure that students of all learning modalities will stay engaged with your content.

Here are some of the most common ways to deliver information for your online courses:

  • Pre-recorded video: Pre-recorded video is one of the most popular ways to deliver content for your courses. Students respond well to visual stimulations, and you can build credibility with your audience by showing your face and giving a personalized introduction.
  • Live video: You may even choose to provide an opportunity for your students to interact with you online by providing a component of the course live on a video-sharing platform like Zoom. You may want to reserve a live video for an introduction or special section of the course because one of the main selling points of online classes is that students can complete the required coursework on their own time and aren't required to log in at a specific time.
  • Screensharing: Screensharing is a great way to demonstrate a skill, so your students see exactly what you are doing, rather than just talking about it or explaining it. Screensharing programs like Loom allow you to share parts of your screen while keeping a small video bubble of your face so students can still see you while you are providing an on-screen demonstration. Screen shares can be paused and re-watched, so students can go back over them several times if needed.
  • Audio: For short, quick explanations that don't require a full video, you may choose to deliver some audio clips throughout your course. Remember, engaging lessons with a mix of instructional modalities are more likely to be popular and recommended to other potential students.
  • Slides with text and images: Sometimes, old-fashioned slides with text and images are the best way to deliver information. If you need to display data or provide a timeline, slides and graphs are a great way to add visual representation to your material.
  • Downloadable PDFs: If you have supporting materials or resources you want your students to access, you may upload them as PDF documents that students can download and keep for reference later.
  • Discussion boards: Discussion boards or discussion forums are a great way to increase engagement with your online students. Not only will this make your online classes more engaging, but it will allow you to build relationships with your students, who may decide to purchase additional courses later or work with you more in-depth. Facebook groups are a great place to engage with online learners. It is a good idea to build this in as an optional component of your online classes.


Since the main objective of online courses is to teach a new skill or provide knowledge, some course creators will require students to take quizzes after each chapter or module to ensure they are ready to move on to the next part of the course.

There are many ways to assess learning, but most students are familiar with short quizzes and periodic checks for understanding.

Providing assessments and checks for understanding is crucial for you as a course creator, too. You will be able to review the data and see where you may need to go more in-depth with a topic or where you may need to break the information down into smaller chunks.

If you see a pattern of many people struggling with the same sections, you may want to revisit those areas to see if your delivery is precise.

Finding People to Take Your Online Classes

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If you are marketing towards professionals looking to sharpen their skills, there are plenty of places you can look for your ideal online student. Many online classes are advertised on online course marketplaces like Udemy, Skillshare, and Coursea.

Many professionals in the web development, marketing, and SEO industries rely on taking online classes to keep up with new information and technology that is constantly being released. For freelancers looking to make themselves stand out from other professionals online, they may be looking for online classes that offer certificate programs they can include in their portfolio or LinkedIn bio.

Aside from online course marketplaces, other ways to find your ideal students include:

  • Facebook groups or communities for professionals in your industry
  • LinkedIn
  • Other online networking platforms
  • Paid advertisements on Facebook
  • Google Ads

What to Do After Your Online Course

If you are considering creating an online course, you most likely have valuable information to deliver that other people can benefit from. But what is your overall goal? What do you hope to gain from building an online course?

Many people choose to create online courses to:

  • Create passive income streams
  • Move people into a sales funnel
  • Connect with potential clients or customers

How to Build Passive Income With Your Online Course

Once you've done the hard work of gathering information, creating your course content, and uploading it to a hosting platform, you can reap the benefits from an online course for as long as people are willing to purchase it. This may require some active time advertising and marketing your course, but most of the heavy lifting is already done.

A good online course can generate thousands of dollars of passive income each month.

Move People Through Your Sales Funnel

It is not uncommon for online courses to have additional resources or opportunities available to the students. These may be things like access to a private Facebook discussion group, access to a newsletter, or a free e-book related to the course content. Whatever you choose to offer, the end goal is to provide value and move people through a sales funnel that will result in more purchases or engagement with you and your business.

So, what's next?

Now that you know how an online course works and you have the information to decide if you should create one, head on over to the Online Course Igniter Blog for more information on how to get started, what materials and resources you may need, and how to make your course successful.

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