10 Lessons Learned While Creating an Online Course

I love teaching. There, I said it.

Over the years, I've provided one-on-one training in person and via Zoom. I've organized a local meetup, I've spoken at conferences across the country, and I've even created webinars. But the one method that I hadn't done was to create an online course. It's something that I've wanted to do for many years, but always found a way to talk myself out of it. This year I told myself that I was finally going to complete that goal. And, in early December, I was able to check it off the list when I published my first online course called “Building Gutenberg Blocks in WordPress. No JS required!

Creating an online course was a challenging, but ultimately rewarding experience. Along the way, I learned a lot. Here are 10 lessons I took away from the process:

1. Planning is key!

Before I even started recording my lectures, I spent a lot of time planning out my course structure, breaking down my content into digestible chunks, and creating outlines for each lesson. I went as far as writing out everything I wanted to say in each section. Even if I didn't plan on reading it word-for-word, having the script to refer back to while I was recording was a lifesaver. It helped me stay organized and on track as I worked on the course. Without it, the entire process would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

2. Pick a platform and stick with it

While I was in the process of creating my scripts, I was also struggling with how and where I wanted to publish the course. I seriously considered self-publishing it here on my own site using a tool like LearnDash. Ultimately, I ended up deciding to launch the course on Udemy, and I'm thankful that I did. While that decision hasn't been without its own drawbacks (more on that later), setting up my own platform would have led to a whole other series of decisions that I didn't want to deal with.

The biggest argument I found while researching where to host my course always came down to money. If you host it yourself, you keep 100% of each sale. But, unless you have a built-in following, it could be hard to get the word out about your new course. With a platform like Udemy, you get the chance of being discovered via their built-in traffic.

There are certainly other things to consider before deciding, but the idea of having my course be a bit more discoverable made the choice a no-brainer for me.

3. Be Prepared to learn as you teach

Even though I knew the topic pretty well before starting my course, I ended up doing a bunch of research all throughout the process. First, while creating my outline, I ran into multiple sections where there wasn't just one way to do something. I had in my mind how I was going to teach it but then had to account for multiple ways that others might actually use it. This resulted in lots of research on blogs.

No matter how well you think you know your subject, get ready for a curveball(s) to be thrown your way midway through the course creation process.

4. When teaching about technology, remember, it changes. Often.

WordPress releases 3 major versions per year. The plugins built on WordPress have countless updates throughout the year. The primary plugin, Advanced Custom Fields Pro, I was using as part of my course went through a MAJOR release just as I started recording my course. Their release brought in a brand new design for their user interface. It would have been VERY distracting if the first half of my course was recorded using the old interface and then jumped to the new interface.

As if that wasn't enough, the subject that I'm teaching is relatively new to WordPress and it is still evolving. I tried to make this fact clear in my videos that depending on when you're watching the course, the interface and even the functions involved could be quite different from the then-current way something is done. My plan is to revisit the course at least once a quarter to make sure it's still current and doesn't need an updated video to clear things up for students.

5. Be prepared but be flexible

I told you before that I spent a fair bit of time working on my outline before ever hitting record. But, if you were to see the original outline compared to what the outline looked like when I finished recording, they look pretty different. I thought I had the outline locked in before I got started, and had I stuck to it and simply recorded what was on the original outline, the course wouldn't have been complete.

Each time I had to edit the original outline, it was a bit disheartening. The process of creating the course took me a few months. Adding more to the outline meant the finish line was that much further away. But again, had I not been flexible, the final result would have suffered and I may have finished earlier, but I certainly wouldn't have been happy with the decisions I had made.

6. Use the platform tools available to you

When I was making the decision between self-hosting my course or using Udemy, one of the deciding factors in choosing Udemy was the number of tools they have available for instructors. For example, you can have them review your videos for quality before publishing them, the course builder tools are intuitive and helpful, and their “Marketplace Insights” tool will let you do searches for topics and it shows how saught after your topic is along with how much other instructors are earning in that topic area.

Market insights for a searched keyword

Before you spend weeks or even months putting together a course, spend some time with these tools. They can help guide you towards the right topics AND make your final product the best it can be.

7. An online platform doesn't mean free promotion

We've all heard the question “If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” Well, let me write that for you another way, “If I publish a course on Udemy, will anybody know about it?”

The answer is, “not unless YOU tell them about it”

Udemy is a hosting platform. Yes, there are a whole bunch of people who visit the site and do searches for topics and may stumble across your course. But I promise you, you won't be breaking the bank with random drive-by visitors.

Be prepared to be your own marketing team, that's all I'm saying.

8. Don't leave money on the table (like I did)

On Udemy, not all signups for your course are treated equally when it comes to how much you are going to earn for that student.

Let's say, for example, that a visitor does a search on Udemy, finds your course, and signs up. This is considered a “Udemy's Promotion” sale.

Now, let's say that you post a link on social media using the special link that Udemy provides you, one of your followers clicks the link and signs up. This is considered “Your Promotion”.

A graph showing Udemy payouts for user signups
Payouts per signup

As you can see on the screenshot, the payout for these two types of signups is drastically different. The number on the left is how much the user paid for the course. The number on the right is how much of that payment I'll receive.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining about Udemy taking a larger percentage of traffic that only found me because I'm on the Udemy platform. No, I'm mad at myself for not realizing that Udemy provided a custom link with a referral code for instructors to use to receive a larger percentage of the payout. So, when, I first promoted my course online, I pointed people directly to the course but failed to use my personal tracking link. I'd estimate that 70-80% of the first month's signups came directly from my direct links. Oops!

9. Hire for the parts you don't like to do

As I was nearing the end of the course creation process, I started looking into what was needed to launch the course. Most of the items needed were pretty straightforward. Lots of text descriptions, and a screenshot or two, but nothing that I thought would trip me up too badly. That is until I saw that the page also suggested providing an intro video. Ugh.

I did some research to see what others were doing for their intro videos and I immediately realized that I was going to need some help. I headed over to fiverr.com and found several creators offering intro videos. I found one whose style matched what I was aiming for, paid him $60, and a few days later I had my intro video in hand!

Could I have made the video myself? Certainly. But, I know that I would have nitpicked the heck out of it the entire time, I wouldn't have been nearly as happy with the final product, and it would have likely taken me weeks to finish. And, once I was finished with it, I would have just been “settling” for my version, whereas I couldn't be happier with the version I paid for. Best $60 I've spent, and I'd pay it again in a heartbeat.

10. Be yourself (and don't be too hard on yourself)

Yeah, that seems kinda obvious, doesn't it? But, ya know what, I had to tell myself this over and over again.

When I'm teaching a subject, I tend to say “um” a fair bit. Another thing I do is switch between saying something like “next, I'm going to click this button” and “next, you will click this button”. Sometimes it's me doing the action, sometimes it's you doing the action. This drives me crazy about myself.

I've bought and watched a fair number of online courses, and I have rarely if ever been annoyed when the instructor does those same things.

I am my own worst critic. I will nitpick my work to death. I can tell you that even after I have recorded the entire course and had it all ready to go, it was still a challenge for me to hit the publish button. But eventually, I did and it felt oh-so-good to do it.

To sum up…

The process of creating an online course can be challenging. I know it was for me. It had been something I wanted to do for quite a long time and always found an excuse (hello, imposter syndrome) for why I shouldn't. However, for as challenging as it all was, the excitement of hitting publish, the excitement when the course was approved, and the excitement when the first few sales started coming in, it was all worth it.

it's funny, when I was finished with the course and had submitted it for release, I was so thankful to be “done”. In my head, I was thinking, “Welp, I don't have to go through that again.” A few days later, a friend and I were talking about some technical problem, and he says “hey, you should do a course on that before somebody else does.” I laughed at the idea. Later that day found myself mapping out what that course might look like. Ahh, how quickly we forget the painful parts, right?

Header Photo by Lewis Keegan on Unsplash