Making Online Courses Is Hard Work!

Next Mountain's Framework For A Successful Resume Course
Next Mountain’s first online course offering.

Online Courses Seem So Easy To Create…

But, as with so many things, the devil is in the details. And in the case of online courses, there happens to be a lot of those details.

This post will explore what goes into making an online course, in case you’re curious or considering making one yourself. Settle in, it’s going to be a bumpy but fun ride!

[Update: we published a follow-up to this course, What Makes A Great Online Course Bundle?]

So that we’re on the same page, by online course, I mean an educational course providing instruction on some topic delivered through a web portal or mobile app to one or more students (hopefully, at least one…). It’s a great and exciting way to teach people all over the world, at a time and place convenient to them, without actually being there in person, or even knowing that they’re currently learning from you.

Next Mountain recently pre-launched our first course through Next Mountain Academy. The first course is titled Framework For A Successful Resume, and it includes explanations and hands-on resume creation sections, as well as a bonus section on cover letters. This course is part of our All Access Career Bundle. The resume course is pre-launched, because it’s not yet finished, but some people were interested in checking it out early. At the time of this writing, seven of the course’s eleven sections are complete and available.

Why not wait until everything is done before launching? Well, launching is arguably better than pre-launching, but pre-launching is definitely better than waiting forever for perfection to happen. And through this blog post, you’ll get an appreciation for why these things take a while to produce and finish.

We’ll have a separate blog post explaining why we’re publishing online courses, but basically the goal is to fund the business by producing content that is net positive to the world and that is consistent with Next Mountain‘s mission and principles.

Briefly, Next Mountain aims to produce content and tools that help people improve themselves and achieve their goals. So, having reviewed so many really bad resumes and read so much questionable advice over the years, this topic seemed like a great one to start with, and it could certainly be rolled together into a career bundle and more.

Naturally, I’m procrastinating a little on finishing the remaining four sections, and a blog post felt like a good and productive outlet for that procrastination. I started a blog series on common interview mistakes at the end of December, and here we are in March. So, another blog post is long overdue. But I digress.

Let’s explore the challenges of creating online courses, many of which I completely underestimated when I started creating courses.

We’ll start at a high level, then drill into each one of the details, including some of the tooling, software, and services involved. The discussion will be accurate with respect to what is available as of the date of this blog post. If the course needs to change for some reason, then there may be some differences.

What Goes Into Publishing An Online Course, At A High Level?

Creating an online course might seem simple at first. Just use your computer’s mic, maybe use your computer’s webcam, record some stuff, and start publishing. Or just use your phone — the cameras and microphones on those are pretty amazing. Probably set aside a day or two, finish things up, publish the course, and watch the money come rolling in. Should you go with a Ferrari or a Porsche? Hard top? All-weather floor mats?

Well, not so fast.

You need to consider at least each of the following items fairly deeply:

  • Interesting Topic — ideally, something that people will pay to learn about, and something that you have expertise on
  • Curriculum — a clear breakdown for conveying your knowledge to the student
  • Target Audience — a good idea of the likely students who will enroll in your course
  • Visual Elements — will you be in the video? or will you use slides? or maybe a recording of yourself doing something online or in an editor?
  • Audio Elements — will you be the one speaking? do you know how to speak well for a recording? is music appropriate?
  • Subtitles — can these automatically be added? are you sure?
  • Quality — how good will the audio and visual elements be? how much post-processing will be required? this is a highly devilish detail
  • Hosting — how do you deliver the course? spin up and manage your own servers? set it up as a paywall-protected download? use a service?
  • Updates — how will you keep your content up to date?
  • Student Interactions — how will you deal with students? issues? refunds? Q&A? a mastermind group?
  • Promotion and Advertising — it’s one thing to make a course (or an app, or whatever), but it’s another thing entirely to get people even to try it
  • Pricing — it turns out that hosting isn’t typically free beyond a limited intro tier, your time isn’t free, most software isn’t free, equipment isn’t free, and so on, so what and how will you charge?
  • Your Own Psychology — can you push through until the end? can you actually hit the “Publish” button? can you deal with it if your course flops? what if someone publishes a blog calling you an idiot? what if you have to admit that you were wrong about something?

Interesting Topic

Topics can be interesting in many ways.

For Framework For A Successful Resume, I had considered resumes for years:

  • Learning about resumes from books, courses, and formal and informal reviews
  • Writing many versions of my resume
  • Revising my resume during the job search process
  • Considering how each particular resume performed during interviews
  • Reviewing candidate resumes when considering applicants for jobs
  • Interviewing people based on their resumes
  • And so on.

As a hiring manager and interviewer, I often wondered how well a resume reflected the applicant. Was I being too harsh? Did I reject the right person?

The last role I posted a requisition for received well over a hundred resumes in a few weeks. Did I choose the right people to call back?

How many of my resumes were screened in the same way?

I think that effective resumes are an interesting topic, especially around the time of a job search. Several people that I have shown an early version of this course to agreed.

I have also been surprised by the lack of substance and apparent contradictions in much of the resume and cover letter advice that is spewed onto the Internet. I won’t call out anyone at this point.

So, Framework For A Successful Resume aims to dig into the “why” more than just the “what.” If you take the course, quite naturally, you are free to disagree with what is taught. As long as you can clearly articulate your why, and it stands to reason, then you may be better off with your method or styling.

Actually, Framework For A Successful Resume aims to dig into the what, where, why, when, and how, so it’s a pretty thorough course.

Time will tell how interesting this course actually is, of course.

Curriculum

Like pretty much any course, online or offline, it’s important to develop a clear and organized curriculum. In my somewhat strong opinion, a curriculum should flow rather naturally, so that the student is led from a point of wherever they are, to a point of being well grounded and competent in the topic.

A sloppy and confusing curriculum is just a bad way to start off. Confusion in the curriculum translates to confusion among the students. Curriculum confusion also implies instructor confusion, which is not an optimal thing. In that case, it is unlikely that a good time will be had by all.

Overall, it takes time to sanity check your own outline, modify it, and produce a reasonably good course.

In the case of Framework For A Successful Resume, I formed an early outline for the entire course. Next, I broke each piece of that outline into multiple lessons. I updated the outline and improved each of the pieces, as the entire course took shape.

Then, I started writing scripts for every lesson of every section. I created slide decks for each lesson of every section. There are eleven pretty natural sections, each with multiple lessons. Currently, three of those eleven sections are bonus sections, which seemed relevant to include in a single package.

Throughout this process, I changed the outline, moved lessons, reconsidered the most important points, and so on. I even made changes during recordings, based on what the lesson sounded like.

So, I found that the curriculum evolves through the process. It may still evolve as the last four sections are published, to deliver the right content.

Target Audience

Having a target audience makes things easier. This way, you can imagine talking to them, or even better, to a particular person in that target audience.

The target audience for Framework For A Successful Resume is a little broader than I would have liked, but it can be thought of as an audience that evolves over time, from student to professional, throughout a career.

So, for example, I included details for an undergraduate student trying to put together a first resume for an internship or a job, as well as explanations for experienced professionals, career switchers, and graduate students.

I’ve been in all of those positions, and I’ve attended a few graduate schools, so I have a well-formed perspective on how a person’s resume should evolve from student to experienced professional.

I’ve also looked for jobs in the last couple of economic downturns, while changing careers and geographies. So, I have a reasonably good feel for different audiences within the broader set of people who might be interested in writing a good resume.

However, I would suggest being as tight as possible in terms of audience. The better you know your audience, the better you can craft your materials to reach them and educate them.

Visual Elements

The visual elements of the presentation play a big factor in the final product.

Of course, it’s possible to have no visual elements, similar to a podcast or a seminar recording, but that’s setting the bar a little low, given how much technology is available.

You can choose to use slides, screencasts, cartoons, videos of yourself, and so on. I prefer a relatively simple aesthetic — terse slides containing the key pieces of information to support the audio track. Basically, I strive to remove any distracting elements from the slides, so that the message is clear.

Of course, it’s hard to get around screen recordings when you’re making hands-on training. Those require a bit more processing, and they’re still in the works, currently. An alternative is screenshots, but I’m aiming for screencasts.

I debated including myself in the recordings. You know, hanging out over there in the little talking box in the corner of the screen. I didn’t do this for three reasons.

First, that little box was going to clip some of the slides that I had already planned to create. Second, although I set up some good lights, a backdrop, and so on, I didn’t get a great product. Maybe I needed makeup. Anyway, third, I find that little box distracting, and as you know, I like a clean aesthetic. So, the recordings are slides with consistent typography and clean transitions.

Audio Elements

As with visual elements, it’s easy to get carried away with audio. For this particular course, I did not include any music, automated sounds, or laugh tracks.

Maybe that’s my preference, and I’m assuming that my students feel the same way, but it’s consistent with my guiding principle of removing distractions from the learning environment.

Audio is not trivial to get right for the spoken word. There’s a combination of the qualities of your own voice and how you read each line, with the background in the recording environment, as well as any post-processing that you might perform.

Getting your voice right, like a voice-over artist, takes time and training. I spent time working on this, and I’m still working on it. I have friends who have attended multi-day courses on this.

Don’t fully believe me? To really appreciate the work that goes into getting a good recording, listen to yourself on a recording or two. Perhaps read a book and record yourself on your phone. Was it what you expected? There are voice workshops that may help, if not.

You can record yourself using a phone, your computer’s mic, or an external mic. I ended up using an external mic that a friend recommended from Apogee. It wasn’t cheap, but he has been a pretty popular DJ and actor, and he has a lot of experience with audio, so I went with that one.

But you don’t need to know an expert to find a decent microphone. There are a lot of good mics at many price points, so it’s worth doing some research on what the latest and greatest is right now, using a search engine like Google or a shopping destination like Amazon. I considered several other ones.

Picking a mic is the tip of the iceberg, in terms of getting a good recording. You need to control reflected sound.

Here’s experiment number two. Stand outside and record yourself talking. Then sit in a car and do the same thing. Then go in a building and do the same thing.

Now, listen to the recordings in a quiet environment with a pair of good headphones. Notice how each area has different background noise?

You can take this one level further, and do the same three recordings, but with a jacket over your head. Yes, you’ll look silly. But, you’ll find out how the background changes in each case.

In my case, I had never realized how many airplanes fly overhead, and there is construction nearby. One of the construction crews was using a machine that looked like a 50 foot tall egg beater — yeah, that would show up on the early recordings.

So, to get rid of the background noise, I set up a recording booth in a closet, including a faux ceiling to improve noise dampening for the airplane issues. It’s still a work in progress, but I’ve been pretty happy with the difference in background noise.

Furthermore, I found it necessary to use a reflection filter (like a cage around the back of the microphone) and a pop filter (like a thin disk in front of the microphone), to further improve the final sound achieved.

Post-processing is also an interesting procedure. I learned to do this from a variety of sources, including online courses, internet searches, and talking to people who have experience in dealing with audio.

You can debate the method that I used, and you should spend time figuring out what works best for you. Here’s what I do, in case anyone is struggling and needs a gentle push in the right direction.

First, I take each audio file and perform software noise reduction. Even with all of the work to reduce ambient background noise that I described earlier, I still need to reduce the background even further for a clean recording.

Then, I go through and cut out duplicates and ineffective items, move things around for clarity, and make the spacing between sentences consistent. I also get rid of another big item — breathing. Yes, that comes in loud and clear in the tracks.

Another item that I process out is any odd sounds. Zoom in on your recordings. You’d be surprised by a smack here and there.

So, I attenuate the audio down to nothing, where silence is expected.

Then, I process the sound further, to boost some quiet areas, normalize the sound levels, and generally make the waveforms more pleasant with compression and filtering.

Finally, I go through the final exported product one more time, to make sure that I didn’t miss something and to create subtitles. Speaking of subtitles, let’s explore that next.

Subtitles

Although I wanted to launch as early as possible, I did not want to launch without subtitles. I had some experience uploading videos to YouTube, so I thought that this would be easy, since YouTube automatically adds reasonably good captions that you can just improve.

Yeah, not so much. With the platform that I chose, subtitles must be uploaded separately. So, I ended up taking each script and turning it into a SubRip (.srt) file. For every video. Sooooo slow.

This means that every .srt file ends up looking like

1
00:00:00,000 --> 00:00:05,200
Here we start with a first line

2
00:00:05,200 --> 00:00:10,200
and continue on this line with
some more text.

You can imagine how many lines go into a few minutes of recording. This is not a trivial task.

You also need to be careful, so that you don’t have bad captioning, where the words are inconsistent with the speech. It takes a lot of time.

Here’s a helpful tip. If you’re making SubRip file for closed captioning, then don’t screw up any formatting, by the way. I spent a lot of time finding an issue something like (look closely)

1
00:00:00,000 --> 00:00:05,200
Here we start with a first line

2
00:00:05,200--> 00:00:10,200
and continue on this line with
some more text.

So, if you end up checking out the course (currently, the first 2 videos are available to preview without subscribing), then be sure to check out the subtitles. That was an insanely painstaking task.

And to answer anyone who says “why didn’t you just outsource that?” — like a few people have — it’s not that simple. Beyond training people to get exactly what you want…

The audio required a lot of post-processing. This means that things moved around, duplicates got cut out, and more. Subtitles require timestamps, naturally, and I like to upload everything together. It’s nice to have closure on videos, without having to wonder if things are OK with closed captioning, after uploading the file days ago.

Anyway, by the time that I had post-processed each file, I had finished the subtitles in parallel.

Quality

As you might realize from the prior sections, getting good quality, or at least reasonably good quality, takes a lot of work. So, you have to decide how much time you want to spend.

As you may have realized by now, I have a bit of a perfectionist streak, so I spent a lot of time improving things.

I don’t like sounding bad in a recording. I’m not ecstatic about the final outcome in all cases, but I think that it’s at a reasonably good point.

But the clear trade-off is that I was delayed in pushing this course out. I could have potentially outsourced a lot of things, but controlling outsourcing quality is not always easy.

Furthermore, changes in one area can create unintended consequences in another area. For example, if you wanted to add an extra 3 seconds to the front of the audio in a file, then you need to change each line in your .srt files. And you need to relocate your slides in the final recording. That’s not exciting.

I like to put metrics on everything, but my guiding principle was that lectures should be good enough that I would feel confident that if a friend or family member enrolled in the course, they would have a great educational experience and learn something from it.

Hosting

Here’s another place where you need to spend some time thinking. I went with Teachable for hosting.

Some of the popular sites for hosting online courses are Teachable, Thinkific, Udemy, Academy of Mine, and Kajabi. I probably left some out, and new ones will probably pop up tomorrow, so make sure to search thoroughly, if you’re interested in hosting.

Each hosting provider or service has its pluses and minuses. For example, while you can easily search Udemy for online courses, Teachable doesn’t offer that particular functionality for course discovery. But new features come out frequently with both of those platforms, and probably all of the other ones, so don’t rush into a hosting service without trying some out.

Whether you prefer one service or another depends on a host of factors. So, I’d recommend signing up for a few webinars, researching each provider online, playing with the free versions, and just getting a feel for what you like best.

Updates

Things change. People change. That’s just the way it is.

So, you may expect to update  your course at some point. Even a course on resumes and cover letters.

But the choice of topic may drive this more in some fields than in others. For example, JavaScript web frameworks change frequently, so courses on those topics may have a relatively short shelf life. Core Java is more enduring, depending on the level that you’re teaching toward, so courses on that particular topic may have a long shelf life.

It’s worth considering how much time you want to invest here, since keeping some courses up to date could be a full time job.

I have some plans for adding sections, but I may split those out as separate courses, since everything is currently being sold as a subscription bundle.

Student Interactions

It’s currently the early days for Next Mountain Academy, so I’m not sure exactly how this will evolve over time. There are a few possibilities.

We offer email support for technical problems, but since the goal is to keep prices reasonable, we don’t offer a lot of opportunity for one-on-one interactions. But that may change in the future, and it may lead to some interesting new products.

Feedback is great. One of the future lectures will include surveys. I set up surveys inside of the current web app, as well. But that’s a topic for another post.

So, depending on what we hear in the surveys, interactions may increase, possibly including internal groups.

Promotion and Advertising

As I mentioned, the hosting provider that I chose does not currently offer course discovery capabilities. This means that potential students can’t go to Teachable’s site, type “best resume course for me” and find Framework For A Successful Resume.

Instead, assuming that we want Next Mountain Academy to have students, which we do, then it’s important to market and advertise the products. There are some companies with a massive list of students, ready to be informed about their latest groundbreaking product.

Next Mountain is still working on generating a list of people who want to know more about products that might be right for them. But that doesn’t happen overnight, and we want people who have opted in, not a list of email addresses. So, we’re happy growing that list over time.

Promoting products is yet another full time job, given the sea of other products competing for each consumer’s attention. And advertising can be quite expensive.

In particular, you may have arrived at this blog by a route that started with seeing one of Next Mountain‘s ads on a popular search engine or social media outlet. And here you are, reading a blog on making online courses. You may have purchased a subscription, or not (if you did, then thanks!).

Or maybe you never even saw those ads. But the advertising game is an easy way to spend a lot of money. From some perspectives, it’s kind of like going to the club with a stack of hundreds and making it rain. But from the comfort of your own home, and maybe with softer music. Or harder music.

Right now, as I write this blog post, I have a few advertising consoles open. The science, engineering, and statistics side of me says “perform controlled experiments, carefully optimizing each variable to achieve the desired result. Take your time. Get it right.” The more competitive side of me says “did you see that we’re not showing ads, because our bid is too low??? It says right there! IT’S TOO LOW!!! Double down! Double down!”

And there is the consideration of couponing and running specials. I don’t get really geared up to make coupons for every holiday, so that may never happen at Next Mountain and Next Mountain Academy. Maybe if I hire someone who wants to do it and can convince me that it’s a good idea. Who knows?

Pricing

As hard as creating good online courses is, pricing your courses is just as hard.

In one of my prior roles, I priced ad inventory for every city, state combination and every zip code (separately) in the United States, for web and mobile ads (separately). That’s a lot of prices to optimize.

These ads were sold on a subscription basis and competed with products that were both internal and external to the company. I also have an MBA in Finance. So, I have spent more than a little time reading a lot of pricing texts.

Yet, it’s generally hard to know what the right price is in any given context. Most people won’t scream out their willingness to pay for any particular product. So, you have to make choices. If prices were a little higher, would you make more money or less? Would lower prices result in higher revenue? Is bundling foolish or wise?

I’ve chatted with potential customers, friends, and acquaintances about pricing. What feels too high? What seems reasonable to you for this product, given our goals? How about as a bundle? Talking through possible prices and pricing models is helpful, but you still don’t know what the market will bear without launching.

After considering each perspective fully, the company needs to make a decision and move forward as prudently as possible. The following is the company’s rationale for our pricing choice.

Fundamentally, the reason to make online courses is to generate revenue. As I mentioned, the reason that Next Mountain creates these courses is to generate capital to fund the rest of the business, while producing courses that are consistent with our mission. Overall, we want to make cool products.

Thus, the goal is to keep pricing reasonable, while not bankrupting the company. This guiding principle is important, since many students may be interested in and really need this material.

So, a monthly or annual subscription seemed better than a much higher one-time price. Furthermore, a low initial price seemed reasonable, since the courses are currently being developed. So, pre-launch pricing was used. That will go up as more content is added, but it’s a good starting point.

Your Own Psychology

 

The final piece that I’ll touch on is your individual psychology.

Psychology was one of my undergraduate majors, and I’ve really enjoyed how the field has shaped my perspectives. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about college majors, but it was a great choice. I want a philosophy major, but that’s for a different decade.

Anyway, as you begin creating your course, some people will wonder what the hell you’re doing. And they may say it in so many words. Are you OK with that? Obviously, I am. The world doesn’t get made better by everyone sticking to whatever they managed to get a degree in. And I reject that as a limitation. The world gets better by people trying new things, striving, and improving.

You might wonder if your course is good enough. If you have an inner perfectionist, as I do, then you have to consider how much you should listen to it. Would the world be better off or worse off with your course in it? If better, then make the best course that you can, and get it out there. You can improve it as you go.

What if no one buys it? That’s a real risk. As I mentioned, there are a lot of real costs, including opportunity cost. What else could you have done with that time?

But what if people do buy it? There’s customer service, ongoing interactions, and so on.

Will you finish the course, once you start it? There were a lot of things to figure out along the way to publishing and pre-launching. I’ve shared a lot. Hopefully, this information will be helpful.

Will you push the “Publish” button?

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I hope that it inspires people to make great content!

Ways To Stay In Touch And Learn More

Check out the Next Mountain website for details on how to stay in touch, as well as for information about our SaaS and mobile applications and products.

About The Author

Jason is CEO of Next Mountain. Connect with him on MediumLinkedIn, QuoraAngelList, and Twitter.