Creating an online course? Don’t make this mistake!

Ever played Monopoly?

I don't have a lot of pet peeves.  One of them, however, is listening to someone poorly explain a game to someone who has never played it.

I don't know why it bothers me so much but it gets under my skin enough that I have to leave a room or take over the introduction. More often than not, I don't play games because the frustration I feel from listening to the poor explanation won't leave me for hours.

I know, I'm a flawed human being. Before you judge me, try to explain your pet peeves to someone out loud and see how it goes.

Imagine you've never played Monopoly before (and I'm hoping you've played it before, for this example to work). The person explaining it starts by telling you about the various pieces and explaining that you have to pick one. Then they start telling you about what to do if you land on a square where you can collect $200.

Wait, what? Why would you jump into the specifics of that detail? 

Or they start talking about the roll of the dice and what you need to do when you land on a property.

Wait, what? Why would you jump into the mechanics of gameplay before talking about the objective?

See, in the universe that I would love to control, everyone who explains games to a person for the first time must start with the game objective. Then they have to explain some context around the game and how it's played. From there they need to talk thru either various strategies for winning or the specifics of gameplay. And then switch to the other.

The specifics of landing on a specific square, however, comes either last, or in context (when you land on that square).

In other words, we start at a high level and then walk down the steps of scaffolding, exposing nuances and details as we get closer and closer to starting the game.

Because of course that is how you should explain all new games to people.

What does this have to do with online course design?

If you're creating an online course, you likely have worked on a whole bunch of learning modules. You've prepared a course outline. You've decided what skills to teach before you teach others.

You likely even have a checklist.

  1. Have I worked on my course introduction?
  2. Have I considered the course organization so it builds on itself?
  3. Have I thought about instructional design—goals before each lesson, etc?
  4. Have I added any personalization to help different types of learners?
  5. Do I have a variety of ways to learn and link activities to learning objectives?

The questions you ask yourself go on and on.

But a lot of this focuses on the WHAT of your course's content.

Maybe you also spend time going over the technology of your online course.

  1. Do I have a way to track progress?
  2. Am I using badges or other gamification features?
  3. Do I have a way to create engagement on assignments?
  4. Does my technical solution have a facility for discussions?
  5. Are there feedback loops in my solution to help students?

These questions help you focus on HOW you'll deliver content.

You may have additional WHO questions about your audience, like:

  1. Is it clear who I'm selling this course to?
  2. Is the person purchasing the course also taking the course?
  3. Do I understand the different kinds of people who will take it?
  4. Are there secondary users who will take this course?
  5. Do I understand the various contexts that my students will be in?

All of these questions help you prepare your course—from your marketing and sales, to your content, to your deployment of technology to create a great solution.

But if this is all you do, then you'll likely make a mistake when designing an online course. And the crazy part is that this mistake is easily avoidable.

The big mistake that's easy to avoid

If you're creating an online course, and you've thought about all of the above, you're in a good spot. But you might easily fall into the problem I was talking about earlier (when telling you my pet peeve).

When you teach someone something, you often focus on the HOW.

Want to show someone how to build a website? It's all about the steps they need to take.

What to show someone how to repair a flat tire? Same thing.

You are showing someone, helping someone, learn something new—and in doing that, your content will likely focus on HOW to do things. Because that's what we're all clear we don't know.

We don't know how to play a guitar, or play a specific chord. We don't know how to create a Facebook Ad.

There are tons of things we don't know HOW to do. So our courses do that, and they do that pretty well.

But that's like telling someone the mechanics of how to move your little thimble around the Monopoly board. It's like telling someone how to put a house or hotel on the property, or how to collect rent.

But it doesn't cover the WHY of anything. And that's the mistake too many people make.

And the crazy thing is that it's totally avoidable. Because I'm not telling you something you don't already know. It's just easy to forget. After all, you're asking yourself all those other questions.

And so you forget that you should start, at the highest level, by answering all the WHY questions.

Whatever you do, as you design an online course, don't just assume that your student already knows why they should learn what you're going to teach them. Don't assume that they're only there to learn how to do something. Help them connect all the HOWs you're going to show them to the WHYs they should be thinking about.

If you start there, your students will learn better, will appreciate your course more, and I won't have to leave the room. 🙂

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.