Designing Your Online Course Around the Student Transformation

Online learning is a fantastic way to teach students, but when designing an online course, it’s important to keep in mind the transformation you expect your students to undergo. If not, your course can be too sophisticated or simplistic for their needs and they won’t get what they need out of it. By focusing on this central idea of “transformation,” you can design a course around what you want your students to get out of it and what they will find helpful in order for them to actually succeed.

In other words, think “What do I want my students to transform into?” The best way is to start is by following Dr. Stephen Covey’s philosophy of beginning with the end in mind. So before getting into the nitty-gritty of designing the content, think about what your goal is for this particular course and then design around that. Once you have a clear understanding of what your online course’s intent is, think about how to make sure that it will be successful in helping people reach their goals.

Begin with the end in mind

This includes determining whether your learners need help setting up new habits or if they are more interested in improving themselves from an individual standpoint. For instance, some courses may focus on teaching skills and others might give actionable steps over a 12 week time period. The point here is to identify what kind of student transformation potential there is so you can tailor your instruction and materials accordingly.

In another example, consider if you are teaching someone who is an expert in Excel but wants help with PowerPoint, then think about what specific skill they need help with before creating your course. If it’s more general advice or information that applies across different programs like time management skills, offer tips on this instead of focusing specifically on one program. What do they hope to learn? How will this change their life/business? With these questions answered at the start of course creation, designing your course will be a lot easier.

Consider what your goal is for this particular course and then design around that

What is that you want your students to be able to do once they complete your course? Think about everything that they will need to learn in order to get that final point. From there, break it down into little steps or actionable items to make the course easy for them. Here are some ideas of how you can design your course around your students’ goals:

Helping people set up new habits: Keep track of daily tasks, provide specific guidelines on what they should do each day, and offer support in the form of encouragement or even reminders.

Helping people improve their skills: Offer content that explains how to perform new tasks, provide examples through lessons, videos, etc., and follow up with quizzes to see if they understand what you taught them.

Going deeper than goals: Consider what kind of transformation you want your students to go through. If they are not very confident, design your course so that it will help them become more self-assured or if they are having trouble staying focused on goals, teach them how to avoid distractions and focus on their goals.

You also need to consider the knowledge base your primary target customers will have when they purchase your course. Are they beginners, intermediate or advanced in the topic you are teaching? Do you need to include a lot of background information or will they be ready to jump right into the most complex parts of your subject?

Keep in mind that you’re designing a learning environment, not just an information dump

In order to make sure that you truly serve your target customer well, you need to focus on the primary student outcome that you want to see and keep all of your instruction centered on that transformation. When it comes down to it, these are students who want help with their job or career, or maybe they want help enriching their non-work life by learning a new hobby or gaining some self-improvement habits. So keep this in mind when designing your course. Think about where your customers are in their lives and what their motivation is for enrolling in your course. How you would want to be taught if you were a student yourself? What will keep them engaged and wanting to continue on with the program after each session?

If you are creating videos for your course, plan what content is the most critical for you to include in your videos and what content is background information that some students may already know. If your customer base truly includes learners with a variety of experience levels with your subject, then you can always provide the background information in written text or perhaps through an optional video that you offer, but don’t require. Or if you expect that a few of your students will want more advanced material, then you might decide to include a list of recommended extension resources, like blog posts or videos from other providers. But keep in mind that your course will not be able to provide everything to everyone. It’s easy to get bogged down and off-track by trying to be everything to all people.

The best way to design your course is to think about what a student needs and where they will be most receptive. You may end up changing your entire course depending on the goals and knowledge levels of your learners, so be open to receiving feedback from your students and adapting your course as needed.

Write down the primary topics or actions that you will need to teach

List at least three things that are most important for your customers to get out of the course. You may have more than this, but you don’t want your list to be too long or else you run the risk of overloading yourself. Maybe there is a common theme among these three things? These three items will be the big picture goalposts that will help you determine the detailed information and practice you need to provide to your students.

By staying focused on the primary topics or actions that you are teaching, you will be able to clearly articulate to your students what they will be able to do when they complete your course. How will you explain the kind of transformation they will achieve and how will you know if they have reached this milestone? For example, “At the end of this course, you will be able to construct a skyscraper that is earthquake safe” clearly explains the final transformation, but customers will want to know the big milestones they will achieve along the way that will get them to that final transformation of building the skyscraper.

When thinking about what your students should be able to do at the end of your course, it’s helpful to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what you would want to know and be able to do if you were taking this course that is designed specifically for you. What information, practice, or reflection would you need to be able to learn the new skill or habit?

Measure progress toward and achievement of the transformation

You also need to consider how both you and your students will be able to determine if they are making progress. Students can get discouraged if they are putting in the time to learning something new but they don’t see any indication that they are, in fact, growing. Ask yourself, what can I do to ensure that my students are moving towards this transformation? That is, what can I do in the design of a lesson plan or assessment so that students are moving toward becoming confident public speakers (for example)?

Some possibilities include scaffolding learning from easy to more difficult, giving students frequent opportunities for practice and feedback. With mini-quizzes or interactive practice opportunities, you and your students will be able to easily tell if they are making progress in learning the new information. But, remember, our goal is transformation, not just short-term memorization and recall. Reflective exercises that allow students space to think about what they have learned and how they will APPLY it to their lives are more likely to yield long-term learning than simple recall of newly learned facts.

Another option is adding gamification to the course to help the learner see how they are progressing (for example, instead of just “pass / fail,” use “beginning / intermediate / advanced” – or get creative and make it something fun like “apprentice / journeyman / master”). Many online course platforms provide options for adding badges or providing certificates when lessons, quizzes, or courses are completed. Leaderboards that show points scored for successful completion of course assignments or lessons is another fun way that students might enjoy seeing how they are progressing as compared to their peers.

Stay focused and don’t give up on your vision

Be careful not to overwhelm yourself or get lost in all of the details and information that you will need to teach for your students to achieve the transformation. Keep focused on what is most important, and think about how this can be expressed in small chunks of knowledge that are easily digestible for students. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to adapt your course as you learn through teaching it.

The best way to design your course is by starting with the end in mind. Ask yourself, “What do I want my students to get out of this class?” or “How can I help them achieve the transformation they are seeking?” You’ll need a specific goal for the class and then you can build around it. When considering what skills your learners will possess at the end of the course, think about what would be most helpful to know if you were going through this same process as a student. What kind of transformations might they desire? Remember: while these principles may seem easy enough on paper (or even when reading an article), teaching online courses takes experience and practice! Don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to make changes along the way. Designing a course is not an easy task, but the more you do it, the easier it will get!

Sara Baker

Sara Baker

I have been building sites using LearnDash for 2+ years, starting out as a DIYer and now building sites for clients. For 17 years, I served as a public school leader and rounded out that career as VP for Virtual Learning for online public schools in Texas where I led the design of our LMS. Also taught public school law and other fascinating subjects for Master's level Principal prep programs. I live on a farm in Texas with my husband, kids and our pack of dogs.

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