Did you know there are multiple ways to make an online course? You can teach just about anything in any format, but the best choice for you depends on your goals and resources. Read this post to find out the best format for your course, before you sink months into building something overly complicated. (Not that I know anything about that!)

Self-paced Video Course

This is often what most people think of when they hear the term “online course”: a series of video lessons that students can work through on their own schedule.

Self-paced video courses are great for teaching specific skills, especially those that are adjacent to but not part of your own offers. For example, maybe you are a brand photographer and you create a course teaching people how to create compelling Instagram posts with your photos. This way your course is not competing with your service offers. 

On the other hand, you can also use self-paced courses as a downsell for clients who can’t invest in your 1:1 services or coaching, or to generate and nurture qualified leads for those offers. For example, if you were a social media strategist, you could create a course that teaches business owners how to create their own content calendar. Someone could either take that course and do it themselves, or work through the course and be better prepared to work with one on one. (Or both!)

  • Student Accountability
  • Scalability
  • Production Value
  • Your Involvement Post-Sale
  • Perceived Value
Typical Price: $101-$250 USD

Live or hybrid cohort-based course

Cohort-based courses (CBCs) are perhaps the closest thing to the traditional classroom learning experience: a set group of students enrolls in the course and goes through it together in real time, with varying amounts of guidance and support from you and/or teaching assistants. You can either teach the content live or prerecord instructional videos students can watch on their own time before showing up for live workshops, Q&As, or office hours.

CBCs are arguably the most effective format for higher-priced courses that are your signature offer because you will actually be there to facilitate major transformations. It’s generally easier to justify spending a lot of money on a program with personalized guidance and live facetime (or keyboard time) with you, than on a series of videos with no accountability or support.

CBCs require the most investment of your time and energy while the course is running. But this also means you can easily adapt your instruction to meet your students’ needs in real time without rerecording lots of videos or redesigning your PDFs.

I often suggest that course creators teach a live version of a self-paced course at least once so they can see where the learning gaps are. It also gives you the opportunity to scoot that first group to completion so you can get those juicy testimonials, instead of letting them wander through the wilderness on their own and hope they reach the promised land.

  • Student Accountability
  • Scalability
  • Production Value
  • Your Involvement Post-Sale
  • Perceived Value
Typical Price: $1,000+ USD

Membership course

There are many different types of membership programs, but a membership course likely consists of a community platform like Mighty Networks or Circle where informational content is posted on a regular basis. Membership courses provide the added bonus of ongoing support from peers and the instructor, and a stream of recurring revenue for the course creator.

In addition to creating new content on a regular basis, you will need to intentionally create and maintain a safe learning environment in your community. People join memberships not just for the content but for the accountability and networking, and it’s your job to facilitate those connections. (If you want an absolute masterclass in community design, check out my friend Anna’s Community Camp. I’m not an affiliate, just an alumna and raving fan. You’ll even see my testimonial on the main page!)

  • Student Accountability
  • Scalability
  • Production Value
  • Your Involvement Post-Sale
  • Perceived Value
Typical Price: $100-$250 USD/month

Ebook or print book

Surprise! You can teach without any video or meetings at all. After all, how did we learn before Zoom and the Internet? Books! If you’re mostly teaching knowledge and application thereof, an ebook or printed book is a great option.

Books allow you to explain a process or system in writing, with the potential to easily reach very large audiences, especially if you publish on something like Amazon Kindle Digital Publishing. Ebooks are generally the easiest to produce of these five options.

Because you have basically no opportunity to answer reader questions as they come up, you will need to be very clear in your writing. Consider including a glossary of industry- or topic-specific terminology. Give readers prompts or exercises to try on their own as well as rubrics or checklists they can use to evaluate their own implementation. If you’re getting physical books printed, consider a print-on-demand service that handles order fulfillment for you.

  • Student Accountability
  • Scalability
  • Production Value
  • Your Involvement Post-Sale
  • Perceived Value
Typical Price: Under $100

Interactive PDF course

Interactive PDFs are a neat way to upgrade your typical downloadable and often make good tools that students can use over and over.

For example, I built a course workbook for Amy Posner that walks students through generating a toolkit for planning effective sales calls. They can edit their toolkit as their business needs change. Kirsty Fanton’s Social Proof Sidekick is not just a wealth of information about collecting social proof; it also has a nifty build-a-survey tool baked into the PDF. One click of a button wipes the tool clean so you can generate another survey. (Again, not an affiliate link, just the strongest of endorsements!)

Unlike a standard ebook, a well-designed interactive PDF can replicate many of the features found in course platforms like Teachable. (And sometimes features that aren’t there, like quizzes that explain the correct answer or fillable fields that transfer throughout the document to help you connect concepts.)

It’s also generally easier to produce and deliver an interactive PDF than interactive elearning modules that must be delivered through HTML5, Flash, or SCORM files. None of the major consumer-grade learning management platforms can handle these files, but they can all host PDFs.

If you want to give your students a more active way to engage with the content, try building an interactive PDF.

  • Student Accountability
  • Scalability
  • Production Value
  • Your Involvement Post-Sale
  • Perceived Value
Typical Price: $101-$250 USD

See which  online course format  is right for you!

Select post images from WOCinTechChat

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Use the 4 Essential Elements of Teaching to plan your online course! This interactive worksheet can be reused to plan all of your transformational learning experiences.

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