Online courses are often lauded as a source of that mythical passive income that everyone wants for their business. I hate the term passive income for a lot of reasons, but particularly because there is nothing passive about learning.

When I taught high school science, I always got semi-flattering comments about how the speaker “could never do” what I was doing. By which they meant hauling 150 teenagers through some sort of meaningful learning experience every day for 40 weeks.

And you know what? They were right. Teaching is a fuckload of work. 

Because teaching is not just knowledge delivery. 

It’s helping your students construct their own understanding of a topic and guiding them toward applying it in their own lives.

It’s constantly assessing your students’ learning and adjusting your instruction accordingly.

It’s providing resources to help bridge knowledge and skill gaps.

It’s giving a damn about whether your students actually learn anything.

Can you achieve all of this in a self-paced course in an evergreen sales funnel? Absolutely! But not if you just record a bunch of videos and package them for sale. (Which is just about all most “course platforms” can do for you, but that’s a slightly different lecture.)

Here are 4 elements to include in your online course to ensure an active, transformative learning experience for your students.

1. Project- or task-based learning

Your online course should have actions for the student to take besides watching a video, listening to audio, or reading text. We remember far more of what we actively do than what we consume passively. I would argue that every module or section should have some sort of task or action associated with it. 

After reading, watching, or listening, you can ask students to:

  • Complete some reflective questions
  • Do the task you showed them how to do in the video/text
  • Create a plan of steps they will take before they start the next section

We’ve all watched or read content that didn’t really sink in. Including a specific task or action with each piece of instructional content will give students a concrete indicator of whether they understood what you taught or not. (And if they haven’t learned, you haven’t taught!)

2. Assessment

You certainly don’t need to have traditional tests and quizzes, particularly if your online course is producing a tangible final product such as a social media strategy plan or a functional website. But you do need a way for students to gauge their own success, not just at the very end but throughout the course. This is called formative assessment, or evaluating knowledge and skills as they are forming. 

Formative assessment is especially important in more complex online courses because students often need to master one skill or component before moving on to another. You can’t learn calculus if you don’t know how to multiply. A student can’t build any website at all, much less one that converts well and looks professional, if they haven’t pointed their domain to the right place. These “signpost” assessments can be simple yes/no questions – “Did you complete this step?” – or include more detailed criteria – “How well does your task product for this step meet these criteria?” 

Summative assessment is evaluation of the overall outcome. Did they get what they bought your course for? Did your course transform some little (or big!) corner of their lives like you promised? Again, this doesn’t have to be an actual test or exam, but you want to include a checklist or rubric that they can use to judge their own work. (You can also provide personalized reviews or 1:1s as an upsell for your self-paced course or workbook!)

3. Wayfinding and waymaking

You can give students the opportunity to be the architects of their own learning experience based on their own needs or interests. There isn’t just one right way to do anything, so even if you’re teaching a specific method, give students options for how they implement their new skills or even how they proceed through the content. 

Start with an assessment of their current abilities or goals, and then recommend a module or section to start with. In your formative assessments in each section, suggest next steps based on their assessment results, interests, or goals. You could even include some advice on which modules may not be necessary if they have already achieved a certain skill level (which of course you give them a way to assess on their own). 

Could this increase the number of incompletes? Sure. But checking a box or clicking a button doesn’t equal learning, so completion rate shouldn’t be the metric you care about most.

4. Safe and supportive learning environment

Honestly, planning and delivering lessons was probably the easiest part of being a teacher for me. Far more challenging was the deceptively easy-sounding work of “classroom management.” What this really meant was helping 25+ teenagers in various stages of social, emotional, and physical development feel safe enough with me and each other to actually learn anything.

You will need to do the same for your online course students. Yes, even if your course is completely self-paced and you do not want to have any interaction with students, you still need to create an environment conducive for learning. (If this is the case, I…sort of question why you’re creating an online course in the first place, but that’s none of my business.) 

There are variety of factors to consider here, including but not limited to:

  • Accessibility of your course materials (not just making materials usable for students with disabilities but also literally how easy it is for anyone to view or read content, download supporting materials, access live workshops, etc.)
  • User experience of the course platform if you are using one
  • Your availability for customer service or additional learning support if you offer that
  • Code of conduct if you’re running a cohort-based course or group coaching program (or if self-paced students can interact with each other in any way, such as in a private Facebook group or Slack channel)

The safer and more supportive you make the learning environment, the more actively students will be able and willing to participate in their own learning. And the more effective your course will be…which leads to more referrals, repeat customers, and other conversions.

There’s nothing passive about teaching or learning.

Creating an online course is hard work, and I’m not just talking about editing videos and getting everything in your funnel set up. (In my book, that’s actually the last piece of the puzzle.)

True learning isn’t just watching a video or reading an article, and it’s definitely not just buying a course. Learning involves making meaning based on each individual’s unique experiences, beliefs, prior knowledge, and motivations. 

Likewise, good teaching isn’t just delivering information or making a sale. Effective teaching means creating actionable learning experiences and a safe, supportive learning environment.

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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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