In Episode 70, we continue our series, Starting and Growing Your Online Course. In this show, we go through some of the process when you are starting your first online course. To help us guide the way, we asked Carrie Dils to share her own experiences and insights.
Carrie is an instructor at Lynda.com, as well as a serial entrepreneur and host of the podcast Office Hours FM. In this episode, she talks about the challenges of starting an online course and answers to some of the questions you will likely be asking yourself.
We chatted about:
- How much teaching experience you need to get started
- The answer to the question “Will anyone really want to take my course?”
- Some of the first steps you should take when thinking about starting your online course
- How much time will you spend editing your course?
- What should you charge for your course?
- A few additional challenges that a course creator might expect
- Why Carrie chose to start her online courses on Lynda.com
- What would Carrie teach if she could create her dream course?
Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost
Meet Carrie Dils, Instructor, Podcaster
Bob Dunn: Hey everyone, Bob Dunn here, BobWP on the web. Thanks for tuning in to our second show of our series, What You Need To Know About Starting And Growing Your Online Course. On our first show we talked with Brian Clark about the history of online courses, what’s happening now, and what the future might hold. Today we’re moving into the nuts and bolts of starting your online course, and, to help us wrap our brain around this, I’ve asked my good friend and instructor, podcaster, entrepreneur, Carrie Dils, to join us. Hey Carrie, it’s great to have you on the show.
Carrie Dils: Hey Bob, thanks so much for having me.
Bob: I know you are actually traveling and working on your online courses right now, so I kinda caught you at the end of that, where you probably would rather be continuing to sleep today, and just not talk to Bob at all.
Carrie: Well, I might just say, nobody should do online courses. No, I’m just kidding.
Bob: Yeah, maybe I caught you at the wrong time, I’m thinking.
Carrie: Oh, no, it’s all good. Excited to be here
Can I create online courses if I don’t have a teaching background?
Bob: So, Carrie, let’s start out with this. When someone comes to you and they have a strong desire to start an online course, they’re just burning to do it, but they wonder if they’re even qualified, and they may ask you these two questions. First they’re gonna say, “Hey, you know, I don’t have a teaching background, and do you think people really give a hoot about me and what I wanna teach them?”
Carrie: So, I’d answer with another question, and that first question would be, why do you have this burning desire to start an online course? Is it because you want some mailbox money, or is it because you feel really passionate about a particular topic? And if it’s the former, then that’s a different set of answers, and a different reason. But if there’s a passion in you to teach something then, no, I don’t think you have to have … I didn’t have any formal teaching background. But it does help, that said, if people are already asking you about a topic. That way you know that there’s already people that are interested in learning something from you.
Bob: So it’s really more … it shouldn’t just all be about the money, even though we all like to think about money and making the big bucks. And if you don’t have any kind of desire to really teach the course, or passion, I guess I should say, behind this subject, probably that’s not gonna work out too well in the end, moneywise.
Carrie: Yeah, certainly yes, we’re doing this for money, but if money is your primary motivator and not necessarily a passion for teaching, then there’s probably better avenues to go make your money, that will be less stressful for you, and ultimately a better experience for your student, who, like you said, if there’s not much passion the student will know that and the popularity of the course will follow suit.
How do I know if I can teach?
Bob: Yeah, right. You’ll put them to sleep or something. So that makes a lot of sense, but a lot of people think, “Wow, you know, I can’t teach, I’ve never done it.” But I think a lot of us realize, and I’m sure both you and I have been in that spot, where you … yeah, you don’t have any teaching background, but once you start it you think, “Okay, I enjoy doing this, I do seem to have a flair for it.” So sometimes you don’t even know until you start doing it.
Carrie: Seriously. Like, does anybody ever say to you, “Oh wow. How you said that totally makes sense.” And if you’re able to take things and explain something in a way that helps the light bulb come on for somebody else, then it doesn’t matter if you have any formal teaching background, or not even a first experience. If you can explain things in a way that other people say, “Ooh, I get it,” then you have a gift for teaching.
Bob: Yeah, exactly. Well, let’s kinda step into the actual preparation. And I know there’s a long list, I’ve done this myself, and you’re doing this on an ongoing basis. And I know that it really depends on the course, the subject, etc.
What are the critical steps in developing online course content?
Bob: Okay. Let’s say I want to do courses, and I wanna do them on my WordPress site. Im thinking, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. What are the next three or four critical steps that I should take before I move ahead with this whole thing?
Carrie: Sure. Carrie the developer in me wants to think about, “Okay, well how am I gonna actually sell these on my WordPress site? Do I need some sort of learning management system? If so, which one is the best one to pick?” So, those actually have nothing to do with the actual course itself, but you do need to think about what’s the delivery format, and how you would sell that on your site.
Then of course there’s the actual preparation of the course. And where I start from a particular topic is, okay, here’s a topic, and without thinking about the course content or any of that, just answer the simple statement of, what do I want somebody to understand or know when they finish this course? What’s the single nugget?
Then from there, work backwards in creating a table of contents of things that, “Okay, well we need to cover this, and oh, if we’re gonna cover this that means we also need to cover this.” So you kinda go through a revision process of writing a table of contents from your course, and once you have that solidified, and I have to add, it would never be a bad idea to get another pair of eyeballs on that to make sure that what you’re thinking also makes sense to other folks. And then from there it’s actually getting into the nitty gritty of writing and producing the material. I didn’t answer in the form of steps.
Bob: That’s all right. Hey, this is a Carrie show, so however it works …
Carrie: You’re the pro Bob, I’ll let you extract the steps out of what I just said.
How do I go about getting feedback on my course content?
Bob: It’s interesting cause I was just thinking, as you were saying it, as far as getting another pair of eyes on it, because we assume too much knowing it inside and out, and we may be missing little things along the way. So at that point, how would you approach that? Would you say, “Okay, just look at this table of contents, look at the flow.” Or would you kinda put some more notes in between those things, share it with somebody and say, “If you were going through this, am I missing any points along the way?”
Carrie: Yeah, kind of the combination. I don’t know that I would spend a whole lot of time actually fleshing out the material yet, but I’d probably suggest getting two pairs of eyes. So one is someone who understands what you do, so they can look at the details of that table of contents and say, “Oh, you know what? You might wanna consider, this.” So they’re just coming at it from another professional perspective.
And then present it to your mom, or the proverbial mom, or someone who has no association, that could be your ideal student, whoever that is. And ask them, “Hey, what do you think about this? Would you be interested in learning this, and if so, do you think these are the topics you’d wanna hear about?” I find, at least in the WordPress space, it’s really easy to find those people who are willing to give you a little feedback. Be it, in my case, if it’s a junior developer and I say, “Hey, if you wanna know more about this, does this look like it would better?”
And I’m kinda rambling, but Bob you said it’s the Carrie show, so I’ll give you one more. For instance, the course that I just worked on, wrapped up this week, was an introduction to CSS. I had a really difficult time writing this one particular lesson, I was like, “I just … it doesn’t quite make sense.” And I feel like I’m being kinda circular here. So I got on Skype to a friend that knows some CSS, but I know wants to know more CSS, and I said, “Hey, would you just read this, and see if that actually makes sense to you, or if that sounds like a complete wad of gibberish?”
And she read it, and she’s like, “Oh, you know, I think I get it. Are you saying this … ” And then she made a suggestion about, “Okay, you’re talking theoretically, now if you gave me something to see while you were talking about this, that would bring it home.” I was like, “Perfect. That was exactly the feedback I was looking for.” So, again, I’ve gone a long way from suggesting steps, but getting those eyeballs on it, getting some critical feedback before you actually start writing the course, and then of course the other, maybe that second or third step in there, is considering how you plan to actually deliver the course.
How much time does it take to write and edit my content?
Bob: I imagine this depends on the course, but how much time do you spend on that very first content creation? You go through it, you nail everything down, and then it’s time to go back through. Is the editing process on courses for yourself, after you’ve gotten feedback, sometimes just as extensive as a job as actually creating the course? Or do you find, as you’re doing them more and more, the editing is becoming less and less of a time suck basically?
Carrie: Are you talking about content editing, or actually about product?
Bob: Content editing.
Carrie: I tend to self edit as I go, which I think is probably not the recommended way, but I just cannot help myself. So I found that I count that time into the actual prep time. And I’ve tried to come up with a formula Bob, and like you said, it does vary by what material you’re teaching. But, let’s say I’ve got a table of contents and I’ve got a chapter, and in that chapter are five topics. I’ve come up with an estimate that it takes me about two to three hours, per topic, to actually write the material, think through maybe what some corresponding graphics, or slides, or visual supplements would be for that. So if you multiply that out times a course with 30 or 40 topics, then you can get yourself just a really quick, basic, estimate of the time that it might take you to complete that.
Bob: That’s another great point you brought up. Glad you threw in an example. Because some people might think, “Oh, I’ll just sit down, whip this thing out, and I’ll have it done in a few hours and I’m good to go.” And the fact that the time you spend just on a specific topic within a course, that gives us a good example that this is not something to take lightly as far as the time it takes.
Carrie: Yes. Again, going back to your original question Bob, do I need a teaching background. You can deliver anything from a highly tailored, polished, well oiled machine of a course, all the way down to a five-minute youtube video that just, you know, with all kinds of uhs, and ehs. So there’s a spectrum of the learning experience that you want to create, and I guess the point of the time is, at what point on that spectrum do you wanna be? Because a five-minute youtube video is five minutes of your time, but there’s not a whole lot of polish there. That’s not a bad way to get your feet wet. But yeah, depending on what kind of professional polish you want on it, it can be a very time consuming process.
Bob: And we haven’t even planned on talking about the production part of things, which of course takes tons of time. But again, depending on if you want it very polished, it’s nothing to take lightly if you really want something professional.
What should I charge for my course?
Bob: Now, I know you’re on lynda.com, and that’s where you primarily do your courses, and that is by membership. But probably in the beginning, when you were looking to making this decision, you came up with a question yourself, about pricing. And I know pricing’s kinda that huge elephant in the room. Some people are like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” And some people don’t even wanna talk about it. Then they even wonder, “Are people gonna pay for my course?” You know, “What should I charge?” Have you learned, as you explored getting into online courses, anything about actual pricing, or can you give us any tips on how people should approach the pricing of their online courses?
Carrie: Okay. So we talked about that spectrum of quality, or production level quality, so your pricing would loosely follow that same model, or that same sliding scale, in that nobody’s probably gonna pay you for that five- minute youtube video. They’ll be happy to watch it for free, and they’ll be happy to criticize you for it, but they’re not gonna pay you for it. All the way up to to courses that are $1,000, so I think, the price you charge is to some degree in alignment with the quality of the material being delivered.
Now, the other piece of that puzzle is, what is your content? Like, if I’m teaching you … and I’ll use Paul Jarvis from Mailchimp Essentials, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with him, but he rolls out a course a couple of times a year, teaching people how to use Mailchimp, and he’s got a wonderful teaching style, and his course, I think, it’s 199 bucks maybe, which sounds like, “Ooh, that’s a lot of cash to spend on a course.” But, the reality is, if you actually take his course and go through the modules, and implement what he says to implement, you are guaranteed … I’ll put some loose air quotes on guaranteed, to see a specific outcome.
So things that are outcome-based education, I think you can put a little bit of a higher price tag on, cause it’s easier to justify the price, right? It’s like, “Okay, you spend this $199 on a course, you do what I tell you to do, and I can pretty much say that you’re going to 2x, 3x, 4x the number of subscriber in your list.” What I would call outcome-driven education.
And then there’s more, just sort of tightening up your skills, like … so this intro to CSS course I did, nobody’s gonna go build a website, or be able to charge thousands of dollars for building a website, after watching that course. It’s a stepping stone sort of a thing. So I think that there is maybe a lower value to place there.
I’m not being specific with numbers cause they can be all over the board, but that’s not to say that you can’t experiment with, and I’ve actually done this with one of my online courses that’s not on lynda.com. experiment wildly with the price, to see at what point a critical mass. And that, when I originally priced it too high, and as I’ve slowly brought the price down, I’ve found that people buy it more. But there was a threshold at which it didn’t matter if it was $25 or $45, that seemed to be sort of the magic number, that I was gonna get as many sales at 45 as I was at 25. So I would say, don’t be afraid to experiment there. And I hate to say look at what other people around you are doing pricing wise, but that honestly is a way you can gauge, or at least get a ballpark, of what you might want to put a price tag on.
What challenges do you run into as you develop your courses?
Bob: Those are good tips to get people going in the right direction. And yeah, we can’t have you say exactly this price or whatever price, but I think if they follow what you already talked about, that they’ll get a bit more grasp on what they should at least start with and, like you said, test. So now, kind of a broad, general question. Is there anything, through the content creation, even building the site, that, working with others, talking with them, what are one of the biggest challenges that you’ve seen? We’ve talked about the time you gotta put into it, but is there some other challenge we haven’t touched on that you just see over and over and over? Like, people hit that wall, and that’s the one that often makes or breaks them?
Carrie: So I don’t know if this is a make-or-break, but I hit the wall pretty much every time I do a course, and what I have found is, I get into teaching a topic that I’m comfortable with, and I could write CSS all day long, or whatever the particular topic is, but then I get to a part in the course where I’m trying to communicate some bit of material and I’m like, “I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did.” Cause there’s a different level of understanding required to do something than to teach something. I know that sounds weird, but there is.
Bob: Yeah, I understand it.
Carrie: Like, during the middle of content creation, I’m having to go research and learn in order to effectively write my own material. That for me was very unexpected, to hit that wall. So that’s one, and then the other side of it, I know we’re not talking a ton about production, but I am a firm believer in this: you operate in your strengths, and where something is not a strength, you hire someone else to do it. And in terms of production, oh, you can while away many hours trying to edit some bit of audio, or piece together a video. There are people who do that, and there are people who do that fairly inexpensively, so hire those people. You teach what you know, and let them operate in their expertise of production.
Why did you choose lynda.com instead of your own site for course delivery?
Bob: Yeah. This may actually segue into part of that. Last Monday on the show we had Brian Clark, and he came in talking about online courses, and we talked a little bit about doing your course on your own site, or using an existing platform. And I know Brian has his own thoughts, but I know you have chosen to put your courses on lynda.com. Can you tell us why you decided to go that route?
Carrie: Sure. And you know what, I don’t think it’s gotta be either/or. I know Brian is a firm believer in, you know, you don’t do digital sharecropping, you build your property on your own land, so to speak. But for me, as a relatively unknown human, if I was to put up a bunch of courses on my site, they might wallow in oblivion. Nobody but my mom might ever find them. But with Lynda, what I’ve been able to do is build some sort of name recognition for myself by being associated with that brand. I was able to tap into a huge audience immediately, without any marketing effort on my part. And I think that that’s the benefit there, is that, yes I may not be making as much as if I were selling these courses independently, but I’m also in front of a much wider audience with Lynda.
So, that said, I think having now done that for a few years, the time is right for me to also go ahead and try throwing some things out on my own. So I think that’s the benefit there, is it’s always do you sell on a marketplace or do you sell individually and keep the cash? So that’s kinda my thoughts on the why I went with Lynda. I actually chatted about that on Brian’s podcast a while back. Fun topic.
Bob: Yeah,. He was pretty adamant, you know, well yeah … But that’s a good point, because if you do start with one, you don’t necessarily have to stick with that one. And it makes a lot of sense, I will be having another series, or a show in this series, just on marketing your online course. And that’s one of the toughest parts when you go on your own and put it on your platform, and like you said, now you built up that audience, so that totally makes sense why you chose to go that route.
Last question: What would your idea of a course to teach purely for fun be?
Now, I’m just gonna throw in kind of a crazy last question here for you. And I know that your courses are pretty much around WordPress site development, all that good stuff, and yeah, you’re doing what you know and love. But if you had the time and resources, and you could do a course about anything … and maybe it’s not even on lynda.com, maybe you throw up a site and you just know that, “I can do this, I don’t have to worry, because people are gonna flock to it anyway just because of my karma, and I’m so cool.” And it’s your pure personal enjoyment, something that you just think, “God, this would be so fun to just do a course on this.” What would that be?
Carrie: Okay, it would be a course on how food and beverage pairings … specifically looking at coffee, wine, beer, cheese, and chocolate, and how you could match each of those food items their various drink items, based on what your preference was. I worked at Starbucks years ago, and I always liked to play the game when someone would come in and say, “I’ve never been here, I don’t know what kind of coffee I like.” And I would say, “Do you drink wine?” “Yes.” “Well, do you drink a red wine or a white wine?” And we’d go down the rabbit hole of figuring … and I’d say, “Okay, let me suggest this one.” And I think it’d be really fun to do that.
Bob: Cool. So now, when you become wildly successful, we’ll have the Carrie Drink and Nom show, where you have the perfect combination. Oh, that’s great.
Carrie: Probably already out there. Someone’s probably beat me to it.
Okay, so wrapping up. Where can we find Carrie Dils on the web?
Bob: Yeah, but that would Carrie, that would make it special. I think we’re gonna be keeping our eyes out for that. Well I think this is good. I know there’s a lot to starting an online course, and I believe you’ve brought in some good things for people to think about, especially if they’re at that point and maybe it’s time for them to go beyond that point. So, besides lynda.com, which I know people will be able to go there and find your courses, where else can they find you on the web?
Bob: Cool. Well, I appreciate it, I know this was a tough week for you and you’re probably ready to get home, and back to work again, but maybe, hopefully, for a little relaxation. But I appreciate you taking the time to be on the show.
Carrie: Oh, thanks so much for having me Bob.