How I Build (and Sell) Online Courses | Part 3: How to Choose a Format for Your Course

The way your course is structured will have a big impact on everything from how easily students learn to how much time it takes to create and how much income it can generate.

And while there’s obviously no right or wrong approach to structuring your course, you do want to make sure that whatever you choose aligns with your values and your students’ best interests.

So in the rest of this post, I’m going to walk you through how I think about structuring my own courses, with an emphasis on my newest course, Finding Focus, which I’m in the process of building.

My hope is that by giving you a model for how to think about structuring your course, you’ll be better suited to think through the options yourself and make a choice that’s optimal given your unique circumstances, goals, and values.

Choosing a Format: 3 Types of Online Courses

After I’ve chosen a main idea and topic for my course, the next thing I try to work out is what the optimal structure and format for my course is.

There are three main types of online courses:

  1. Cohort-Based Courses. Cohort-based courses are live courses that only open for enrollment a handful of times per year. Once or twice a week for typically 3-6 weeks, you and your students get on Zoom and you teach the material live. Cohort-based courses often take the most work, both to create and deliver since you have to repeatedly launch and run them at least once or twice a year. But they’re also potentially the most rewarding—both for you and your students—because of the live interaction. They also tend to be the most expensive—ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands.
  2. Self-Paced Courses. Self-paced courses involve creating pre-recorded lessons (typically video or a mixture of video and text), along with any supplemental handouts or other resources, then packaging them up in an online platform that students can access any time they want. While they can involve a lot of work up front, self-paced courses don’t require as much ongoing effort as cohort-based courses. And while they lack the interactive element of a live cohort-based course, many students appreciate the flexibility of not having to worry about showing up to live sessions at specific times or managing time-zone issues. Self-paced courses often range in price from $50 dollars to several hundred dollars.
  3. Email Courses. Email courses are made up of a series of lessons (often text-only) that are “dripped” out to students via email over the span of a week or two (typically). While they can be paid, email courses are typically smaller and narrower in focus and given away for free—often in exchange for someone’s email address—and used as a way to generate leads or potential students for other products or services (including paid courses).

With that in mind, here’s how my thought process went for choosing a course format for my newest course on procrastination…

  • Personally, I love teaching live, so whenever possible, I like to go with a cohort-based course. In my experience, the energy and excitement I get teaching in a format I really enjoy (live) usually outweighs the extra effort of managing the more complex course. But I already have one pretty significant live course, Mood Mastery, that I run once or twice a year. And because I still do all my writing and teaching on top of my day job, it’s just not logistically feasible for me to do another cohort based course.
  • I’ve also been keen to do more self-paced courses because of the reaction from my students to my previous self-paced course, Creating Calm. I heard from a lot of people that, while they would like to take my Mood Mastery course, it’s just too expensive for them. Similarly, I have a pretty international audience, which means time-zones and scheduling are a major obstacle for people with the live cohort-based courses. So the flexibility of the self-paced courses is really appealing for a lot of folks.
  • Also, just because a course is primarily self-paced doesn’t mean you can’t have some live components. With Creating Calm, I was able to work in some live elements by A) Launching the course in a live version initially, then turning it into a self-paced one (I’ll talk more about this in a future post, but the the main idea here is to get feedback from an initial bunch of live students that I can use to inform the final self-paced version). Also, once every few months, I do a free live Q&A session over Zoom for students so they can ask questions, work through obstacles, etc. In short, just because a course is primarily self-paced, doesn’t mean it can’t have any live components.
  • The last thing that went into my decision to use the self-paced format again for my new course is a desire to diversify and experiment with different income models. One of my big motivations for creating courses in the first place is to make enough money so that I can support myself and my family writing and teaching online full time (I talk about my motivations for creating courses here). So I’m trying to think about this project of mine a little bit more like a business rather than a passion project that happens to make some money here and there. And a big part of that is not being overly-dependent on one source of income (in my case, almost all of my income was coming from my one cohort-based course, Mood Mastery). A mix of live and self-paced courses seems like a more resilient way to build an online education business. At least for now.

Okay, hopefully getting a little peek into my own thought process on course formats was helpful.

Next, a quick warning: It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing one or the other format because it’s trendy or that’s what you see someone you admire doing. But I really believe the smarter play long-term is to think more about what will be genuinely exciting, helpful, and valuable for you and your students.

With that in mind here’s a quick list of questions to help you reflect on this decision:

  • How much time, energy, and resources am I willing to invest in creating the course content initially?
  • How much time, energy, and resources am I willing to invest in maintaining the course over time?
  • How much do I want to charge for my course? And how much are my students willing to pay?
  • What form of teaching gives me the most energy? Writing? Video? Live? Audio?
  • What form of content will my students learn best from?
  • How tech savvy am I?
  • What’s my budget for creating (and maintaining) a course?

If you consider them carefully, each of these questions will likely point you toward or away from a specific type of course.

All that being said, you also don’t want to overthink this 🙂

Ultimately, the only way you’re really going to learn what the right type of course to create for you and your students is to experiment and try them.

To that end, I want to give you enough information and things to think about to get more clarity on what creating an online course might look like but not so much that it sinks you into analysis paralysis!

One last tip…

If you’re curious for more details about the difference between cohort-based courses and self-paced courses, you can always check out the landing pages for two of my courses which explain in pretty good detail how the two options look and feel different:

As usual, I’d love to hear from you about any questions, ideas, or thoughts, so leave a comment below.

And stay tuned for next week’s installment where I’ll explain How I Structure My Course Curriculum.

Missed any of my previous entries?

You can find all the posts in my How I Build (and Sell) Online Courses series here:

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