Welcome back to our blog series on how to create your very own online course. New readers can catch up on the first and second posts at their leisure. As a general reminder, I’m Michael DiBiasio-Ornelas, a filmmaker and marketing consultant cataloging my experience creating my own first online course, for my pals here at Spotlightr.
Today’s topic is on how to structure and outline your course. Although there’s a subtle difference between those two terms that we’ll cover as well.
As with all other posts in this series, the lessons summarized will be based on actual takeaways I’ve cataloged during the real-time creation of the course I’m crafting with my co-founders at Fair Share Films. I just finished outlining the seven modules and twenty-six lessons that will eventually comprise our course:
The Startup Filmmaker: Bootstrapping Your Indie Career From Outside the System.
Right now, I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned during that process, with you.
Let’s begin by getting that “course structure vs. course outline” distinction out of the way.
The Differences Between Course Structure and Your Course Outline
You might see the terms ‘course structure’ and ‘course outline’ used interchangeably in other guides similar to this one. We won’t be doing that, because they’re different things that they serve distinct functions in course creation and design.
Structure provides a high-level view
Course structure refers to the overall format and organization of your course. It includes elements such as:
– Mode of delivery (online, offline, or hybrid)
– Course length
– How modules and/or lessons are divided
– Types of learning materials used (like videos, text, quizzes), and
– Any supplemental resources or add-ons (such as discussion forums, assignments, downloadable materials, or interactive elements).
For example, for our course on pursuing a sustainable independent filmmaking career:
– The materials will be delivered entirely online
– Length will be between 60 and 80 mins
– We’re aiming for the seven modules and twenty-six lessons mentioned above
– Learning materials will primarily include video, with supplemental text
– There are no supplemental resources planned at this time (for specific reasons we’ll get into later)
This structure provides a good high-level view of how we plan to engineer our course. But it doesn’t tell you in any detail what it’s going to be about, and how the content will be organized.
An Outline Begins to Fill in the Details
The outline for your course, on the other hand, provides a detailed breakdown of the specific content to be covered within the course’s modules and lessons.An outline provides an overview of topics, subtopics, and key learning objectives. It guides learners through the journey of the course, highlighting the sequential progression of knowledge and skills they will acquire in completing it.
There’s not much difference between how you’d outline your course materials versus any other piece of long-form content. I mention this only to assure you that, if you’ve outlined anything before, you can outline your course.
The main thing to concern yourself with, as we did, is crafting an outline that fits the structure of your course (and courses in general). While there are always exceptions, for us this meant deciding on what modules to cover based on our goals for the course, and then populating them with the minimum number of lessons required to do each subtopic justice. My goal in these terms was an average of three lessons per module, to keep the content pointed and digestible.
Due to the complexities of the subject matter at various stages, some modules feature a few more than three lessons. We also wanted our course videos to tend towards the short side (3 min), so that meant leaving room for more lessons on more specific “standalone” topics, that technically could have been lumped into longer combined videos.
While the outline for our course on startup-style filmmaking is too long to share here (and too full of juicy secrets!), here’s a snapshot of the early lessons and modules I sketched out. This was done in Notion, where we’re managing the entire project.
You can see now where structure and outline differ, but also why each is important.
While both the structure and outline are critical for effective course design, they address different aspects of your preparation. Structure focuses on the learning experience and delivery mechanisms, while your outline concentrates on subject matter and learning progression.
So, while it’s understandable how some might confuse structure and outline as the same thing when it comes to planning out a course, in digging deeper into the responsibilities involved in each task we see they’re more interdependent than interchangeable as terms.
What I Learned in Structuring and Outlining Our Course
A few other hands-on lessons occurred to me when thinking of what to share about the process of structuring and outlining our particular online course.
In no special order…
Answer questions about structure before outlining
I debated whether or not to include this testimony, which I guess should serve at the same time as evidence that the method may not work for everyone.
But, technically, despite what I might have hinted at above as a best practices, I didn’t write down notes on the structure for our course until after revising a few versions of our outline. Thinking about it more deeply, however, I realized that I had performed a degree of structural planning in my head, before anything else.
I knew this first attempt was going to be a Version 1 of our course, and also that I didn’t want our students to have to spend more than 2-3 minutes on average, per lesson. Since I had a rough high-level outline sort of already written from our ideation stage, this meant I technically planned for the course to take between an hour and two hours to complete, when eventually finished (a structural detail).
Additionally, having worked with Spotlightr previously to research and analyze the many options available when it comes to format, I knew that for now we’d be mostly relying on strong content vs. highly-produced content.
While this may come as a surprise for a course on filmmaking, consider that we’re talking about bootstrapped filmmaking. In line with the principles we’re trying to live by at Fair Share Films, this means that we’d rather focus time and resources on providing maximum impact per dollar (and minute) invested in producing the course, when it comes to pursuing the objectives laid out at the beginning of this endeavor.
I’d rather focus time and resources on saying the right things to our audience, in footage shot on a webcam, than invest too much time and money on content that, in the spirit of the course, would be better diverted to actual films.
We have real results we can share from our catalog of completed and distributed productions that can serve as examples of the kind of premium filmed content we want our students to be able to match or outstrip in quality. And, truth be told, it’s not a big goal of our course to teach techniques for achieving quality imaging anyway. Our course and model is more about thinking differently, so I wanted to put our (lack of) money where our mouth is, which is in pursuing a bootstrapped and sustainable path towards making more money (and more films).
Don’t be afraid to go back and revisit decisions
There’s some risk in the above sort of thinking, even if ultimately we decided that the assumptions and decisions that informed it remain sound.
Still, looking ahead to next steps, it felt useful and important to follow our own advice and write down specifically how we wanted to structure our course, even after completing an additional pass at a deeper content outline for it.
That’s what I did when cataloging the course structure notes listed in the first section of this post.
Having completed what amounts to a first pass at a true content outline by then, I made the following changes to the unwritten initial decisions just discussed, when it comes to our course structure:
– Having a more specific content outline in hand, and more time to consider our objectives, I was able to determine that hewing closer to 60 min than 120 min would be better for this first version of the course.
– With a better sense of how much breadth we’d want to cover, with limited time and resources, it became clear that “low-fi” video, supplemented by premium clips from our filmography, would definitely be the right move at this stage.
– Knowing that we’d still want to cover certain minimum “how to” elements for students with less hands-on experience and a lot of passion, I allotted extra time for some modules above the average number planned. This should cover us in areas of our framework that require more time and thought, such as pre-production and production. For these modules, we may need five or six three minute videos to get to everything, as opposed to three.
– In early planning, I was unsure about supplemental materials. In my research, I’ve seen how they can definitely add value to a course and increase engagement. Ultimately, I decided that for this first version, it doesn’t make sense for us to invest the time in this. The main reason is that no ideas for supplemental materials – that seem like they’d be actually useful or effective – have occurred to us yet. At most, we might provide case study notes from our own productions to use as examples or templates that students can follow. Even that may not be doable until the next version of the course.
Ironically, but perhaps understandably, what made the most sense as a next step following these revisions to our course structure – was to revisit our outline again.
Outlining can seem laborious and intimidating, but it’s important and worth it
To recap, the first version of our outline was really just some brief notes on the basics of how the course content would eventually lay out. We knew it would probably change, and it indeed has.
Here’s a glimpse at where we started:
Once it became time to create an actual outline, I fed these early notes and several others into ChatGPT and asked it to return a more robust preliminary content outline for the actual course.
The results that the robot returned were middling, to be honest, but they were enough to provide some momentum for thinking more deeply about how I needed to edit them to match our objectives. A bigger lift for me at this stage was to reframe the outline more squarely in the realm of our specific experiences and expertise, which the AI was not able to do on any level.
After a few hours of fiddling and rearranging, I had what I’d call a first draft of a true outline for our course. Then I slept on it, returning to the task the next day to find that it still felt too general and undifferentiated.
With a fresh look at our objectives, I made another pass and then took a break to work on something else. When I returned to it the next time, the outline felt more specific but still light on some details. I made a third pass, which ultimately felt too specific, but decided that at this point it was a workable outline and that I could trim details as it made sense during the scripting phase.
Conclusion: More Work Invested in Outlining Should Have A Compound Positive Effect on Your Overall Course
I want to end this post with a confession. I don’t like outlining and I’m not big on structure.
I’ve been a writer for most of my life, and outlines to me always felt like something that got in the way of real writing. My preference, to this day, is to just start typing away at any one piece of content until it’s finished. Revisions can take care of the rest of the job, in terms of making the content as effective as it can be.
But I’ll write an outline when it makes sense. I’ve grown to accept the benefits of the practice. Done well, outlines are often:
– A faster path to your finished product
– A more efficient framework for iterating ideas, and
– A more readable, cleaner document for project management
In essence, outlines are for grownups.
That’s a bit of a joke, but it’s also a last piece of testimony to the power of planning and methodology, when it comes to creating an effective, entertaining, engaging and impactful course you can take pride in bringing to market.
As filmmakers, we learn quickly in our careers that time spent on prep work saves an exponential amount of money in later production costs. Modifications or corrections made on set during a live shoot cause delays, and when entire teams of actors and crew are waiting around between recorded takes during those delays, then it means resources aren’t being spent wisely as the clock ticks away and payroll grows and grows.
While this exact scenario could play out for you when, for instance, you get to recording video modules for your course, I mostly bring it up to support the need to do the “more boring work” of outlining in phases, as I did for our project.
It can be easy to go with your simple Version 1 outline, and/or to just go with what a tool like ChatGPT offers up for you.
But taking just a little extra time to structure and outline your course more thoughtfully is likelier to pay greater dividends, not only in terms of your costs for generating your course modules but also the potential impact the entire course can have on your students.
You don’t have to love outlining any more than I do. But I guess we should all probably respect it.
Next Up: The Tech Stack for Your Course
Now we’re getting into the finer details!
In our next post in this series, we’ll leverage the deep expertise of Spotlightr (and some of our own research) to suggest a complete tech stack for your course.
Get your notepads ready.
Or sign up for the dedicated email list for this blog series to be the first to read this comprehensive guide to selecting the right technology for building and delivering your course offering(s).