How to build an effective online course

Posted by

I thought it would be easy.  Easy to find information on how to build an effective online course (aka as WBT).  I thought a few pages into Google and something would be viewable for everyone to understand.

Then I did the search.  And repeated it six months later.  And what I saw, was poor.  Theory was everywhere.

Gagne? Uh, yeah right.  Kirkpatrick? Who is still doing this – I know a few vendors have it, but still – most folks are unaware of all the steps, etc.  ADDIE?  I am never surprised on the number of people who do not know what this is – every day folks I am referring to, not an instructional designer or e-learning developer.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had quite a few readers ask me whether or not there is a book they can buy to learn how to build a course.  And while there are plenty, I find most of them outdated as soon as they are published.

Plus a few seem to be out of right field in terms of building, thinking everyone is an instructional designer.  There are some that forget that the term “content” means more than just an ebook, or a PDF or a document or even a video.  Yes, content can be a course.

Then there is the continued push of micro-learning as if a course being short means great.  Or that micro is something new that no one has done before. 

The worst part of all of this is that the new pitch I see with more than a few vendors is the angle that a “traditional LMS” (which is just a marketing spin that no one would say, if you were to look at a house – “hey, that has a widow’s peak, that is so traditional), doesn’t show content i.e courses well or effectively.

I had a recent call with one vendor who was explaining that SCORM is the reason why people build linear-based courses with the next button (i.e. click, click).  That is 100% not true.  A course standard does a lot of things, but it is not a factor in terms of you either building a linear course (which is awful) or non-linear (which is why WBT is so effective over ILT). 

Nor is it true that LMSs were designed for compliance or regulatory.  They weren’t and even today, most folks use them for soft skills training, B2B selling of content, some compliance and soft skills and a host of other things. 

The interesting point is that there are plenty of people out there who blame their LMS or learning system in general because people are either waiting to the last minute to take their course/content OR are not returning to it.

I am hear to tell you, that isn’t because of the system.  It is because who ever built that course, designed it in a poor manner.  And the topic can play a role – especially with compliance.  Compliance is a cover yourself from being sued angle, so folks wait to the last minute take it, and then the company says, “see they completed this, so we shouldn’t be at fault that Peter cut off his toes due to putting the chain saw next to them while it was running.”

Building 101

Before diving into how to build an online course, I want to note that you can build a micro-learning course in the same fashion and approach.  Too many of us have learned the time angle because of our days in attending school.  This is something that shouldn’t be pushed upon by content providers or systems as a key factor.

What takes one person five minutes, may take someone else 45 minutes.  Duration is not an exact science and is based on whomever at the company timed it at – based on how long they or multiple people completed the content.  I have no idea if this person was a graduate of a speed reading or just was in a skip read angle and click. 

Plus it opens up a door that swings toward creating linear content because of the whole time angle.  If you have a Table of Contents (as you shall learn is a must), and a few other items (to be presented shortly) that whole duration can be tossed out the window along with a couch someone probably will do when they leave college/uni in a few weeks.

Steps To Remember

Regardless if you are building a micro course or not, there are a couple of key steps to remember and it is all tied to terminology.

The hierarchy is as follows

– Title – What is the title of the course? 

  • Chapter(s) –   After a title, you will have chapters with sub-titles
  • Pages – In each chapter you have pages
  • Scenario or Lesson or Assessment –   I’m a fan of Scenarios as the way to verify and help people retain the information they are learning or bring trained upon, more so than an assessment which validates nothing – except the ability to memorize or guess.  Some folks like a lesson approach – which I can’t think of any adult learner that wants  to see that.  I still cringe at freshman year in HS with my Algebra teacher and his lessons. 

That’s it.  Uh, not my awful Algebra teacher, but the hierarchy to building an effective online course.

Where do you put this information?

In a TOC – Table of Contents.  If there is anything you take away from the post is the TOC.  It is the most important thing you will need to do, and should do, regardless of length of course.

I’ve had ones in a short course, where someone who went linear (yuck) and needed that duration time, could achieve it in 10 minutes, over the breakdown of four mini modules – so in essence a few minutes per mod if they just did a read and couldn’t care to learn or retain approach.  Which I see a lot of today in online content.

Every course you build or you buy should have a Table of Contents. Every single one.  Ignore how the vendor pitches the terminology in their authoring tool (because many do not use the actual terms). 

I’ve seen the word “slides” in authoring tools.  Shame on them!  This isn’t PowerPoint.   Nor is PowerPoint an authoring tool.  Yes, folks use it as such, but folks use word documents too, and neither are effective in synthesis, which is what you really want.

Linear or Non-Linear

The terms can get a bit confusing, so here is what each of the terms mean, and you want – always want to offer non-linear as the default.  IF someone wants to go linear so be it, but non-linear is the most effective way to comprehend, retain and synthesize the information.

Linear = BAD way to train and Learn

Non-Linear = BEST way to train and learn

Linear – Think of attending a class in a classroom. Think of attending a seminar.  See how the instructor posts an agenda and everyone in the session follows that agenda. Now imagine sticking that online.  Whalla!  Linear-based courses.

From an asynchronous stanpoint (asynch in basic forms means the entire course is online, including scenarios, etc. – it is all self-contained), linear is the easiest way to never see folks come back to take the course.  It is also the easiest way to hear people gripe about e-learning and despise it. 

Synchronous which is heavily used in education is taking this linear approach to the extreme, in other words – reliving your days in school.  You get a syllabus. You have to go step by step (with that agenda in essence). Assignments can come your way – Yippee! I’m confident you have seem this type of design in action.  MOOCs use it.   Which explains why completion rates are awful and synthesis is equally horrible.

Let me do Linear

I want you to look at your trash can.  See all the papers in there?  Now, write on a piece of paper the words, “Linear is boring. Linear will bore me. I will never enjoy a linear course because I am likely to know something that will appear in it. I will fight for my right to party (wait, that’s from a Beastie Boys song), so ignore that part. ” Now take that piece of paper and toss it into that wonderful trash can.

Linear is an A to B to C approach.  You go in a line – just like you would in any ILT course or seminar.  You cannot jump to Chapter three, page five for example, when you are in chapter one, page two.  You must go in a linear – straight fashion.  Thus, even if you already know how to fry a burger, you still have to go thru that chapter, because you are in a linear mode. 

Some folks do “lockdown”, which means while you are in the course even if you wanted to jump to somewhere else in it, you can’t because you have to complete the entire section or chapter or the course for that matter before you can move onto the next piece.

I see this a lot.  Especially with compliance and it is another reason why folks and just clicking along.  They are not paying attention, nor will then retain that in six months.  Synthesis isn’t going to happen.  

Do you know what else uses lockdown?  That classroom you attended in K-12 and higher education.  That syllabus your instructor gave you.  A prison. 

Now, who wants to be in an online course that is following prison protocol? Anyone? Anyone?


Do any type of research related to the benefits of online learning and you will see some impressive data.  All of it, is tied to content and specifically content that follows a non-linear approach.  Ignore the self-paced thing, online learning is designed to do this, even when you watch TV nowadays with the pause button is self-paced.

Non-Linear follows this approach

  • TOC is a must
  • People can jump around the course, anywhere they want to go, as often as they want, and go back and back to it
  • It pushes the idea of learner-centric modality because it ensures that the person will go to areas of interest that they want to learn, which increases retention – comprehension and synthesis
  • It eliminates the step by step approach you enjoyed so much in school or at that seminar you attended where you surfed the net, waiting to get to the area you are only interested in
  • It allows you to learn on your time, if it takes you days or months to learn so be it, it is about training and acquiring knowledge not time watching or click by click
  • You can still have your navigation bar to move to next pages, or with your TOC, a person can just click that page and go to it – or swipe it and go to it

Every authoring tool on the market offers a TOC (again, their terminology may be different).  Can you have a TOC with that word doc or PDF? Yes, you can. 

I’m sure you have seen them plenty of times, what you often do not see is the ability to hyperlink to that page, so you have to scroll or read the entire thing.  I’d rather eat licorice gum drops than deal with that.

If someone wants to go step by step they can, non-linear offers that option, but it gives you options as the learner, which people want.

Think of linear and non-linear in this way.  If you read a newspaper or a magazine, regardless if it paper or online, you are unlikely to read the entire thing cover to cover. Maybe you do, but nowadays most people only go to the sections they are interested in or the pages or the topics.  Now, by jumping around, you are going non-linear.

If you were to go by each page and read every article that is linear.

Think of a video you see on YouTube.  Most follow a linear approach.  This is why with more LMSs and other Learning systems out there, you are starting to see a TOC approach or a search approach to eliminate the linear aspect.

A linear video is the video when you were hired they forced you to watch in a room, while HR went for burger.

Course Design

In your opening section before you even jump into the information you want to present, you will have an introduction.

The introduction should be in your TOC – it is the first section. 

An introduction should provide the following

  • How the course is presented. This includes your nav bar if you have one. It should explain how to take the course, using the TOC and how to jump around.  It should use icons as well as text (if you have icons you are including).  It should be clear so that anyone can understand the basics.
  • Some folks list two or three objectives and/or a summary – but I’m not a fan of that, because the usage of non-linear changes those objectives.  The objectives are based on the person or persons who created the course or the training or L&D exec who sees it in that way.  If I only want to learn how do labels in Excel, the objective of you will learn how to do the basics of Excel, isn’t relevant to me.  A summary is just objectives listed in paragraph, often redundant and rarely retained. 
  • If you do not require people to complete the entire course state that.  Sometimes learners think they do because they are thinking from an ILT standpoint
  • If they need a PDF reader or some other ancillary items, have that in the introduction with a direct link to where they go to download it.  Never assume.
  • If you have additional materials folks can download as part of your course, state that and show them where to find it.  A simple screenshot will do the trick with an arrow pointing to it, or however you go about it.
  • An introduction should be at max two pages in length, although you can easily go three. But no more than that.   I normally do one page, with how to navigate and move around the course and that you can jump around.  

Course Part Two

Any course can be interactive and engaging. Any course. Micro or not.  All text or text and a couple of pictures or a video embedded won’t be as effective, in fact, it borders on boring and the click-click let me out of here approach. 

Scenarios work the best because it offers the learner the ability to take what they just learned and apply it into a real-world scenario.


Think of call center tech support or customer support training.  I can’t tell you the number of times I see courses on how to answer a call, steps they follow in a call center and other items.  What I rarely see is a scenario that is more realistic – that of someone who is angry and upset.

Who calls tech or customer support?  Someone who is frustrated and can’t get whatever they are doing to work. They are already irritated and can get even more upset if the person is not answering their questions or following a script.

So, with your online course, you present the information on how to handle this, and then have a real-life scenario where the learner applies that information with an interactive experience or engaging manner.

With authoring tools today, most have those avatar or characters which opens up the door to more and more scenario based approaches.  Heck, just the other day, I saw an authoring tool that is all about scenarios, a true scenario sim. 

Something else you can do

Find out who is your target audience, who is going to take this course. I once had a course built for folks who are working a counter at a retail location.  Doing some basic gap analysis, I learned that most of the people were between 17-23, had a high school education and were fans of animation.

Thus the course was built with that in mind.  We didn’t have folks dressed in suits, nor business attire, because our target audience didn’t wear those types of clothes.  We had it in an animated style, with a lot of scenarios. We added a mentor if they needed it, but in each scenario there was no mentor.  We used an adaptable approach so that if the learner did one thing, then character in the course would follow suit.  Thus applying everything they learned.

A scenario existed right after they learned the info, so they could go back as often as they wanted to reinforce what they learned.

The Kicker

What we heard back was that counter staff loved the course. They went back often, and used it as part of our e-learning approach.  We also learned that sales managers and managers were going into the course as well, re-learning some things and in case of managers, some new items.

Sales at the locations increased.  Employee turnover dropped.  

In other words, the course worked because it was built to do.  It was fun. It was engaging. It was real-world and it presented information in a format that allowed each employee to bounce to the area of their interest. 

Bottom Line

Creating an online course can be frustrating. I get it.  But the rewards to building one with a TOC, following non-linear with a lot of scenarios, will more than make-up for the time it takes you to build the course.

Instead of griping on how people are not coming back into the course. Rejoice on how many times they do.

And they will.

E-Learning 24/7

Additional note – On numerous vendors are offering discounts when you purchase a system thru the platform.  Simply log-in (register first if you have not done so), contact the vendor within the platform or schedule a demo. If you decide at some point to by the system, the vendor will then apply the discount.

Here are the vendors offering discounts

  • eLogic Learning (ranked #3 in my Top 50 for 2019)
  • Biz Library (Top 50)
  • 360Learning (LXP) (Top 50)
  • Brainier (Top 10)
  • Asentia (Top 50)
  • Inquisiq R4
  • ePath Learning
  • Create LMS
  • Spoke (Top 20) – Spoke is offering a 50% discount off the first year (requires a three-year deal).




  1. Craig – you always astonish (fill with wonder and amazement.) The epic effort you have put into this and the high-worth content you have provided will accelerate the process for individuals like me – and – enable what we produce to be more effective for our learners. So thank you Craig! In my world (Critical Medical Aviation) know this; your soul will be on board each flight for those that OutreachU is informing on how to astonish customers and earn flight requests – so that the most worthy flight programs are the ones being called first to provide critical medical care for individual’s whose lives are in immediate peril.

  2. Hi Craig,
    Really useful post. Thanks.
    A couple of questions:
    1) How do you respond to people who still want to purchase (or sell) x hours of learning (sorry about the algebra there…)?
    2) In your example towards the end you said you gave the information first, followed by the scenario. Have you ever tried Cathy Moore’s approach, where the information is available, not before, but during the scenario to provide help at the point of need?

    1. If you want someone to really synthesize the information and apply it to a scenario, then having the content i.e. the information you are trying to have them retain and synthesize, placing it in the scenario per se, isn’t really ideal.

      It is one thing to have a character respond to what you are doing (info is presented), it is another to place them into a real-world situation, and give them the info as they are trying to solve that scenario, if that makes sense.

      I mean, a scenario should be looked upon as a better way to ascertain if someone is “really understanding the information”, rather than going assessment. That’s its power. Plus you can always expand the scenarios as you move forward, because, well, life changes.

    2. I have zero issues with folks who want to sell 3rd party content, and/or webinars, seminars, that is their option. I personally do not believe that ILT is as good or even better than WBT (depending on how it is built), and the data – research backs this up. The only caveat is to never assume that the content you are buying via a 3rd party is better than something you can build. I’ve seen a lot of awful course design with 3rd party. Once, I talked to a vendor who had ZERO navigation and ZERO TOC. It turns out they had no idea on how instructional design in WBT worked. Meanwhile they were making a lot of money selling their content.

Comments are closed.