3 Simple Strategies for Outlining Your Online Course

So you’ve decided to build an online course. Excellent!

Pretty soon you’ll need to decide what it’ll include. In other words, you’ll need to create an outline.

But high-level planning like this can feel daunting. And frankly, unless you’re a course geek like me, you’re probably more excited about creating the content than designing a detailed “table of contents” for your course.

The problem is that without some kind of big picture outline, you risk creating a course that’s muddled and difficult to navigate. You may also waste time creating content that you later decide isn’t needed, or should be handled in a different way.

So what’s the answer? How do you create an effective outline without all the pain and procrastination?

Simple! Let one of these strategies do the heavy lifting.

Strategy #1: Divide and Conquer

“Divide and Conquer” takes the main outcome for your course (i.e., the result that students get when they complete it) as a starting point and breaks it down into a series of progressively smaller units.

For instance, you might first break the main outcome into a series of intermediate milestones that lie on the student’s journey. Then, each of those milestones would translate to one or more course modules, and each of those modules would be broken down into individual assets like lessons, assignments and resources.

Here’s a quick example. If you’re creating a course to help people land their perfect job, the intermediate milestones might look like this:

  1. You’ve defined your perfect job
  2. You’ve created a killer resume
  3. You’ve been invited to one or more interviews
  4. You’ve been offered your perfect job!

How to Execute This Strategy

Here are the high-level steps you can use to execute the “Divide and Conquer” strategy:

  1. Get absolutely clear on the specific outcome your course delivers for students.
  2. Work backwards and break the student’s journey to reaching that outcome into a series of smaller milestones (e.g., 4 – 7 in total).
  3. Treat each milestone as a mini-outcome and work out what the average student will need to know, believe and do to reach that milestone from the one before.
  4. Determine what lessons, assignments and resources students will need to acquire that knowledge, instill those beliefs and take those required actions.

When to Choose This Strategy

This strategy works best when you’re comfortable with a methodical, logical approach that produces great results but few quick wins.

It’s also useful if you need a detailed outline early in the course creation process you can use elsewhere, e.g., in your course marketing.

Strategy #2: Connect the Dots

“Connect the Dots” is a pragmatic strategy that makes it easier to get started on your course outline.

It’s based on the idea that whatever the exact structure of your course, you’ll have certain assets, e.g., lessons or assignments, you can be almost certain will need to be included.

So for instance, if you’re creating a course that teaches people how to make awesome videos of themselves to post on social media, you may feel pretty confident that you’ll need a lesson on choosing a video camera.

Or if you’re creating a course on grooming your own dog, you may have decided upfront that you’ll need a lesson teaching basic clipper techniques.

The good news is that when you know a topic well, coming up with a good number of these “no-brainer” assets should be easy.

Once you’ve made your list you’ll then need to do the harder work of “connecting the dots” between the obvious lessons by adding other assets to fill in the gaps. However, the fact that you’ve made a start will give you the momentum you need.

How to Execute This Strategy

Here are the high-level steps for executing the “Connect the Dots” strategy:

  1. Considering your course’s main topic and outcome, brainstorm a list of “no brainer” assets (e.g., lessons, assignments, resources) to be included
  2. Arrange your list of assets into a rough, logical order – which ones should students encounter early in your course, and which later?
  3. Given this starting point, what other assets will be required to fill in the gaps? Add these to your course map and create clusters of assets that naturally belong together.
  4. See if your ordered list of assets can be divided into distinct stages of the student’s overall journey (these can become course modules later on).

When to Choose This Strategy

This strategy is great when you’ve tried other approaches and found yourself getting bogged down.

If you’re naturally a detail rather than a big picture person this approach will help you build your plan from the bottom up instead of top down.

Strategy #3: Just-in-Time

These days many online course experts recommend launching your course before it’s fully created. That means only some of the course materials are available to students on Day One.

This offers several advantages. You can discover any problems with the positioning or marketing before you’ve spent too long on creating the course. (In an extreme case where you discover your course idea is fundamentally flawed, you can refund whatever sales you made and go back to the drawing board.)

This strategy means you can also develop the course content in collaboration with your first batch of students by responding to their specific needs and questions.

Taking this more agile approach also allows for a more “just-in-time” model for the outline – essentially you only create as much outline as you need for the next stage of your course rollout.

This approach is very efficient and allows you to focus your efforts where they’ll have the most impact in the short term. On the downside, there’s a chance this near-term view will lead to a course that doesn’t lead students on the most direct route to their goal.

But since no course is perfect in its very first incarnation any missteps here can usually be fixed in later iterations of the content.

How to Execute This Strategy

Here are the high-level steps for executing the “Just-in-Time” strategy:

  1. Get as clear as possible on the stage the average student is at when they join your course. What’s their starting point?
  2. With one eye on the final outcome, ask: what’s a natural first milestone that will move the student closer to that outcome?
  3. Decide what course assets will be essential for getting students to that first milestone.
  4. Think about the next logical milestone and double-check that everything you’ve planned for the current one still makes sense. Adjust if necessary.

When to Choose This Strategy

This strategy is best when you’re taking a more agile approach to your course and only need just enough of an outline to get started with your content creation.

It also works great when creating a prototype that you know will be replaced by a more polished version of your course down the line.

Pick a Strategy and Get to Work!

When it comes to outlining your online course, sometimes the hardest part is just getting started.

As with any creative task, staring at a blank screen (or blank piece of paper) is frustrating and disheartening. And since this task is so foundational, when you struggle it feels like your entire course has stalled.

But you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just pick one of these readymade strategies and you’ll be making meaningful progress in no time at all.

Don’t worry. You’ve got this!