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Setting up the infrastructure for your online course

When creating an online course, there are two things that an instructor must consider: content and infrastructure. The latter is becoming a lot more complicated to manage with the increasing popularity of cohort-based online courses. In this article, I look at what tools you need to get in place before running your first online course.

Setting up the infrastructure for your online course

Let’s start with the assumption that:

  1. You’ve found an audience for your online course. If not, check out my helpful article on how you can start your search.
  2. You’ve settled on a price point for your online course. If not, check out my helpful article on how you can decide on a price.
  3. You’re currently capturing student interest in your online course through a landing page or social media.

The next step involves determining your platform and data infrastructure. You need to consider five components.

1. Calendar and event management

Your students need to know when classes take place and how to attend them. After deciding your dates and times for your live sessions, you need to schedule them.

My recommendation is to use Google Calendar. You can easily share the calendar with your students and make any amendments closer to the date. You can also export your calendar as a .ics file, which your students can then import to their calendar software of choice.

2. Payment processing

You’ve done the hard work of converting your audience into interested customers.

Now make it easy for any interested parties to pay.

At the moment, the easiest way to do this is to use a Stripe Payment Link. It requires no code and gives you the flexibility to share it on your website and over text, email and social media.

Stripe Payment Links makes it easy for you to set up single and recurring (monthly/yearly) payments. You can also customise your Payment Link page by allowing for promotion codes or letting customers adjust the quantity for instances when you want to reserve a spot for over one person.

3. Student management

You need a high-level view of all the students on your course.

The most cost-effective way of doing this is by using a simple spreadsheet. If you use Google Sheets, ensure that the data is not public-facing by protecting your worksheets accordingly.

Keep it simple - don’t set out to create a community from the outset. If this is your first online course, you might not have that part figured out yet, and there is a massive overhead that comes with managing a community.

4. Content management

You need a reliable content management system that acts as a single source of truth for your students. It can contain information on your online course’s curriculum, programme structure, core values, code of conduct, worksheets and relevant resources.

I’d recommend setting up your course’s “headquarters” within Notion, as it offers a straightforward way to integrate all of your content in a single place. However, in doing so, you introduce the personal responsibility of creating a content management system that is tailormade for your course’s needs.

5. Communication

It’s important to consider how you will handle asynchronous and synchronous communication on your course.

For context, asynchronous communication is the sum of all conversations that take place in between live sessions on a dedicated chat platform that does not require an instant response. Synchronous communication is the sum of all conversations that occur one-to-one or during the live sessions (one-to-many) in real-time that require an instant response.

Slack, Discord, Telegram and WhatsApp are well-suited for asynchronous communications. For most use cases, where cost is a factor, I’d recommend Discord. It’s free, has user roles and permissions and no message history limit. However, the distinct lack of conversation threads, and the tangible air of “gamer-ship” around it might put particular audiences off.

For one-to-many conversations, such as lesson delivery, stick to Zoom. For one-to-one conversations, such as individual coaching sessions, use Calendly as a booking portal.

Closing thoughts

First, if this is your pilot course, aim to use a small set of simple tools. You ideally want to reduce the friction between the moving parts of your online course. Your students should not spend the bulk of their time figuring out how to use or find things.

Second, monitor your costs. Constraints breed creativity, so don’t pay for capacity that you might not use. Instead, focus your efforts on creating a learning environment wherein your students feel supported.

Finally, to quote Paul Graham, start by doing things that don’t scale. There’s no shame in duct-taping dozens of existing tools together. It’s more important to get your value proposition correct.

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