Why You Want To Create A Live Online Program Before Creating Your Course

By Melissa Brown, MD

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between creating a course versus creating a program? Are these terms interchangeable? Which should come first–a course or a program–and does it really matter?

In this article, let’s take a look at these concepts and see if there is a difference. I feel there are some definite advantages to creating one before the other. You can even presell either before you create the first lesson. That will save you a lot of wasted effort from creating an information product your market doesn’t want.

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The eLearning Industry Explosion

The online learning space is exploding. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the marketplace for online education has expanded tremendously. The global eLearning market is predicted to reach $325 billion by the year 2025.* More and more entrepreneurs see the value of creating educational material that can be delivered digitally on-demand, especially in an evergreen manner.

Information Products

The term, information product, is the overall catch-phrase for digital educational material. The purpose of information products is to teach, instruct, or guide the student through a set body of content. Information products have an intention of moving the student through a transformation, ideally to solve a challenge the student faces.

Examples of information products include articles, eBooks, online courses, workbooks or templates, membership sites, webinars, and speaker summits.

These digitally delivered info products can take the form of text, audio, video, or a combination of media.

Online Course Vs. Online Program

You may be curious about the difference between an online course and a program. These two terms have become popular as more and more solopreneurs, coaches, and even service-based business owners enter the information product arena. Sometimes, it seems the terms are even interchangeable. For the purposes of this article, they are similar yet different.

Let’s define some of these terms and then look at whether it might make sense to create them in a particular order. We’ll also look at how you can actually be paid to create your information product–course or program–before you’ve even finished writing it.

The definitions here are aimed towards entrepreneurs and solopreneurs. An online college or university may have different subtle distinctions for their definition of the words ‘course’ or ‘program.’

What Is An Online Course?

An online course is usually considered a self-paced body of content broken down into chapters, modules, or lessons taught by 1 or more teachers and delivered digitally online. A course can be presented as text, audio files, or recorded video. All media can be combined in a course, too. There are many different platforms to deliver a complete course. The platforms are called learning management systems. We’ll call them ‘LMS’ for short.

What Is An LMS?

A learning management system, LMS, is software designed to help you create, manage, and deliver course material. Some LMS software also tracks the use of your online educational material, quizzes your students, and awards certificates. LMS software can be very simple or it can be very complex depending on the different features it provides.

There are many choices for learning management systems. The way to choose smartly is to know what you want to accomplish with your online education product. This is a meaty topic for another post–how to choose an LMS. Right now, you just want to understand what it is.

What Is An Online Program?

You may also see the term Signature Program, Coaching Program as well as Online Program. Very similar to a course, a signature program is a predetermined piece of content that solves a single problem. It promises and provides a transformation. A program has a set curriculum usually delivered over a set amount of time.

This may sound very similar to a course and in fact, it is. The difference is this; a program carries with it an expectation of some aspect of live teaching or coaching associated with the delivery of the curriculum. A coach or teacher takes the students through the program to ensure they get the best chance of achieving the transformation promised. Students can ask questions and get answers or feedback from the teacher as they go through the program.

Some coaches or teachers use the two terms–program/course– interchangeably. Truthfully, there is really a lot of overlap. It’s fair to say no one will likely be confused by what to expect in a course vs a program when everything is all spelled out in the features on a sales page. So, be clear there in your sales copy so students know what to expect in your program.

Time Commitment Difference

There is an important distinction to understand your time commitment from creating an online course or a program. The course is something you can set up and let students go through at their own speed and convenience. What that means is, once you create the course and set it up for delivery, the only thing left to do is market this information product. You may still have occasional questions from students, but you can delegate that task to others to answer.

With an online program, you go through the material with your participants, answering their questions, coaching them, and ensuring they get the best experience to provide that transformation they desire. This obviously means more time you need to commit to a program.

Get Feedback In Real-Time

While delivering a program, you also get feedback from the participants about how the material is landing with them. Is the information they’re learning clear or are they confused by something in a lesson? Are all the lessons valuable or is there material inside a lesson that is duplicative or not essential to the transformation?

Your students will give you feedback that you can use to improve and tweak your program as you go. Once you’ve created this body of information in a way that your students are consistently getting the promised transformation, you can consider packaging this up as a self-paced online course. That now frees you up to create even more programs and courses.

Get Paid To Create Programs and Courses

Most people spend a lot of their time and energy creating a program or course first before they know if it’s something their audience wants. Some will even create extensive information products hoping to attract an audience they don’t already have.

Outline It, Launch It, and Create As You Go

There is a smarter way to go about this, though. Once you understand your ideal clients and have an idea you want to develop into a course or program, create the outline and launch it to live participants. You create the content as you’re going through it with these first concept-testers. (Some people call this a beta test or pilot program.)

Package The Resulting Content As A Course

Once this original group helps you complete your program, after you’ve edited and revised the content, you can package it as a self-study information product, i.e. a course. This course, co-created by members of your ideal client base–is proof that your information is both desirable and transformational.

In a nutshell, you were pre-paid to produce your online program before you created it. This results in a self-study course which you can offer as evergreen. You’ve now got additional potential income from the course, too. You haven’t wasted time creating something no one wants.

Test The Concept Before You Spend Time Creating

If your audience doesn’t seem receptive to your original program idea, you can tweak the concept or let it go and come up with another completely different idea. The bottom line is this; don’t spend time creating something people don’t want. You want to spend your time creating information products people are excited to get their hands on because it solves a real-time challenge they want solved.

The Smartest Course Of Action

  • Make sure you know your ideal customers/potential students extremely well. What is one problem they want to solve? One problem-one solution.
  • Come up with an outline for how to take the student through a step-by-step journey to achieve the transformation and achieve the solution they desire.
  • Decide how many students you want to lead through this program live.
  • Make an offer and deliver the program, creating it as you go from the outline you originally designed.
  • Tweak your content based on the feedback from your original group.
  • Package up your program’s content and create a self-study course.
  • Rinse and repeat with another problem-solution. Often the next step discovered by your beta-testers in their journey will be a natural next program/course for you to create for them.

Save yourself time, stress, frustration. Sell the program before you complete it. Create it as you take a committed group of interested individuals through the program. Then package what you create. You’ll have a better evergreen self-study course to offer to even more students as your final end-result.

Have you created an online program or course to help your clients create transformation? I’d love to hear about your experience creating and marketing your program or course in the comments below.

Online Learning Statistics 2021

This blog post may contain recommendations for products, services, and events. In some cases, the links provided are affiliate links. That means that if you click on the link and then buy a product at the site recommended, you won't pay a penny more and the author may earn compensation as a thank you. You can be assured that any of the promoted products have personally been used by or researched by the author for you and found to be high quality before being recommended. 

About the author

Dr. Melissa Brown's career journey has always had an element of teaching. After retirement from clinical pediatric practice, Dr. Brown has taught and mentored as a healthy lifestyle coach, author, and speaker. She currently teaches solopreneurs and coaches how to stop being the world's best-kept secret. Her mission is to help you: Create great content. Impact people. Change the world.

  • Interesting idea. I can’t say that I’ve ever developed an online course, although i have signed up for a number of online educational opportunities. I agree that online is a great way to learn new skills. If I were to create an on line course, this would be a great guide in how to get that done.

    • Thank you for your comment, Alice. Online learning is my favorite way to learn now. So easy to review and make sure I understand new concepts with digital info vs sitting in a classroom where you need to process the material at the same speed as everyone else. It’s a game-changer for many.

  • Thanks for another in-depth look at the online world. I confess that I am one of those people, who thought an online course and program were the same thing. Thanks for removing that misconception from me. I appreciate this guide and hope to use it in the future, sooner rather than later.

    • Thank you, Florence. I’m sure many use the terms interchangeably. I wanted to raise the collective awareness of the difference and highlight the advantages of creating a program first to take folks through the curriculum before releasing the info product as a course. I wish you the best in creating your information products, whatever the form!

  • I love the way you’ve defined courses vs programs. There’s some confusion around that and this post is very helpful in sorting out what you need to know and when. Thanks for a good read!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Barb! It can be a confusing topic and there seems to be a lot of overlap with what people call each entity. I’m glad if this clears up the confusion for anyone and we can all use the same terminology and communicate better.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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