The COVID pandemic has given new life to teaching online. Many university instructors have of course had to scramble to figure out how to adapt their courses to an online format. The private sector too, has seen a renaissance in online courses, with the newest trend being the rise of cohort-based courses, which look a lot more like the courses traditionally offered in universities than the previous generation of online courses did. The older generation of online teaching and learning is exemplified by the courses on platforms like Udemy and Skillshare: they're self-paced, they're cheap, and, by all accounts, most people don't actually sit through the whole thing. Cohort-based courses, by contrast, have start and end dates, often have live instruction, and require a much greater commitment from their students than the previous wave of online courses had. And, like the courses offered by universities, these private-sector cohort-based courses often very expensive: Write of Passage, one of the best-known of this new generation, costs (as of the time of writing) between $4000 and $7000 for a seat.

In the earlier stages of the pandemic, some of us perceived a gap: why could the cohort-based model not work for more traditional academic subjects? We'd give students everything they loved about university but without the bad bits: admissions, grades, or bureaucracy of any kind. Of course, we couldn't give them credit, but we could give them what they wanted: learning. Yes, we wouldn't have been able to justify charging $7000 for a six-week course in, say, Language and Thought, but at $200, it seemed to work well for everyone involved. As I developed more and more courses in this format – to date, I've successfully run – I began to see how the process of developing, marketing, and running these courses works. I've written this article as a guide so that you can repeat the process yourself. So if you're an independent academic who misses teaching, read on.

I've broken this guide into three parts, each of which presents a distinct challenge in the process of course creation:

  1. Creating and validating a course idea
  2. Making a course that works online
  3. Finding students

I'm assuming that you've taught before and that the running of the course won't present you with too much trouble.

Creating and validating a course idea

Coming up with a course idea in the first place is probably the easiest part. If you're like me, you may have dozens of ideas for courses you want to teach. If not, you can always look to courses you have taught before. Introductory courses will almost always be the thing to start with, because the market of beginners will always be larger than the market of intermediate and advanced students. But don't feel tied to the traditional "introductory course" curriculum. Outside of academia, people are more receptive to ways of introducing topics in ways that tie in with other, perhaps non-academic interests. For example, I teach a class called the Language Construction Workshop, which, on the surface, is a class about making constructed languages. But under that surface layer, it also serves as an effective introduction to the major areas of general linguistics.

At any rate, the danger is likely not that you will be starved for ideas for courses. The biggest danger in this whole enterprise is that you might spend a lot of time and effort making something that no one is willing to pay for. No one wants to throw a party and have no one show up! For this reason, validating your course idea before you do much work is crucial. There are many ways of doing this, but almost none will give you complete certainty that people will pay for your course.

The one way to get certainty that people will pay for your course, by the way, is to charge them for the course in advance. You may be able to do this if you have a large audience that is already in love with what you do. If you can manage to do this, then you probably should, provided you understand how to handle giving refunds if you don't end up running the course.

If you don't have the luxury of an audience that would give you pre-sales – and I didn't – you will have to satisfy yourself with getting a reasonable level of confidence that you won't be wasting your time. A good way to do this is by using social media. My platform of choice has been Twitter, since that is where I am most active. You may find a different platform works better for you.

What I have done to start validating an idea is to start to tweet about the topic for a course I'm considering. I don't mention anything about a course at first – instead, I start talking about the topic in general. As I do this, I check what sort of response the tweets are getting. Are lots of people liking them? That's encouraging. Are lots of people replying? That's very encouraging. Are people retweeting? That's the highest form of encouragement Twitter can give an idea.

Once I've noticed that a topic seems to be of interest to my audience, I ask them what they'd think of a course on the topic. I only do this with topics that people have been engaging with already. This way, they are "warmed up", so to speak. These tweets look something like this:

I know there are some fans of Old English out there. I'm considering running a 6-week course introducing the basics of Old English grammar by reading texts like Beowulf. Probably around $200. Leave a like if this is something that would interest you!

If this tweet does well, I move on to the next step. The bar for "doing well" is pretty high at this point. I'd want to see some evidence that people are excited by the idea. This can come in several forms – replies saying "Yes!!! Take my money!" are a good sign – but, failing that, something like 10+ retweets and 100+ likes would make me feel comfortable moving forward.

Obviously, this strategy for validating an idea does require a social media presence. But it doesn't require a particularly big one. When I started selling courses online, I had around 700 followers on Twitter. I've seen people with 200–300 followers launch courses successful as well.

Making a course that works online

The next step is to design the course itself. This, as usual, grows out of a syllabus. But you should think of the syllabus for this kind of course not primarily as a document that gives logistical information. This kind of syllabus is first and foremost an advertisement. I've found success with the following format:

  • Advertising copy
  • Goal of the course
  • Week-by-week breakdown of course content
  • Logistics and workload
  • Who should/shouldn't take this course

Let's look at each of these in turn.

Advertising copy

Now is your chance to unleash your inner Don Draper and hook the reader. I often like starting with a question. Here are some examples from my courses:

What is the nature of the relationship between language and thought? Or, put another way, does language constrain, influence, or merely express thought? Sometimes known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the idea that we might be limited in what we can think by the languages we speak has provided fertile ground for scientists and philosophers, not to mention authors of science fiction. Whether and how language influences thought has been one of the most controversial questions of modern linguistics. And it remains unresolved to this day, as new evidence continues to amass from experimental work in the cognitive sciences. Language and Thought

Wouldn't it be cool to invent your own alphabet? A unique form of calligraphy all your own? A script for one of the cultures in a world that you're building? Do you have a conlang that is crying out for a way to be written? If you've ever asked yourself questions like these, Inventing Alphabets is for you. This course is a guided introduction to the practice of creating original writing systems as well as a grand tour of the anthropology, history, and linguistics of the world's writing systems. Inventing Alphabets

The idea here is to get people excited about the basic idea of the course. I try not to assume any technical background here, and pitch the description so that someone who has never heard of the topic before would be able to say "Oh, that actually does sound interesting." after reading it.

Goal of the course

Next, I frame the overall goal of the course as a paragraph outlining what students will have learned or accomplished by the end of the course. This is a kind of promise to your students: take this course, keep up with the readings, discussions, assignments, or whatever, and you'll know/do/have XYZ by the end. Here are some examples from my own courses:

This course is a hands-on introduction to making constructed languages (or conlangs) as a creative pursuit, taught by a linguist and experienced conlanger. The course also serves as an introduction to linguistics, but instead of learning the material in a dry, lecture style, you'll learn it all by doing. By the end of the course, you'll not only have created a language of your own, but you'll also have the ability to repeat the process and create whole worlds full of languages. Language Construction Workshop

Learning a second language is something that many people attempt but few accomplish. Despite the wide variety of books, apps, and courses promising fluency with little effort ("in only 15 minutes a day"), most language learners do not achieve their goals. But there is lots of research studying how language learning works and how to do it effectively. Unfortunately, few language learners are aware of it. This course aims to remedy that situation, offering an accessible and applicable introduction to the science and practice of language learning. Meta-Skills for Language Learning

As you design the course, keep this goal foremost in mind: anything that does not serve the goal should be cut from the course. Most of your students will be working professionals and will likely not be able to commit to long courses – more on this below. One way of keeping things short is by ruthlessly cutting anything that doesn't help to fulfill the promise made at the outset of the course.

Week-by-week breakdown of course content

This section is similar to its equivalent on a normal syllabus. But you can get more creative if you want. One thing I've started to do is to treat each week as a mini-course of its own, giving it an appealing hook, as well as a clear goal.

This class introduces the results of the last few decades of research in second language acquisition. We now know a lot about how language learning works. And it turns out that it's not much like the way most people go about learning languages. We're going to bust language learning myths, and replace these myths with science-backed knowledge. For example, we'll learn why the best apps for language learning aren't language-learning apps at all. We'll use this knowledge to examine and revise the techniques and resources we're using in our current language learning practice. Meta-Skills for Language Learning, Week 3

The so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis did not emerge from a vacuum. It comes out of a larger anthropological tradition. In this class, we'll trace the genealogy of the concept of linguistic relativity from Humboldt, through Boas, and finally to Sapir and Whorf. We'll also look at what Whorf actually believed – does it match the pop-science version of the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis"? Along the way, we'll see where the "22 words for snow" meme comes from and examine what a Hopi physics might have looked like. Reading: Excerpt from Whorf (1956), Language, Thought, and Reality. Language and Thought, Week 2

Logistics and workload

When we consider the logistics of the course: how many sessions there are, whether they are live or recoded, how often you meet, there are factors that come into play to make independent academic courses quite different from those taught in universities.

As I mentioned earlier, most of your students will have things like jobs and family obligations to contend with. This is why it is important to let prospective students know what they're signing up for. Letting them know approximately how many hours a week they'll need to spend on your course – and sticking to that – is crucial.

Here are some factors your course design should take into account:

  • Any more than 2–3 hours of homework per week will likely be a non-starter.
  • Students will procrastinate on doing homework as much as they can. Don't depend on them working steadily throughout the week.
  • Some students will not get their homework done, despite being engaged and motivated.
  • Some students will miss live sessions because they have to travel, get sick, take care of children, etc.

If your course design relies on any of these things not being true, consider changing the design.

My favourite design is this:

  • 6-week courses
  • 2-hour live sessions once per week, at a time that captures as many timezones as possible. I find it works best to hold live sessions on a weekend around noon (Eastern time).
  • All class sessions recorded and hosted on an unlisted Youtube playlist so that people can catch up on missed classes
  • Short readings or homework assignments every week (1–2 hours, maximum)

I encourage you to start with something that you've seen work – feel free to steal my format! – and then tweak it from there.

Who should/shouldn't take this course

This is a great section because you ensure that no one is disappointed. Think of all the ways someone might misunderstand what your course is about and address them here. You don't want someone asking for a refund because they thought your Old English class was going to teach them how to read Macbeth rather than Beowulf.

Finding students

The next challenge is finding enough people to sign up to make it worth your time to hold the course. As much as we all love our subjects, bills can't be paid in enthusiasm for, say, mediaeval courtly literature. The more students you sign up, obviously, the more you'll make. But there is also a danger in signing up too many students, especially for your first course. I recommend keeping the number of students relatively low, at least until you get comfortable with this kind of course and this kind of student. My first cohort had five students, and my courses now accommodate up to 15 in a cohort.

Of course, setting a target number of students and reaching that target are different things. How do you find students? In my experience, it's more about students finding you. Remember all that posting on social media you were doing to validate your idea? If you'e done that right, it probably attracted some people to you who are interested in this topic. They may even become your students. So keep posting about your course's topic, but every so often mention your course. The frequency with which you can get away with doing this varies widely from platform to platform. You can also offer discounts to your followers, although don't let the disparity between the regular price and the discount get too big, to avoid the sleazy effect where the price is artificially inflated to make the discount look more appealing.

Another argument in favour of a smaller initial cohort is that you can work out the kinks with a small group and then get testimonials from that first batch of students, which will make selling later cohorts much easier. You will probably also find students through referrals from past students, provided of course that your students had a good time and your course fulfilled its promise.

Parting words

Once you've got a validated course idea, a syllabus, and a marketing plan, you could go around to a place like Hyperlink Academy or Speakeasy and get some logistical help with things like payments. Or, you could sign up for Stripe or Gumroad and do it all yourself! Beyond that, all you need is a premium Zoom account and an email address.

If you do make a course, let us know! We'd be happy to list it for you in our course directory – and we're not charging anything while Altminster is in its beta phase.

Written by
Colin Gorrie
Bringing linguistics out of the ivory tower.

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