You Don't Need to Be An Expert to Create an Online Course

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Nobody wants to feel like an imposter – that terrible feeling that you really aren't who you say, or people think, you are. This feeling may be keeping you from creating an online course.

I have wondered myself if I need to be an expert (or how much of an expert) to create a course and sell it online. So I decided to research to see what other course creators had to say since I suspect this feeling is common.

Do you need to be an expert to create an online course? Many course creators say no. Instead of being an expert, you can be a great student and researcher who is willing to put in the time to find great information and put that information together in a format that takes viewers far beyond their current knowledge and skill level.

So how do you bridge the gap between your current knowledge and where you need to be to create a course? Here are some helps.

College Professors Aren't Necessarily Experts on Everything They Teach


Here is some encouragement. You may think that college professors are all experts on everything they teach. But that isn't true.

Every PhD holder is an expert on the very narrow topic on which they chose to write their dissertation. Since they have to write on something unique, they become the world's sole authority on that very tightly defined issue. Unfortunately, that very narrow issue typically isn't of very high interest to the general public (when was the last time you read a PhD dissertation?).

Because this narrow information isn't that interesting or applicable to most college students, professors must teach on topics outside their dissertation area. Are they experts on these topics? No, but they have learned to be great students. Being a great researcher is absolutely fundamental for every PhD.

PhD students learn from experts who have knowledge they don't in order to help them complete their dissertation. All PhDs learn from people who have more knowledge than they do. This is true of virtually all experts I have ever read.

To create a course outside their area of expertise, college professors learn from experts. In talking with my PhD friends who create courses, they often base their content on textbooks that are already written. And you thought they were the experts!

What makes you any different? You are not going to engage in the type of research necessary for a PhD dissertation to create your course. But that isn't your goal. Your goal is to create a helpful course that satisfies your students by answering their questions, helping them solve their problems, and taking them far beyond where they are at before taking your course.

So how do you do that?

Identify Several Knowledgeable and Skilled Experts on Your Topic


Just like smart PhDs, all you have to do is learn from the experts. But first you need to know who they are and which experts are going to be most helpful to you and your students.

There are different types of experts. Some are purely academic. They do original research with the goal of advancing human knowledge in their area of study. These most likely are not the types of experts that will be most applicable to your course creation goals.

Another type of expert are those with great experience putting knowledge into skillful practice. Most likely this is the type of expert you want to learn from because they are the ones that are probably solving the problems your students are most interested in.

One last type of expert is the “popularizer.” They are people who know a subject well enough that they can explain it to common people. These kinds of experts are who you probably want to imitate and also learn from.

How to Make Use of Experts


If you don't know much about a topic, it probably won't help to start with academic journal articles. You need to start at ground level and work you way up.

Think of knowledge building like building a pyramid. A pyramid has a wide base which gets more narrow the higher it goes.

In this analogy, the wide base represents knowledge that appeals to the most number of people. This is “popular” level knowledge. Depending on who your target audience is for your course, this might be the most important knowledge for you to learn and teach.

One of my favorite ways to build popular level knowledge is through Wikipedia and Dummies books. This might make academic experts scoff, but these two sources are great for building a wide knowledge base. A good Wikipedia article will give you an overview of your topic and major issues as an intro along with sources and experts on the topic. This is helpful for a start but we certainly don't want to stop our research here.

A Dummies book has been written by a person identified by the publisher of that series as someone who can do a good job explaining the essentials of a topic to a broad audience. Reading one of these books on your topic will instantly shoot your knowledge level far beyond the average person. There are other books that compete with the Dummies series (Idiot's Guides, Very Short Introductions by Oxford Press, etc.) so you've got options.

Next, look for books by skilled practitioners of your topic. Look for seasoned veterans who have “been there and done that” and have written about their experiences. Identify a few names and then do some research on the person. Do the people in their own industry admire them? Do the people who read their books admire their knowledge and wisdom? If so, you've found an incredible person to learn from.

If these seasoned vets also offer affordable courses, definitely consider taking one or two. You can learn a ton about how to effectively design and teach a course by people who are already doing it.

If you feel you still have gaps in your knowledge, consider interviewing seasoned veterans and simply ask questions. You can use these interviews both in your courses and in your promotional material. Before interviewing, I do recommend becoming familiar with your topic, and the work of the person you are interviewing, so you can ask intelligent questions and not waste their time.

Understand Where Your Target Audience is and Where You Want to Take Them


This step should happen fairly early in your research. You need to have an idea of where your target student is at with their skills and knowledge and where they want to be once they complete your course.

This is the area known as learning outcomes. You as a teacher and course designer must decide what skills, knowledge, and abilities your students will gain by taking your course. There is plenty out there to help you design learning outcomes but I am particularly fond of the work by Robert F. Mager who has a series of books on how to design learning for the workplace that is very practical and focused on solving real life problems.

Learn What the Market Wants That It Isn't Getting


One way to quickly find out what typical students want is to read reviews from students who have already taken similar courses. Course marketplaces like Udemy have thousands and thousands of reviews that you can mine to understand what the market wants.

Pay particular attention to what students are saying.

  • What are they praising about the course? Is it the content, the design, the activities?
  • What are they disappointed by?
  • How did they feel about the cost of the course?
  • Did they feel the course was long enough or too long?
  • Did the technology meet their needs or was it frustrating?

It is very, very helpful to read negative reviews. Look for patterns. If you see common complaints, here is an opportunity to meet a need that the market is wanting.

Helpful ResourceHow to Do Market Research for Content Creation

Related Questions


What online courses are in demand? You can use existing market data from the course marketplaces to find out what is already selling (we detail this more here). You can also use this same data in conjunction with reading course user reviews to find out what is not being offered that you could offer. Researching the existing market is always worthwhile before sinking time into building a course.

How can I create an online course for free? From free WordPress plugins like LearnPress to places like Udemy that only charge when your course sells, you don't have to have a lot of money invested up front to create a course. For a video course, most of the cost is going to be video capture and editing equipment if you don't have it already (though there are many free and low cost options available).

What if I still feel like an imposter? I would advise you to stop thinking in terms of how you feel and more in terms of how your customers feel. The most important thing is that your customers feel satisfied about what you are giving them. Always focus on them. Let them judge your product and don't judge yourself. The market's feelings about you are what really matter. The strategic thinker always highly values the opinion of the customer.

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Jim Rosenquist

Jim Rosenquist

Jim started earning a living online in 1999 and became a solo entrepreneur in 2001. He started Solo Intel in 2019 as a way to help solo entrepreneurs and small operators become more strategic with their online business.

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