person holding a tablet and drawing a flow chart on a separate screen


Developing an eLearning course from scratch is a different process than converting an existing Instructor-Led Training (ILT) course into a digital course. Unlike a conversion, where you already have a solid base of effective content to build upon, designing a course from the ground up means you need to start by building the basics.

In this two-part overview, we’ll review some of these cornerstones and provide you with tips on how best to develop your next online course or training from the ground up.

Understand the Workflow

Developing a new course is a multi-step process. While some of these steps can be performed concurrently, your workflow will generally follow this pattern:

1. Define Your Learning Objectives

You can’t build a successful course if you don’t know what “success” looks like for your students.

Key points to consider:

  • Who is your audience?
  • Why are learners taking this course?
  • Does your audience have any complications related to their learning (e.g., hearing impairment, first-time learners, language restrictions, etc.)?
  • What is the desired end objective of this course? (e.g., profession-specific knowledge, mastering a new tool, improving existing skills, etc.)
  • Are any other related outcomes desired? (e.g., preparing learners for a follow-up course, ensuring learners are job-ready, etc.)

You can read our detailed tips on creating effective learning objectives here.

2. Decide Which Topics Are Required by the Course’s Scope

Next, consider which relevant topics and information are necessary to include in order to achieve your learning objectives.

Key points to consider:

  • What topics must be covered to meet the learning objectives?
  • What industry-specific content must be included (e.g., laws and statutes, compliance requirements, etc.)?
  • Does any other organizational or functional content fit within this course’s scope (e.g., policies & procedures, best practices, etc.)?
  • Does a course sponsor or client need additional proprietary content included?
  • Do any optional topics help support, contrast, or otherwise clarify the critical takeaways?

Separate your possible topics into must-have and nice-to-have lists, to ensure no critical information gets left out of your final build.

Thinking outside the box during this process can help you find unexpected intersections of content that will improve your course’s overall interest level, as well as your audience’s attention to and retention of the information presented. Brainstorm all possible inclusions and come up with a lengthy “laundry list,” and then pare it down from there.

3. Select a Course Structure

At this stage, you need to define a high-level narrative or framework to guide your learners through all included topics. Once established, your structure then will be supported by instructional strategies that clearly convey the information and course materials that bring your narrative or framework to life.   

Key points to consider:

  • How do you see the story of the course unfolding – from micro to macro, or from the big picture to the little details?
  • What does the narrative and informational hierarchy of each component look like (e.g., what do students need to learn first in order to understand more complex or advanced topics later)?
  • Does your course have central themes from which other related sub-themes can emerge, or will it simply follow the content serially or sequentially?
  • How will your learners ask questions, seek answers, and provide feedback, so you can implement remedial or corrective action to the course’s structure based on your users’ experiences?

These tactics of information arrangement can also work in tandem.

For example, you may choose to present all information related to the care of a new pet sequentially, starting with “Adoption” through “End-of-Life Care.” Yet even within that step-by-step hierarchy, you may choose to group various non-sequential subtopics under larger categories in a “hub-and-spoke” arrangement, such as covering the spokes of “Training,” “Socializing,” and “Nutrition” all under the hub of “Your Pet’s Health.”

Course structures are often best created using visual tools, such as mind maps or dependency diagrams, so you can see how all your topics and subtopics connect and interrelate, and in which order.

4. Outline Your Course by Relating Topics to Objectives

Once you know how your course’s success will be measured, what must be included, and how you intend to convey the necessary information, it’s now time to create a skeleton of your course’s layout.

Key points to consider:

  • List which learning objectives are supported by each topic
  • Ensure that all objectives will be met and that each topic serves a critical function
  • Can any sections be combined in order to strengthen their impact?
  • Are any sections revealing themselves to be irrelevant or unrelated to the course’s purpose or narrative?

At the end of this step, you should have a clear idea of the chapters, modules, and sections that will form the structure of your course. You’ll also see any “weak points” to consider augmenting (or eliminating altogether).

In Part 2 of this guide, we’ll explore the process of assigning learning activities to topics, choosing learner assessment strategies, and organizing your syllabus.