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Creating an independent online course for a niche skill

By Heather Hedden / July 2006

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Several months after completing an online course on the topic of Web site indexing, I read a message on a discussion list lamenting the fact that the instructor of that course would no longer offer it. The author of this message was disappointed because she had wanted to take the course. It didn't take me long to decide that I would create and teach my own version of "Creating Web site Indexes"—since there was still a demand for it—before anyone else did. This would be a way to grow my new freelance business.

The growing acceptance of online learning has made it possible for anyone to become a teacher, without even being affiliated with an educational institution or a sponsoring organization. The previous instructor of the online course in Web site indexing had created and taught it entirely independently, and so would I. What follows is a case study in how an individual with a very specific skill can create and teach an online course independently.

Instruction in a Niche Skill

Since the independent instructor cannot offer the certification or credits that often lead students to take online courses, the marketing of the course must rely on the content itself. The content should be somewhat unique, not easily found in published books or free Web sites. As such, a course that teaches a skill rather than a mere body of knowledge has better chance for success as an independently marketed course. A niche skill, in particular, will likely have little competition. Although the market for a niche skill may be small, distance learning makes it possible to recruit students nationally and even globally.

My topic—creating back-of-the-book-style A to Z indexes for Web sites or intranets—is definitely a niche skill. It combines the skills of HTML with back-of-the book indexing. There was no competition for this course when my former instructor, Kevin Broccoli, discontinued his own.

Designing the Course

Those with no prior experience teaching online will find it especially helpful to have taken some online courses themselves. In my case, I had taken several courses through Thomson Corp.'s ed2go program. (Its online courses run six weeks with two weekly lessons.) Lessons comprise five sequential "chapter" Web pages often with associated graphics. There is an assignment at the end of each lesson, a list of resource links, and an automatically graded multiple-choice quiz. Finally, there is an active discussion forum moderated by the instructor. The other online course I used as an example was Broccoli's independently taught Web site indexing course being replaced by my own. I believed I could approve upon that course by including illustrational graphics (screenshots in particular), and offering multiple-page lessons, assignments that included step-by-step procedures, and additional resource links or readings.

I implemented the ed2go model of multi-page (or "chapter") lessons, thus offering greater content while breaking it up into readable components. As I tell my students, "It is not necessary to go through an entire lesson in one sitting, but each chapter is designed to be read in one sitting."

I created a "Further Reading" page with a section associated for each lesson. Initially, I updated this page with the new lessons' readings each week, but later I decided to save myself the work and merely presented the entire course's recommended reading at the start. It contains Web links to articles from diverse sources. I have also included links to software vendors on the "Further Reading" page. So perhaps it should have been named "Further Reading and Resources."

Graphically, both the ed2tgo courses and the Broccoli course were actually quite similar: Each consists of a long, narrow single-column page that requires scrolling, pale color margins, and no graphics in the design. I followed a similar style. Graphical design is not a skill of mine, after all.

Exercises and Assignments

My course assignments tend to be detailed, often step-by-step. In fact, in some cases I repeat the assignment steps on a separate "printer-friendly" Web page, where I have eliminated colors and navigational graphics. I tested those pages with my own printer, first. Rather than have an assignment at the end of each lesson, I chose to place assignments at the end of a chapter, if the assignment reflected the chapter's material. Some chapters have assignments and some do not. As a result, lessons usually have a total of two or three assignments. These vary significantly, from "Look at the following Web site indexes. Note the different index styles and formats…" to "Create a small index in HTML Indexer, with some subentries, one or more external URL links, and one or more cross-references…"

I did not implement automatic multiple-choice quizzes. I decided that it was probably not so important for a course whose goal was to teach a skill rather than to teach concepts. Also, I did not have the skills to implement a quiz, and decided it was not worth the additional time and effort to learn, especially when my course had no competition, and the course I was replacing also lacked this feature.

Dicussion Forum

For the independent instructor without technical skills or institutional support, a discussion forum can be offered through various services. I started out by using the same service that Broccoli had used. (Although the service name was pretty well hidden to the participants, I had determined it to be Network54.) There is a small fee for the no-ads version. It worked well enough, but student discussion was minimal. I thought an email list might work better, so that students would not have to proactively check the discussion board for members.

So, for the second session, I created a free Yahoo group. Discussion volume improved only slightly, but some students never joined the Yahoo group, perhaps due to hesitations in becoming a Yahoo member. The free nature of the service has made it more attractive to maintain the group indefinitely and in between sessions. This meant that subsequent class sessions have used the same discussion group and students can read postings from previous sessions, possibly getting questions answered that way.

Course Length and Price

The length of the course and the amount of material, and consequently its price, is a big decision for the independent course developer. Although a course can be intensive, students will tend to look at the overall length of time in weeks or months when deciding if the price is worth it. The ed2go courses comprise 12 lessons over six weeks. The Broccoli course comprised essentially nine lessons spread out over 16 weeks. It seemed natural to me to offer one lesson per week: Two lessons per week is rather intense and means that the student really must be able to work on it every week, with nothing like trips or significant illnesses interfering. I didn't want to impose such requirements on my students. The Broccoli course, stretched out over close to four months, lost its momentum, and vacations and other projects eventually interfered with students' participation, or so it seemed.

The basic guide to pricing that I had was other continuing education noncredit courses offered through various colleges and universities of a two-month duration, either online or in the classroom. I chose to charge on the lower end, since I knew that my market was not that great and that potential students were very price sensitive, as they were likely to be paying for themselves rather than having an employer pay for them.

I had liked Broccoli's concept of offering two versions of the course: a basic course and one with three additional preparatory lessons in HTML for students who did not already have that skill. I chose to do the same. But then I took it one step further, offering three additional supplemental lessons for students who lacked stills in back-of-the-book indexing. This way I could expand my market. With four versions of the three-part course, I successfully enrolled students in each:

  • Creating Web Site Indexes: A course for indexers who already know the basics of HTML, 8 weekly sessions for $250
  • Creating Web Site Indexes & HTML Basics: A course for indexers who do not yet know HTML, 10 weekly lessons for $290
  • Creating Web Site Indexes & Indexing Techniques: A course for those who know HTML or work with Web sites but who are not experienced in indexing, 11 weekly lessons for $350
  • Creating Web Site Indexes: Full Course, 13 weekly lessons for $390

Technical aspects

I created the lesson files in Macromedia Dreamweaver, although any HTML editing software would have sufficed. I trimmed and resized screenshot graphics using Macromedia Fireworks, although any graphics editing software would have worked.

My challenge came in posting the lessons with password-restricted access. Using only my Internet service provider Comcast for Web hosting, I could not request such customized service. I determined that posting the lessons to a Web site really was not necessary, and I simply e-mailed the HTML files and associated graphics to my students. This was a little more work for me, but it pleased the students to have the files on their own computers and saved me the expense of using a different Web-hosting service.

In addition to accepting checks, I set up a PayPal merchant account, with PayPal buttons on the Hedden Information Management site course registration page. Thus, I could accept credit card payments, which was especially important in recruiting students internationally. This worked well, and the majority of students paid via PayPal.

Marketing the Course

My primary form of marketing has been through the specialized discussion lists, particularly those of indexers, but also those of information architects and Web developers. It was through an indexer discussion list that I had originally heard of the Broccoli Web indexing course and had also heard that that course was being discontinued.

Naturally, I posted the course information on the Hedden Information Management Web site and requested it be placed on the Web sites of various indexer professional associations. I partnered with a Web indexing tool vendor, as had Broccoli, to offer a discount on the software to my students, and we have mutual links between our sites. Similarly, I approached the Australian author of a PDF book on Web indexing for a similar student discount and exchange of links.

I also announced the course with flyers at any local professional association meetings I attended and also verbally announced it chapter meetings of the American Society of Indexers, of which I have been an officer.

Finally, I twice placed an advertisement in the bulletin of the American Society of Indexers, again targeting those with the based indexing skills and had an insert advertisement in the national conference program that first year.

With the start of my first session, I then asked my students if any of them would be willing to write a review article of the course for the bulletin of the American Society of Indexers. One of them did write a lengthy, detailed, and praiseworthy review that must have helped.

Course Implementation and Outcome

It was a lot of work to create the course. I did not rely much on the materials of the course I was replacing, for I felt it was seriously lacking in its content. It was not going to be profitable to spend the time writing the course for only one or two students. Therefore, I only had three of the total 13 lessons written by the start of the course. Students did not register much in advance for the most part they registered only two or three days before the start date. So, during the first session of the course, I was writing most of the lessons only one week ahead of the students. The main consequence of this is that I did not have time to proofread sufficiently, and there were quite a few typos that only got fixed by the next session.

While the course did not have to be offered on a group schedule, I chose to do this in order to have the discussion forum. However, not wanting to pass up a paying student, I later offered an individually scheduled, self-paced version of the course for anyone who wanted it. I resumed a group course version a few months later. This model seemed to attract the most students. Having a definite start date for a course provided an impetus to get students to enroll, but also offering an individual self-paced course brought in other students with less flexible schedules. Student management was more complicated, though, having about a dozen students in various course versions: some in the group session and some independently, at different parts of the course at different times.

Each time I have offered the course as a group, and even for self-paced students, a majority of the students have fallen behind in the schedule, and participation in the discussion group has dropped off. A different course schedule might be needed, but I also attribute the problem to the nature of my students. Most are independent contractors, who have erratic work schedules, with rush jobs always taking priority over participation in an online course. Also, I believe that by emailing the lessons to students rather than having them up on a site for a limited time, the students have a sense of "I can always look at this later."

I offer individualized feedback to students' assignments if they request it. Some, but not all, take me up on it. This feedback has made the instruction much more time-consuming, but I feel it is important to offer a worthwhile learning experience to my students, especially if I wish to get referrals.

I also created a feedback form, and receive it back from some students. The feedback has overall quite positive, and I didn't feel that major changes were needed. Failure of students to complete the course has always been attributed to the students' situations and not to the nature of the course.

Eventual Institutional Affiliation

I did not actively seek to offer my course through an educational institution, but the opportunity arose when someone I know who works at Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GLSIS) suggested I offer my course through their continuing education online workshop program. It seemed like a good fit.

While offering my course through an educational institution would bring in less money per student for me, the instructor, I felt it would raise my professional prestige and ultimately reach a broader market of students than I could on my own. I chose to offer one more course session independently and then submitted my workshop proposal to Simmons, where it was accepted for the following semester. I might have gone on a little longer independently, but the market I could best target on my own, freelance indexers, was limited.

The course had to be shortened to four weekly sessions, a challenge to cut down. I was also obliged to no longer teach the same course independently. So I offered independently the lessons that I had to cut out. These supplemental sessions, however, have not sold as well as a complete course. Nevertheless, I was pleased to get 11 students in my first session through Simmons, which offers a bonus to the instructor for each student beyond the minimum of ten. This was also more students than I had in a single group session on my own.

In any case, the time invested in independently creating a course might not get paid back for several sessions, which could be as long as several years, but it's nevertheless fulfilling for the creator/instructor. It's like writing a book: The author does it for more than the money alone.

Lessons Learned

You learn the most when teaching. While researching for the course, I discovered an additional software tool, for which I ended up creating another entire lesson. In addition to learning more about the subject matter, I learned the following lessons.

  • Sell the course in addition to marketing it. When prospective but uncommitted students inquire, email and phone responses need to be prompt, courteous, informative, but also convincing.
  • Break up a longer course into modules, in which students can enroll separately and hopefully add on over time. They will more likely complete a shorter course and continue discussion participation until the end.
  • Don't expect active discussion from most students, and let students know that, while encouraged, active discussion is not necessarily expected. Thus, when discussion is minimal they won't feel something is wrong with the course.
  • Give students a satisfying experience so that they will provide referrals.
  • Proofread printouts of the lesson texts or hire a proofreader.
I have grown professionally from creating this course. My accumulated materials will now be the basis of an in-person, four-hour workshop at the next national conference of the American Society of Indexers. Creating that workshop will be a learning experience, too.


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