Overcome the Hurdles to Making a Great Online Course

The most difficult thing was delivering a lecture to no audience, just the robotic cameras.”

Diana McDonald

deanweightset  Last week I reached out to 10 professors and subject matter experts from a range of disciplines and asked them this question:

  • What would you say was one of the hardest things to do when you were planning, writing, practicing, delivering, or reviewing your course?

Not surprisingly, the #1 challenge is teaching to a camera instead of a live student. Most of us think of teachers as guiding students, but in many ways students guide teachers.


  • Without saying a word, provide feedback that you are on track or need to change direction
  • Engage in a dialogue that gives the teacher cues for how “to craft, shape, and reshape responses to guide the dialogue” (Peter Rodriguez)
  • Provide the opportunity to interact
  • Energize and direct the teaching

Teaching to a live audience (always better than a dead one) is just plain easier, and definitely more fun.

There were 9 main answers to my question, and all relate to the challenge of recording a lesson as opposed to teaching it live:

  • Replicating the natural exploration of ideas that occurs in real time
  • Tailoring the content to a broad—i.e., unknown—audience, as opposed to teaching to the known audience in front of you
  • Hitting your timing; you can’t simply roll over extra material to the next class
  • Being engaging
  • Not being able to interact with your visuals as you explain them (because they’re put in later, or you simply can’t see them)
  • Having to keep going when you mess up, instead of simply restating, making a joke, shrugging it off, or changing tactics
  • Limiting your movements to fit the camera—no big arm movements, no walking around randomly
  • Sounding natural
  • Doing demonstrations that you normally do with a lot of space, equipment, and so forth

All week I’ve pondered how to address these issues. I’ve mulled it over while writing, while walking, while weeding. And finally, I was rewarded with two “Aha” moments.

The first was recognizing that they were really all the same problem: how to teach when your audience isn’t in front of you.

The second was realizing that the answer isn’t complicated, after all. You simply have to fake it.

Pretend your students are there. Write your scripts as if they were there. Practice as if they were there. Record as if each camera (even if just your cell phone) is a student.

In short, you have to use both your imagination and your experience to craft your course so that it accounts for the lack of real bodies.

You can’t deliver the same lessons the same way you would if you were in a workshop, seminar, classroom, or public hall. Face up to it. It really is different to talk to a camera instead of a student.

So how do you fake an audience?

Essentially, you have to analyze how your class normally works and build those elements into your script.

Here’s what two professors said about this.

I learned to remember or imagine questions and issues that arise in practice and then show or discuss them in lecture form.” –Melanie Long

You have to go back and really ponder the core of what makes the live classroom work and rebuild the new online body around it without letting the old framework cloud your novel thinking on how to deliver for the new format. It feels like a giving-up of all that you’ve worked for, but only some of it goes away and you get something really new and interesting in return. ” –Peter Rodriguez

Here are some ways to apply this tactic:

  • Where do students normally ask a question? Put the typical questions right into your script.
  • Write [PAUSE] into your script, and give your invisible students a few moments to answer in their minds. Then give them the answer.
  • If you know they usually have the wrong answer to a question, talk about that, for example: “The answer I most often get is [wrong answer], but that’s because [reason]. If you were thinking along these lines, you’re not alone. So let’s unpack why that’s the first response for nearly everyone.”
  • Where do students normally misunderstand something? These points are your teaching moments; they’re highly valuable. Most people forget they are teaching when they are recording a course, because they slip into merely reading. It’s effective to call out these points and get off script for an impromptu (but brief) clarification. You might write something like this into your script: [TEACHING MOMENT. RESTATE POINT.]
  • Remind yourself to keep it lively by building in examples and anecdotes. Don’t write these out fully, and this will help you to speak naturally: [Example of dog pouncing on bush] [Anecdote about bribe in Luangwa airport]
  • Layer your most critical points so that you provide information a beginner can follow; restate with more information for someone with a mid-level of comprehension; add onto that with a juicy tidbit or two for the student with more understanding. Someone who is very knowledgeable in an area can always benefit from the simpler explanations. Someone who is less knowledgeable can be inspired by the higher level of information. This way you can account for varied levels of experience in your students.
  • When you work with visuals that you can’t see during recording, you’ll need to remember how the student will see the visuals in the final version. Look at your slides as you write your script and give the student verbal cues about how you are “reading” the visuals so they can follow you: “Notice in the upper left how the snake imagery morphs into a jaguar. See how the diamonds become spots?”
  • Practice your lesson aloud so you can time it. Give yourself timing cues so you know when you can expand or condense your material. [Halfway] or [5 min left], for example.
  • Use your timing cues to give you teaching moments: [3/4 done; if time, explain how gravity relates to growing cycle]
  • You won’t be able to move as much on camera, it’s true. But if you mark opportunities for expression and movement to reinforce your points, you will recapture some of that energy: [Fake grin] [Step toward camera 1. Open arms wide] [Circle hands] [Softer Voice] [Shout]
  • Keep your language conversational. Contractions, shorter sentences, active verbs, fragments, and so forth.
  • Practicing aloud and with movement will help keep you from making mistakes during recording. If you’re passionate about the subject, however, people will forgive a lot. Don’t worry so much about mistakes.
  • You can always divide your recording sessions into smaller segments. This is helpful when you’re recording yourself and don’t have a teleprompter. However, don’t do more than a few takes of any segment. You’ll sound less and less natural, and your expressiveness will flatten.
  • Think of the camera as the student. Imagine a face there. Imagine a confused face there… Talk to those faces. Put up names and/or pictures if it helps.
  • Build in interaction, not only with questions, but also by involving the audience. Dean Hodgkin, an international fitness expert, started his course on Physiology and Fitness by telling everyone to stand up. It surprised and immediately engaged them.
  • During your practice, notice when you feel stiff or the words feel unnatural. (Or have someone observe who can tell you what is working and what isn’t.) Those are opportunities to revise the script, go off script, or build in a “change-up” where you move, ask a question, or do a demonstration. They’re the moments in a class when you sense you’re losing the audience, and you try something different, maybe even outrageous.
  • Have someone observe you when you’re teaching—it doesn’t have to be on this exact subject. It can be in any circumstance. Ask them to note what you do that perks up the audience. Is it your voice, hands, body, tone, content, or structure? Ask them to notice when students ask questions, and how you answer them. Notice when they look confused, and how you address that. Make a list of your own classroom techniques and then build them into your online teaching scripts.
  • Always ask yourself, “What would I do if there were a group of students in front of me?” Then fake doing that.

You can also use demonstrations as a way to change the pace, make a point more engaging, and help you teach as if you had an audience. But demonstrations have their own peculiar challenges, so I’ll address those in next week’s blog.

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #18 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” If you have any particular questions about doing demonstrations or tips on how to do them effectively for the camera, please send them to me so I can include them.

Like this blog? Please share it! 

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Check out her website: https://www.marcymcdonald.com

Check out her LinkedIn profile: https://goo.gl/F2QbQ1

Tweet her @videosmarts

Special thanks to the following contributors (in alphabetical order):

Tim Chartier, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, Davidson College. Big Data: How Data Analytics is Changing the World http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/big-data-how-data-analytics-is-transforming-the-world.html

Craig Heller, Professor of Biological Sciences and Human Biology at Stanford University; Owner, AVAcore Technologies. Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/secrets-of-sleep-science-from-dreams-to-disorders.html

Ralph Lee Hopkins, Director of Expedition Photography, Lindblad Expeditions. National Geographic Polar Explorations http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-national-geographic-destinations-polar-explorations.html

John Long, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science, Vassar College. Robotics http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/robotics.html

Melanie Long, Assistant Professor, Kennesaw State University. Mastering Stage Presence: How to Present to Any Audience http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/mastering-stage-presence.html

Diana McDonald, Fine Arts Lecturer, Former Faculty Boston College. 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/30-masterpieces-of-the-ancient-world.html

Peter Rodriquez, Senior Associate Dean for Degree Programs and Chief Diversity Officer, Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Multiple courses, including China, India, and the United States: The Future of Economic Supremacy http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/china-india-and-the-united-states-the-future-of-economic-supremacy.html

Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-positive-mind-mindfulness-and-the-science-of-happiness.html

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine, Senior Partner at Wine Ring, Inc. Multiple courses, including The Everyday Guide to Wine http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-everyday-guide-to-wine.html

James Tanton, Mathematician at Large, Mathematical Association of America. Geometry: An Interactive Journey to Mastery http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/geometry-an-interactive-journey-to-mastery.html


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