The 9 Hardest Hurdles to Making a Great Online Course

The toughest thing about making an online course is letting go of almost all the things you’ve learned about how to deliver a great class in front of live students.”

—Peter Rodriguez

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

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

Their answers revealed 9 common problems that bedevil nearly everyone making an online course, both inside and outside academia. In today’s post, I’ll let the professors tell you in their own words about these challenges. This is the first of a series in which I’ll delve into solutions for the 9 problems.

All the professors who contributed are listed at the end of the blog, so please check out their courses after you read this!

#1 “The biggest challenge is presenting to a camera rather than live students.”

–Ronald D. Siegel

“In the classroom setting you’re teaching in the moment, and contemporary headlines and stories can be leveraged to great effect to make course concepts come alive. You can connect with students in natural, human and extemporaneous ways that gather attention and use it to deliver the messages. And, you are responding in a dialogue with the opportunity to craft, shape and reshape your responses and guide the conversation. Online or with fixed-media takes most of that completely away.…” –Peter Rodriquez

“I’m used to giving presentations in front of audiences of all sizes, but not to an empty room with only one man operating the boom camera. I’m used to talking to live audiences in my workshops and seminars with National Geographic. I get energy from the feedback and interactions with the audience.” –Ralph Hopkins

“In class, you see your audience and interact with them. You can alter your lecture–both in content and timing of delivery–for the room. In video format, everything changes.” –Tim Chartier

“Is there ANY way I can interact with the viewer? When I’m in front of a classroom/audience I can interact with the audience. How can my lecture translate on screen and be compelling?” –Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

#2 is figuring out how to emulate the natural explanation and exploration of ideas that you explore in real time in a classroom convey in recorded time.

“I would say that the hardest thing for me, in mathematics, is figuring out the way to express and illustrate the human, organic, evolution and play of ideas when explaining mathematics, letting the story of an idea evolve on screen rather than it just being flashed on screen.

‪… You can’t take in a math proof that way. … And there is no audience interaction flexibility.” –James Tanton

#3 is “tailoring the content to an extremely broad audience without undershooting or overshooting too frequently.” –Craig Heller

“Thinking about how to plan concepts that 1) fit a broad audience, 2) will hit the sweet spot for engagement, and 3) are enough but not too much content.” –Tim Chartier

#4 Doing an audio version and having to explain all your visuals.

“Communicating science without visuals was one of the two hardest things.” –Craig Heller

#5 The actual filming: Not being able to stop whenever you mess up, since multiple takes are costly. Likewise, not being about to re-record everything that sounds horrid to you when you watch or listen later.

“The biggest challenge for me with creating the two classes on Polar Photography was going on camera and the actual delivery. It takes a great deal of energy and focus. It was hard to keep myself going and not stop myself for another take, so I just kept rolling. We only did a few takes of a few key transitions, which was the hardest.” –Ralph Lee Hopkins

“OMG…I meant to say ‘New Zealand’ and I said ‘Snooze Zealand’!” –Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

#6 Limiting your movements for the camera—especially challenging for anyone filming their own courses on a laptop or phone.

“My particular subject is often taught in a studio setting, where the professor briefly introduces a concept or unit–for example, movement quality, physical relationships, given circumstances, actions/tactics, etc. Then students learn by putting the concept into hands-on, guided practice. Since the studio model is more interactive than the lecture model, I had to find ways to modify my teaching to fit the DVD format.” –Melanie Long

“I usually walk around a lot during my lectures/classes, now I have to stay in one place. Doesn’t that look boring?” –Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

“I used to walk all around the room to change things up, and not having the image of my artwork to talk about and point to right there in front of everyone felt awkward.” –Diana McDonald

#7 Sounding like yourself.

“I just reviewed my lecture and EEK! How can I get away from sounding monotone– ‘Bueller? Bueller?’” –Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

“Working with a teleprompter and under very tight time constraints took a lot of getting used to! That changed my lecture’s pacing and made it harder to sound natural.” –Diana McDonald

#8 Hitting the right length for the recording.

“The other tough thing was to reduce an hour and a quarter lecture to thirty minutes of focused topics.” –Diana McDonald

“Where do I begin? My topic is so big!” –Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

#9 Doing demonstrations effectively for camera.

“I had to do demonstrations for every episode, to build robots, bring robots from companies. This is a completely different course for me [from what I expected]…” –John Long

That’s the round-up of the key challenges that professors and subject matter experts face when they create online courses. I’m grateful to the professors who responded to my question and offered some of their own solutions.

We’ll start examining their suggestions and some of my own in next week’s blog. If you want to add to this list of challenges before I start providing solutions, please comment!

Thanks for joining me in this week’s blog. Tune in next Friday for Issue #17 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” 

Like this? 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 worked with freelance crews to film in the field.

Check out her website:

Check out her LinkedIn profile:

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

Craig Heller, Professor of Biological Sciences and Human Biology at Stanford University; Owner, AVAcore Technologies. Secrets of Sleep Science: From Dreams to Disorders

Ralph Lee Hopkins, Director of Expedition Photography, Lindblad Expeditions. National Geographic Polar Explorations

John Long, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science, Vassar College. Robotics

Melanie Long, Assistant Professor, Kennesaw State University. Mastering Stage Presence: How to Present to Any Audience

Diana McDonald, Fine Arts Lecturer, Former Faculty Boston College. 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World

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

Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School. The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine, Senior Partner at Wine Ring, Inc. Multiple courses, including The Everyday Guide to Wine

James Tanton, Mathematician at Large, Mathematical Association of America. Geometry: An Interactive Journey to Mastery



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *