Building a successful online course can be challenging if you’re unsure of what type of course to create.
It’s also important for your course to align with your business goals and your target audience’s expectations, so you can create a compelling digital product that sells.
In this article, we’ll cover 11 popular types of online courses and how you, as a course creator, should think about them.
Are you ready? Let’s go.
1. Introductory or 101 Course
Email Marketing 101. Content Marketing for Beginners. Introduction to Business Analytics.
From the lens of a digital product creator and edupreneur, these types of beginner-level courses serve a powerful purpose.
They have mass appeal.
They teach the basics.
They have a shared starting point.
Take a look at universities, colleges, online course marketplaces, and creator-led schools. You’ll immediately see that introductory courses exist everywhere.
Prospective students and customers know what to expect when they see these courses out in the wild and need a minimal explanation of what they are and claim to do.
For example, in this course on Udemy, beginner-level students can get a birds-eye view of business analytics in less than five hours.
In the hierarchy of courses, the introductory course sits at the top of the funnel. Anyone is welcome to attend, and there’s no specialized knowledge required.
This is why every course creator should consider incorporating an introductory course into their digital product offerings.
2. Signature or Flagship Course
Nike’s signature shoe is the Air Jordan. The iPhone is Apple’s flagship product.
As a creator, your signature course is your bread and butter. It is your long-term asset and the foundation of your course business.
Its content is usually structured around a broad topic or theme and may offer a personal, step-by-step approach to solving a problem.
If done correctly, it can establish you as an authoritative expert in your field.
The signature course may also have a number of other important attributes including, but not limited to:
- A defined marketing funnel and launch/relaunch strategy (1x – 4x per year)
- A small group or coaching component depending on your learning goals
- Evergreen content you can use over and over again
A great example of this type of online course is Stu McLaren’s Membership Experience (formerly TRIBE), where he models how to set up, launch, and sell a sustainable membership site.
Signature courses cover a broad topic in great detail, so it’s best to make your course title not so specific and includes general keywords instead. Your title should be easy to remember, catchy, and briefly tell students what it’s about.
If you need help naming your course, do try out our free course name generator.
3. Spotlight Course
Unlike some of the courses discussed above, a spotlight course is best described as precision-based learning.
Spotlight courses are designed to inform students in detail about a specific topic or skill. As a result, they tend to be shorter and focused on learning activities that can be put into practice right away.
You might want to develop this type of course for a few reasons:
- To add variety to your existing course offerings
- To teach about a current trend in your industry
- To highlight a specific skill that might be important for your audience
- To create a less expensive course and offer it at a lower price point
Look at how Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income takes a sub-topic of a bigger idea (copywriting) and breaks it down into a smaller course, Click and Convert.
He can shine a bright light on the psychology of writing good, attention-grabbing headlines that spur action rather than covering every aspect of copywriting. Plus, learners can easily digest this kind of format.
4. Specialization Course
A specialization program does not usually contain one course but rather a compilation of skill-based, career-focused courses on a given topic.
It is designed to train individuals for a specific job or industry and ensure they have the proper skills to find employment or develop depth of knowledge in their fields.
For example, in Coursera’s Supply Chain Management Specialization, you’ll see it’s broken down into a series of four courses:
In addition to being comprised of multiple courses, specialization pathways may also include:
- A longer time frame – several weeks and months to complete
- Hands-on projects or practical experience to ensure mastery
- A shareable certificate of completion
Specializations are usually offered by large-scale online learning providers and colleges.
Think Coursera (Specialization) and Udacity (Nanodegrees) as platforms that use these specialized course groupings to market to their learners.
You won’t necessarily see an independent digital product creator offer their own specialization or career pathway unless their offerings are unique to them.
Now, you may see creators thematically bundle a group of courses as a marketing strategy to sell additional courses, but that’s a different approach than what we’re discussing here.
Trust in the marketplace is a key criterion, and these large online course providers have a recognizable brand and connections with colleges and universities. Any course creator would have a hard time competing with their catalog offerings and massive reach.
5. Certification Course
While many courses offer certificates of completion, a certification course is a bit different.
A certification is a credential you receive after completing a course or body of study on a given topic.
From nutrition to life coaching to teaching English, there are online certifications of all kinds and in every field imaginable.
Certification courses are comprehensive and rigorous, and often include a final exam or assessment that allows participants to demonstrate their mastery of course concepts and ideas.
edX offers dozens of certification programs in collaboration with top universities. Take a look at the Data Science Professional Certificate program they offer in partnership with Harvard University.
As a course creator and small business owner, it may be challenging to create a certification program on your own, but not impossible.
The Alt Marketing Certification is a homegrown certification developed by industry-leading marketing experts at Alt Marketing School. Take a look.
6. Membership Course
Most online courses tend to be highly-structured, content-first products.
However, the membership course uses an alternate business model and other incentives you may want to consider when mapping out your business goals.
The membership payment (e.g., a monthly or annual fee) is ongoing rather than a one-time price.
Members will get continued access to courses offered within the membership and other new content daily or weekly. This may include blog posts, videos, and other media you create and share without necessarily adhering to an outline or syllabus.
Another powerful incentive of a membership course is the community that it fosters. It allows for direct interaction between members and the creator through discussion forums, messaging channels, and group chats.
At Tomlinson Harmonica School, you’ll notice their membership course begins at multiple price points and offers many other value-added benefits, including:
- Step-by-step curriculum
- Monthly live workshops
- Weekly live Q&A
- Resource libraries
- Student community
- Personalized feedback from the instructor
Keep in mind that membership courses are different from regular courses, and so are the feature requirements. There are numerous membership platforms that offer different features and benefits. Read our membership site software comparison for more information.
7. Live Cohort-Based Course
Live cohort-based courses represent the next generation of online courses. How so?
One of the main critiques of asynchronous online courses is that they are one-directional (the instructor is talking at you) and impersonal (there is little to no connection with others).
Fortunately, the game has changed.
Cohort-based courses include direct access to an expert instructor and a small group of like-minded individuals who can share ideas in a safe online world.
Unlike memberships, these courses aren’t open-ended but run over a limited number of weeks and lessons.
Another fundamental aspect of this type of online course is that students can practically apply their teachings to a meaningful project and the possibility to get real feedback from others.
A safe learning space meets personal connection: this is the defining value proposition of a cohort-based course and where it ultimately shines.
Tiago Forte, a well-known productivity expert, teaches his course Building a Second Brain in a cohort format. The course opens for enrollment only a few times a year, and students go through the content together.
As a creator, the idea isn’t to teach thousands of students but to serve your truest fans. A cohort-based, hybrid course may allow you to do just that.
And if you’re planning to teach one, you should check out our guide on choosing a cohort course platform.
8. Online Masterclass
What sets a masterclass apart from other types of online courses?
Imagine showing up at basketball practice, and Steph Curry was your coach.
Imagine showing up at film school, and Martin Scorsese was your teacher.
A virtual masterclass may include high-quality video lessons, demonstration-based lectures, and opportunities for modeling and skill development.
There are no set rules on how an online masterclass can be constructed.
A virtual masterclass may include high-quality video lessons, demonstration-based lectures, and opportunities for modeling and skill development.
You can even charge a higher price point for greater access to the instructor, including live Q&A, hands-on practice, and coaching.
This type of online course isn’t necessarily about establishing a community feel amongst its learners, even though the instructor may have a large, passionate audience.
In some ways, a masterclass is like going to a concert, and the learning experience is the performance.
The concept of a masterclass has become so popular that a dedicated learning platform—MasterClass.com—was formed around the idea by using some of the world’s biggest celebrities.
As a creator, you don’t need to shy away from creating your own masterclass, even if you don’t have a large following.
It’s important, however, to understand how your audience might perceive you and your online class structure when deciding to create one.
9. Email Course
The beauty of the email course is found in its simplicity.
In many ways, the email course offers a great way to introduce yourself to a prospective customer or audience. Why?
An email course—often used as a free lead magnet to build an email list—consists of a series of topic-driven emails delivered to a recipient, usually on a daily or weekly basis for a defined period of time.
In content marketing speak, each email is automated or dripped out, so its recipient can access your content on their terms – directly from their inbox. There are no websites to navigate to or anything to pay for. It’s all right there in one place.
Email marketing provider options (e.g., ActiveCampaign) are plentiful and have built-in, feature-rich functionalities to help you set up your automated email course campaigns.
Email courses also shine because of their low barrier to entry. They allow you to get your ideas out quickly and provide immediate value for your audience.
In addition, you’re able to:
- Showcase what you know in an easily digestible way for your subscribers
- Establish and develop trust and credibility over time
- Validate your product idea without having to create a full-fledged course
You can see in this example how creator, Brennan Dunn of Double Your Freelancing, is using his nine-day Charge What You’re Worth email course as a lead magnet for visitors to his site.
He outlines the course duration and specific learning objectives his emails will cover.
10. X-Days Challenge Course
The challenge course is all about establishing momentum.
It can be offered as a free lead magnet or paid experience where you help your audience complete a task or activity like creating an online course (see Teachable’s Launch Accelerator Challenge).
The critical ingredient is that they are constructed like a sprint—five days, seven days, 14 days, 30 days, etc.
Each day is designed for action, and every challenge has a specific purpose that the learner can easily meet.
For example, when creating an online course, your challenge might start like this:
Day 1: Write your course idea and a short description in 30 minutes or less.
Day 2: Select three strategies to validate your product idea and put them into practice.
Day 3: Sketch an outline of your course.
Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, and done!
Remember, each day is about cultivating little victories and not allowing your participants to get overwhelmed.
In many ways, the challenge course is a psychological experience more than anything else.
It can often be hard to start a project, so they might need a structured push to motivate them and positive reinforcement to keep them going.
Your challenge course should be well-planned, incorporate daily content to keep your participants engaged, and contain many opportunities to celebrate progress.
11. Mini Course
A successful mini course should be quick for you to create and easy for your audience to consume.
They’re usually highly specific and hyper-focused on a small segment of a broader topic, yet still jam-packed with tons of value.
They don’t necessarily conform to a specific format and can be audio, video, or text-based.
Mini courses are designed to be brief, so they might last only minutes or take up to an hour.
While you may use many of the same skills in creating a mini course as you would an introductory or signature course, it’s important to understand why a mini course is a useful tool for course creators to have in their toolbox.
People are busy, and a mini course’s short-form content is easy for your audience to complete.
Because they’re quick to create, they can allow you to go to market swiftly to assess demand.
And, maybe most importantly, they’re a great way to generate meaningful leads to help build and grow your audience.
While course pricing may vary depending on your goals, a mini course is usually offered at no cost if used as a lead magnet or from $10 to $50 if sold as a paid product.
For example, Caleb Wojcik from DIY Video School offers a short course—Video Gear for Any Budget. His mini course is short, free to enroll, and its primary purpose is to generate leads for his premium online courses.
Over the course of this article, we’ve introduced you to different types of online courses that you may want to consider creating.
There are online course types for:
- Sharing information and knowledge (introductory, spotlight, signature, specialization, certification, and masterclass)
- Establishing ongoing connection and community (membership, live cohort-based)
- Attracting an audience and marketing your services (email, challenge, mini)
I hope this article helped you learn about the different types of online courses. If you want to learn more about creating an online course, check out this epic guide.
Do you have a favorite online course type? Is there a course type we may have missed? If so, let us know in the comments section below.