Early course creators gave online courses a bad name.
They were marketers shilling knowledge to maximize profit.
Margins were monstrous.
Business was good.
But the rot was setting in.
Ten percent completion rates were the norm, and the customer experience was broken.
When courses work, students are transformed. And when students are transformed, they tell other people.
Indeed, the more students change, the more they talk about it, and the more they talk about it, the more new students join, in a virtuous circle. Thus starts the group learning flywheel:
But early courses had a major problem: students weren’t changing.
Because of that, online course schemers had to find even more creative funnels and tripwires, upgrades, and down-sells, to fill the top of their funnels. Not convinced? Just “click here” and “attend this live webinar starting in 16 minutes!”
Thankfully the broken student experience is changing.
Led by the pioneering AltMBA, and bolstered by Building a Second Brain and Write of Passage, Build Once Sell Twice and Performative Speaking, today’s course creators are prioritizing more than their funnel.
They’re prioritizing transformation, and in the process, creating an Armada of Alumni Ambassadors to help them fill future programs. With this fleet of alumni creating and building alongside each other, it’s not long before others take notice.
I’ve worked with some of the top online course creators in the world in the last six months and I can say, without exception, they are maniacally focused on building Transformational Online Courses (TOCs).
TOCs are online-first educational programs that change behavior and develop skills through Destination Content, peer-to-peer learning, and a bias for action.
TOCs are changing online education for the better, and in the process democratizing access to transformational outcomes for millions of people worldwide.
But what exactly is a TOC?
Let’s dive into that first, then we’ll return to why I believe On Deck is the best place for this revolution to be televised.
There are eight features of a TOC we will explore.
- Hybrid Format
- Platform Agnostic
- An Asset
- A Passion
TOCs are all about the student experience in the course vs the funnel experience before the course.
Students in TOCs are actively engaged in creating something that is meaningful to themselves or those around them.
Course creators incorporate deliberate reflection exercises early in their curricula, challenging students to connect to their learning purpose and return to it often through assignments.
It’s important to note here too, transformations are subjective by nature. We all have different ways we prefer to learn. One turn of phrase for you can change your life AND be ho-hum for 95% of others. Some prefer video, others audio. Still, others prefer to read.
It is extremely rare that experts or great entrepreneurs are also great teachers.
And the biggest mistake I see many making is not catering to a variety of styles.
TOC’s, therefore, adopt an ethos of No Student Left Behind.
This involves personalizing support at scale through groups, surveys, private messages/emails, and unlimited redos.
Remember, by transforming students, you’re also creating an Armada of Alumni Ambassadors. TOC’s ensure every student becomes an ambassador.
This one is straight-forward. If your students do not surrender to the experience, no amount of magic will transform them. And for them to surrender, they need to trust you (yes, you) because all said and done, you hold the keys to bringing everything together and delivering the transformation.
TOCs are led by course creators who engender deep trust in not only their ability to perform the skill but in their ability to teach it. TOC leaders model the behavior they want to see in students.
Trees that grow in groups are taller than a tree that grows on it’s own.
They compete for sunlight, meaning they all have to keep growing so they don’t get left in the shade.
We learn best when we learn with and from each other.
TOCs have two types of communities – communities of practice and communities of peers.
Community of Practice
Students need a trusted space to integrate their work and learning. TOCs provide this space in the form of communities of practice.
(image source Harold Jarche)
Communities of practice are owned by the students themselves, not an association and not an organization. You know you are in a real community of practice when it changes your practice.
Community of Peers
Where communities of practice revolve around making sense and sharing knowledge, communities of peers focus on person-to-person interaction and the related benefits.
Take architecture school for example. It’s known to be intense. The attrition rate can be as high as 80%.
As Michael Dean describes, “Students get opinions from all sorts of perspectives. They quickly learn that they can’t blindly follow advice from any one source. After absorbing all of the comments, they learn to prioritize and act on the right feedback.”
Peer-to-peer feedback is a cornerstone feature of TOC’s.
As Michael says, it becomes a way of life. “You’re involved in studio culture: You become friends with others who are serious, talented, and creative. The lines between work & play get blurred.”
Peer groups are another cornerstone feature and TOCs incorporate Destination, Journey and Accountability groups in a circle of learning. Destination groups set the course for what students aspire to, Journey groups make clear the next step, and Accountability groups ensure they take it.
The ultimate goal of a TOC is behavior change. Drawing from BJ Fogg’s B = MAP model (Behavior = Motivation, Ability, Prompt) we can see that three components are important for behavior change.
Motivation (the trickiest of all three, being inconsistent through time and space) is the willingness to do an action.
Ability relates to the “thing” that you are teaching.
Prompt is the internal or external spark to take action that initiates behavior change.
The three components are correlated with each other, but motivation and ability have a stronger relationship.
Underpinned by this model, TOCs have a Capstone Project.
Capstone Projects are designed to help students assimilate information while doing something. This process connects the individual pieces into an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning.
As Anders Ericsson pointed out in Peak, “You don’t build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising, and trying again, over and over.
When you’re done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill.”
Learning can be both the bottleneck and the catalyst for student transformation. TOCs are extremely clear on what students should learn how to do (emphasis on skills, not knowledge). By tightening the feedback loop between learning and doing, TOCs give students the playbook for discovering their ability for themselves.
TOCs are not any one kind of format. They include evergreen content and cohort-based course components. They are delivered through a mixture of self-paced content and learning sprints with peers. Let’s briefly look at the options.
Evergreen, Self-Paced Content
The hard work of course creation is making structures and concepts explicit. TOCs include pre-recorded or pre-written content to prime and pre-train students for deeper exploration in groups.
There are lots of ways you can add value to courses that are primarily self-paced.
As Marie Poulin suggests, “you can offer drop-in office hours, bonus training, well-crafted learning paths, check-ins, hot seats, etc”.
Furthermore, your and your student’s situations matter.
Not everyone can afford the high price points that typically go with live cohorts. And a cohort launch is a huge endeavor. Team, time, content, marketing… As Marie points out, “self-study is a wonderful way to make a stable income as a creator without having to put all your hopes and dreams into a singular launch.”
Peer Cohort Learning Sprints
Everyone starts a course with the best intentions to complete it. But that can sometimes be the downfall of self-paced courses. Without the accountability of other students taking the course with you, it can be easy to drop off.
TOCs include learning sprints which act as a forcing function to work through the content with others and maintain a bias for action. Course content that cannot be applied in your life is not going to transform many people.
TOCs maintain flexibility.
You must meet your students where they are, and often this can mean, in the beginning at least, building your TOC around existing communities and platforms they’re already familiar with.
Over time, moving an audience to another platform becomes easier, as they’ll follow you.
Thankfully for creators of TOCs, there are many great platforms out there to choose from.
TOCs recognize the importance of owning your own data. Thanks to revolutions like No-Code, there are so many ways to collect and analyze student data yourself, without allowing any single platform to do that for you.
After all, he who has the most data invariably wins.
Speaking of winning, successful TOCs are incredibly valuable assets.
Indeed, with the right focus on student transformation, TOCs can be the basis for a sustainable and profitable business.
A business that deals in transformations builds an Armada of Alumni Ambassadors that fuel future growth.
To grow and sustain a TOC takes a village. But with the right team and infrastructure, you can change your life.
As someone who helps creators build TOCs, I sometimes pinch myself.
I get to help people change their lives by changing the lives of others!
We are truly in the wild west of online education. As Tiago Forte has observed, “the word ‘online’ is going to be dropped from ‘online education’ very soon, the same way “online business” now sounds redundant.”
When this market matures, it’s the creators of TOCs that are going to be holding the most valuable assets.
For this reason, I caution all my clients against committing to platforms or partnerships offering revenue share models.
You just have no idea what kind of value you may be sitting on right now.
Finally, TOCs offer their creators one of the ultimate experiences in life – the thrill of helping others learn and grow.
And they get to experience this over and over again!
There is nothing quite like a live experience. I have been in multiple courses now that have ended with epic releases of cathartic energy and emotion. Few who saw David Perell tear up at the end of Write of Passage 5 or Robbie Crabtree say his first “um” at the end of Performative Speaking 1 will ever forget those moments.
Building a TOC Business may be one of the most fulfilling things many do with their lives..
The opportunity for TOC Creators is bigger than any of us can imagine right now.
Instead of asking why should I create a TOC, ask instead, why shouldn’t I package my knowledge to educate others?