In Start Your Own eLearning or Training Business, the Staff of Entrepreneur Media, Inc. explain how to create a successful distance learning business from the ground up. In this book, you'll find information on all the steps you need to start and run a distance learning business. In this edited excerpt, the authors offer some tips to help you create content that keeps your students interested.

With an eLearning business, you can either create your own content or buy it. In either case, it has to be relevant to the learner. This is why you should be sure to work hard to define your audience, including conducting surveys and focus groups and paying attention to the results.

The first thing to do to get your hands on great content is to write down what your objectives are, rather than focus on the information you want to convey (e.g., “help people become safer drivers” rather than “the faster your speed, the greater distance you should leave between you and the car in front of you”). Second, make sure your objectives are really what your market wants to learn. Third, understand how they'll be using the new knowledge because that may change what you teach, the way you teach it, and how long you make it. For example, if your objective is to make it easier for employees of a lawn care products company to convey information to customers about your products, then ask them how long they typically talk with customers and what their most asked questions are. Then you can build a short content product that delivers the answers to the most asked questions the customers have in a short time frame.

Just because you know your subject, however, doesn’t mean it will be a snap to write your coursework. It’s important to structure an outline for what you will teach, with enough room to demonstrate a clear path to how learning objectives will be achieved. Whether you're designing your classes to train clients independently or writing a proposal to be accepted as a staff member at a teaching facility, you must clearly show how your class matches the goals of the existing program. If you're designing smaller, light tutorials as an add-on service or benefit to your business, be sure you clearly define how they support your business and what need they fill.

Students will expect a syllabus, or outline, of the class at the beginning. Your syllabus should include class dates, in-class curriculum on those dates, assignments and their due dates, dates of any quizzes and tests, as well as reading assignments. The syllabus should include what's expected of the students to receive each grade level or pass/fail designation for the class.

How the brain learns

The onus is on you to find ways to make the dull information interesting. If you can find captivating methods for teaching the most mundane information, students will flock to your classes. On the other hand, you also have to be careful to ensure the presentation of your material doesn't make it seem less important. Try these techniques to keep your audience interested in your online coursework:

1. Motivate, capture, personalize. Use opening statements, questions, and statistics that demand a dramatic response. Demonstrate why the information should matter to the student. Show them how their lives will be different and what they’ll be able to do better after the course. Use real-life examples of how this has already happened. These opening communications should be like the first few pages of a gripping mystery—it should be impossible to not go forward. Set their imaginations loose to run wild.

2. Be a master storyteller. Use as many dramatic, funny, or entertaining stories as you can to convey your material. People remember stories and retain their information longer than dryly presented facts.

3. Use striking images and infographics. Illustration of the concepts you are teaching always helps. A picture, as the saying goes, truly can be worth a thousand words. If you find your lesson is droning on and on with boring text, think through whether a graphic or image might better convey your message. It is worth whatever you need to pay for the graphic (be sure not to just use photos and graphics without permission—just because it is on the internet does not make it free for general use).

Cartoons can be great for getting concepts across. Again, if you find the perfect cartoon online, be sure to ask permission to use it. Many cartoonists can be hired to do work specifically for your content at a reasonable fee.

4. Chunking. There are reasons phone numbers are grouped into small sections. We have a greater chance of memorizing the small sections than the whole jumble of numbers at once. Giving learners only a paragraph or two at a time to read is especially important on a computer, which strains the eyes and competes with easy distractions like surfing the internet and checking email.

5. Procession graphics. These are the clickable icons or text that the learner uses to advance the page. Out with the old and in with the new. Getting rid of material already read and only seeing new material gives a sense of accomplishment and confidence, as does seeing the accomplished modules or sections below the lesson, and how many are left. Being able to move backward and staying on a page as long as they want allows readers to customize their learning. This is one of the reasons self-paced learning is achieving higher absorption rates online, in addition to relieving the stress associated with having to “hurry up and learn!”

7. Summarize, summarize, summarize. Small groupings of information should be together in the chunking method we just mentioned. After each section, the learner should get a summary, or bullet list of the key learning points. This reinforces the important parts of the information and ensures absorption.

8. Test their thinking frequently. Following a series of multiple-choice questions, and before the actual testing, give them frequent opportunities to give answers in short composition-style bursts. Asking them to convey their understanding in writing re-exposes them to the lesson and having to write it reinforces it to memory. You can give some guidelines to help coach them, such as showing some sample answers or restricting answers to three sentences, etc. Hint boxes can be available to click if they need them.