The 6 key principles of creating a small private online course (SPOC)

July 16, 2020
June 26, 2023

When Toby Newman joined us to discuss the fascinating topic of creating small online private courses, we were itching to share all those webinar nuggets with you in a blog post. But then we thought, what’s even better than us summarising the session? Hearing from Toby himself in a guest post on the six key principles. So, without further ado, here they are!

The 6 key principles of creating a SPOC

By Toby Newman, The Neverending Learner

I could spend hours going over the intricacies of what a SPOC is and how to put one together. But, for this blog, I wanted to concentrate on key principles and hopefully generate some curiosity around blended, virtual learning!

Before I go into the principles, let me quickly explain what a SPOC is:

SPOC stands for a Small Private Online Course

If you’ve ever taken a Coursera, Udemy or edX course, you will be familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) where potentially tens of thousands of people have access to a single course. While this may be your ultimate goal, running a SPOC provides a stepping stone to scaling a course from tens of people to hundreds and beyond!

Running a SPOC allows you to:

  • Reach more geographically dispersed people with your message.
  • Have a better work/life balance (by not having to travel for training).
  • Provide greater Customer Centricity by allowing customers to drive their own development through your course.

There are many different names for these types of training – they all have slightly different references and the two types are usually interchangeable.

So you could refer to a SPOC as a blended, online, virtual course with elements of eLearning!

Note that if social norms permit it, there is no reason why a SPOC can not incorporate face-to-face (F2F) elements. For many, starting with a F2F/SPOC hybrid course is an ideal way to move into this area, i.e. offering F2F sessions with online content and social areas to grow and share.

What are the 6 key principles?

1. Mindset

The first and probably most important is having the right mindset, for you as a presenter and your potential audience.

So, for a presenter, they need to embrace the benefits of what virtual can give them rather than focusing on what it misses. Rather than simply ‘dumping’ their existing training into a different (virtual) medium — because they believe that this is just a blip and face-to-face training will soon come back — they should invest the time in really understanding what actually makes face-to-face so good. You can then look at ways to replicate that ‘feeling’ in the virtual environment—virtual is the new normal!

As part of this new normal, learning experts should not only deliver engaging, informative SPOCs that are quick to market, but they should be actively encouraging individuals to self-develop.

Unlike a F2F experience, where the trainer can usually see you all the time and it’s harder to take a back seat, the onus is on the participant in a virtual environment. They have to take an active role in their learning journey through the course.

In this new age of exponential technology growth, individuals need to stay ahead of the curve, and the only way to do this is to be a self-driven, self-motivated learner. Once you have the ‘right’ mindset, you need to have the right skills…

2. Personal Development in Future Skills

You may have decades of traditional learning experience, which is great, but while this experience will take you a long way, there are a number of ‘new skills’ that you should consider investing in, to be able to deliver a successful SPOC.

Platform & Technical knowledge – while you are not expected to be a coder, learning about how this technology works, as well as computer technology, will build your and your participants’ confidence that this course will be a success.

Audio/Video Creator & Editor – while you are not expected to be the next Stephen Spielberg, knowing the basics that get the best audio and video online as well as basic editing skills would be advantageous.

Online Delivery / Facilitation – while you may have decades of experience delivering on a stage, presenting to camera is a different animal. You need to adjust your delivery to work in this medium. The art of interviewing is also a significant skill in the virtual world.

So now that you have the ‘right’ mindset and new skills you should look at investing in technology to support you.

3. Consider your technology

I don’t want to start recommending what technology you should invest in as there are so many variables, you can find one of the most comprehensive lists of tools here. However there are some key elements to consider:

Use a Central location for your content – Now this could be an LMS or an LXP or simply an online document storage tool like Google Drive. This allows your audience to know where they can find all content related to your course easily.

Use a reliable Webinar hosting platform – If you are looking to run live sessions for your SPOC, then a reliable platform is key. Not all platforms are the same so have a clear idea of what you want out of a live session and look for a supplier that can fulfil those needs.

Use a Social Network platform – Conversations, whether they are part of the official proceedings or a chat during the break, are an important part of a learning experience. In a virtual environment, you can recreate these using a social platform. When setting these up, pay particular attention to the privacy of individuals.

There are many other tools that you can utilize, like interactive polling or virtual whiteboards, to drive a greater level of engagement within your course and it is easy to spend a fortune on them, but remember that every tool/platform you invest in adds complexity to your course.

So, you have your ‘right’ mindset, you have your skills, you have your technology, now you need to put them all to use by creating a blended solution.

4. Creating a blended course

In essence there are 6 elements to a SPOC: created content, curated content, live sessions, social learning, group study and self-study. They all have their benefits and challenges, but a good SPOC looks to blend these types together to provide the best learning experience.

For example, if you want to run an Agile course, you should include background theory (curated content), what the current situation is (created content), explanation and agreement on how the theories will affect individuals (live sessions), sharing experience on best practices (group study) and implementation (self-study/homework).

So now you have your ‘right’ mindset, you have your skills, you have your technology, you have put them into a blended course, now you need to run it. And while you may have been a lone presenter in the past, running a SPOC takes a team.

5. Course facilitation and production

Let’s just take a simple example of running a live session. You will need to load resources onto the platform, follow the chat conversations, set up the next breakout/whiteboard, provide support for anyone experiencing technical difficulties and keep an eye on the time, all while presenting to and engaging with the audience! Sounds a lot for one person, right?

Bringing in a second person (and potentially more depending on the size of your group) to support you takes a lot of the burden off your shoulders and provides a much better experience for your participants.

So now you have your ‘right’ mindset, you have your skills, you have your technology, you’ve put them into a blended course, and you have the support you need to run them. The last step is to look at scaling your course.

6. Scaling your course

Traditionally, to get the highest engagement, groups of around 10 people were recommended at a time. But a highly engaged person doesn’t necessarily represent learning. And, as we have stated above, because there is a strong push for participants to be self-developed with SPOCs, it is possible to cater for hundreds of participants at any one time with one.

There are many aspects that go into scaling a course. Everything from license usage on your platforms, to being able to keep up with social interactions and even if you feel it is feasible for you to run a live session with a mass audience.

At each step, take time to consider all the benefits and challenges and potentially re-think how aspects of your course are presented. But, with the right mindset, the right skills, the right technology, the right blend and the right support, anything is possible!!!

You can reach out to Toby on LinkedIn if his take on SPOCs has got you thinking or inspired you. He also a YouTube channel if you’d like his take on some of the other issues in training.