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Curriculum Design for Community Builders

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

A look behind the scenes into how I design courses and academies for community-driven businesses

A little while back, I wrote a post on my blog sharing why I think there’s so much potential for symbiosis and crossover between cohort-based-courses (CBCs) and communities, especially communities of practice. You can go back and read that post for more depth on this topic, but in short, communities have a natural overlap with courses both for practical and economic reasons. Practically, courses help structure community content, and help communities develop super users; communities provide a home-base for course with logistical and educational value that extend beyond the span of the course. From an economic standpoint, courses help monetize community projects, and when courses and communities combine, they can yield clearer metrics about retention and customer progress.

Since publishing that piece, I’ve gotten a fair number of questions from clients and colleagues about how to actually go about creating a course that fits into a community program. In the words of an industry colleague of mine, Evelyn Wiseman, the Head of Community at Subkit, “every startup and their mom wants an academy as part of their community play.” And, luckily I’ve spent my entire career working at the intersection of education and community—from running an entrepreneur community of course-creators at Teachable through building a cohort-based-course for community builders from the ground up at Commsor. So, I wanted to spend a little time talking about how I go about designing curriculum for courses, the community way. In this blog post, I’ll explore my core process for designing curricula, and dig into some of the nuances of designing a course specifically to enhance a community program. Plus, I'll give you a template that helps you get started if you're in the process of doing this yourself.

"Every startup and their mom wants an academy as part of their community play."

Start from the outcome, and work backwards

Before we go too deep into practice, we have to establish the core idea that informs how I approach developing curriculum in any context. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, before working in the tech industry as a community professional, I worked as a public high school music teacher. And while being a teacher ultimately wasn’t for me, one of the biggest skills I took away from that experience was long-term project planning. When you’re a teacher, you’re always working on the big, but sometimes intangible-feeling outcome, of taking students to "the next level" of your subject over the course of a year—which would be a relatively long project timeframe for many in the tech industry, which so often operates in quarters. Many teachers approach curriculum development, whether they’re looking at a whole year, a unit, or even a single class’s lesson, using the helpful idea of “backwards planning.”

This idea basically just means that before you identify anything you’re going to do with students, you identify the outcome you want them to achieve and then work backwards. A good way to think about this is to ask yourself, “what should students be able to do at the end of this course/year/unit/lesson that they couldn’t do before?” When I’m planning a course, I usually start from the largest, course-level outcome, and then try to break that down into smaller outcomes—this is what ultimately becomes my week-by-week curriculum. In other words, what are all the skills the student needs to build in order to reach the final outcome of the course? Brainstorming these, and trying to estimate how long it would take to acquire these skills, will give you a good sense of how long overall your course would need to be, and what the structure of the curriculum may be. (This stage is usually also a good time to think about prerequisite knowledge—are there any skills that are necessary to achieving the outcome, but that you either can’t or don’t want to address within the the course you’re teaching?)

But, the tricky thing about designing for outcomes in a business and community setting, and not a public education setting, is that there’s not a lot of tolerance for intangible outcomes in the business world, especially if your customer is investing a considerable amount of money into participating in your course or community. So, for my own projects and when working with clients, I always try to ensure that if a course, or even a single week of that course, has an intangible outcome, it’s coupled with a tangible “proxy” outcome. For example, when I was designing the curriculum for C School, the outcome of becoming skilled enough at community management to do that role well at an organization felt a bit nebulous, so we used to proxy outcome of producing and pitching a community strategy as the capstone outcome of the course. Then, we worked backward from that outcome to determine the curriculum that would build up to achieving that for students.

(By the way—if you’re starting to feel an urge to open up a Google Doc, spreadsheet, or notebook to try to start planning a curriculum, stick with me for a bit. At the end of this blog post, I’ll give you a template that’s similar to what I’ve used in the past to plan curricula using all of these ideas). Now, let’s dive into some best practices for curriculum design when your ultimate goal is to embed a learning experience into a community program.

1. Consult community members to make key decisions about course length and format—but take their input with a grain of salt.

In the last section, I talked about how to derive a rough outline of a curriculum by “backwards planning” from a tangible student outcome. But, if you’ve taken that step, it’s probably started to raise all sorts of practical questions about delivering the curriculum—things like:

  • "Is my course too long/ short?"

  • "What format should I deliver the content in (text, live sessions, pre-recorded videos, etc)?"

  • "What kinds of skills will students actually be interested in learning?"

Unfortunately, none of these questions have a concrete, universal answer—curriculum design tends to be a bit of an art in that the best answers to these questions vary depending on the group of learners you are developing for. This gets especially complicated when the learning experience is monetized, because it forces you to consider as a curriculum developer not only what learning experience is truly most effective, but what learning experience will be most appealing to a consumer or purchasing decision maker (who are not always the same person).

That said, one of the best things about designing a learning experience for an established community is that is presents the opportunity to involve the prospective learners in the design of the course from the jump. In my time at Commsor developing C School’s first programs, rigorous user interviews sourced from the community served to answer almost every initial question about everything from preferred learning modalities to price point (or at least give me a good "first guess.")

As is always the case with user research, but is especially true for curriculum design, make sure to take community member input with a grain of salt and balance it against your overall goals for the project. Prospective students are almost invariably going to report during interviews that they want to learn the most impactful information and skills in the quickest amount of time for the lowest possible price and effort. It’s up to you as the curriculum builder to balance those desires with what’s truly feasible, and to try to figure out which one of those ideal factors is most important to members so that you can optimize for it. For example, you may learn through your research that prospective students on the whole have an extremely low number of hours to devote to your program each week. That might give you a hint that you have to reduce the complexity of your learning outcome to match that priority.

Regardless of what you learn, involving your community members in your curriculum design from the beginning is an important element to a community-driven project.

2. Do double-duty by using your curriculum as a super-user journey.

When we design curricula, it can be tempting to focus solely on what information and skills we are teaching week to week. And it’s true that what I’ve talked about in this post so far has been all about designing backwards from student outcomes to figure out what you have to address each week. But, when you open up my curriculum planning template, you’ll see that in addition to outlining the topics of each week and what information is addressed within them, there are a ton of other columns that are about planning proactively to engage students in learning and in the community itself.

Veteran curriculum developers will know that designing engagements into a learning plan is really nothing new: teachers almost always consider at least two areas of engagement when they design curricula:

  • Interactivity & incorporating different learning modalities: In other words, how will students actually experience the information being conveyed, rather than just receiving it from a talking head? Think about the difference between learning a scientific concept through an experiment versus by reading about it in a textbook or hearing your teacher describe it. Most teachers are looking to make learning in some way interactive to help students retain and master information.

  • Assessment: In other words, how will the instructor know that the concepts they’re teaching are being understood? Most teachers want to incorporate some form of assessment into their instruction—but this can go far beyond the typical tests and quizzes that might be popping into your head when you hear the word “assessment.” Assessment can look like instructors having students do exercises in class, doing quick verbal comprehension checks as they teach, or even just evaluating homework.

But, there is new idea around incorporating engagement into curriculum design that community projects can offer us. When I wrote about why CBCs and communities are such natural allies, one of the things I touched upon is that students who have signed up for a course tend to be pretty ideal candidates for becoming community super-users: they’re deeply invested in the subject matter of the community (sometimes even financially invested), they have both personal and transactional reasons to be in the community, and they’re going through a structured experience that’s bolstering their knowledge of the subject at hand. So, designing curriculum can be a wonderful opportunity to proactively design a super-user activation sequence hand-in-hand with your learning sequence.

Imagine you’re teaching a 10 week course. In addition to whatever learning outcome you’re trying to achieve with your student, you can see the course as an opportunity to take the student along an onboarding and activation journey. Try to imagine what the ten "steps" from becoming a brand-new community member to a super-user might be. It might look something like this:

  • Week 1: set up profile in community

  • Week 2: introduce yourself in community

  • Week 3: comment on post from admin

  • Week 4: comment on another member’s post

  • Week 5: create a post (with instructor scaffolding)

  • Week 6: create a post (without instructor scaffolding)

  • Week 7: activate another community member through community engagement (with instructor scaffolding)

  • Week 8: activate another community member through community engagement (without instructor scaffolding)

  • Week 9: attend an extra-curricular community event

  • Week 10: lead an extra-curricular community event

When you’re teaching a course, you have the wonderful opportunity to structure this journey into your curriculum. If you can find ways to make this journey feel authentic and integrated into learning, all the better—for example, tying prompting members to create a post in the community into the homework for that week, or hosting a supplementary group discussion on a particularly tricky topic in the community.

3. With community & courses, always design "circles."

Designing communities and courses may feel difficult enough without the added complication of trying to integrate the two together. But, a design that is integrated can yield really wonderful results not only for you as the community builder, but for the member or student. I’ve found a great way to simplify how you think about designing these two program elements in tandem is the idea of “designing circles.”

What I mean by that is that you want your community and your course to feel constantly mutually referential. In other words, if you get the opportunity to point back to your community from your course, take it—and vice versa. Some examples of what that could look like:

  • Instead of having course participants submit homework on an LMS, have them submit it inside the community for peer feedback

  • For pre-recorded courses, include a small prompt at the end of every course section that links back to a relevant discussion in the community

  • When questions or insightful resources are coming up in community discussion, design them back into the course

The idea is that if you can create circularity between your course and community, they begin to compound value from one another and reduce work for you as an administrator to be constantly prompting participation in each.

Closing thoughts:

I hope this has been a helpful starting point for designing a course curriculum in tandem with a community program. If it helps you, I also put together an editable version of the type of template I would use to create a curriculum design in my own work. It's a simple spreadsheet, but I hope it helps you skip some of the tough upfront work of formatting your project and get right to creating. I’ve used resources like this tons of times for my own courses and when working with clients. You can grab that below (when you do, you'll also get access to all my other free templates, like my community launch framework):

As always, it’s also helpful to think about the fact that communities are testing grounds, and they should make it easier for you to test and iterate on your courses. Courses should never feel like a completely “finished product”—your community should serve to help you identify what concepts are easy for students to understand, what may need more support, and even if the format and logistics of your course are working for your audience.

Lastly—I coach clients 1:1 every day to help with projects just like this one. If your organization is wanting to explore adding a learning component to your community project, or you just need a hand on other elements of your strategy (like engagement, or measuring ROI), you can learn more about working together here. I’d love to hear from you.

For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:

Thank you for reading!

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