“How long does it take you to develop an eLearning course?”

Good Fast or Cheap--How Long to Dev eLearning

It’s been a very busy time for me, with lots of conversations happening, and in several of them, I’ve received questions related to how much time it takes to develop an eLearning course. I’m going to discuss this question here, but the answer is more complex than it may seem. The two-part series I’m writing here is provided to educate regarding the issues involved, not to obfuscate them. But those wanting quick, “pat answers” will be disappointed, and I make no apologies for this, as it’s an important subject.

The Complexity of the Issue

One instructional designer in a large, multi-national company said she had spent eight months on one course with an SME (Subject Matter Expert) that kept changing the game, moving the goalposts on her—deciding on-the-fly to alter the course design, causing considerable extra work. The ID (Instructional Designer) kept complying, and the changes kept coming. I asked her if she had a process for managing change requests, and she did, but the SME ignored it, and was disorganized, continually reacting to what he saw on screen, requesting seemingly endless changes. As a result, this course took the better part of a year to complete, and this was the first of a dozen courses that were anticipated: at that rate, this course development project would have taken twelve years! I was able to present some options for a sound course development process, to resolve some of the issues.

This is only one example regarding the difficulty of answering this question: “How long does it take you to develop an eLearning course?”

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The Question is Bigger Than You Think

Whether in government, Higher Ed, or corporate learning, we are asked this question in the name of deliverables—regarding what can we produce, and how long it will take. Consultants get the question, as do internal Instructional Designers.

When the question comes, our feet get light and we feel that we might need to break into a dance. We’ve been asked to dance to this tune before, many times, and we hesitate. Why? So many reasons! We are tempted to dance with the questioner because we know all of the variables involved in producing good eLearning content, the inter-dependency involved in working with others in a collaborative environment, the frequent change requests that can come too late in the process, and the too-frequent disregard for deadlines on the part of SMEs who have their own challenges. We are asked for hard-stop deadlines when so much does not depend upon us. There are just so many variables.

What Instructional Design Professionals Know

We know that some of us can get much too artsy and take too much time tweaking an image, or picking a color or font; we understand that the speed of business necessitates that we need to keep projects moving. We also know what quality looks like, and how to achieve it, and we know that too many shortcuts won’t produce it.

We know the right answer to the question…but we don’t want to give it too soon.

Competing in the Learning Space

We also know that more than ever before, competing in this space as a course content developer or learning provider is becoming more challenging, since eLearning providers and LMS vendors continue to proliferate and also to be consolidated, significantly enhancing course offerings and affecting pricing models. Those that remain must step up their game with sound, quality content that engages learners and meets business needs.

Skillsoft alone boasts 19 million learners and 6,000 customers; such vendors are partnering with LMS providers and are driving down prices. Lynda.com has a different business model but is well supported. There are many content providers today, across many industries, including eLearning, mLearning, vLearning, talent management suites, and VILT (virtual, live platforms). The competition has never been greater; the need for excellent content and competitive pricing structures puts pressure on smaller vendors and niche players.

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Learning from the Research

We also know the metrics, and they vary depending on the type of course to be produced. In Higher Ed it is thought that a full-time ID (Instructional Designer) can produce perhaps 12 – 15 courses per year, depending on certain variables, in that type of eLearning. In corporate eLearning, I have heard it said that it takes about 33 hours of development time for one finished hour of learning, but that figure seems low, unless the ID is developing short soft skills courses with no need for collaboration or research. One respected research organization has looked at these metrics across many industries related to what I would term corporate-style eLearning, and has found that for a level-one, basic course, 79:1 is typical: you can expect to expend 79 hours of development time for a one-hour, finished course. More complex level-one projects, they say, take more like 125:1. However, they also found that for a more typical level-two course with template features, the figure is more like 184:1, and we generally refer to that course type as “rapid development.” For higher level, very technical courses, their research says it takes more like 267:1. Yes, that is 267 hours of development time for one hour of produced content. A level-3 course ranges from 217:1 – 716:1, depending upon complexity.¹

These figures represent time on task, not including wait time for SMEs to provide content, and not including change orders and so forth. In one Fortune 500 company, the learning director told me that it takes 100 hours of design time for a typical course—and these courses average less than one hour in length, but they tend to be rather technical in nature. Another research study noted that for an average, rapid-development one-hour course with moderate interactivity, development times ranged from 90 to 240 hours. ²

So, you say, we will use a consultant and get content developed externally from a vendor? That’s fine…just be prepared to open the wallet. It won’t be cheap, and it shouldn’t be, for quality. One eLearning vendor that I talked with told me that his average custom course development price, with all factors considered, would be around $30,000–for one course. This pricing seems typical and may not be excessive given that in large organizations, perhaps thousands of learners will access it over time with no cost for travel, hotel, facilitation, and so forth. Smaller organizations don’t have budgets for this level of cost, however, and often opt for an in-house ID or independent contractors. Still others opt for subscription services for learning content, paying a monthly per-user fee, sacrificing all customization of content.

Each choice has its own challenges and opportunities. There are many variables regarding purchased, vendor-produced courses, including whether or not you own the course content or are merely “renting” it. Subscription, per-user content vendors are growing substantially, for off-the-shelf content with varied quality. And, the more technical the content, the more assistance will be needed from internal SMEs for custom content development. Using a consultant can be the perfect choice, depending on the variables. How fast will it be? How expensive? How good?

IDs get offended sometimes at the questioning. I’m good, and I’m fast, but I don’t do junk, we may say. We need to know who will be on our project team, or if we will be developing the content as a one-man band. If we will be developing the content in-house: what are the roles, the people that will assist and support, and are there dedicated SME/employee hours to spend on course development? Is there a budget for graphics? What software is there? These are important questions along the way in formulating the answer to that question: How long will it take?

The question I’d be asking now, if I wanted to understand how to budget time and resources for an eLearning project is: What is typical, and what is realistic? The research I’ve cited stretches across many industries including 249 companies. Smaller companies, non-profits, Higher Ed…there are many variables, too many to account for, in this one article. The nature of the course content, industry, learning type and desired course length are all important considerations, as is the LMS (Learning Management System) on which the learning will be deployed.

The Tasks Involved

Here is more information from research, regarding the variety of tasks involved in producing eLearning, and what percentage of time these tasks take:³
• Front End Analysis: 9%
• Instructional Design: 13%
• Storyboarding: 11%
• Graphic Production: 12%
• Video Production: 6%
• Audio Production: 6%
• Authoring/Programming: 18%
• QA Testing: 6%
• Project Management: 6%
• SME/Stakeholder Reviews: 6%
• Pilot Test: 4%
• Other: 1%

This list reveals the need for considerable expertise in the instructional design process, and for having an experienced learning leader to manage the program. Too often, an eLearning development program results in shallow, educationally unsound courses with little possibility of facilitating performance improvement or employee development. Over time, this becomes obvious, and credibility is lost. An experienced learning leader to manage the process is crucial for success, since quantity does not equal quality, and efficiency does not equal effectiveness. What’s the ultimate value in producing the learning content if it does not adequately support the business or result in meaningful people development?

How do I answer the question, then: How long does it take to create an eLearning course?

That’s Part 2.

 1 Chapman, B. (2010) How Long Does it Take to Create Learning? [Research Study]. Published by Chapman Alliance LLC. www.chapmanalliance.com.
  2 Karl Kapp. https://www.td.org/Publications/ Newsletters/Learning-Circuits/Learning-Circuits-Archives/2009/08/Time-to-Develop-One-Hour-of-Training.
  3 Chapman, B. (2010) How Long Does it Take to Create Learning? [Research Study]. Published by Chapman Alliance LLC. www.chapmanalliance.com. I realize that this does not total to 100%, but I don’t know the reason for this. It’s difficult to account for everything, I think.

Illustrations: iStockphoto

2 thoughts on ““How long does it take you to develop an eLearning course?””

  1. I have been with several companies that have pushed for rapid development and trying to get to an end product faster. One particular scenario is the most challenging for me. If they are familiar with their internal SME putting together a 200-slide PowerPoint to deliver in a classroom next week, they struggle when it’s time to work with an ID and a more involved process to create eLearning instead. I’ve seen the same things happen over and over, so you may want to watch out for these “solutions”:
    * “We’ll start development right away, even though we aren’t sure what we want yet.” This never saves time. You definitely need to engage someone with ID skills for the analysis phase. I’ve seen development on 60 minutes of eLearning run full-speed for several weeks while the ID simultaneously suggested that a simple job aid would meet the objectives just as well. In the end, the client did go with the job aid and wrote it without the ID – after all, they had just paid for 20 hours of development time that they couldn’t use.
    * “We’ll skip reviews” (SME or quality). This saves time on paper, but invariably those reviews creep back in, informally at first and then formally to address issues that arise from content that changes late in the game. I’ve seen this happen over and over and sometimes it’s even resulted in more reviews than before.
    * “We’ll shorten reviews” (usually SME). Unless the business has strong support to give SMEs extra time to review when the review is needed, this one is tough to enforce.
    * “Just put this content (5 documents and 2 conflicting PowerPoint decks) in the authoring tool and publish it” This one can speed things up in some cases, but can lead to really awful eLearning that turns the audience off of all eLearning. It’s also destined to require updates immediately.

    I’m looking forward to seeing part 2 and adding more estimation tools to my toolset.

  2. Thanks for contributing to the dialogue, Elizabeth!

    Your comments are on target, for sure. I’ve been a part of discussions about how to navigate these challenges, as I’m sure you have. It’s too complex to explain the challenges and the reasons for our decisions in detail to senior leadership, and the C-Suite folks often don’t have the time or patience for it. So, as I will discuss next, trust is the key component. I find that when I earn trust, I get the latitude I need, not to go slow, but to manage the process–since I’m the best one to do it. More to follow ;o)

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