Estimating eLearning development time: 6 factors you should always include

Chris Franklin | 09/06/2018

When it comes to course creation, the most common question eLearning professionals hear is ‘how long will this take to create?’ And it sends shivers down their spines – notably because the answer is probably a fair bit longer than the requester is expecting.

eLearning development time is often under-estimated by those not involved in the process – leading to tight deadlines and stressed development teams. So, how can we bridge this gap between expectations and reality?

We can start by accurately estimating eLearning development time up front. Although there isn’t a definitive science to this calculation, ensuring the six points below are factored into your estimation will go some way to ensure the accuracy of your prediction.  

1. Size of the course 

Although it may seem obvious, the size of the course has implications on the amount of time it will take to create. Are you looking at a huge programme? Or is it a small bite-sized eLearning course?

We need to start by identifying all of the content that needs to be included in the course. Perhaps the source content provided by the SME (subject matter expert) references an external document, how much of this document should be included in the eLearning course? It’s useful to drop all of your content into three buckets: ‘must know’, ‘should know’ and ‘nice to know’. This is a great tactic to filter out the content your SME thinks should be in the course, versus the content your learners actually need to know. 

Secondly, if you’re estimating eLearning development time from a sample of the course content, it’s important to confirm how typical this sample is. If you’ve been given the content from ‘module one’ as a sample of a four module course, check how similar it is to modules two, three and four. If you don’t, and later find out that the remaining modules have twice the amount of content, your estimation of development time will fall short.  

Alongside validating the sample, you need to be wary of hidden content. If you’ve been provided a PowerPoint deck from a classroom training course to estimate your eLearning development time, there is probably a lot of hidden content in the trainer’s dialogue. You will have to communicate this dialogue through your eLearning course. However, unless you have the trainer’s script to hand, you’re unlikely to accurately estimate how much content you have to include. 

Having a unit of measure is often very helpful when it comes to estimating how long eLearning will take to create. Much of the research completed uses the ‘per one hour of training’ metric. This is when you evaluate how much development time can be attributed to each hour the learner will spend learning. Of course, the eLearning you’re creating might be bite-sized and might not come anywhere near the one-hour mark, but this is a fantastic metric that we can easily scale up or down and is useful in assessing the size of the course.

2. Course complexity

Course complexity will have a significant impact on how long your eLearning course will take to create. There are three aspects to course complexity:

  1. How complex the subject matter is.
    The more complex the subject matter, the more time you’ll need to spend with the SME to discover the content. Plus, SMEs are notoriously busy people, so getting the time in the first instance might also take some calendar juggling.
  2. Programme blend.
    If your course is a stand-alone piece of content, you will not have to consider many external factors. However, if this eLearning is going to be used as part of a larger learning programme, you’re going to have to give some thought to how the course sits within the wider programme and how it complements other elements.
  3. Learner interactivity.
    Is your eLearning course going to be a simple ‘click-next’ course? Or is it going to be a highly interactive course? Simply put, the higher the level of interactivity, the longer the course will take to create.

3. Stakeholder expectations

Although it may seem obvious, being completely clear on stakeholder expectations at the outset will help you more accurately estimate the time it’ll take to create your eLearning course.

It’s worth looking at the ADDIE model to discuss stakeholder expectations. The ADDIE model is widely used by instructional designers and eLearning developers, and is an acronym for:

A Analysis

D Design

D Development

I Implementation

E Evaluation

When we are estimating how long eLearning will take to create, eLearning professionals often focus on the ‘A D D’ of the ADDIE model. This is eLearning creation up to and including the build, plus any testing and QA involved in these stages of development. However, your stakeholder might expect you to estimate the entire process, including implementation and evaluation. If you do not clear this up from the outset, you may end up estimating the time it takes to create a much shorter process than your stakeholders are expecting. 

So, have the conversation up front. Make sure you know exactly what is expected of you, then you’ll be able to estimate how long the eLearning might take to create more accurately. 

4. Availability of SMEs

We’ve mentioned our subject matter experts in both points one and two – and they are an integral part to the eLearning development process. You might think the process of getting information from your SME will be quick and seamless, but what if they take a week longer than you anticipate sending over source material, or answering your questions?  This would throw out your estimate by a whole week – which could be detrimental to the smooth running of your course development.

To overcome this, get your SME to agree time to work with you up front. Once this has been agreed, it’s probably a good idea to add in some buffer time to your project plan, in case your SMEs priorities change. 

5. Your audience

Your audience will influence the time you spend on creating an eLearning course. For example, if you’re creating a course that will be sent to a global audience, you are going to have to factor in translations and cultural tweaks to the course. 

While thinking about your audience, it’s important to factor in their prior knowledge of the subject. If this is the first time the learner has encountered material on this subject matter, they might take a little longer interpreting it – and might require further explanation on key terms. However, if this is a refresher course, the explanation required might be significantly less, and the amount of content will also be reduced, therefore reducing the development time needed.

6. Asset hunting

How many of us have spent hours trying to find the perfect image for our eLearning course? I know I have. Make sure you factor this time into your estimation, as it could add days to your development time, without realising. Users of Articulate 360 have an added advantage here –with the content library hosting over 3 million assets for eLearning development – or perhaps you’re very fortunate and your organisation has their own content library. But unless you fall into these two groups, I’d factor in some time for asset hunting. 

But now, flip it on its head…

Bear with me here, but after estimating how long eLearning creation will take you to create, you should consider looking at it from a different perspective.

What should your learners achieve from the course? What do you want the learning outcomes to be? What are the actions and behaviours that you want to change in your learners after they’ve completed the course?

Once you’ve answered these questions, look back at the content you’ve accumulated – you might find a lot of it is superfluous.

So, how long will your next project take to create? 

Although I can’t give you a scientific formula to calculate how long your next eLearning project will take to create; I hope this blog will guide you to a more accurate estimation of development time. Taking each of the above points into consideration when estimating your development time, will go some way to bridge the gap between expectation and reality. And hopefully reduce the shiver down your spine next time you’re asked, “how long will this take to create?”

Chris Franklin

Chris is an instructional designer and trainer at Cursim, Omniplex's learning design and development division.

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