How Long Does eLearning Take to Develop?

Graeme Youngs | 06/25/2015

“How long does eLearning take to develop?” is a question we are frequently asked. With heavy workloads, people who create eLearning want to have a simple method of predicting the time it will take to complete a course. But is there a simple method we can use to answer the question?

In one of our recent Omniplex eLearning Community events, we grouped the audience into small teams, who consisted of relative novices through to a range of experienced learning practitioners. They were then given this topic to encourage them to think about and discuss amongst their teams. 

The exercise was to answer the question “how long would it take to write the following course?” The scenario was as follows: The teams had been given a 20 slide PowerPoint with the request to produce an audio-led course with a medium level of interactivity, finishing with a 5 question knowledge check. We asked the teams to summarize how long it would take to develop this.

When the teams presented back their estimates, the highest was three months while the lowest estimate was thirty minutes! But why was there such a large range of estimates and what factors underpinned them?

Actual versus elapsed 

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time

The first point lay within the deliberate ambiguity of the question. We weren’t explicit in the question about whether the estimate we sought was the total duration of the project or the actual development hours (the actual number of hours that you would spend designing, building and refining the course).

The less experienced members of the audience tended to automatically think of the actual time they would take creating the course, whilst the more experienced heads tended to consider the wider project.

That gave us some initial answers to the question of “how long does eLearning take to develop”. The answer depends on what you mean – actual time or project time (which we call elapsed time). But what are the factors driving each of these measurements?

By definition, elapsed time is always going to be a superset of the actual time. So as a first question, what drives the actual time you spend on a project?

Actual time

Intuitively, when you think of the actual time spent creating eLearning, your mind automatically fixates on the hours in front of the authoring tool, crafting each screen. However, there are so many other component tasks, which include meeting with stakeholders, drawing up specifications and storyboards, testing, fixing, revising, meetings and even more meetings ….

So, there are a lot of factors that are going to impact the actual time the course will take to complete. Here are just a few:

Length of the course – obviously an hour of eLearning takes longer to develop than twenty minutes

Material readiness – if the course is based on, say, an existing two hour workshop with instructor notes, student workbook and a PowerPoint, the material is likely to be in much better state than a brand new initiative and will take less time to develop. If you are handed a single line “to improve the appraisal skills of the organization” then it will take a lot of time researching and scoping

Number of SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) – if you have to work with a cast of thousands, it’s going to require more time than just huddling up with a single person

Complexity of eLearning – a simple text and graphics course is going to use much less resources to develop than a course with lots of interactions, branches, gamification and quizzing (but it will be a lot less interesting!)

Authoring tool – modern authoring tools like Storyline are going to be an awful lot quicker than say, dedicated Flash development

How can we make a realistic estimate given these complex variables?  At Cursim, when we estimate the effort for creating a course for a client, we have a rather snazzy sizing tool that produces estimates based on the parameters above. If you don’t have an expert system, you can find some clues in a rather useful survey provided by the Chapman Alliance.

They undertook a survey that featured nearly 250 organizations containing nearly 4000 learning professionals who create content for nearly 20 million learners.

Dependant on some of the factors we’ve described above, the Chapman Alliance found that eLearning took between 50 to over 700 hours for every hour of learning produced. The lower figures were for simple, minimally interactive courses created with a rapid authoring system. The higher figures were for more complex eLearning which might include advanced simulations and games. Within the course, they categorized eLearning into three main levels.

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Source Citation:  Chapman, B. (2010). How Long Does it Take to Create Learning? [Research Study]. Published by Chapman Alliance LLC. www.chapmanalliance.com

Remember our earlier example that we gave to our community teams? The 20 slide medium interactivity course with a 5 question quiz would equate to, say, potentially 20 minutes of eLearning. The research gives a mid-point for medium interactivity courses of approximately 180 hours development for every 1 hour of eLearning. Therefore, by their estimates, a 20 minute course would take 60 hours of development. If you work a 40 hour week, that’s about a solid week and a half of your hard labor.

But how does that week and a half equate to elapsed time? Most eLearning development is a collaborative process between varieties of stakeholders. So chances are, you are unlikely to have the luxury of being able to develop your course in one long uninterrupted stretch.

Elapsed time 

As we’ve said, our elapsed time is dependent on actual time, but is going to be greater. 

For us, the main additional factors that contribute to elapsed time relate to people and the organization.  Stakeholders come in a number of shapes and guises but the main ones are SMEs (subject matter experts), Approvers (the people who need to sign off each project stage) and Testers (the people who test the actual course). In our experience, the main factors that impact the elapsed time are:

Actual time factors – aspects like readiness of material and complexity of the material will impact the duration and number of stakeholder engagements that you need

The number of stakeholders – the more stakeholders there are, the slower it gets

The location of stakeholders – if you can sidle up to someone’s desk to ask a question rather than having to schedule a conference call, that makes progress quicker

The availability of stakeholders – most stakeholders have “day jobs”, particularly SMEs who may be in high demand. Their availability to meet, schedule reviews and provide input will play a large part in determining your project cycle

Given all of this, how long will it take? Again, it is an “it depends” answer. If you have stakeholders that are busy and take a week to turn material around, then, that is going to multiply out through each cycle of refinement of the project. You also have to factor in the time it will take to turn around their input – say, 24 hours. If you have, say, six cycles, then you have nearly seven weeks of review plus the actual development time.

Let’s take our earlier simple course example. We’ll assume that we have fully committed stakeholders who have agreed to turn around all reviews in 48 hours and you can turn around their reviews in 24 hours (this is probably a “best case” figure and in practice would extend). Let’s assume that we have:

  • Two review cycles to produce the first stage specification
  • Three review cycles to produce the storyboard
  • Two testing cycles for the course (alpha, beta then gold)

So with seven reviews of 3 days, each equalling 21 days for review cycles, equals just over four working weeks. Plus our estimated actual development time of a week and a half – let’s round it up and say the course will take six weeks minimum elapsed time.

Therefore, we can proudly say that the answer to the original question we posed to the community group is six weeks. Right?

Errr, probably not. In the real world, stakeholders are away on business trips, on vacation and have other priorities. That target of 48 hour turnaround will be tough to achieve unless you can nail them to a chair. The real elapsed time will push out towards the ten to twelve week mark. Oh and don’t forget to allow time to get it loaded and tested on your LMS.

To sum up, is there a 100% correct answer to “How long does eLearning take to develop?” Probably not. All we can do is work out your best estimate. However, if you consider all the different factors involved and make some realistic assumptions, it will give you a fighting chance of producing a sensible prediction. 

And when you are asked, “Can you create this 20 minute eLearning course by the end of next week?” you’ll know what to say …

Graeme Youngs

Graeme is the Head of Learning with Omniplex

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