How Long Does It Take to Create an E-Learning Course?

Well, I guess it depends upon how you want to answer the question. Amount of work or elapsed time?

Bryan Chapman recently updated his survey on how long it takes to create learning, including e-learning. The average amount of work for an e-learning course with average interactivity is 184 hours for every finished hour of content.

But what does that mean for elapsed time?  Does that mean one person can finish the course in 4.6 weeks?  Or can three people finish a course in 1.5 weeks?  Probably not. In our experience working with diverse clients over the years, the elapsed time is all over the place. When everyone is committed and motivated, we’ve knocked out 30 minutes of content in about three weeks. We’ve also seen a 15-minute course take a year and a half!

So what factors create such a wide variation between the amount of work and the elapsed time?  And what can we do to bring those numbers closer together?  Here are a few ideas from our experience on how to reduce elapsed time. (And stay tuned in the next few weeks for a post on how to reduce amount of work!)

Factor #1: Priority

We’ve found this to be the number one reason why projects take longer than they need to. When project team members (developers, SMEs, etc.) have other priorities that are more important, then e-learning tasks get pushed back. Everyone has so many “must-do” tasks on their lists, they often don’t have time to get to the “should-do” tasks. We’ve been on many projects where the client or SME has great intentions to provide some information by Thursday or have reviews back by Tuesday. But when Thursday and Tuesday come around, they haven’t gotten to it. It’s not that they don’t care or aren’t trying; it’s that they sometimes have to make tough choices when they don’t have time to do everything. Sometimes your course will make the cut, and sometimes it won’t.

What can you do about it?

Whenever possible, tie your deadlines to a specific business need. Courses that need to be done by a certain date or the money runs out, a new product launches, or a government mandate passes are all more likely to finish on time. What if you were to launch your course at a big sales meeting or preview it with the executive committee at the end of the month?  Creating a more tangible deadline might help everyone give their tasks more priority.

Set meetings for important project milestones. If you have a deadline for everyone to provide feedback by Tuesday via email or ask for an email with the first draft of the course on Tuesday, you may or may not get them. But if the deliverable is provided in a meeting on Tuesday instead of in an email, you are a little more likely to get what you need. People don’t like to look bad in meetings, so having to present their feedback, input, drafts, etc. in a meeting might bump it up a little in their priority list.

Avoid the trap of building more time into review cycles. This extends your schedule and usually doesn’t increase your chances of getting what you need in time. In our experience, if someone has three days or two weeks to review something, it means they won’t get to it until the last day anyway.

Factor #2: Review Cycles

This is the second major factor that causes a project schedule to stretch out. Every time something needs to be reviewed, you need to add several days (or several weeks) to the schedule – even if that review might only take 3 hours. This means if SMEs and other stakeholders need to review two drafts of the storyboards and two drafts of the online course, it could add four weeks to the schedule. In some situations, there are several layers of reviews. For example, the main SME might review everything and ask for it to be fixed before it goes to his or her boss. Because of this, review time can easily double or triple your initial project.

What can you do about it?

Be clear about who needs to see the deliverables and when. If it needs to go through lots of reviews, it’s better to know that up front than to be surprised by it. Include this information in your kick-off documentation.

Try and overlap or combine review cycles whenever possible. For example, if the SME can be reviewing for content while the editor is checking for grammar and style consistency, you’ll be able to shorten your schedule a little bit. Similarly, at least try to have the SME and his or her boss look at it together, rather than as separate review cycles.

Factor #3: Availability

The third major issue is availability: A SME has to go out of the country on a business trip, a programmer has to split his time between your project and another, your narrator gets strep throat just when you need edits made, or the project champion leaves the company. All of these things can cause your project to come to a screeching halt.

What can you do about it?

Get full project schedules from key people up front. Very often, your team members will know about possible conflicts but not think to mention them. If you have everyone’s availability up front, you can often adjust the work so that the periods of unavailability aren’t too disruptive. For example, getting storyboards out one day earlier than planned might enable a SME to review them before leaving town.

Stay on schedule. Availability issues become worse when your project slips. Your best programmer might be available to do the work – until the schedule delay moves her tasks to the time when she has been promised to another project. Or a two-day delay in getting the storyboards to a SME might result in a one-week delay in getting reviews because it is now coming at the busiest time of the month for him.

With all of these factors, you certainly don’t have complete control. Murphy is alive and well in the e-learning industry. But there are some steps you can take to shorten the schedule a little bit up front and plan for some of the issues that might arise.

What have you tried to keep your cycle times down without working crazy hours or sacrificing quality?  Or more importantly, what could you try?  If you are tasked with Extreme Makeover: E-learning Edition, what could you do to get a good course out in seven days?

Desiree Pinder
Artisan E-Learning

5 Responses to “How Long Does It Take to Create an E-Learning Course?

  • Drew Shields
    7 years ago

    Desiree, you really captured the biggest variables here for an elearning project. In a large project I was managing I provided the same reasonings to the client in order to buffer SME review time. Turned out we needed the extra review time in most cases, as the SMEs encountered typical “work obstacles” including unexpected travel and priorities. When one SME could not meet the deadline, they deligated it to someone else so we could. The points you gave here will help others tremendously with up-front project planning.

    • Desiree Ward
      7 years ago

      Thanks, Drew, for your comment. It IS nice when a SME will give up a bit of control and allow others to do the review to help meet a deadline. A fresh look on things can be great for the project. One of my best content reviewers was a SME that took over for a colleague in the middle of a project. She met deadlines and massaged the content so it was exactly what they needed.

      Once, though, I had a new SME that wanted to change the scope of the project during the final review of the online draft. Now I give clear instructions with someone who is helping out so they know exactly what we need to get the course completed. (For example, “Please review the content changes made by your colleague in the attached spreadsheet to ensure accuracy.”)

  • Alisa Jacobs
    7 years ago

    I completely agree with tying deadlines to other events or specific business needs. I’m currently working on a course that has to be ready when new hires start July 1st, so that’s worked really well for us. The biggest challenge I’m facing right now is one you hit on: review cycles, a.k.a. getting the SMEs to step away from the course. They want to review and review and review and review and sometimes my team is forced to work really crazy hours to deliver the final product on time. In this case, I think it helps to either have someone at the top call a cease fire, or to pull yourself out of reactive mode, set up a call, and ask what can be done to get to final in as few steps as possible. It’s hard to do, but it can really help.

    • Desiree Ward
      7 years ago

      Alisa, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to go into reactive mode when we are trying to get things done right for a client?!? Setting up an in-person call also gives you a chance to help the SME understand that you are on their side and want to meet needs – as well as keep the project on track.

      And, it’s great when you have the support of management (and project managers are great at supporting you when deadlines start to slide off track). Having a “bad cop” intervene can help greatly in moving a project along while allowing you to continue to be the “good cop” who is there to meet needs.

  • Betsy Marchant
    5 years ago

    I just found your blog and read through most of the articles. Some of them were like you took the words out of my mouth… I’m subscribing and can’t wait for your next post!

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