Estimating E-Learning Course Length

Knowing how long a course is going to be is important for many reasons.  In an ideal world, a course should be exactly as long as it needs to be to meet its goals—not a minute less, not a minute more.  But there are some real-world reasons why you might need to contain the length.

  • You need to put together a cost estimate and schedule, and course length will drive that.
    Conversely, you may have budget, resource, or schedule constraints, and you need to keep the course length within the limit of what you need to accomplish.
  • You may have external requirements on the course length.  For example, the state of California requires that all supervisors take a course in harassment prevention that is two hours long.  It can’t be any shorter than that.
  • You may have restrictions on how long your learners can spend on the training.  For example, you may be training volunteers who may be scared away if they know they have to go through a six-hour orientation program or sales staff who would lose too much revenue if they had to take a day away for training.

If any of these are factors, then you’ll want a good length estimate up front that you evaluate as you go.

The up-front estimate is the hardest.  You may not have well-defined content, and you may not know how much detail you need until you dive in.  We recently completed a mobile course on troubleshooting heavy equipment that went from an initial estimate of 30 minutes to a final product of 2 hours.  No one really knew until we started gathering content.

If you have well-defined materials, it is a little easier.  The rule of thumb is that you can accomplish the same thing in e-learning as you can in the classroom in about half the time.  In the nine years we’ve been in business, we’ve found this to be true across clients and subject matter.  (Perhaps my next post will be on why that is.)  Even if you aren’t converting an existing instructor-led course, you can still use that metric to help.  I’ve found that if I ask a subject-matter expert how long they think an e-learning course needs to be, they often don’t know and won’t even hazard a guess.  But if I ask them for a “gut” estimate of how long it might take them to explain everything in the classroom, they can usually come up with something.  We then estimate the e-learning course will be half of that length.

So now you have a starting point.  As you design and develop the course, it is important to check back in on that number.  Assuming your business reasons for having a length goal are still there, you’ll need to monitor and adjust as needed.  For us, the best place to do that is after the first draft of the storyboards.  By that point, we have a very good idea of what needs to be covered and to what level of detail.  At the same time, we aren’t so far in that it would be too difficult to make some changes if we are off target.

So how do you estimate at this stage?  Well, a few years ago, we analyzed a number of courses to help us do just that.  We had people take a broad sample of courses that we had developed and keep track of how long it took them.  Then we analyzed the storyboards for number of slides, words in the narration, and words in the entire storyboard to come up with some averages.  Sure, there were some outliers, but a lot of the courses ended up with similar numbers.

Here’s what we found.  One hour of content contained, on average:

  • 8680 storyboard words
  • 5179 transcript words
  • 53 screens

Having these numbers came in handy recently.  We were working on a volunteer training project, and we had a target length in mind.  As we were developing the content, the client started talking to their volunteer base about it.  They got significant feedback concerning the length of the course.  They wanted it to be easy for volunteers who might be using time-limited computers such as those at a library.  We analyzed the storyboards and got an idea of how long the course was and how much we might need to cut.  Sure, we had some rework, but better at the storyboard phase than after the courses had been built.

You are welcome to use our numbers for your own estimating, but what would be more useful would be for you to do your own evaluation.  For example, you might include more programmer instructions in the storyboards than we do.  You might have less audio and more text that the student reads.  Analyze how you tend to design courses and come up with your own numbers.  Then adjust the estimates if a certain project is different.  For example, we don’t use these numbers for computer simulations.

What do you do to estimate the length of projects?  What’s working for you?

Diane Elkins
Diane Elkins is the co-owner of E-Learning Uncovered, as well as Artisan E-Learning, a custom eLearning development company specializing in the use of Storyline, Captivate, and Lectora. Diane has been in the eLearning industry since 2001, speaks regularly at national conferences about eLearning, and is co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series.

6 Responses to “Estimating E-Learning Course Length

  • Erin Krebs
    10 years ago

    We use 50 content screens to = 1 hour. Also, we use about 2.5 – 3 hours of e-learning for every 1 hour of ILT when converted. This is very much contingent upon the content though so it’s important to factor that in. Also we look at the amount of audio, it can really slow down a course if learners are being required to go at the pace of the audio, as opposed to the pace of their own reading. Wherever possible we try to use audio strategically instead of using it on every slide to read the text to the learner.

  • Thanks for the tip! As a novice instructional designer, I am still learning how to work out length and other aspects of projects – this will certainly help a lot!

  • debadrita
    10 years ago

    Hi , I developed a course with 200 slides. The time duration is showing 40 min. As per the market standard it should be 45 slides per hour. Please let me know how can we justify the number of slides with time duration.
    please help me with your reply

  • manxman1
    10 years ago

    no, you need more slides, 200 won’t cut it.

  • Hi Diane – am wondering if you have any further updates on your method of seat time calculation since this original article was published. There still appears to be very little evidence or consensus available to help accurately calculate seat time. We’ve come up with our own method but would love to hear if you have refined your own methods since the above.

    • Diane Elkins
      10 months ago

      Hey Trish, I wish we had newer information. We still use the same metrics for estimating, calculating all three numbers and averaging the three. Then if it really matters, we have someone sit down and take the first or second online draft. We try to use someone who didn’t work on the project, because they are more likely to skim over things or already know the answers to the questions.
      I’m curious to know what method you are using. Are you able to share it here?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.