Estimating online course work

Whether you’re a solo practitioner or working with a large training development company, you will at some point be asked to estimate how long it will take to create an online course. Most people want the rule-of-thumb (ROT) version: X hours of work for a 1-hour course, so if I charge Y dollars per hour, the project will cost X*Y dollars.

After more than 15 years of designing, developing, testing, and evaluating results from online courses, I have come up with the definitive answer: it depends.

It depends on a number of factors, which is why I like to create a scoping document before starting any course. This is not always possible, but every time that I have seriously underestimated the time a course would take, I had not written a scoping document.

Tom Gram argues a similar point in Myth of E-Learning Levels of Interaction. It has become common to base estimates of time on a three-level scale of interactivity such as the Brandon Hall model. Level 1 has one level of interactivity, level 2 is 25-50% more, and level 3 is anything beyond that. While level of interactivity is less a myth than a shorthand device for talking about the complexity of the project, it does imply that only one component will change the time it takes to create a course. When estimating time, you need to look at a number of components. A project in which the content must be written may require as much additional time and effort as one in which the content is complete but the scenario-based interface must be designed from scratch.

So let’s look at some of the components you should take into account in estimating time for an elearning course.

Have you worked with this client before? This might not seem like the #1 thing to look at, but believe me it affects everything else in your estimate. Any time you work with a new group of people, it takes time throughout the project to understand how they work. Experience with a client means you can spend less time trying to figure out how many reviews they want and more time actually creating their course.

Needs. This should be simple, right? The course sponsor knows that he or she needs a course on the new system they installed so that employees can collaborate while developing sales presentations. But what exactly do they need?

While talking to the sponsor or SME, ask questions that reveal how well the project has been defined: What do they really need for this course? Why do they want a course at all – what has lead to the decision to train? Focus on outcomes – what should the audience be able to do once they’ve taken the course. Should they be aware of the new system, or is there a behavior that must be changed? The sponsor may have already done a formal needs assessment characterizing the audience and the learning needs, so they may already have this information available for you.

There are some tactical issues you want to clarify as well. Are there regulatory or testing requirements that are part of the course? When and how will the course be launched? Do they have a budget for the work?

Expectations. Beside the needs of the course stand the expectations, and these are as important to your estimation as the needs. What does the sponsor expect the final course to look like and provide to the participants? On which medium will the course be delivered – mobile, webcast, self-study, or all of the above? How long will the finished course be? Will the course contain graphics, video, audio, games? How complex is it – strictly a short informational presentation, or a scenario-based, multiple branching, highly interactive course? Each of these factors can increase or decrease your estimate of time.

You may have to negotiate a little to set appropriate expectations. Many clients will ask for more than their budget can support, and you may need to work with them to align the needs of the course with the expectations and budget.

Process. The final area you need to explore can be summed up by the question “who does what and when?”.

Start with the content: how much of it is available? What condition is it in? (I’ve seen content run the gamut from updated storyboards to a concept-only outline. Your idea of “ready” may be different from your client’s.) Who will be responsible for updating the content and writing it into storyboard and script formats? Where will the graphics, audio, video, and other media come from?

Next look at the procedures. Online development is a multi-step process: design the course, create storyboards, develop the online version. At each step there will be reviews; the online version requires testing. The client’s compliance requirements may add multiple reviews at various stages; if the content, examples, or test questions are newly-created for the course, plan on at least one round of reviews for accuracy and appropriateness. Testing may be a formal process requiring members of the target audience to evaluate the course, or it may be an informal review by the SME and the designer. Knowing these process steps in advance is crucial to accurate estimating (as well as a smoothly running project)!

Which brings us to staffing. Who is responsible for each bit of the work? I’ve seen projects fail utterly because no one was responsible for making sure some vital task was completed correctly.

If this seems like a lot of work just to estimate how much time will be required, remember that each project is different, and your assumptions may be wildly inaccurate. As Sumathi Reddy wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article on tardiness, everyone underestimates the time it takes to perform a task. Unpacking the task – breaking it down into its detailed component parts – provides a more accurate estimate of time than simply relying on past experience to make the estimate. Almost every experienced project manager or proposal writer I know would agree.

So start with your own assumptions about the project and how much time it will take you to complete it. Walk through the components of the project, adjusting your time estimate up or down as you learn the details of the audience’s needs, the sponsor’s expectations, and the project’s processes. This leads to a much more accurate estimate, and a lower risk of over-promising and under-delivering.


Memorable Learning was founded after almost 30 years of telling the stories of people passionate about what they are doing. It began as writing laboratory reports to support a method of protecting a third-world farmer’s hard-won harvest from rats, but soon expanded. Whether it’s explaining a new software product to users, teaching engineers how to share data with international counterparts through an enterprise-wide system, or bringing accountants up to date on new developments in their fields, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most passionate people in the world.

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