How to Estimate ELearning Development Time in 5 Easy Steps

How to estimate eLearning development time in 5 easy stepsWhether you are an HR manager considering an in-house eLearning course, or a consultant thinking of bidding on an eLearning project. The one question that’s always front-and-center is: How long will this eLearning project take?

We’ll explore that question in this post, and leave you with a simple 5-step process to answer it!

Factors to consider

The methodology explained below is based on a set of logical steps that you need to follow when putting together a timeline for eLearning development. As an eLearning content developer, however, when applying the 5-step process provided below, you must also factor the uniqueness of your project requirements, and the development environment, into the equation.  For instance:

  • How many course designers, developers, and content producers will I have?
  • What types of course authoring tools will I have access to?
  • Do I have developers who have experience with those tools, or will there be an associated learning curve? Untrained or less experienced team members will add to project timelines.
  • The type of course: Beginners, advanced, expert-level? Content and courses with more in-depth learning outcomes will require a greater amount of development time.
  • Do I have the right SMEs to support my team?
  • Can I leverage existing content/material?

Your estimated time to develop an eLearning course will depend significantly on the answers to these questions. Additionally, other factors – external to the development effort itself – such as management commitment, peer reviews, budgetary constraints, and organizational culture, will also impact the length of time.

Other critical components of estimating eLearning development timelines include a distinction between elapsed time (actual days/hours from start to end) and effort (the actual days/hours required to finish the job).

So, given all these constraints and restrictions, how would you go about estimating eLearning development time?


Estimating eLearning development time

Each organization or instructional design consultant will have their own unique approach to estimating project time. However, they’ll all involve a variant of the 5-step methodology discussed below:

Step#1: Needs Assessment

The most critical element, in putting together a realistic estimate for developing an eLearning module, is understanding the learning needs. This will involve a lot of up-front work, including meetings with senior eLearning project sponsors and SMEs.

As part of this process, take time to understand what existing resources/materials are available (if any) and whether you can leverage them for your development effort. That information will have a huge impact on putting together your own timelines.

Objective:  Understand exactly what you need to deliver

Reasonable estimate:  20% of total development time

Step#2: Initial Project Planning

Even if you know exactly what you need to deliver, it’s unlikely you’ll deliver it successfully without a well thought out plan. While your plan will help you understand what resources (and tasks) are needed to develop the course, it will also help you estimate how much time it will take to complete each step.

Time estimates are also dependent on activity sequencing and the availability of key resources. When putting the plan together, give due consideration to potential bottlenecks that may add to overall project timelines.

Objective:   Understand how you’ll deliver: Plan the Who, What, When and Where of the project

Reasonable estimate:   10% of total development time

Step#3: Prototyping

This is where you’ll spend a lot of time fine-tuning the development effort. A prototype of the eLearning course isn’t meant to mimic the final package 100% – but it does need to come close! Key components that you’ll need to focus on include:

  • Instructional design media packages
  • Lesson Plans
  • Assessments
  • Tests and Assignments
  • Simulated Exercises
  • Flowcharts
  • Scripts
  • Storyboards
  • Audio and video content, and
  • Images, animations, and graphics

The aim is not to create a prototype per se, but to build a high-level mock-up of the course, so you can estimate how long it would take to produce each of the major components.

The availability of scarce resources (high-end graphics designers, for example) has a huge impact on eLearning development. During this step, you’ll also need to spend time understanding how long it might take to put externally-sourced resources in place, where your team doesn’t have those specific skills.

Objectives:   Validate the project plan for accuracy and completeness. Simulate a live project by following the steps indicated in the project plan.

Reasonable estimate:  40% of total development time

Step#4: Validate the Prototype

The prototype isn’t just a time estimation tool. It is also a method of confirming project scoping and requirement estimation. Your learning experiences from the prototyping exercise need to be validated by reviewing them with project sponsors and users. All of that will add time to the overall project.

Objective:   Validate lessons learned from the prototype sessions

Reasonable estimate:   20% of total development time

Step#5: Fine-tuning the Plan

Now that you know what’s involved with delivering the project, following your prototyping exercise, it might be tempting to launch into development. Don’t! While the prototype may have provided some valuable inputs to the estimation process, you must revisit the plan to further refine your original timelines.

Some timeline-impacting considerations that must be worked into a revised project plan include:

  • Did you need all the steps/deliverables identified in the original plan to deliver the learning outcomes identified in the Needs Analysis, or were some steps redundant?
  • If redundant components were identified, how much time could they cut from your original estimate?
  • Were there additional steps/deliverables identified as a result of the prototyping? If so, what impact on timelines will they have?
  • Did project sponsors feel the prototype addressed all learning outcomes or is additional content needed to address shortcomings?

This last step, Fine-tuning the Plan, will likely be an iterative process where you may have to produce several iterations of the “final” course development plan.

Objective:   Revise plan to make it more realistic, based on lessons learned from validating the prototype

Reasonable estimate:  10% of total development time


Nailing down your time estimates

The above 5-step process should help you come up with a high-level estimate for developing most eLearning courses. Ideally, following the prototyping process and subsequent discussions with course sponsors, you’ll come up with three sets of development timelines:

  • Pessimistic: This plan should use liberal estimates – assuming everything that could be delayed will be delayed!
  • Optimistic: This time estimate assumes that there will be minimal delays and that nothing will change from now till the course is designed, developed and delivered
  • Most likely: This time estimate uses a more pragmatic approach, and is a balance between pessimistic and optimistic plans

Before you “freeze” your time estimates, however, and proceed to course development, it is important to present the final plan to your management/client/ course sponsors and receive their formal approval/sign-off. This ensures that the time estimates you developed are acceptable to all stakeholders.

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