How to Estimate eLearning Development Time

One thing that consistently challenges elearning and training developers is how to effectively estimate the number of hours that will be needed to complete an elearning project.

It’s not actually too complicated to get a reasonably accurate number to help you create a project plan, communicate with your stakeholders, and keep the project on the road.

There are two primary factors that impact the number of hours. These are:

  1. How much interactivity will be included in the delivered program?
  2. How long will the delivered program be?

Let’s look at these more closely.

Factor #1: Interactivity

How much interactivity will be included in the delivered program?

Most development models rank delivered training programs based on the level of interactivity incorporated into the program. This, in turn, impacts the number of hours that will be required for development. The rule of thumb is the more interactive, the more hours needed to build.

Ideally, the inclusion of interactivity, and how much, should be instructional design decisions. You want to think about how to best ensure that the material engages viewers so learning transfer can happen. In the real world, though, program requirements and expectations are often heavily influenced by stakeholders, available resources, and what’s “usually” done.

A typical breakdown comes from Chapman Alliance:

  • Level 1 – Basic: This is a simple elearning program, similar to an automated PowerPoint. Sometimes referred to as “click and read.” A quiz or similar assessment may be present.
  • Level 2 – Interactive: This is an elearning program that combines click and read-type content with learner interactions such as drag and drop, tabbed interactions, timelines, etc. There is a limited amount of branching in this level of program. This level would be considered typical of most elearning produced today.
  • Level 3 – Advanced: These programs incorporate significant amounts of branching, gamification, animations, and/or customizations for a unique end-product.

Instructional and Training Design Ratios

Because more interactive programs take longer to develop, these three levels also increase in the hours required for development. This gives us some useful factors for figuring out the dev time needed for our own projects. Thanks to the Chapman Alliance research, we have some pretty accurate numbers — we call them Level Factors — to use, as follows:

  • Level 1 – Basic
    • Low: 49
    • Average: 87
    • High: 125
  • Level 2 – Interactive
    • Low: 127
    • Average: 197
    • High: 267
  • Level 3 – Advanced
    • Low: 217
    • Average: 466
    • High: 716

So, what is a Level Factor, exactly? It is a ratio reflecting the number of minutes (or hours) required to develop 1 minute (or hour) of elearning at a given interactivity level. For example, on average, one minute of a Level 2 program will require 197 minutes (or just over 3.25 hours) of development time.

Keep in mind that this is a start-to-finish number that includes every aspect of project development, from the very first discussions all the way through to final LMS testing! As such, the total minutes requirement is spread out over tasks, time, and, likely as not, people.

If some portions of the total project will not be part of your own time estimate (say, if you are starting from a completed script and will not need to produce that), consider using the Low Level Factor. Or, if your project is pushing the limits of its level, consider using the High Level Factor.

Once you’ve considered the Level Factor, it’s time to answer the next question.

Factor #2: Estimating eLearning Course Length 

How long will the delivered program be?

There are a number of ways to determine the length of the planned-for program. In general, you’re seeking a number of minutes that everyone can agree on. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes you need to “back into” the number based on source material or other factors.

Here’s a summary of some possibilities for finding the number of minutes of runtime for your delivered program:

If you have … 

A statement from a sponsor or SME that the elearning program should a certain number of minutes:

  • Locate this information … How many minutes will the delivered program run?

An instructor-led course or similar information, but no slide deck:

  • Locate this information … How many hours of actual instructional time are typical for the program? (Don’t count breaks and lunch.)
  • To convert to Minutes … Hours ❌ 60 minutes 

A slide deck (or several) to convert to elearning:

  • Locate this information … How many slides are present? How text-dense are the slides? (If text dense, more slides will be needed in elearning. Multiply the number of slides present X 1.25 to compensate, and use this result.)
  • To convert to Minutes …Total slide count ➗ 2.2 slides per minute  
  • WARNING: Try to find other data points besides just slide count. Because the complexity of the slides and project vary so widely. Only use this as a starting point for your conversation. 

A script or similar document that will be used to build the program:

  • Locate this information … How many words are given for the voiceover?
  • To convert to Minutes … Total word count ➗150 words per minute 

A pile of paper, some notes from a training, or some other “messy source”:

  • Locate this information … How many minutes will the delivered program run?

OK, drum roll please!!

It’s time to do the simple math needed to project the time estimate for your elearning project. At this point, you’ve done the following:

  • Determined the interactivity level of the to-be-delivered project.
  • Considered where your project work effort falls on the low-average-high Level Factor spectrum.
  • Estimated the total number of minutes for your to-be-delivered project.

Now, all you need to do is some simple math:

Minutes ❌ Level Factor = Total minutes development time ➗ 60 minutes = Total hours of development time. 

But why do the math? We’ve created an eLearning development calculator for the job! Drop in your program’s minutes and the project Level Factor, and you’ll instantly have the hours to development for your project at each of the interactivity levels. 

eLearning Development FAQ

A average 1-hour interactive elearning course will take 197 hours to develop. But development of a 1-hour elearning course can range between 49 hours for the low end of the range of a “basic” course to 716 hours for the high end of the range of an “advanced” course. 

You can use our eLearning Development Calculator to enter any length course and see the low, average, and high ranges for estimating basic, interactive, and advanced courses. 

An average 1 hour instructor led course will take 43 hours to develop.

Similar to the development ratios for eLearning mentioned in the article above, the Chapman Alliance research provides the following development to seat-time ratios for classroom training:

  • 22:1 – Simple, with minimal support materials. 
  • 43:1 – Intermediate, with some support materials. 
  • 82:1 – For complex subject and significant support material. 

With those ratios and the length of the training, you can follow the exact same method to calculate instructor-led training (ILT) times.  

The average instructional designer makes $64,450 per year according to O*net.

Rates for contract instructional designers vary widely — between $30-100 per hour. 

Want to save time on your eLearning Projects?

eLearning projects can take a shockingly-long time to develop. But a lot of that can be controlled. We’ve compiled our best time-saving tips in this free ebook. 

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