Friday, July 02, 2004

E-learning development time

I am often asked what the ballpark development time is for an hour of e-learning. Industry “studies” like that from the E-learning Guild are not much help. According to a Guild study a while back, the average development period for an hour of “complex” e-learning (containing animation, streaming media, and navigation options) allegedly averages 276 hours. This is frankly absurd. But it points out the difficulty inherent in the question: what exactly are you talking about when you say "an hour of eLearning"? And what are you including in the concept of "development time?

This question was asked often in those early days of e-learning. Here's one of my responses, still valid today, to a similar question from 2001:

You are not going to find any meaningful ballpark figures for e-learning development costs, because e-learning can mean anything you want it to mean. This forum is a powerful dynamic e-learning medium, yet it costs virtually nothing to produce. A course full of spinning logos and burning icons and professional video can be a dire learning medium that cost millions to produce and gets outdated rapidly. Remember also that there are a range of hidden costs in any e-learning venture.

You have to define your individual learning objectives within the context of your overall learning service strategy. Then you have to define the learning model most appropriate to those objectives, given your environment (people, technology, existing classroom budgets, target learner sophistication). Only then, when you know what you want, should you start looking at cost. Internal development may be more expensive than outsourcing, if you factor learning curves into your costs. Send out an RFP to a few vendors and see what comes back, or just talk offline to people on this forum. The range of pricing may further frustrate you, but at least you will have a focused basis for budgeting.

There was a time when developers were happy to quote $10k per completed hour of e-learning. I still hear of vendors doing that, though now the hourly number is often $35k to $75k. But most people have realized how ludicrously risky that concept is, because development costs are not linear -- your first hour is most expensive, subsequent hours can get dramatically cheaper. And 'an hour' can be complex or simple in content, learner activity, technology, context, media used, and so on. An hour of simulation can cost 20 times an hour of text-based application instruction, and may be less effective in the given circumstance.

There are no short cuts – you really have to define the project, scope out the development plan, and cost it accordingly. Even then, you will find a huge range of pricing for the same project because not all vendors or internal development shops are the same. The big e-learning vendors are typically much more expensive (sometimes by a factor of ten or more) than a small specialized development shop that does not carry the same overhead. And, if you are happy to give the work to a multi-talented individual contractor, your costs drop even further. I have seen a client quoted as much as $600k and as little as $25k for the same project.

This has been a long answer to an apparently simple question. The short answer is that any study claiming to give a useful ballpark figure for the development cost of an hour of e-learning and an hour of classroom learning will never be useful to you in real-world budgeting.

In e-learning, as in life, what you want will always cost more than you can afford; what you need may often cost less than you are willing to pay.

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