How Long Does it Take to Build eLearning?

Have you ever been in a meeting, and someone asks the dreaded question, “So how long will this project take?” Of course you have. We all have. As instructional designers, we often feel “put on the spot,” like we have to answer the question immediately. Sometimes before we have clearly defined the objectives, project scope, budget, resources, and so on!

This is a mistake. As Julia Roberts would say in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Huge!” And while I can’t offer the silver bullet solution that will allow you to confidently answer this question every single time, I can offer some research. And a few tips and strategies to handle this question in the future.

“How Long Will this Take?”

I know this isn’t like everyone’s experience, but when I worked at a university, I was the instructional and graphic designer, researcher, and subject matter expert (SME) all rolled into one. In my current role, one significant thing has changed. I’m usually not the SME, unless I am designing instructional content. Industry partners, internal staff, and people in the field are now my SMEs.

When I worked at the university, I could reasonably lay out my schedule and switch things around if a project took just a little longer than I expected. To be honest, I had never really given much thought to “how long something will take.” Since I was usually the SME for writing and peer mentorship, I could take care of the research on my own schedule.

Now, that’s all changed. SMEs lead busy lives. They like to know when they need to provide input and content, review curriculum, etc. Project managers like to stay on schedule and know where the project is standing. So when people in a meeting ask “How long will this take,” they really do expect an answer.

What the Research Says

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a crystal ball that dictates exactly how long a project will take. All projects differ to some degree, even if you have worked on a similar project in the past. However, in 2010, Chapman designed a research study to study how long eLearning really takes. I have found the research to be very useful, especially when explaining to clients (roughly) how long a project will take.

As you can see below, Chapman found that the average eLearning project takes roughly 43-490 hours to complete. For every ONE hour of eLearning! When I first came across this research, I could hardly believe it. But when I stopped to think, it made a lot of sense. It takes time to design and deliver a needs assessment, interview SMEs, schedule meetings, build and test prototypes, get feedback…*finger cramp*

When I have shared this research in client meetings, people’s eyes have literally bulged. They had no idea it took *this* long. But I think it’s important to share with people real expectations for building online curriculum. Personally, I think it’s pretty on par to build f2f curriculum, but it could be a bit lower. The point is not to scare clients with this number, but to ground the conversation and manage expectations by saying: “In the industry, research says it will take approximately _____ long to build _____. This could change depending on our direction, but it can help us gain a sense of how to build out the project.”

I kept track of how long it took me to build my last two projects, and Chapman’s numbers were fairly accurate! I’d encourage keeping track of how long it takes you to build curriculum, because then you will feel more confident using the research.

Other Strategies

Show a sample: Aside from discussing research, I also like to show people samples of previous work. Let’s say they are interested in creating an Articulate Storyline learning object. If you have built something similar, you can pull up the project and say “This took me _____ to build. I anticipate it would be a similar number for this project.” This way, you can explain why it takes that amount of time to produce a learning object. Seeing is believing!

Create a SWOT analysis: Considering the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to a project can be a useful exercise. There will be threats that no one can control, but at least by identifying them and considering mitigation, we can develop a project with clear expectations and timelines that help keep the project on track.

Share the “Quality Triangle”: Explain that the quality of the project is most important. Aspects such as time, money, and scope impact the quality. If the project scope changes, then time and money need to be considered. If people suggest big changes midway through a project, it can be useful to show this triangle and share what needs to change to ensure the quality is not diminished. How will one of the factors, which may include time, be influenced?

Work backwards: If the project is already on a tight deadline, start from the end and work to where you are at now. If the client is asking for a product that is unreasonable given the deadline, you can show that by mapping backwards to what you would have already needed to complete at this starting point.

Put the question on pause: Sometimes we feel like we have to have all the answers during an initial meeting. The point of this meeting is usually to discuss the preliminaries, not to hammer out all the details! If you feel put on the spot, say “I need a few days to consider how long it will take to build ____. I may need to consult ______ on a few items. I’d feel comfortable circling back on ____, so we can ensure our time expectations align.”  

These are just a few strategies to get you started–hope you enjoy!


Brainstorming Image from

Chapman’s Research from

Quality Triangle Image from the University of Glasgow:

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