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Course Development Costs

>> by Dave Smulders <<

An overview of some related discussions on the STCIDLSIG listserv from 2001/01/03 - 2002/02/21.

At some point in your instructional design career, usually early on before you realize what you're getting into, someone asks you that dreaded question, "How much time would it take to develop a course for…?" It may seem like a simple question. Someone wants an 8-hour course for software training, or you've been asked to convert some instructor-led training (ILT) to a computer or web-based training format (CBT, WBT).

The preferred answer ("Call me in a week and I'll let you know how I'm doing.") is generally not appreciated by customers and may ruin your professional reputation. So what do you tell them?

Who knows?

Well, usually someone on the listserv of the Instructional Design and Learning Special Interest Group does, and often your cries for help will be heard, virtually, within minutes. The IDLSIG list, which has been online since March 2001, includes hundreds of practitioners, from lone wolves singlehandedly creating training within small companies to project managers who oversee large course development jobs involving a team of specialists. If you're looking for information on accurate estimating for a development project, chances are someone out there has been there before and can offer some good advice.

Not surprisingly the development time question has made a fairly regular appearance on the IDLSIG list over the past year. Here are some variations on the theme:

  • What are the industry standards for estimating course development (times and costs)?
  • Is there any average dollar amount per page or hour that you need to use for developing CBT?
  • Can anyone provide some general number-of-hours information for 'translating' classroom training to CBT/WBT training?

Rules of Thumb

Interestingly, everyone involved in these discussions - both those seeking a quick answer and those providing one - disavowed any leaning towards oversimplification. That is, while everyone knew that simple ratios of development time to learning time couldn't possibly tell the whole story, those numbers were important. So once contributors had dispensed with the caveats, everyone got down to the brass tacks of providing figures. For those of you who know that there's so much more to estimating development times and costs, here are the numbers anyway - just in case someone asks.

There is a significant difference in development time for instructor-led training and Computer-based and/or Web-based training. While instructor-led training was pegged at 35-40 hours of development time for 1 hour of classroom time, estimates for CBT/WBT development varied considerably, depending on different development tasks and resources and client needs.

One estimate was given as 250-400 hours of development time for 1 hour of instructional time. This more or less corresponds with Brandon Hall's figure of 217 hours. One contributor added that this number may be lower if the developer is well experienced and already familiar with the development tool.

Another figure offered was roughly half of that: 120:1. This was described as the number of development hours per hour of delivered media. Working with new media or tools could add up to anywhere from 16-40 hours of development time. Clearly experience is a time saver according to these discussions. On the low end of the scale, you could do CBT/WBT development at a rate of 60-100 hours for 1 hour of instructional time. However, be forewarned. This usually results in a product that is text-based and offers very low interactivity. As one contributor put it: "The more hours you cut from development time, the more likely you will create an electronic page-turning experience."

According to William Horton, developing an hour of WBT takes 2 to 12 times longer than developing for the classroom. The cost of WBT development is increased by as much as 4 times than that of development for the classroom due to programming and the complexities involved with multimedia and interactivity development. However, as Brandon Hall points out, the pay off is in the learning time, which he believes is reduced for WBT by as much as 50%. For example, he figures 40 hours of classroom instruction is reduced to about 24 hours in a WBT environment.

Clear as mud? Keep in mind that ratios are only as valid as you make them. If you or your organization has worked out a CBT development time ratio of 120:1 based on years of trial and error and project tracking, then you can feel reasonably confident in making reliable estimates to clients. But for someone else under a different set of circumstances a workable ratio may be entirely different. The key is to learn as you go and remember where you've been.


As many of those who offered advice emphasized, the first part of your answer to someone's request for an estimate first needs to be "It depends." There are many variables to consider when providing an estimate for development time and contributors to the listserv have highlighted a few of the important issues.

Delivery Format

This is, of course, critical in determining how long you're going to spend on development since whatever format you choose will define the nature of your development. Also, while instructor-led training is generally considered to require less development time, consider what happens when you decide to go with a mixed mode approach to your training, that is using some CBT/WBT and some in-class work. Now you've got a whole different set of conditions to work under as you decide what stays in the class and what is implemented with your available information and communication technologies.

Complexity of the Training

As the rules of thumb indicate, your development time is affected by the degree of complexity and interactivity of your final product. Some variables to consider include: bandwidth allowances, use of multimedia components, level of interactivity, and level of automation. Also, one contributor mentioned that you may save yourself some valuable time by customizing an existing course rather than re-inventing the wheel. The important thing to remember is that these variables to a large extent depend on the needs of your clients and your own resource limitations.

Also, you need to consider your development team and the availability of specialists for the job. Working on your own is considerably different than managing a team of programmers, writers, graphic artists, and technical support staff. This will influence not only the final product but also the way in which your training is produced.

Status of Software Development

If you are developing training for a software program that is itself in development, then you need to know when you can count on the program not undergoing significant design changes. Starting on training development early in the software development cycle can add time by as much as 25-50%.

Development Tools

Familiarity with a development tool is considered to be an important factor in estimating development times. If you are working with a new tool, you may have to factor in learning-curve time into your estimate. Some vendors promise that their tools will reduce your development time. Take these assurances with a grain of salt.
Some of the development tools mentioned in the listserv discussions include:

  • Dreamweaver (this comes with Course Builder, a feature that adds interactivity to your WBT)
  • Frontpage (for WBT)
  • Authorware (CBT and WBT)
  • Click2Learn, formerly known as Toolbook (CBT and WBT)

Murphy's Law

You'll never see this as a line in anyone's development budget but it is there. This can include anything from making sure the tools work properly to getting timely feedback from reviewers.

Recommended Resources

The following list of books is not exhaustive but includes only what was mentioned in the IDLSIG discussions. However, these represent the standard texts on the subject and are all well worth checking out. One of the authors mentioned, Rives Hassell-Corbiell, was also a frequent contributor to the discussions.

Driscoll, Margaret. Web-Based Training: Using Technology to Design Adult Learning Experiences (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1998).

Hackos, Joanne. Managing your Documentation Projects. (New York: Wiley, 1994).

Hall, Brandon. Web-Based Training Cookbook (New York: Wiley, 1997).

Hassell-Corbiell, Rives. Developing Training Courses: A Technical Writer's Guide to Instructional Design and Development. (Learning Edge Pubishing, 2001).

Horton, William. Designing Web-Based Training: How to Teach Anyone Anything Anywhere Anytime. (New York: Wiley, 1999).

Jolliffe, Ritter, and Stevens eds. The Online Learning Handbook: Developing Web-based Learning Materials and Systems. (London: Kogan Page, 2001).

Oakes, Kevin. "The Hardest Question to Answer about CBT," Training & Development, Sep97, Vol. 51 Issue 9, p45, 3p (accessed through EBSCO).

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