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How Long Does it Take to Develop a Course?

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Asking how long it takes to develop a course is a bit like asking 'How long is a piece of string?'. It's easy to dismiss these questions as being unanswerable but they can be very important.

The question about the string is easily answered — we just need to know what we are going to use the string for. Determining how long it takes to develop a course is a bit more complicated.

It is always difficult to predict how long any project will take - the news is full of projects that have overrun and overspent. You could estimate the time by using Murphy's Law of Time Management:

So, if you have agreed to take on one of those notorious five-minute jobs, double the time to ten minutes and then move the time up to the next time unit. This means that the job is more likely to take ten hours!

Another approach is to apply your and others' experience of how long it took to do similar work in the past. The following guidelines are based on my own experience of developing courses.

The time required to develop a new course depends on:

What is clear is that most people have no idea how long it takes to develop a course; and when they find out they are very shocked.

The following are some guidelines for course development times (a ratio of 10:1 means ten hours development for every one hour of course time):

Type of courseRatio
Standard complexity25:1
Extensive revision17:1
Moderate revision11:1
Using existing modules6:1

Table 1 Development times for different courses

If a you need to make a significant revision to an existing, complex, five-day course, then you would need to plan 85 person-days to do the job. At first sight 85 days is a very long time, so let's see where the time goes.

The first thing to note is that the figure is a planning assumption — it assumes that very few days will pass without interruption and it is unlikely that development will take place in one, uninterrupted block. The figures also assume that the trainers are producing their own materials. Using a secretarial service will reduce the time by about 25 per cent, but it will also increase the costs.

A significant revision is one where every page of the lesson plan and the student materials needs to be changed and substantially retyped. A five-day course could have 400 page-equivalents of lesson plans, students materials, handouts, posters and slides. This means that the trainer will have to research, revise and restructure the course at the rate of five pages per day.

The same considerations apply when you are writing a new course, but you also have to add in a substantial amount of time for researching, learning and condensing the subject matter.

Of course, all this depends on the length of the course. Estimating this is another difficult feat of time estimation, but this is often taken out of your hands because you are told how long you've got to do the training - and with budget constraints and cut-backs, it's nearly always much less time that you know you need to do the training how you would like to do it.

Course Length

Courses or modules that intend to teach a specific skill, or set of skills, range from half a day to two days (longer courses usually comprise a series of modules and each module can be analysed in the same way). Although the length of a course depends on the skill and knowledge complexity, the following guidelines will give you some idea of what can be done in a fixed time.

Course/module length What can be done
½ day You can teach some basic concepts, models and terminology. There will be little or no time for practice. Unless the students practise the skills very soon after the course, there is little chance that the learning will be transferred. However, half a day of theory in the classroom combined with coached practice in the workplace is a powerful combination.
1 day A full day's course allows time for some practice but not enough time for a significant amount of learning to take place. As there is only enough time for one practice session, the students end the course on a low note. The practice will give them feedback on what they cannot do. They will not have the confidence they can perform the skills correctly.
1½ days An extra half day sees significant skill improvement so the chances of effective learning transfer are greatly enhanced. The intervening evening also helps because the students can reflect on what happened during the day. Learning still goes on even after the practice has stopped.
2 days Two days of training also allow the students to start a post course project or to rehearse an application.

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