Online Course Design and Development:

One of the most underestimated and underrated aspects of online courses is the amount of time it takes to design, develop and teach them. Since its inception, online courses have been grossly underestimated in the amount of time and effort required to produce a quality product. Untrained subject matter experts continue to be tasked with producing online lessons and entire courses while receiving little to no compensation for the work. Resulting in a basic PowerPoint presentation — commonly just publisher-provided — or PDF document with a few quiz questions written at the end. Unfortunately, this is more the rule rather than the exception.  Furthermore, the quality tends to suffer from a lack of training in design and development and therefore the knowledge and understanding of efforts necessary to produce a quality product. image

A simple course conversion is one of the quickest courses to develop so long as detailed lesson plans or existing PowerPoints are available.

Lewis Carroll once said “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” To that end, we must know what a quality course looks like before we determine how long it takes to get there. There are countless definitions and rubrics to define a “quality” online course.  Simply Google “quality online course” and you will be inundated with rubrics and descriptions of quality courses. Quality is subjective and dependent upon the stakeholder’s needs and opinions. In a later article, I will discuss this subject in depth. However, for this article I will keep it simple. 

A quality course has the following basic elements:

  • Clearly defined, measurable goals and supporting objectives
  • Content delivered in a manner suiting for the audience — preferably multi-modal for a deliver
  • Content reviews — formative — interspersed for self-reflection and assessment
  • Assessments — summative — that show learner mastery of each objective

To provide a quality online course, there are many factors that come into play with the two primary factors being design and development. Design is the process of analyzing the needs of the course including: depth and breadth of content, who the learners are, delivery methods, and learning theories. It also involves mapping the goals and objectives to content and assessments to determine the learner’s acquisition of knowledge. Development involves following the design map to produce the subject material, taking the subject material and delivering it in a multi-modal — Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual, Reading/Writing — academically sound, online ready format that is pleasing to the learners. This can include adding interactivities, games, assessments, videos, links, and all other forms of bringing the design map to life for the learners.

Designing and developing an online course requires multiple roles including:

  • Subject Matter Expert (SME)
  • Instructional Designer (ID)
  • Instructional Developer (ID)
  • Graphic/Media Specialist
  • Voice-Talent (If Narrated)

The Subject Matter Expert (SME) is responsible for providing the content and working with the Instructional Designer to create the goals and objectives. The Instructional Designer may not know anything about the content, but is an expert in design theories and will work with the SME to identify and write measurable objectives and create the design map for the developers to work with. Instructional developers are experts in online learning theories, tools for delivery of content, and all aspects necessary for bringing the course to life. Here again, these folks may not know anything about the subject matter, but work with the SME to identify the needs including graphics and media. Graphic and media specialists are responsible for identifying, creating, or otherwise obtaining the images, videos, animations, etc. identified as necessary by the ID and SME. Finally, if the subject is to include voice narration, the Voice-Talent is required.

More times than not, a single person, the Subject Matter Expert (SME), fills these roles. This is especially true in the community college settings where budgets and design/development knowledge base remain limited.

For years, amateurs and professionals alike have struggled convincing decision makers of the true effort necessary to develop a course. Multiple resources exist to help quantify the efforts, but wide variances still exist. So, if you ask the proverbial question “how long does it take to develop a one hour course?” your answer is still the nebulous catch-all answer: “it depends.” 

It depends on the method of development, who is developing, what resources and tools are available, the number of interactivities and graphics, and the number and type of assessments built in.

Depth of the Process

There are two primary differences seen today. Those that are just developed by an SME and those that are both designed and developed. The most commonly found methods in academia are those developed by an SME without the training or support from an Instructional Designer, e-Learning Specialist, or any other online experts. The products generally lack clearly defined, measurable objectives with identified assessments for each objective. Additionally, the SME must wear many different hats, for which he/she has little knowledge and is forced to learn on the fly.

On the contrary, a professionally designed and developed lesson was initially designed by a SME working with an Instructional Designer to develop clearly stated, measurable objectives. The lesson contains interactivities along with formative and summative assessments that clearly show the learner’s mastery of the defined objectives. When necessary, media is produced or obtained to enhance the material, and self-graded assessments include valuable feedback/rationale to help remediate learners.

New vs. Existing Course

Naturally, converting an existing course will take less time than building a course from the ground up. Assuming the existing course was originally designed with instructionally sound principles, most the work involves converting the lecture material into a current, interactive, online learning lesson. Otherwise, the course takes that much longer as the initially “growing pains” are felt while designing the outline, objectives, measurements and then developing the course.

Who is Developing the Course?

In academia, many course developers are inexperienced, untrained, well-meaning SMEs. Some of which are putting in an abundance of effort trying to create their own material. Using whatever tools available, these folks put in hours and hours of time trying to build the best product possible. As with any other process, the more experience obtained, the quicker they can develop the product. An inexperienced or untrained developer may be able to produce product much quicker than others but the comparison of quality comes into question. Other times, the inexperienced developer will take much longer to develop a product since a template or common workflow has not yet been established.

More commonly found in the corporate world, professional designers and developers follow one of several time-tested processes (ADDIE, Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, Bloom’s Taxonomy) to develop the lesson. The final product of which generally takes many more hours to complete, but is educationally sound and defensible to the most stringent audit processes.


A course that came “packaged” or pre-developed courses such as those found in the North Carolina Virtual Learning Community (VLC)  can be the best choice for those interested in getting started quickly with a decent product. These courses typically have books, lesson plans, tests, quizzes, and discussions outlined for the adopting faculty member. Even though these courses are pre-designed, it is important that instructors spend some time — amount depends upon individual instructors opinion of packaged course — personalizing the course and updating or adding personal material or additional material.

Another option for producing a quicker product is to use learning objects (LO) that have been shared by other educators in repositories called “Learning Object Repositories” (LOR). North Carolina has a robust LOR, freely available to educators, with thousands of useful educational objects that can be plugged into your course.

One of the most commonly used resources is Internet videos found in repositories such as YouTube®, TeacherTube®, BigThink®, Coursera®, Kahn Academy® and others.  These videos can be linked to or embedded into your courses to provide a much better experience for your students than you could have created in the budget and time frame allowed.

One of the quickest ways to get a decent course off the ground is to use readily available resources including VLC, LORs, and Internet links and videos. However, the use of such resources does not take the place of proper design and development. They simply reduce your time on task for certain aspects of the development.

Course Conversions

A simple course conversion is one of the quickest courses to develop so long as detailed lesson plans or existing PowerPoints are available. Here you are simply converting the course from a traditional course to a virtual course. These courses can generally have the lecture portion of a course converted to a basic (level I) online course on an average of seven hours per hour (7:1) of end product (actual lecture time).

EXAMPLE:  If the course is a CE course and is credited for three hours, the instructor will spend 21 hours preparing the online course. 

3 hours (Lecture Time)

x 7 hours (Conversion Time)

21 hours (Total Development Time)

A semester course that carries three credit hours would require 336 hours preparing the course

3 hours lecture x 16 weeks x 7 hours conversion = 336 Total hours of Development 

This time will include converting the lesson plans from outline format into a user-friendly, easily followed and understandable lecture using software such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, or even simple development software like Softchalk. However, this time does not include creation of discussion questions, quizzes, assignments, links etc. Nor does it allow time for any special “Bells and Whistles” that a techy developer could include such as videos, pictures, in text links etc. Each of these items requires an additional amount of time.

New Course Development

Developing your own course is much more involved and requires many hours for design and development. I categorize courses into three different levels (Level I, II, III) for determining the amount of time on task.  

Level I: Basic text based course with minimal media and interaction

Level II: Moderate interactivity, graphics, minimal video production, basic narration or lecture supplements

Level III: Professional Grade — instructionally designed, mapped objectives and outcomes, video productions where necessary, interactive, branching scenarios, graphic heavy, non-linear adaptive navigation

What the Research Says

A 2013 survey by Kapp and Defelice found that the time for developing e-Learning material ranged from a low of 93 hours to a high of 729 hours per hour of end product.   The Chapman Alliance research showed a low of 49:1 and a high of 716:1 with “several respondents listing times greater than 2000 plus hours…”  and according to Judith Boettcher in an article she wrote, a well-structured course could “require hundreds of hours of design and development time”.


More and more people are being asked to develop online learning without truly knowing the methods and time commitments required. When all is said, and done, a simple three-hour CE course can take anywhere from 70 hours to well over 729 hours of design and development.  Keep this in mind next time someone asks you or you ask someone else to develop an online lesson. Make sure you plan accordingly!

Until next time!

Kelly Kirk, AAS, BS, MSEd is a Level II Paramedic instructor and Paramedic with a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design for Online Learning. He is the founder and President/CEO of 911 e-Learning Solutions, LLC. Known as the pioneer in online learning for public safety in North Carolina, he has served as Director of Distance Education along with multiple leadership roles with NCCCS Distance Education committees.

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