Easy reading is hard writing: the cost and value of digital learning

How do you know how to budget and plan for digital learning? For some time the industry has priced elearning by the hour – a course of 20 hours will cost more than one that’s just 20 minutes. But is that too blunt an instrument? If you are commissioning, does it give you a meaningful way of articulating what you need, in order to understand what it will cost? And does it stand up still, as elearning evolves into digital and informal learning, into resources not courses?

The more we collectively understand about the factors that affect the price, the better we can align our assumptions and agree how to articulate what is needed. So here’s a look at the things we think about when we think about costs.


First - there is the duration - how big/long is this? But even that can be ambiguous. This can mean learner/seat time, or the amount of content being developed. Learner time is the amount of time a learner might spend working through the content. The developed time could be considerably longer - if say there are different routes through the content - at its simplest, a multiple choice question might need three feedbacks written, the learner only sees one. So the developed time is three times longer than the learner time in this simple example.


As well as the time taken to develop content, there is separately the cost of producing any complex functionality - and the cost for this may not equate to how long the learner will take to do it. The cost of this will be not just for the development, but critically the testing of it as well - testing multiple permutations grows exponentially. Games are of course a prime example of this.  


Time is needed to develop specific pieces of content - we have rules of thumb for how long each hour will take to script, for instance. But there is other time spent on the project that isn’t in direct proportion to the scope. For instance - we can spend time working with subject matter experts (SMEs) to help them figure out the source content; we can write multiple iterations of a script as SMEs realise they want to evolve the approach as they read each iteration; we can do multiple iterations of a release as different stakeholders offer their opinions; we can use more project management time than expected if we need to manage multiple iterations, or multiple stakeholders. This time all has a cost.

Production values

As if it weren’t complex enough, we also have to think about production values. When you think of a piece of video are you imagining a self-shot YouTube clip, or a Hollywood movie? Both are effective, but they cost different amounts and achieve different things. Animations are a good example where we can design a simple design which is simple to animate, or a more complex approach, which will take longer.

This is where Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote comes in - “Easy reading is damn hard writing”. Sometimes what looks simple, can take longer - it’s the editing, the polishing, the fine tuning, that can make something look fantastic, but it costs more to achieve. The first draft was probably fit for purpose. The second and third drafts got better and better.

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov


So this is where we also need to think about value. We must celebrate the idea of fit for purpose, but also recognise if/when those extra drafts will add the value that is needed - will they make the difference in achieving the objectives of the project? Will those extra iterations make this project more effective, or just more expensive?

When thinking about value, we need to think about the project’s objectives. What is it worth spending to achieve them - and where will skimping put that at risk?

We can also worry too much about, say, scope, without thinking about the bigger picture. For instance, at the start of a project, we are all estimating what the scope of the project should be - how much time do we think is needed to convey the key learning points/cover the main content? But if we find a way of delivering this more quickly, then this is a good thing - it reduces the time learners are spending being unproductive. But while we might have produced less content, we might have spent longer producing it - editing that content down to something succinct might have taken the writer significantly more time.

So - in that example - should the project have cost less? Or more?

An art, not a science

Commissioning bespoke / custom elearning is like ordering a tailor-made suit. Some parts of it have a ‘rate card’ to them - the fabric for instance has a price per yard, and some fabric is more expensive than others.

But then the tailor will factor in how many fittings you want to have, and how many alterations you make as you go along. That moment when you try it on and realise that actually, you want it a bit shorter than you had thought. Or that maybe the lining is not quite the right colour and can you change it.

It’s an iterative process, and you are buying the fabric, but also the time, experience, and skill of the tailor. And the more time you spend, the more tailored the suit will be. You just decide at what point it is fit for your purpose.



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