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Do Not Underestimate the Online Learning Investment

By Siobhan Green on February 10, 2014

When considering the cost of flying a person to Africa (plus hotel and living expenses) to conduct a training, the return on investment for online learning seems clear. However, it is important to understand the upfront cost and time you need to invest.

While a face-to-face training with an experienced trainer can take up to 10 hours to prepare and deliver one hour of training, it is estimated that online learning takes from 50-125 hours to produce one hour of learning, depending on the complexity of the interactions. Why?


The elements that go into developing an online learning course include:

  • Translation of each element to the online environment by subject matter experts and instructional designers
  • Content design/redesign
  • Graphic design supports
  • Video/audio capturing and editing
  • Project management, including metrics and testing oversight
  • User, browser, 508 compliance testing
  • Maintenance of content, software and hardware that delivers it.

This increased cost is because of the need to build into the system the flexibility that a live human offers to meet the learners’ needs. Building into your design a lot of user testing is critical, since you don’t have a live facilitator to visually gauge how the materials are being understood (or when students’ eyes glaze over).

You also need to make sure the entire course delivery has been tested on similar technology and infrastructure that the students will use. For example:

  • Will they be sharing a computer in a public location or on a tablet they own?
  • Will everyone have the same brand/operating system? Will bandwidth be an issue?
  • Your course may be fine if one person is taking it, but 30 – or 300 students in the same computer lab may cause issues.
  • Are there restrictions on downloading or installing extensions or accessing certain pages on the internet?
  • Do you need to follow accessibility requirements such as American Disabilities Act (ADA) Section 508 compliance?

Even when enough effort has been put into design of the online learning materials, it still needs to be reviewed and updated. Content can go out of date quickly. Technology invariably needs to be updated. We often recommend an annual re-evaluation of the content based on user feedback and performance metrics with a full redesign every three years.

If that sounds like a lot, revisit that live trainer costs – you may find it looks a lot different now.

Adapted from Potential Pitfalls of Online Learning from Sonjara

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Siobhan Green has 20 years of experience managing and developing international development programs as is the co-founder of Sonjara, Inc. is a woman-owned small business
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8 Comments to “Do Not Underestimate the Online Learning Investment”

  1. Mike Dawson says:

    The comparison is totally invalid: Yes making self-directed materials through e-Learning can take a while (depending on tools used, objectives etc). So does designing a book for print.

    The digital replacement for flying a trainer out is using an online conferencing setup, that is tested, works, and with suitable bandwidth, not design of e-Learning materials.

    The valid comparison is the what it takes to design a book for print vs. online materials and flying a trainer vs. using technology for collaboration.

  2. Tonee says:

    Totally skewed, this blog is!

    I have to agree with MD above. To simplify it, the ‘best’ marketers in the online market are using a single online platform, that may take even well over the 150 hrs to build, to reach hundreds of thousands.

    Anyone who builds a training kit that will impact a very small number need not put 150hrs into anything, print or online. But if you want to create a meaningful engagement online, you would need to put in sometime knowing the rewards would just keep on giving. I know online training tools that have been used for years with real impact and thousands benefitting from various parts of the world.

    Intercontinental travel for a training is slowly but steadily moving to the ‘unnecessary’ part of the budget. Use the money to buy bandwidth instead..

  3. Akshai says:

    I appreciate all the remarks made around the challenges with online learning. There certainly are high investment costs; however, most of those are early costs that diminish to purely O&M over time. Online also presents itself with the most scalable solution. I understand that bandwidth and class sizes are an issue but that has nothing to do with the online learning environment. You can run into basically the same issue with an instructor.

    Would love to hear other scalable learning solutions you may have that does not involve flying someone around the world every 3-6 months.

  4. Excellent comments

    This blog was taken from a longer blog my colleague and I wrote about the pitfalls of online learning, as a result of many experiences we have had of clients assuming that online learning is easier, faster and cheaper than face to face. It can be. But it often is not,and it rarely is not cheaper in up front costs, especially if you are replacing a live training with a stand alone course (very common request).

    The point is not that you can amortize the costs over the long term (you most certainly do IF this is part of a long term training program), nor that there aren’t substantial cost savings to be made in using online learning vs. live. Online learning also offers tremendous benefits for scale and productivity (no longer constrained by having enough quality trainers), as well as other benefits that online training offers.

    The point is that the value we get from a live trainer is often underestimated. Those skills need to be replaced in online learning at some point in order for the online learning to be as effective – usually as an up front cost in the design, testing, iterating phases.

    As one example, there are different aspects in online training to be thought through than a live training – online training requires computer access in order to exist, and rarely has a live body next to the participant to troubleshoot the training. If the participant cannot get access to the training, no training.

    In the face to face training situation, often it is the live trainer who is the one who is taking care of those needs, such as troubleshooting computer access or getting extra copies of printed materials, and a great live trainer can work around technical issues on the fly.

    A great live trainer can instantly assess if half the class has no clue what is going on, and repeat base level information, while allowing the other half of the class to move on. Most online training programs do not allow that level of constant assessment to judge whether repetition is required or moving to the next subject.

    Anyhow, more thoughts and comments are welcome.

  5. Margie Joyce says:

    We appreciate the comments to this blog post, but I ask is it an invalid comparison? The blog was written with these types of real-life examples in mind:

    1. A small business consultant who delivers instructor led training would like to provide his offerings online to reduce travel time (he is getting older and is less inclined to get on an airplane, etc.) and provide a legacy for his work. This person has *not* authored a book, but has training materials, lots of articles he has written, 20 years of experience in his area of expertise and more than a few tricks to get his/her audience excited while teaching the content. How do you capture that in an online environment? What needs to be considered? He prefers not to deliver his work via web-conference. He wants all his wisdom distilled in an interactive web interface. What cost does he have to consider? Why can’t he do it all for 8K? This blog post is intended to help him think through the return on investment and what he can get for his money.

    2 We can also take the example of an internal Learning & Development (L&D) shop in a large government contracting organization. Their courseware on Negotiating Contracts, for example, has been delivered face-to-face for years. They fly an experienced trainer out to Germany to deliver it to young consultants. Now the organization would like to deliver a scenario-based training as online. Again, no books here. No desire to do online conference or webinar. What does the Project Manager need to consider when pricing out this course and providing a timeline for her client?

    The post was not intended to be skewed toward instructor-led training, but to help people consider the value of a live facilitator and the real costs in translating that experience into an online environment.

  6. Pat Hall says:

    This is well made cautionary advice. My experience has been in distance education at the UK Open University, where the payback from massive investment was massive student enrolments. Even carefully crafted materials (much better than most text books) which got round most of the problems of learning by isolated students, we still needed a tutorial system and a schedule of learning assignments in order to help students through to successful completion. I have been trying out a couple of MOOC courses, and they really do not match the OU, but given time will do so. What the OU never exploited was the collaborative learning of groups of students, and some of the MOOC providers are catching on to this. What I would like to see is MOOC providers encourage student support by local educators so that students for whom English (MOOCs are usually in English) is not their mother tongue can be helped in their learning.

    I am a great enthusiast for Online learning, providing the investment is appropriate and substantial enough and enough students can be involved to give an adequate return on the investment.

  7. Mike Dawson says:


    The crux of it the issue is if the instructor interacting in realtime with the students or attempting to mass produce materials to be used by students in their own time self directed or delivered by someone else? That a particular organization does not like to or has not considered a middle ground solution does not validate the comparison. Make it eLearning or print a book with scenarios and suggested answers in the back vs. in person real collaboration : the time investment is considerable because you have to cover everything without interacting with the students yourself.

    In my opinion to say 10hours to prepare face to face versus 50-125hours to prepare for “online” is highly misleading. The rightly assumed alternative to doing face to face training is a web conference not creation of scenario based interactive role play games or the like. I could only see that on reading the original.

    The reality would be to say you save the travel time and costs, then add technical setup time and expertise required, potential interruptions, and see what works for you. When I delivered training to two people online at one other location with a decent connection, good audio, and screen sharing the difference between being face to face was minimal and it saved days of travel.

    I think there’s great value in looking at the pros and cons of online vs. in person both for considering costs and considering conflict and crisis zones.

    To answer:

    1. If a small business consultant does not like to use online methods as a substitute for travel this is strange. The dynamics are very different when you create a conference strictly between two locations (e.g. all students in one location and the trainer in another) with a decent connection; it can be 90% of what you could do face to face vs if you have people entering the conference from various different locations which is much harder to manage.

    2. Again – corporation doesn’t want to replace flight be real time interaction – strange stuff. Also strange in that setting, if you need to build a relationship, not to consider meeting face to face briefly at the start, and then shortening the time which the trainer is out and doing follow up sessions remotely.

    Also they should consider the tools that they want to use to create the courseware itself. If they use something like Adobe Captivate or Ustad Mobile + eXeLearning then it is no more technically complex or time consuming to make something interactive than to make static materials.

  8. I am just speech less to read your article. I am very happy to got the post because it helped me very much for my investment project. Thank you!