How long should an e-learning course be?

We’ve all participated in a course, training session, or even conference call that seemed to go on for an eternity. There’s no question that when participants reach a certain time threshold attention spans begin to dwindle, and learning objectives fall by the wayside. This would lead one to correctly assume that there is in fact a magic number representing the ideal length for interaction—one that’s long enough to cover the content, but short enough to maintain focus. This article will provide a framework for answering the question, “How long should an e-learning course be?”

Before trying to arrive at an ideal course length, let’s identify a few key factors that will affect the learner’s perception of elapsed time:

  • Interest in and relevance to the topic being discussed. It almost goes without saying that one’s interest in the topic plays a significant role in the level of attention devoted to it. Tailoring the lesson to the backgrounds and needs of your audience (where possible) is the best way to achieve this. For example, if the course uses scenarios to illustrate right versus wrong or proper technique, customize the exercise to reflect a situation that the learner commonly encounters in his or her line of work.
  • Degree of interactivity. I always like to illustrate this factor with a simple question, “Is it more fun playing a game when it’s your turn, or when you’re watching someone else roll the dice?” There’s a reason why many of us would rather play The Oregon Trail for hours on end than devote a single minute to a PBS documentary on the subject—interactivity. Putting your learners in control of the experience will engage them as active participants, holding their attention longer. It could be as simple as “click to choose your path” or as complex as engaging in a role-playing exercise.
  • Production value. Similar to the topic of interactivity, your learners will quickly take notice of the interaction’s quality and production value. You have to ask yourself some very important questions: Is my material organized logically? Are there visuals that accompany each topic? Is the narration clearly dictated and professionally recorded? Are the colors and interface pleasing to the eye? Can learners easily navigate the presentation? Each of these questions plays an important role in the learners’ willingness to remain engaged in the course material.

Now that we’ve covered these key factors, let’s address perhaps the most important truth in determining length: You need not sacrifice content from the course. It’s a common complaint from the instructional designer that his or her subject matter expert is trying to cram hours of material into an e-learning course. Realizing that the course can’t go on forever, the most traveled path is to begin cutting topics from the lesson. While some pruning and condensing here and there is often a good thing, you wouldn’t consider cutting “Debits and Credits” out of an accounting course. Then what’s the solution? Learning modules.

I define a learning module as an individual, focused lesson that represents a smaller portion of a longer course. For example, in an e-learning course on telemarketing (a booming education market these days) the agent may begin with the Understanding Our Product module, followed by Speak to Sell: Hooking the Customer, ending with Processing an Order. If you’re thinking that this sounds similar to face-to-face training, where each module is like a classroom session, you’re absolutely right. It works just as well with e-learning, and personally I can’t grasp why more self-paced, online courses haven’t caught on to this strategy.

What is a good length for a module? Through countless hours of instructional design, field testing, and client feedback, I have found that 30 minutes is about the maximum, and less than 15 is too short. The exact number of minutes between 15 and 30 should be dictated by the depth and number of objectives in the learning module. In a one-hour course, it’s absolutely fine to have two 18-minute modules and one 24-minute module. Do what feels right. Test it with members of your target audience, and then fine-tune each module until it’s just where you want it.

Consider this: Most television programs are under 30 minutes sans commercials, and think of how much you can learn about Ross and Rachel in that amount of time! If the sitcom is one hour, there better be a high level of interest and interaction to keep you tuned in. I say this lightly, but our culture and surroundings support the notion of delivering information in little sound bytes, and it translates ever so nicely to the e-learning environment.

So then, how long should an e-learning course be? Honestly, as long you’d like—just make sure to remember the factors that hold your attention, and break the material down into those digestible little modules. Your learners will thank you.

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