How long should your Online Course be?

If you’re trying to estimate how long it will take you to create your online course, the number one question you’re probably asking is “How long should my course be?  How much content do I need to create?”  In this article I give you a surprisingly specific answer.

How much content is enough?  How much is too much?

Imagine asking the same question about writing a book.  If you write 50 pages, will this qualify to be ‘a book’?  What about 500 pages?  Or 5,000?

How long is an average book???

Is Sun Tzu’s 62-page long “The Art of War” closer to an average book than Marcel Proust’s 13 volumes of “In Search of Lost Time”?

Of course, everyone will tell you that your book can be as short or as long as you want.

And this will be 100% correct and 100% unhelpful.

In reality, when you pick up a book in a bookstore and thumb through it, you immediately know if the book is pretty light (I could be done with it in an hour) or a weighty tome of “War and Peace” (Really? Not in this lifetime!)

Intuitively we understand there is some average length and ‘weight’ that we’d expect of a ‘typical’ book, even though no one will ever point their finger to tell you exactly what it is.

Fun Fact: Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is rated the longest novel ever by the Guinness Book of World Records (1,267,069 words/3,031 pages).

Am I the only one who finds the title ironic?

Books have been around for centuries, so everyone has a rough idea of what an ‘average-size’ book looks like.  But many aspiring course creators have never taken an online course themselves.  If you’ve taken a couple, you already know more about online courses than most people on the planet.

It’s harder to come up with averages for courses, as it’s still pretty much a wild west out there, when it comes to the eLearning industry.  Online courses have been around for just a decade or so, exploding only very recently, when new technology made it easy for anyone with zero tech skills and a very limited budget to create and publish their own course.

So if I tell you that, just like books, online courses come in all shapes and sizes, that would be absolutely true.  And if I tell you that everyone is still figuring out what a great course should look like, making up rules as they go along, that would also be true.

But I’m also seeing some ‘standards’ and ‘averages’ emerging.

As someone who specialises in ecourse creation, I’ve seen hundreds of them – enough to give you a rough idea of what a ‘typical’ course looks like.

Typical Course Length

An average course these days ranges between 2 and 4 hours of video instruction (and most courses are now video-based, in case you didn’t know).

I would classify any course that is less than one hour as a ‘mini’.  For any course above 5 hours, I’d be rolling my eyes as in “OMG, you have got to be kidding me!”

The value of your course does NOT increase with its size!  I’ll tattoo this on my owl wings.

People have short attention spans.  They don’t want to go through the “War and Peace” equivalent of an online course.  No one has the time for it.  People want succinct, no fluff, step-by-step explanation of how to achieve whatever it is you promised them, with some helpful examples and demonstrations.

Everything else can go to “bonuses”, “supplementary materials”, “add-ons” and however else you want to call the extra bits.

Pro Tip: Don’t create those extras yet.  Ask your students what else they want to know.  Wait for their feedback and suggestions.  You might be surprised.

Typical Lesson Length

Based on my experience with courses and video instruction, I’ve always been recommending keeping lessons shorter than 10 minutes.  And now I’ve found research stats that supports this.  Apparently, students’ attention and engagement drop after 6 minutes of watching an instructional video.  And if a video is packed with new information, even 6 minutes could be overwhelming.

Let’s do some math.

If your average video lesson is 6 minutes, and your total course length is between 2 and 4 hours, you’re looking at creating 20-40 short and sweet lessons.

It’s also a good idea to logically group them into modules.  An average module usually contains 3-10 lessons.

Here is a snapshot of the outline for my course “How to Design and Animate Your eCourse in Powerpoint”.  Most lessons are videos, except the last Bonus 2 section, which is powerpoint slide downloads.  It gives you a good idea of a typical course length and outline.

 

In addition to video instruction, it’s also a good idea to come up with a few worksheets or a workbook that captures main learning points and offers plenty of space to take notes and complete assignments.

Students also love cheat sheets,  ‘swipe’ files, ‘plug-n-play’ templates, and various ‘done-for-you’ downloads.  Anything that helps them save time and build on ‘copy-paste’ examples instead of starting from a blank page.

A Pound of Salt

Take all the advice above with a big grain of salt.  Online courses vary significantly.  There are no rules when it comes to course creation.  There is no eCourse police.

When it comes to length, I’m sure you’ve read short books packed with great value, mind-blowing insights and life-changing tips, as well as long books that just kept dragging on and on, without ever getting to the point.

Similarly, a course could be short and sweet with fantastic super-helpful content or consist of 10 hours of boring and redundant nonsense.

Back to my imaginary tattoo – size is not what matters.  What matters is:

  1. Quality and value of information
  2. Engaging delivery style
  3. Clear, tangible outcomes
  4. Logical, step-by-step structure of how to get there
  5. Listening to feedback and continuously improving your materials.

The last item is perhaps the biggest advantage of online courses.  As your students have lifetime access to course materials, they will benefit from new content, course updates, more helpful examples and downloads that you will add over time.

When you make changes and additions to your course materials, let all your past and current students know – they will appreciate it!

Question for you: Have you taken any online courses?  Were they similar to the ‘typical’ course I described?  Any interesting insights you picked up from this article?

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