Developing eLearning Courses: Cost Estimates

16 minutes

So there you are, trying to find some rough estimates for creating an online course that will give you an idea of how much money you need. We can’t promise not to say “It depends” in this article, but we’ll try to provide you with ballpark figures just to give you some context.

How much it will actually cost you to develop an online course depends — this phrase seems to be a necessary evil — on many different factors that come into play. The course complexity, its length, and who will actually develop the course (you or a third party company), will affect whether the total cost is $5,000 or $150,000. To find out if your project’s cost is closer to the lower or upper limit, you’ll need to take the time to detail the task.

Understanding the Task

The exact budget for the development of an e-course cannot be calculated on the fly. If you’re going to fill your course with interactive elements as well as practical tasks, plus videos, be ready for the price tag to be significant. 

In this post, we aren’t suggesting belt-tightening, but efficient use of any budget. For this purpose, the key thing is to make sure that all the options you’d like to use help to achieve the learning goal; otherwise, why spend the money? There are four key things to consider at the very beginning before you jump into something:

  1. Who are the learners? This affects the content of the course and its focus. Does your target audience consist of beginners or experienced professionals? What do these people already know? What information will be new for them?
  2. Why should they be interested in taking the course? What problems do they have, and how do they manage them now?
  3. What is the goal and the useful effect of the course? What should people learn? How will it help them work better? How will it affect the company?
  4. How will you understand that you’ve reached the goal? What metrics will you track and how? How will you know that the improvements (or decrease, who knows) are directly related to the course?

The answers to these questions will help you figure out if you need to develop interactions, add gamification, video, and voice-overs—all of which takes time and money. Having clarified the task, it’s easier to determine the necessary resources and the type of your e-course-to-be.

Three Levels of eLearning Courses

There are three types of e-courses, depending on the goal and the number of interactive elements. The higher the level, the more expensive the course will be.  

Level 1: Basic — Works for informational courses

A level-one course consists of slides with text, pictures, and “Next” buttons. Sometimes it contains simple quizzes with True or False or multiple-choice questions. If you take a PowerPoint presentation and convert it to eLearning format, it’ll also be a level-one course. 

Most classic slide-based courses with the main goal of informing employees fall into this category. This type of training content is sufficient when you need to tell about a new product or policy update. In this case, there’s no need to spend money on interactive games and simulations; only text and design are important. 

Level-one eLearning example

A traditional slide-based course is a level-one eLearning example.

Level 2: Interactive — Good for motivational courses

As compared to the previous level, a level-two course can include audio narration, video, advanced tests with drag-and-drop tasks, and animations.

The main goal of motivational courses is to encourage the employees to change their approach or their attitude towards something, for example, following fire safety rules at the workplace. In such a course, theory is organically intertwined with practice, so games, quizzes, and dialogues are welcome. 

Level-two eLearning example

Drag-and-drop tasks can often be found in a level-two online course.

Level 3: Advanced — Great for practical training courses

At this level, courses can include exquisite custom interactions, simulations, and serious games. Courses with detailed branching scenarios that provide learners with a custom learning experience and different levels of feedback also fall into this category. 

Level-three courses are mostly used for teaching new practical skills. In this type of eLearning, there’s a minimum of theory and a maximum of practice and case studies. Highly interactive elements and complex scenarios are more expensive and take more time to develop than plain text with a few illustrations, so take this into account when planning your project.

 Level-three eLearning example

 A serious game with motion tracking devices for air marshals. Created by Designing Digitally.

As soon as you make up your mind on the type of course you need, the scope of the project will start to become clear.

The Components of an Online Course — Development Costs

The next thing to consider is who will develop the course for you. You can create it entirely by yourself, gather an in-house team, or hire a third-party company or a freelancer to do it for you. You may need to calculate the cost for each option to compare the total costs and decide on the most suitable one. 

If you plan to develop the e-course in-house, the components will be the following:

The formula for calculating the cost of developing an e-course

Calculate the budget for online course development using this formula.

Also, don’t forget to add the cost of authoring tools. For example, a yearly licence for the iSpring Suite toolkit costs $970 at the time of this article’s publication. This investment, however, will pay off quickly if you’re going to use the tool more than once.

But if the project is complex or the deadline is close, you may have to hire a third-party developer. In this case, you don’t need to worry about purchasing licenses or subscriptions for software.

Further, you’ll know what to include in the budget when ordering an online course, and approximate prices for such services. As a guide on the rates, we’ll mostly use data from Upwork, one of the most popular platforms for freelancers, and Glassdoor, a credible source of information about salaries in different industries.

Scenario — from $600

A detailed script is a must-have for motivational and training courses. Using storytelling techniques, it’s far easier to cover a complex subject and engage learners.

You don’t need “a scenario” in a literal sense if your task is just to inform, for example, to tell sales reps about a new product that the company is launching. In the course on Marshall headphones, all the Kcell developers needed to do was collect information about the functional features of each model; characters and sharp plot twists would be superfluous in this case.

An online course for employees on a new product

There’s no need to develop characters or a storyline for simple product courses.

In eLearning, scenarios for courses are usually created by instructional designers, specialists that develop training programs. Not only do they write scripts, they also build a foundation of pedagogical principles and the psychology of how people learn, since the storyline of an e-course should not only entertain but educate.

An example of a course with a good scenario is How to Make the Perfect Omelette, an e-course for a chain of cafes. It has all the elements of a good story: plot, conflict, and the main character.

How much does it cost?

According to Upwork, the hourly rate of an instructional designer starts at about $50. A simple scenario with the main character and a linear plot can be written in 20 hours, so the work will cost at least $1,000. The harder the task, the higher the price. 

Be sure to add a few extra hours for editing and proofreading the text, because when you see the first version of the scenario, you’ll definitely have some ideas on how to improve it or what to add. 

How to save on making a scenario

Write a scenario yourself, or at least collect the necessary materials on the topic of the course. The less the instructional designer spends time on research, interviews with subject matter experts, and the script itself, the more you save.

Everything that you can immediately take to work without additional editing is useful. These can be presentations, articles, and video clips. Complex regulations and guidelines can also be of help, but this type of content has to be reworked; it’s unlikely that you’ll get a discount in that case.

Design — from $200

Even the basic elements of design — which we often don’t even notice unless there’s something wrong, like the choice of a font or color scheme — help to support your idea.

It’d be a mistake to think of design as a bunch of pictures. Even if your course mainly consists of text, designers can make it easier to read, highlight things to remember, and even manipulate the learners’ attention.

Expensive design and original illustrations are usually ordered for branded materials which are designed to form the image of the company, such as onboarding courses. Alpina Publisher developed The Young Alpinist Course, an intro course for new employees, which contains the history of the company, information on its structure, published books, a detailed guide for the office, and a FAQ section — everything is beautifully designed and interactive. 

An onboarding e-course

This course contains an interactive office map.

How much does it cost?

The hourly rate of a freelance designer from the US starts at about $40.

A design for a simple slide-based course on the basis of the company’s brandbook with text, images, and infographics may take about five hours, which adds up to $200.

The cost for the project will be much higher if you need to create illustrations and draw locations and characters; creating each item may take from three to five days, or even more, depending on the style of art you need. The price tag for this type of work starts at about $1,000.

How to save on design

On the web, there are many templates that can be used in your projects free of charge. For example, many designers share their work on Dribbble and Behance for free. You can also find plenty of templates on Slidehunter, PPTTemplate, Smile Templates, PoweredTemplates, and the official Microsoft website.

If you use iSpring Suite or Articulate Storyline to develop courses, there are built-in collections that include slide templates — pre-made course elements like schemes, table of contents, and timelines — themes, characters, images, photos, icons, and buttons created by professional designers. The iSpring Suite content library’s collection includes over 50 thousand items. The course can be assembled from ready-made blocks, and all you need to do is add text to the slides. 

Template library for e-courses in iSpring Suite

Slide templates from the content library will help you save on the services of a designer.

If you still need a custom design, you can order a universal template to be developed, and use it as a foundation for your future online courses. This will help you save significantly and maintain a consistent feel throughout all your training materials.

Course development — from $300

As a rule, instructional designers don’t just send their clients a set of pictures; they create full slides for the course. At this stage, course developers need to customize the navigation, plus add buttons, an interactive menu, and practical tasks: quizzes, training games, and interactive simulations.

How much does it cost?

The hourly rate of a freelance course developer starts at $60. A simple course on your company’s product line with a test containing 20-25 questions at the end can be done in five hours.

If you need a complex business simulation that imitates working with computer software, dialogue simulations that help learners practice their communication skills, or a serious game with different levels of difficulty, characters, and rewards, the development takes much longer and in some cases demands programming skills. A person with such a skill set may charge as much as $80 per hour.

How to save on course development

Also, you can sign up for iSpring Suite to find out if you’re able to prepare an e-course yourself. Frankly speaking, many interactive things that look awesome, such as dialogue simulations, are super easy to create with this tool, and you don’t have to be a developer or have programming skills to make professional-looking courses.

Quality assurance — from $500

QA, or a pilot launch of an online course, is the final rehearsal before the big launch. Instead of starting training right away, you test a course on a small group of employees who will provide feedback, find errors, and help to improve the course. For that purpose, the participants fill out a questionnaire which consists of five criteria:

  1. Recommendations for improvement. Is the course easy to learn? Is all the information clear? What needs to be added? Are there any mistakes or typos?
  2. Relevance of the course. What did they learn from the course? Are the course materials helpful for their daily work? 
  3. Illustrations and photos. Do illustrations and photos help them understand the subject quicker?
  4. Structure. Is the information provided in a consistent and logical way? Are there errors and inaccuracies?
  5. Practical tasks. Are the tasks realistic? Does the feedback work in the simulations? Are there any tasks that are difficult?

How much does it cost?

We recommend you include this cost in your budget not for the testing itself, since you don’t have to hire additional people to do it, but for processing the QA results and fixing any bugs that may be found. Think of it as an insurance policy: you might not use it, but it’s important to have it.

How to save on QA

We wouldn’t recommend skipping the QA stage unless you want your training not to achieve its full potential or possibly even fail spectacularly, because of technical issues, compatibility problems, or silly misprints. Any issues detected and improved early will cost you much less in comparison to the same things found after the big release.

Additional Expenses

These are expenses that may arise if you decide to add more interactivity to your online course.

Voice-over — from $100

Voice-over actors enliven the learning content, make it sound more natural, and help get to the point more quickly and not miss anything important. With the help of an audio narration, you can also offload slides by translating part of the text into audio format. 

According to, a professional freelance marketplace, the minimum budget for a 5-minute audio is $100. An hour of audio will cost $1000 or more. You can save money by reading the text yourself and processing it with an audio editor like the one built into iSpring Suite. You should also select proper voice-over equipment that allows you to easily create the best audio experience for your users.

Video — from $150

Videos make learning visual. It’s easier to explain a complex process, for example, car repair or working with a computer program by demonstrating it.

In the US, the rate of a professional freelance videographer starts at $50 per hour. As a result, you get raw files of footage in full HD or 4K. Then the video needs to be edited. In the US, an hour of editing costs $40 and up.

Motion design — from $1000

Motion Design is creating animation and special effects for video. It’s great because it uses three channels of perception at once: image, text, and sound. Thanks to this method, the learner better absorbs the information.

Motion design is often used in product and introduction training. One minute of motion design costs $1000 and up.

The additional costs can also include the work of a photographer or a translator. The main thing is to make sure that every new attractive idea on how to make the course look better helps to achieve the learning goal.

In-House eLearning Team vs. Freelancers

eLearning offers three employment types to choose from: a permanent in-house team, a temporary project team, or freelancers. It’s worthwhile to consider the pros and cons of each option to find out which one fits you best.

An outsourcing team will be a good choice if your company is small and you aren’t ready yet to create a full-fledged eLearning department. The external team will help you understand the peculiarities of instructional designers’ work, and suggest efficient ways to achieve your learning goals and put your ideas into reality. 

The only advice here is that if you don’t feel like being an expert at online training yourself, try to launch your project with as experienced an eLearning professional as you can afford. This person will set up the work, the standards for the content, and success metrics. 

On the other hand, in-house professionals are much deeper in your context and industry specifics; they can react more quickly to training demands. The per-hour rates of contractors are lower by 30% on average than the rates of freelancers, but this is hardly a bargain, since the purchase of software will fall on your shoulders (and your budget), as well as the social benefits. 

Also, make sure that you have enough workload for a full-time employee; otherwise, it makes sense to consider freelancers or part-time employment. There’s a common case where a company has an instructional designer as a contractor but hires designers or voice over artists as freelancers when they need their services. This allows them to use the workforce efficiently and not overpay for skills that they don’t need all the time. 

In a Nutshell

  • Before you jump into creating your first online course, clarify your goals, targeted audience, and the value you want the course to bring. 
  • The scope of work and, therefore, its cost, depends on the type of course. Informational, motivational, and training courses require different amounts of resources.
  • The key person in developing online courses is an instructional designer. Hire an experienced one if you’re new to eLearning.
  • Good content without good design can be a waste of time and money.
  • Always have a pilot launch of your online course. It takes resources but can help to avoid much deeper pitfalls at the full-scale launch.
  • Adding bells and whistles to your e-course may be tempting, but first, make sure if they help you achieve your training goals.

Have you ordered an online course to be developed recently? Or maybe you’re just fed up with hearing “it depends” as an answer? Please, share your opinion on eLearning costs or your experience hiring eLearning developers in the comments below!