How Much Does It Really Cost to Develop an Online Course for Higher Education? Five Factors to Consider
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How Much Does It Really Cost to Develop an Online Course for Higher Education? Five Factors to Consider

eLearning is going to play an ever-larger role in the future of higher education. In fact, by 2025, the e-learning market will reach $325 billion. That’s more than four times the traditional higher-education market. Even better, the benefits offered by online courses include increased student engagement, the opportunity for peer review and collaboration, and the promise of individualized attention, even in large classrooms.

There are many reasons to embrace e-learning, but how much does it cost to develop an online course? The answer varies widely based on the size of the student body, the number of instructors, the features, the course's complexity and interactivity, and more.

The good news is that there are options for every price point, experience level, and content strategy.

1. Choosing a Learning Management System

Before pricing out any other aspect of course creation, you’ll need to select a learning management system (LMS). This software manages the delivery of course materials and monitors student completion. Because it is the main framework that students and teachers will interact with, it’s important to thoughtfully select a system that meets your needs. Each system has different features and functions that will dictate the kind of content you can offer and the supplemental tools you may need to purchase.

While it might be tempting to build your own LMS in-house to perfectly suit your specifications, doing so would be very expensive and time-intensive. Considering the lower price points of many LMS systems, it’s much more cost-effective to shop around for a ready-made solution.

There are several different types of learning management systems geared to higher education.

Open-Source LMS

An open-source LMS is a collaborative, community-built learning software often produced in collaboration with universities or higher-ed consortiums. An open-source LMS is Easy to obtain and typically free, or free at a base level, with paid add-ons. Some of the most established options are Moodle and Sakai.

A benefit to open-source learning management systems is that users have access to the source code, so they may adapt the software any way they like. However, the software is often lacking in support or customer service options because it’s built by a nonprofit organization or other not-for-profit community. If you do want to adapt or customize an LMS,  you will need to hire a developer who is familiar with the tool.

In addition to the tech support required to configure and install an open-source option, you will need to host the LMS on your own website, which comes with storage and maintenance fees. Combined, these may end up costing more than a full-service paid option.

WordPress-Based LMS Plugins

If you’re already hosting other components of your department or e-leaning systems on a WordPress site, consider using a WordPress plugin to organize and design your content there.

Plugin prices vary based on the number of students, administrators, and classes that you plan to incorporate. There are dozens of options available, but some of the most popular include LearnDash ($159-$329/year),LifterLMS ($99- $1000/year), and LearnPress LMS  ($0- $249/year).

WordPress-based e-learning courses do involve some extra purchases:  

  • Domain name
  • Hosting service for the website
  • Website theme
  • Developer to install and set up the tools
  • Potential support plugins

Note that if you’re planning on running multiple courses with multiple points of contact, using a WordPress-based LMS may become cumbersome.

Cloud-Based Learning Management Systems

If you don’t want to create your own website, a cloud-based LMS is a great option. These online platforms host and manage your course from beginning to end. They let you organize your content into steps or modules and provide a variety of features. The course lives on the host’s website, so you don’t need to worry about hosting websites, housing data, and configuring back ends, and nobody has to download or install any software. For all of these reasons, cloud-based options are becoming more and more popular.

Cloud-based learning management systems usually operate on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, where users pay a monthly or yearly subscription. The prices range from nearly free to thousands of dollars a month, depending on the number of users, classes, and advanced features you need.

Eduflow is a cloud-based learning management system with tiered pricing.  The lowest tier, which includes a single instructor and up to three courses, is free. Higher tier plans start at just $19 a month and cater to larger classes and bigger teams.

Proprietary LMS

These systems overlap with cloud-based systems, but they are generally much larger in scope — meant for entire university systems. Full-service proprietary systems are very reliable. They will help you create and upload classes, and often include robust support teams to help teachers and students navigate the software. Blackboard for Higher Education and Canvas are two examples.

Proprietary learning management systems are also usually the most expensive option, with pricing available only with a custom quote. These systems typically charge an annual licensing fee for their software, based on the number of classrooms or students.

2. Do You Need an Authoring Tool?

Once you have an LMS to display your content, you may need to buy a separate piece of software called an authoring tool, to create your course content. This software combines e-learning materials into a course package, which you can then upload directly to your LMS.

Whether you need to buy an authoring tool or not depends on the LMS you choose. Some LMS options, like Eduflow, allow you to manually submit and change content using their back end. It’s easy to create courses by inputting content directly into the back end, saving you the hassle of using extra tools.

If you do need to purchase an authoring tool, look for one that is compatible with your LMS (the company will likely have recommendations). Most charge a lump sum for a perpetual license. Some big-name tools are Adobe Captivate ($1,299 in perpetuity), Elucidat ($7,500 in perpetuity), and H5p (free, open-source).

3. Creating Course Content

Now that you have the tools to set up your course, it’s time to think about the content. Just as you would need to create a curriculum and hire an instructor to teach an in-person course, you will need to create course materials and a lesson plan for an online one.

You’ll either need to create the content yourself, have your staff do it, or hire someone else to do so. This most likely means hiring an instructional designer to help develop and create the course, as well as a subject-matter expert to create the syllabus and content.

The costs of creating course content vary quite a lot, depending on the level of expertise needed and the length and complexity of the course. For example, an advanced organic chemistry course is going to be more involved and expensive to produce than a beginner marketing course. You’ll need higher-level experts who will spend more time putting together more complicated course materials.

If you need to hire outside course creators, expect to pay by the hour. According to Salary.com, the median hourly rate for an instructional designer is $36, although that will vary based on their experience level and their location. The hourly rate for a professor or subject-matter expert to write content, lessons, or assignments will also depend on their field and their level of expertise.

4. Video Production Costs

Some online courses use only written materials, while others rely heavily on video lectures or demonstrations. At Eduflow we tend to lean away from stand alone video-based online learning experiences. We believe that instead of simply watching a series of videos, students need to actively engage with content and each other, to be held accountable for their own learning. Videos aren’t inherently bad, but they should be backed up with other, more interactive content.

Another reason to shy away from a video-heavy course, is the cost of production, which can be quite high.  In-course videos can be extremely simple, with a lecturer standing in front of a camera, or they can be elaborate, with scenarios, props and more. In every case, you need to create good-quality videos so that students can concentrate on the content without being distracted by poor camera quality or production values.

Consider the following production costs:

  • A camera — You could use anything from a cell-phone camera to a professional rig, but a good quality DSLR camera will give you good results and runs around $500.
  • Camera equipment — A tripod to keep the camera steady and a professional microphone are two pieces of video equipment that will have the most effect on the quality of your videos.
  • Video editing software — There are very simple options, like EDpuzzle ($9.95/month), which help you edit lectures into online videos, and more advanced options, like Adobe Premiere Pro (starts at $20.99/month), which will help you create professional-grade movies.
  • A video production team — Not strictly necessary, but if you want to produce professional-quality videos, you’ll need someone to record footage, as well as edit and produce a finished video product.

Remember that not all e-learning courses require, or are even enhanced by, videos. An instructional designer will help you determine whether video-learning will help achieve your goals.

5. Technical Support for Students and Teachers

Any new technology rollout is bound to generate questions and require troubleshooting. If you’re using a proprietary LMS, the company behind it may take care of technical support for you. However, in most cases, you’ll need to provide ongoing technical support for both the students and the teachers who use your course.

While 30% of universities are able to offer 24/7 technical support for students, others target only the hours of peak demand, leaving students to fend for themselves on nights and weekends. Some offer help in person or via phone, email, or live chat. Your choice may depend on how many online students you’re supporting.

Regardless, you’ll need to earmark money to staff the help center with enough technicians to support students’ needs. According to Salary.com, the median salary for a technical support analyst is $29 an hour.

So How Much Does It Cost to Develop an Online Course? It Depends on Your Goals

If you started this piece hoping to come away with a solid quote for creating an online course, you may be disappointed. In truth, an online course costs as much as you’re willing to spend. If, for example, you used a cloud-based LMS like Eduflow, don’t need an authoring tool, don’t produce videos and create your content in-house, you might be able to put together and entire course for under $1000. If however, you use a proprietary LMS, and outsource a lot of content and video production costs, your expenses could easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

It is important to note that spending more money doesn’t necessarily lead to a more effective or useful course. Brand-name software and expensive tools are no replacement for good course design and expert knowledge. If you have a limited budget, it’s better to spend more on quality talent to help you create great course materials for your students.

Not sure you’re ready to take the leap yet?
Eduflow would be happy to help you run a pilot course so that you can home in on your e-learning strategy and needs
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