Scoping a Learning Solution – Art or Science?

Estimating Duration

Scoping a learning solution…is it an art or is there some science involved? After 50+ years of scoping a wide range of learning solutions, FKA can say, “Yes.” There is an ‘art’, or at least a skill, to scoping a solution but we have developed a structured approach that provides a scientific framework to the process.

The process we use for scoping and planning a learning solution is very detailed so this blog will be broken into parts.
In a previous blog (Agile ISD) the FKA Instructional Systems Design Methodology was introduced.

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What separates FKA’s ISD from the traditional ADDIE model is the Needs Identification phase that precedes the six ADDIE phases.

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The first half of Needs Identification phase is called, Determine Needs. This is where you identify the business needs and performance goals; measure existing performance against those needs and determine if a lack of skill and knowledge is contributing to the performance gaps. The second half of Needs Identification is called, Plan Project. Scoping and planning the learning solution begins with the Profile Learning Solution step after you have analyzed the learning context. The scope of the solution includes two main components:

  • the time and effort to design and develop the learning materials, plus
  • the time and effort to roll-out or implement the solution.

Steps to Scope the Design

When you first start to think about the learning solution you should be asking four critical questions:

  1. How much content is there?
  2. What’s the best instructional strategy to use?
  3. What media will be needed?
  4. How will the learning be assessed?

The answers to these questions are provided by completing the four steps of scoping the design of your learning solution:

  1. Estimate duration.
  2. Choose instructional strategies.
  3. Outline media requirements.
  4. Plan evaluation.

Estimate Duration

In our experience, there are three common approaches for estimating the duration of a learning solution.

Three Approaches to Estimating Duration

1.Use the client’s estimate (i.e., build what they ask for).

2.Compare the new program to an existing learning program.

3.Estimate time based on amount of content and difficulty.

In many cases, the client tells you the duration. For example, a client might tell you they want a one-day course or a 30-minute e-learning lesson.
The second approach is to compare the new learning program to a similar, existing program. For example, a learning program for a new product will be similar to an existing program that is four hours long. So, we can assume the duration of the new program would be four hours as well.

There is not much science to either of these approaches. If you use either of these approaches the best you can do is document the rationale for your estimate.

The third approach that we can use brings more structure to estimating duration. The estimate is based on an assessment of the amount of content that needs to be included in the learning and the difficulty of the content. In simple terms the more content, i.e., the more teaching points, the longer it will take to deliver the content; and the harder the content is to learn, the longer it will take.

The challenge with estimating duration this way is that you need to identify, in detail, all the content and how difficult it is. You would get this detailed content from a model of performance which might have been done earlier in Needs Identification when you were analyzing the performance. If it wasn’t, you would have to complete one now. Given you have the content outlined, how does that translate into learning duration? It is a three-step process.

Estimating Duration Based on Performance Data

1. Count the number of S&K items.

2. Assess difficulty level.

3. Calculate duration.

The starting point is to have the content broken down into its smallest units, the skill and knowledge items. For example, a content analysis of a new product might identify 25 product features, six competitive advantages, four competitive weaknesses and a 10-step sales demonstration process. In total, there are 45 skill and knowledge items that will become our teaching points (25 + 6 + 4 + 10 = 45).

The next step is to make a judgement as to how difficult these teaching point are. It takes less time to learn easy things and more time to learn hard things. The art in this step is the judgement used to determine if something is easy or hard to learn. Again, based on our experience we created a table of how many teaching points a learner can master in an hour. This allows for the content to be presented and learners allowed to practice.

Learning Rates
(Skill & Knowledge items / Hour)

Easy ……. 25
Average ……. 12
Hard ……. 8
Uncertain ……. 15

Continuing with our new product example, if all the 45 skill and knowledge items are easy to learn then we would plan a 1.8-hour (45/25) learning program. If, on the other hand, we are uncertain of the difficulty level we would plan three hours (45/15).

As stated above these learning rates are based on our experience; its possible that for your content and your population these numbers may not be accurate. If you have a library of existing courses, then it would be worth your time to assess the amount of content in those courses and work out rates that have been achieved within your organization. The most important message here is to document your assumptions about the quantity and difficulty of the content. It provides a reference for you to capture your organization’s experience and to use that experience to inform future learning development projects.

Going back to our example, let’s assume you used the ‘uncertain’ learning rate of 15 items per hour and scoped the learning program to be 3 hours in duration. When you finally got to pilot the program, it took closer to five hours to deliver. You now have some data to test your assumptions against. A review of the pilot can determine if some extra content was added to the learning – did it deliver more than the planned 45 teaching points? No, there wasn’t any content creep during the development or delivery, nobody added items they thought might be nice to know’ What the pilot did tell you was the content was hard to learn and because of that it did not achieve the ‘easy’ learning rate of 15 items per hour, it was closer to the ‘hard’ rate of eight items per hour.
At FKA we found ourselves estimating duration from content so often we created a spreadsheet to do the calculations. For each learning program, you document the assumptions you made in the spreadsheet. See the screen shot below.

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If we had identified the difficulty level of the content during the planning, that information could have been entered into the spreadsheet and it would have provided a more accurate estimate of five and three quarter hours of learning time. See the screen capture below.

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The more you use this structured approach to estimating the duration of a learning program the more you will develop your ability to identify the difficulty level of the content and predict a learning rate.

In Part 2 of this blog we will focus on choosing the most appropriate instructional strategy.

Jim Sweezie
VP Research and Product Development