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Course Creation

How Long Should an Online Course Be? What You Should Know

What’s the best length for an online class? How can you balance out content value and brevity without making serious sacrifices? How can you keep your message engaging and relevant? Read what experts think of ideal timespans in this article!

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By Scott Winstead

online course length

As an instructional designer who’s been creating courses for around 20 years, there’s one question that I get asked quite a bit — How long should an online course be?

Here’s the thing — there is a whole spectrum of opinions on the subject. The rule of thumb when creating an online course is to keep it short and simple, but obviously, you want to make sure you’re getting the information across clearly and effectively. Not only that, the notions of both short and simple vary widely across disciplines and instructional approaches, making it challenging to nail down typical online course lengths.

You most definitely don’t want your audience to start yawning or checking their social accounts in the background while doing your online course. On the other hand, your message should be complete and comprehensive so the learners can sum up the key take-aways right after the class is through.

To see what fellow trainers think, I gleaned some expert opinions and recommendations regarding course time management on the web and from personal conversations. Let’s hear what the community has to say to the question “How long should an online course be?”.

The Optimal Online Course Length

Knowledge retention is a tricky thing. You are supposed to bring home to your students a complete, integral vision of a subject, yet the material is always better digested in small bits.

Most experts I talked to confirm that a good length for an individual web-based course lecture is somewhere between 15-30 minutes. This seems to be the typical length of individual modules/lessons on platforms like Skillshare and Masterclass. This traditional opinion builds on psychological research, specific content patterns and, more often than not, gut feeling. Now, keep in mind, that this is just for an individual lecture. You course can be made up of several lectures of this length.

Others I’ve talked to think of bigger chunks and advise that an online course must not exceed 1.5 hours, more like a standard, in-person lecture. This timing suits adult audiences better and ensures comprehensive insight into a subject. From another angle, 90 minutes might be easier to place on the learner’s calendar as a priority task, not a spontaneous activity they may end up dropping.

Some radicals suggest the shorter the better — 5 minutes tops. Indeed, the latest research reveals that engagement fades dramatically after the first 6 or 7 minutes, which is a strong argument for microlearning. That’s why so many people skip through online training videos.

With a longer course, you’d probably be in the introduction phase on minute 7. The approach might, in fact, work as a short video covering particular issues, but then again you’re facing quite a series of recordings to make. Will they coalesce into a consistent course after all?

Remember, you can combine multiple video lessons of the lengths above into a much bigger course that can be taken over several weeks so that you’re able to get across all the information you need to without overwhelming your students.

Before you waltz into the pitfalls of self-limitation, try to define your goals and presets when creating online courses.

Is your online course interactive?

Engaging your audience as active participants is a great move. Interactivity requires more time, though. Are triggers, quizzes, surveys, Q&A, feedback forms, games and other bells and whistles going to be part of your lecture ‘body’? Or do you have to reserve extra time for that purpose? That’s some food for thought as well.

Do you need to make cuts?

Can you contain or manage your passion for your cherished field of studies?

When you’ve got a lot to say, filtering and ‘sacrificing’ content becomes a painful experience.

How can you squeeze hours and days of offline class exercises into a half-hour slideshow?

The truth is, you just can’t. The chosen format and communication channel dictate their rules. Try condensing the discourse and focusing on what really matters, split lectures into multiple tailored topics. Plus, make sure you provide reference material and extra reading pointers.

Forgive my comparison, but I often make forays into the world of mass culture, TV and advertising, to see how these segments match the e-Learning environment. Think of an average sitcom that lasts about 20 to 40 minutes. Everyone can spare that time unless we are talking some monstrously overbooked agendas. One hour, and an hour and a half are somewhat different – sounds like a lot of time.

How long can you keep on talking?

This one is really personal. Some might need a break after 10 minutes of speech, others could carry on chatting for hours without the slightest sign of fatigue. What’s your comfortable timespan?

Are there any budgetary considerations?

What are your production costs? Do you need external resources to help you with technical stuff or contribute third-party content? Don’t forget this point when you are deciding on the appropriate course length.

It’s also an important consideration when setting a price for your online course.

A Final Word on Online Course Length

Apparently, attention spans are shrinking, and there is nothing you can do about it.

As a rule, people want information fast and easy. So, even if you have a great online course idea, you still need to present it in an efficient way to your students.

However, your learner segment might stand out from the crowd.

Do a little research of your own as you build your online course business, listen to your students and collect feedback whenever possible. If you are on the same page with the learners, then you just can’t go wrong!

The bottom line is, how long should your online course be? The frank answer is: long enough – or short enough – to make your audience happy.

What do you think is the ideal online course length? Share your thoughts by dropping a comment below.

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