5 Tips for Outsourcing eLearning Content Development

Shauna Carson

Outsourcing learning content development can be a cost-effective way to get experienced learning specialists working for you. It can also be a headache, with all the downsides of working with an external organization and negotiating in a field you're not familiar with. So how can you make sure it works for you? Read on for five tips on how to get the best results when outsourcing your learning resource development.

Success in outsourcing is built on a clear definition of:

  • What you have
  • What you need
  • What you'll get

The tips here will help you make things crystal clear before the project starts, letting you avoid costly and disappointing misunderstandings and unpleasant surprises.

1. Start with a Needs Analysis - Make Sure that Learning Content is What You Really Need

As a learning content developer, I've occasionally faced the uncomfortable task of informing a potential client that a training program is unlikely to help them achieve their goals. Those were the rare occasions when the mismatch was immediately obvious. Some organizations are certain they need training. They develop a program - possibly a very good one - implement it and require that learner after learner complete it, only to watch as it fails to have the desired effect.

A needs analysis will determine whether there's a knowledge or skills gap that a learning program will play a key role in filling, or whether the root of your issue lies elsewhere. If a training gap is found, a good needs analysis will drill down to identify the specific knowledge or skills that are missing, allowing your new learning material to focus on what needs to be added rather than repeating what's already being done well.

Needs analyses can be done in-house, if you have the expertise, or outsourced. If you prefer to outsource your analysis, consider working with a specialist learning organization that can conduct the analysis and help you decide where to go from there.

If you'd like to learn more about needs analysis before deciding how it should fit into your plans, download our eBook, A Complete Guide to Training Analysis.

2. Develop and Agree on Learning Objectives

The goal of all learning content development is the production of effective learning resources, and the first step to effective resources is defining the effect you want them to have. In instructional design, learning objectives, also called performance objectives and behavioral objectives, are concise statements describing what learners will be able to do at the end of a learning event.

Learning objectives are distinct from organizational goals and course aims, although those are both important and should also be communicated to all content developers. An organizational or business goal describes what one wants to happen for the business, while a learning objective describes a particular performance that can be completed by learners as a result of the learning.

Learning objectives can be developed in-house or outsourced along with the rest of the learning content, but for outsourcing to be successful, both you and the developer must agree on sound learning objectives before any other development proceeds.

3. Determine Which Items or Parts of the Development Process You Want to Outsource

eLearning content developers are flexible. You can find someone to take on as much or as little of the development process as you desire.

A. Research - gathering, assessing and curating information

Options for outsourcing research depend to some extent on the subject matter. If the topic is compliance training, use of a standard program or piece of machinery or anything else that isn't specific to your organization, the developer can assume full responsibility for research. You may even find a developer who offers an off-the-shelf course that can be quickly customized and branded.

You'll have to take a more active role if you're interested in organization-specific learning. You can supply any or all of the following:

  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) for the developer to interview
  • Policy or procedural documents
  • Existing learning material (with information on what needs to be changed or updated)
  • Handbooks
  • Job aids or cheat sheets

Doing more research yourself takes more effort but results in faster and less expensive course development. Then again, if you're looking for research expertise or are trying to conserve in-house effort, it makes sense to outsource some or all of your research needs.

B. Writing, planning and layout of learning materials

eLearning content developers have skill and experience developing courses that meet a customer's needs. You should have little trouble finding someone to plan, write and lay out or storyboard learning content for you. If you'd rather do the writing or even the writing and layout yourself, you can outsource the online development alone.

C. Online development

Online development outsourcing will depend on your in-house resources. Do you have content authoring tools and the IT capability to use them? If you do, you might want to outsource the writing and layout of your learning material but put it online yourself. If not, that's likely one of the reasons you're outsourcing in the first place. If you do have the tools but IT is too overloaded to put a course online at this point, look for a developer who will create materials compatible with the tools you already have so you can make future edits yourself.

4. Have a Clear, Written Agreement Detailing the Development Process

You never want to be in a position where the first thing you see is a completed learning resource. Mistakes, misunderstandings and lack of information are faster and less expensive to fix the sooner you find them. You may also find that some of your initial plans are less than ideal once you see the project coming together.

Most effective learning resource development agreements specify several checkpoints where the client must approve the work before development continues. With eLearning, you'll usually want to validate:

  • Learning objectives - either the objectives alone or as part of a course outline including a brief description of the learning material that will be developed to support each objective
  • Storyboards - the storyboard is a blueprint of the course; a paper-based layout of all written material, audio or video scripts, graphics and interactions
  • Completed material

5. Manage Expectations

Dissatisfaction is a sure result of unrealistic expectations. Defining and approving learning objectives at the beginning of the process will reduce unpleasant surprises, as will an agreed upon(?) development process with appropriate validation points. However, two remaining issues seem particularly likely to cause dissent: level of interactivity and deadlines.


Interactivity is a major draw of eLearning. It ranges from immediate-response knowledge checks to branching scenarios to virtual reality, but one thing is true of it all: interactivity is costly in terms of both time and money. If your expectations aren't aligned with your budget and timeframe, you're going to be disappointed.

The right time to begin discussing interactions is before you sign a contract. You probably won't want to make your final decisions until later, but you should get some idea of what is and isn't possible with your budget and deadlines. Once they're familiar with your content, an Instructional Designer will be able to help you choose the most effective type, number and topic of interactions for your resources.


Deadlines are important. They should be enshrined in your agreement, and milestones are a key component of the development process. You can and should expect your content developer to honor their commitments. However, timely completion also requires your active participation.

Validation points were mentioned earlier. It's the developer's responsibility to provide materials on time for validation, and your responsibility to see that validation is completed on schedule. Deadlines can only be met when both parties commit to honoring them.


Following the tips here will help outsourcing work for you. When you start by assessing where you are, it's easier to identify what you need so you can make the necessary decisions to bargain for what you want.

If you'd like more tips about outsourcing eLearning, check out eLearning Industry's eBook: The Ultimate Guide to eLearning Outsourcing.

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.