The Best Approach for Managing an Elearning Development Project

What is the best approach for managing an elearning development project? If you answered with your favorite project management approach, the approach your employer usually uses, the project management approach getting the most buzz in the trade rags, or ADDIE, you’re wrong. The correct answer is: it depends. An approach that would work well for managing one elearning development project might be less than ideal for another (and vice versa).

Each approach to project management has its pros and cons. In addition, developing one elearning curriculum can be different than developing another and those differences can be what makes different approaches preferable for managing different projects. Let’s take a look at the three project management approaches most widely used in elearning development projects and discuss what type of project is likely to be well suited for each of them.


ADDIE Model of Design
ADDIE Model of Design” by Fav203Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The ADDIE model is the most widely used framework for managing elearning development projects. It is a structured process that allows strong controls over courseware requirements. As such, it is appropriate for courseware that must comply with credentialing requirements. Because it takes longer to develop courseware using this model than using the others presented here, it’s best suited for curricula that will have a long shelf life. Courseware revisions are easier to make when ADDIE was used for the original version because of the nature of the accompanying documentation.  There are five steps in the process:

  • Analyze
  • Design
  • Development
  • Implement
  • Evaluation

The ADDIE model is a traditional “waterfall” project management approach. Subsequently, project managers with experience in software development will take readily to the ADDIE model. It’s relatively easy to follow the process for elearning development. Quality assurance is more robust and quality controls easier to implement with this model than other approaches, so ADDIE is a good choice when courseware quality is a priority.


Rapid development is not a standardized approach to project management. Rather, it is any alternative approach that allows development to be completed more rapidly than it can be using the ADDIE model. It’s often used in elearning development where a single person plays the roles of subject matter expert, instructional designer, and courseware development. The rapid developer typically uses development tools like Microsoft PowerPoint or Articulate Storyline to design and develop the courseware. Rapid approaches are usually unstructured and often ad hoc.

Rapid elearning development lacks the rigor and controls of the ADDIE model. However, as the name implies, the courseware can be completed more rapidly and often at a lower cost. It is a suitable model when the deadline for completing the courseware is too close to be met using other models or for courseware that has a short shelf-life, such as product training. It is also usually sufficient for managing the development of content for electronic performance support systems. Developers will often turn to rapid development as a matter of convenience when there are few or unspecific requirements on the elearning.


Agile is a structured approach to project management that was formalized just this century. It has seen rapid growth in use on software development projects in recent years and has become widely used. It is an iterative and incremental model that allows for rapid and flexible response to changes. This approach produces functional software (or courseware) very early in the development cycle to act as a prototype or elicit customer feedback. Some of the characteristics of this model are that it values:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • working courseware over comprehensive documentation.
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • responding to change over following a plan [which means you’ll need a sound change management process].

Agile project management is also gaining popularity for elearning projects  in recent years. You can see that the customer is very closely involved in development when using the Agile model. Because of the strong representation of the client on the project team and the focus on customer satisfaction, Agile development is appropriate for bespoke projects when developing courseware for external customers. It’s also a good approach to use when there are few requirements for the elearning or the customer is unclear on the details of what they want the courseware to be like at the outset of the project.

Besides considering the characteristics of each development approach, it’s equally important to consider the competencies, resources, and constraints within your organization. For example, Agile is a unique approach to project management.  If no one on the development team has experience using it, Agile might not be a good approach to use even if it’s a bespoke project for a customer wanting to give early feedback. Or if an elearning course needs to be developed rapidly by a small team, a rapid approach might seem appropriate at first blush. But the ADDIE model might be more appropriate when your organization has stringent accreditation requirements. The thorough documentation that results from the ADDIE model will help ensure those requirements are met but the project could apply an accelerated twist on ADDIE to still meet the deadline.

When you begin your next elearning development project, consider all of these factors before you choose the approach to apply. You might find that the old tried & true method should be sidelined for a new approach on some projects.

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