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The eLearning authoring tool market has quietly been seeing a bit of a surge over the last couple of years—a surge that I have been thrilled to see. And we've just seen another huge addition to this trend with the recent release of Articulate Storyline.
The majority of eLearning authoring tools on the market are rapid development tools. These tools, by and large, have evolved to help designers, developers, and SMEs create training content without having any programming skills. Historically, software vendors have created these easy-to-use tools by limiting development options; for example, they might provide a set of pre-defined interaction templates for developers to fill with content. This seems great if those templates reflect exactly the interactions that you want to create, but if you want to customize the output, you quickly see how limiting the tool's power can be.
The makers of these rapid tools often market them as replacements for instructional designers or design expertise. I find that foolhardy, having inherited quite enough "eLearning" that needed fixing, but all the same, it happens.
On the other hand, non-rapid tools (such as Flash and, previously, Authorware) are almost unlimited in their power, but they require some combination of programming skills, longer development times, and a much steeper learning curve. This doesn't pose a problem for those who think that development should only be done by developers, but I think we have to recognize that small—even one-person—eLearning teams clearly comprise a huge portion of the learning field, and it's just not practical to expect all of those people to be both great designers and great programmers. Given the choice, I'd rather see any tool in the hands of a great designer than the best tools in the world in the hands of a developer. But what would serve our industry even better are great designers who have tools that are both easy to use and powerful enough to serve highly interactive designs—even designs that aren't necessarily eLearning "courses."
Enter the category of tools that I call rapid power tools—the tools that are easy to use and also have some real power behind them to create custom learning experiences. Building on thoughts from Ethan Edwards of Allen Interactions, the tools in this category all have three things in common:
1. A graphical, easy-to-use interface. This is what makes a tool "rapid," both in the sense that it's easy to learn and it shortens development times. Rapid power tools often provide the option to do more advanced scripting or integrate code, but the interface enables the development of highly interactive learning experiences without those features.
2. Customizable actions. Rapid power tools facilitate the development of interactivity by allowing a full range of events that can happen in response to a learner's inputs.
3. Variables. Don't worry; it's not about algebra. At least, not much. Variables are used as containers, to store something that the learner has input or information about a choice that the learner has made. Variables can also be used in calculations and in conjunction with actions—for example, to determine whether a certain condition is met in order for an action to be triggered.
The combination of actions and variables allows developers to create learning situations that reflect a wider range of realistic interactions, multi-part decision-making, randomized events, delayed and highly customized feedback, or just customizations based on the learners' preferences.
These capabilities generally aren't marketed much by tool vendors and some vendors even shy away from promoting them out of fear of intimidating users. I find this unfortunate, as they have become so important to my development processes that I simply won't consider purchasing tools for course authoring that don't meet these criteria.
So let's get to the real dish: Which tools on the market have these three characteristics?
This software is often chosen for its powerful ability to create interactions that many practitioners don't think of it as a rapid development tool; however, the ease with which you can create content in its "book" metaphor definitely puts it in the rapid category. Unfortunately, it lacks much of the graphic development capability of the other tools mentioned below, and though it has always published to HTML, it has not yet been updated to take advantage of many HTML5 capabilities or create optimized content for iOS.
One of the most popular software packages in the eLearning world for software simulations and PowerPoint conversions, Captivate moved into the rapid power tool set as of version 4 with the addition of customizable actions and variables. However, in many ways these new features still feel bolted-on and awkwardly implemented. They're also more limited in scope and power than the tools on this list. Publishing for mobile is in the works.
ToolBook has been one of the most powerful authoring tools on the market for years, and it has some very desirable features, such as the ability to create browser-specific versions of courses and integrate some HTML5 tags, such as geolocation. The interface is in serious need of an update, though; while it is graphical and no actual programming is required, it can be intimidating and it looks very outdated.
Did you know that SmartBuilder uses variables? Neither did I until Learning Solutions 2012. It had been years since I had tried this tool, so I gave it another shot over the past couple of weeks and have been very impressed with its high-end capabilities and easy learning curve. It's cloud-based, which is not my preference, but it's been very stable as I've tested it. The biggest downside: Right now it only publishes to Flash, making it impractical for delivery to mobile devices, though the company reports that it is working on HTML5 output this year.
Last but not least: The following two tools are the best win-wins that I've seen in the rapid power tool set; they offer incredible power and unprecedented ease of use. Both of them also offer great support for real-time interactions. And both of their publishers, as of this writing, are working on integration with the Tin Can API to track detailed interaction data.
This new offering from Articulate is incredibly easy to get started with, mainly because the interface is based on PowerPoint's design (though Storyline is separate, standalone software) and it builds on that interface in a highly intuitive way. With all of the features I require in a rapid power tool, plus layers, object states, and full-fledged support for branching, this tool has the power to create some very exploratory learning experiences while being extremely easy to use. It also has fantastic screen recording, and it can publish to Flash, to standalone HTML5, or to iOS, requiring learners to download a player, but enabling better user experience. (Here is a comparison chart of the Storyline iPad app versus mobile browsing.) And possibly the most "killer" of its features is the support of a large and enthusiastic user community.
This software is definitely the most powerful tool in this list, and my hat is off to its creators for making such incredible power intuitive to use. You can probably expect ZebraZapps' learning curve to be slightly higher than some of the tools on this list, but that's acceptable given its added capabilities—if those capabilities are ones that you need. Tellingly, there is almost nothing about ZebraZapps that makes it an "eLearning" authoring tool; you could use it to create almost any kind of interaction, including physics-based simulations. And that means that no matter what kind of reality you need to simulate, you're going to find very few limitations with this software. (And as you can see in the linked video, publishing for mobile devices is in the works.) The main reason ZebraZapps' interface seems unfamiliar is that it doesn't follow a PowerPoint paradigm; the options are so open that it can be jarring to not have the guardrails we've come to expect in rapid tools. The solution to that, of course, is to design before firing up any authoring tool…and don't be afraid to play with the possibilities.
In an ideal world, designers would only focus on design and they would have a team of developers ready at hand to crank out amazing learning experiences for delivery on any device. But in the real world, with tight budgets, small teams, and increasing demands, I'm thrilled to see more and better competition among tools with the ability to serve interactive designs that reflect authentic situations—no scripting, coding, or advanced development skills needed.
Judy Unrein makes stuff that helps people learn. She is a senior instructional designer for NIKE, Inc. and a frequent speaker and writer. She blogs about learning design and technology at http://onehundredfortywords.com and tweets @jkunrein.
© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00
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