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Online Learning 101: Part I
Authoring and Course Development Tools

By Susan Landay / June 2010

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Online Learning 101: Part I

Authoring and Course Development Tools

June 3, 2010

Part I: Authoring and Course Development Tools | Part II: Games and Interactivity | Part III: Tools for Web Conferencing and LMSs

The first part of this three-part series focuses on authoring and course development tools and techniques for integrating e-learning. In Part II, Susan Landay explores games and interactivity solutions for e-learning. Part III looks at tools used for web conferencing, as well as learning-management systems. —Editor

If you're anything like me, you have plenty of experience with face-to-face training, but are drowning in the wake of online (or blended) learning tools.

Uncomfortable with this sinking feeling, I set out to educate myself, while mindful of the need for learners to work with new material on their own and at their own pace. I wanted to identify the best ways for face-to-face trainers to add e-Learning to their repertoire, without the assistance of a fancy IT team or investing tens of thousands of dollars.

To this end, I searched for software tools with relatively low-costs, minimal learning curves, and a focus on lively and interactive tools consistent with best practices in brain-based learning techniques.

To make sense of the myriad of eLearning solutions available in the marketplace, I broke them down into four categories that help explain the e-Learning process:

  1. Authoring (course development and creating your content)
  2. Games and add-on tools (games and interactions to reinforce and/or teach)
  3. Conferencing (connectivity tools used for webinars and synchronous learning)
  4. LMSs (learning management systems to administer and track training)
To help you remember these four components of e-Learning, perhaps this little mnemonic will help: Any Goofball Can Learn!

In this three-part series, I offer a description and overview of each category as well as an explanation of: 1) the role they play in enabling online experiences; 2) criteria you might use to choose among the vendors; and 3) a few reputable, cost effective solutions for each.

A couple of caveats: My comments, descriptions and prices are drawn from vendor websites, personal research, conversations at conferences, and LinkedIn discussions. Second, because LMSs are quite costly and involve bigger learning curves, I have deemed them to be outside of my scope and offer just a quick overview at the end of part 3.

Authoring/Course Development Tools
The course development/authoring tools are software programs that enable you to create course content. The most readily available of these is PowerPoint. However, many trainers find PowerPoint to have some limitations. For instance, PowerPoint's interface is somewhat cumbersome when creating high-end animations that integrate text, images, audio and video. While PowerPoint is terrific for linear presentations, its interface is more difficult when creating "branching" presentations, whereby a user digs down into any number of buttons or scenarios. Although it contains a robust collection of "slide templates," it does not come loaded with a library of "interactive game templates."

If you are looking to move beyond PowerPoint for course development, following is a list of the criteria you might use to decide among the various options:

  • PowerPoint interface:
    • Does the software work within PowerPoint by adding new toolbar items?
    • Does the software replace the need for PowerPoint?
    • Does the software create interactions that can be imported into PowerPoint, in case you'd like to use it for live training also?
  • What file formats can be imported/exported? This is important if you want to load your content into a LMS (to be defined later) or some other program.
  • Does the software reside on your desktop or online? This is an issue if you prefer to work offline.
  • Are courses stored on desktop or online?
  • How quickly can you learn the new program?
  • How quickly can you create animations of images, text, etc.?
  • What types of games and interactions come bundled with the software?
Recommended Vendors
In listing vendors for course authoring tools, my goal was to find solutions that were reputable, cost effective, easy-to-learn, and consistent with brain-based learning techniques. As such, this is not to be taken as an exhaustive list. The prices listed represent standard pricing at the time of writing; prices may be subject to change or discounts.

ProForm Rapid eLearning Studio by Rapid Intake
This e-Learning Best of 2008 winner has intuitive tools that make it easy to create drag and drop activities, learning games, branching simulations, and RapidCam screen recording. You can modify more than 21 existing templates, turn PowerPoint presentations into e-Learning courses, include narrative audio in screen recordings, edit previously recorded movies, and apply hundreds of pre-built animations to images and text. Included is a Swish Rapid Animation Tool that lets you import and position images and text, synchronize audio, animate anything, then export it as a Flash movie.

Claims to fame:

  • Compared to Adobe Captivate, Rapid Intake claims ProForm is cheaper, easier and has more features.
  • For Audio editing, use Audacity (free online).
  • The most popular Standard Premium Edition (described above) is $999.
  • The basic Standard Edition is $499.
Articulate Studio '09 by Articulate
Articulate Studio '09 Pro received the "Best Product of 2009" by Training Media Review. All tools in the Articulate Rapid E-Learning Studio '09 work together seamlessly—and all within Powerpoint. "Presenter" makes it easy for anyone to add interactivity and narration to PowerPoint slides. "Quizmaker" enables you to create professional, custom Flash quizzes and surveys. You can insert selected quiz slides into your course. "Engage" gives users the ability to produce dazzling interactive content. The "Video Encoder" component allows users to import any video and convert it to Flash.

Claims to fame:

  • Very easy to use and learn
  • Ability to add learning games like Q&A, Sequence, Word Quiz, Wheel of Fortune.
  • The Professional Suite is $1,398; Standard Suite (without "Engage") is $999.
  • Individual software components are also sold separately.
iSpring Presenter by iSpring Solutions
This software program enhances PowerPoint's basic functionality, allowing users to fine tune and optimize the appearance and playback of presentations, distribute courses in the popular Flash format, create quizzes with various types of questions, record and sync presenter video, add Flash and YouTube videos, import or record new audio narrations, add presenter information and company logos, create unique navigation, design with customizable player skins, and much more. iSpring looks terrific, is easy-to-use and considerably less expensive than comparable products. iSpring is newer to the U.S. e-Learning marketplace (the product was introduced in Russia). Although it has not yet been recognized with an e-Learning "best of" award, its list of featured customers is quite impressive.

Claims to fame:

  • An incredible package at an unbeatable price.
  • Also includes easy LMS integration and ink annotation tools
  • The Pro version is $249 and includes a PowerPoint to Flash solution: 10 player templates, audio narration and sync, multiple presenters, content compression, and presentation size control.
  • The Presentation version is $499 and includes all of the above, plus video narrations and sync, presenter video, quiz builder, etc.
Captivate and Presenter (by Adobe)
Adobe has a whole suite of eLearning products, which together are called the Adobe eLearning Suite, which contains Captivate 4, Flash CS4 Professional, Dreamweaver CS4, Photoshop CS4, Acrobat Pro Extended, Presenter 7, Soundbooth CS4, Adobe Device Central CS4, and an Adobe Bridge CS4. Among those, the components frequently used for course authoring are Captivate and Presenter.

Captivate 4 lets you create simulations, software demos, interactive scenario-based training, and quizzes; convert content to Flash; import PowerPoint slides; and add in click boxes, hyperlinks, etc. Presenter 7 lets you easily create Flash presentations and self-paced courses complete with narration and interactivity; import and edit video in any format and export as .SWF files; record and edit high-quality audio; help ensure consistency with branding and customization; deliver advanced quizzes and surveys with question pooling and randomization; publish content as a PDF file, preserving all of your animations; create AICC- and SCORM-compliant content; and integrate with Adobe Acrobat� Connect� Pro software to deploy, manage, deliver, and track content.

Claims to fame:

  • The Adobe name. (Note: this is both a benefit and a drawback, as Adobe is somewhat notorious for poor customer service and sales support.)
  • Many people swear by Abobe products.
  • The Adobe eLearning Suite is $1,799.
  • Captivate 4 is $799 and Presenter 7 is $500.
While there are an increasing number of tools available for course authoring, the programs mentioned here are a good smattering of reputable low-cost, easy to learn, systems.

In the next part of this three-part series, we will review the tools available to build games and interactivity into your online learning.

About the Author
Susan Landay is president of Trainers Warehouse, a women-owned business that offers hundreds of effective, innovative and fun products for trainers and educators across all industries. Prior to joining Trainers Warehouse in 1997, she was a consultant and trainer in the field of negotiation and conflict resolution. She is a graduate of Yale University and The Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. Her early work experience included being a professional clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.


  • Sun, 26 Sep 2010
    Post by Brian Wisnor

    Nicely done and much appreciated. Great launching point for further research. Thank you.

  • Fri, 17 Sep 2010
    Post by Linda Willis


    Thank you for an excellent article: informative, helpful, non-jargon-filled. It has simplified our search for a software solution. Like you, we are trying to adapt our instructor led content and were confused by the endless choices Google presented! Your article helped to clarify and simplify the components of an appropriate solution for our need!


  • Sat, 28 Aug 2010
    Post by abhi yadav

    Distance learning and its relationship to emerging computer technologies have together offered many promises to the field of education. In practice however, the combination often falls short of what it attempts to accomplish. Some of the shortcomings are due to problems with the technology; others have more to do with administration, instructional methods, or students. Despite the problems, many users like technologies such as compressed video and see continued growth in the area. This paper will examine some of the current research and thought on the promises, problems, and the future possibilities in modern distance learning, particularly types that are delivered via electronic means.

  • Tue, 22 Jun 2010
    Post by Richard

    Another option that was not in scope for this series of articles is one where the enterprise "rents" an LMS provider who also can provide development tools. In my former company we were charged a nominal fee--I think $25.00 per user--per year, and given access to all the storage and LMS features we needed. In addition, we were given access to various development tools--sorry, I forget which ones--that we could use to develop courseware whenever we wanted. There were no limitations on anything--time, storage, etc.--and after an initial set-up payment of a few thousand dollars, we had our own managed environment and complete 24/7/385 access for our people, who traveled constantly and were all over.

    For that enterprise, this was a much better investment than an LMS system, the HW and in-house support it required, plus the purchase of authoring tools. The vendor worked with us to set-up our site as our own, which was totally secure, and to set up the LMS and the course library. Since we dealt with 30+ technical vendors at any given time, courseware from their companies was also listed on the site, although students typically had to go to the vendor site and register, take the course, etc. It finally gave us one place where employees could find everything they needed rather than visiting vendor sites, coming into town for specific classes (although sometimes necessary for labs) and keeping up with their IEPs (individual education plans) themselves. Everything was in one place, and the cost was minimal.

    For a strictly academic setting this may not be the right choice, but it certainly worked for us.



  • Mon, 21 Jun 2010
    Post by Niel Dawson

    I am searching for resources that will help train my online instuctors for live webcast presentations. They are experienced a classroom presentations, but have no experience in providing live webcasts.

  • Thu, 17 Jun 2010
    Post by Sue Landay

    Please be aware that since the time of writing, iSpring's price has gone up to $499.00.

    It's still an amazing value!

  • Wed, 16 Jun 2010
    Post by Johanna Zitto CPT

    I participated in ASTD's Advanced e-Learning Certificate Program and these two resources were shared by classmates, besides Lectora and those you mentioned in the original article. Thanks for the article, Susan -- looking forward to the next one! Regards, Johanna

  • Tue, 15 Jun 2010
    Post by Barb

    I am new to e-learning even though e-learning has been around quite awhile. I've been introduced to Lectora and find it to be user friendly. I really appreciate the research you have done and anxiously await article #3.

    thanks, bab

  • Fri, 11 Jun 2010
    Post by Susan Landay

    Derek, thank you for your kind words. It certainly is a lot to get your arms around. Monica, I appreciate your comment about the Trivantis products. I did look into both Lectora and CourseMill, as I had heard great things about their product -- that it has robust features and is quite easy to use. Compared to many solutions, it is also considerably less expensive, but I still thought it might be a bit pricey for classroom trainers wanting to dip their toe into eLearning, which was my focus when writing. Their pricing looks something like this:

    Lectora Pro Suite is $2495.00 Lectora Publisher is $1595.00 CourseMill (their LMS-Learning Management System) is $14995.00

    Because the pricing was a bit high for my purposes, I did not look into the product as deeply as I might have. But because you asked my opinion, I will try to share my thoughts, which are based on a brief visit with them at a trade show, a phone call, and spending some time on their website. I find Trivantis to be a very professional tool, with a tremendous number of features. As I recall, they sell their product directly to end users as well as to other eLearning providers and resellers -- which tells me that it is a robust, sound system. Their website also shows that they offer a great deal of training and support, another indication that there's a lot you can do with the software, to make full use of all the features. As such, I think for many classroom trainers, who want to add a bit of eLearning to their repertoire, it would be overkill. For others, who see themselves putting together a number of online courses, I'm sure it would pay for itself very quickly.

    Hope this helps! Here's a link to their site:

  • Wed, 09 Jun 2010
    Post by Derek

    Thanks for the article as a teacher of business English I really need someone to explain all the geeky mumbo jumbo jargon, you have done great with 1st article, I can't wait for the next.

  • Wed, 09 Jun 2010
    Post by Monica

    I am surprised that Lectora by Trivantis wasn't listed as user friendly and affordable product. Have you looked into this product and if so, what is your opinion?

    Best, mj

  • Mon, 14 Dec 2009
    Post by Vivek Dodd

    There are good and bad rapid e-learning projects, just like there are good and bad conventional ones. Inmarkets builds bespoke courses, and we also offer a rapid e-learning platform - CC2, so I'm pretty unbiased when I say this. We use the same platform as our clients do, and when the in-house experts put in the effort they can achieve a similar quality of experience on CC2 as external consultants/designers. They make up for any deficiencies with the higher degree of relevancy they can bring to the modules. The bit they lack is visual design, although they are catching up with that too with tools like CC2 and Raptivity.

  • Tue, 08 Dec 2009
    Post by Lou Mang

    Having SME's produce content seems to me a far stretch unless the SME has some experience producing media. Maybe you could train them on using Captivate but as a Media Producer/Instructional Designer I know that there are production nuances/skills such as timing of animations, (professional)audio/video production and user interface issues that need to taken into consideration when producing eLearning. I'm not trying to be elitist about this its just that I've seen alot of poorly produced elearning. There are also issues of intergrating multiple file types(, etc)as well as Captivate, Articulate, Camtasia, etc. There are alot of considerations. I don't think you save time training SMEs to produce ReL. You'll end up spending much of your time as product support instead of putting your production/ID skills to work.

    Just a thought.

  • Wed, 04 Nov 2009
    Post by Greg Younger

    You inspired my weekly GCPLearning blog post with this question! Thank you! :o)

    Summary: SMEs with a will to teach can create richly applicable training materials. And expert learning designers with a will to learn the subject matter can create elegant and efficient training materials.

    Excellent points from the other posters in this thread about focusing on approach and purpose rather than on the tools. I think we're all on the same page about making blended and efficient use of the expertise (subject matter/pedagogical) and tools (REL/other) to make the best training we can.

    Cheers, -- Greg Younger

  • Mon, 02 Nov 2009
    Post by Guy Boulet

    As an instructional designer I've been involved in projects that used rapid e-learning tools and I must say that they were quite useful. The key is to use them smartly. What I do when using REL tools is that I sit with SMEs and together we define the learning objectives and pedagogical approach. They can then start develop their lessons using REL tools which I review from the pedagogical point of view. I can then suggest changes and improvements.

    I find this to be quite useful since I do not have to produce storyboards and supporting documents. So far, we've been quite successful since end-users have generally appreciated what was delivered.

    In the end, it's never about the tools you use but about the way you use them. Giving SMEs a bunch of REL applications won't make them learning experts. At some point, whatever te tools you use, you need a form of pedagogical review to ensure that you meet the objectives.

  • Fri, 30 Oct 2009
    Post by Tim Drewitt

    I've been involved with e-learning for over 15 years and have worked for some of that time on the vendor side with award winning companies who in many cases have established some of the high instructional design approaches that set apart quality solutions from the rest. However, over the last 4 years - in particular the last 12 months - I've been a significant user of rapid e-learning authoring tools. In most cases, it's the SME who provides all elements of the project, including the voice over narration. Feedback is consistently high. Staff buy in to the content as they can clearly identify (and respect the credibility/authority) of the narrator. Occasionally I will tinker with the material or coach the expert in some basic design skills, but the fact that we produce this content fast and on demand means that we're having a significant impact on the upskilling of our people. The one criticism I have of our profession - and which in part explains the sometimes low perception held of us by our busines sponsors - is that we take too long to produce anything. I'd much rather be seen to be responding more often and within the tinescales imposed on us by the realities of today's business world, than delivering fewer projects and out of sync with the business. Of course, there will always be a place for the "other type", but I see less demand for that overall. And as our SMEs get more experienced and the tools more advanced, I believe it will become harder to differentiate between the two.

  • Thu, 29 Oct 2009
    Post by J-M. Guillemette

    I agree with Michael that just providing REL tools to subject matter experts and telling them to go at it is a recipe for disaster. There is no more reason to expect an inexperienced SME (in instructional design) to create an effective learning experience whatever the tools used than there is to expect an instructional designer to create effective content in a discipline s/he knows nothing about. In my experience, the most successful projects remain those reflecting a team effort, with SME and instructionals designers working together. I believe that's also when REL tools are at their best: to further improve a process that already works! Rapid e-learning was introduced in large part as a marketing strategy to appeal to companies worried about the cost of e-learning. I doubt very much that Lectora, Articulate, Captivate or other REL tools would not have appeared without this movement to REL. They would have, but probably marketed differently to appeal to companies in other ways.

    Designing effective learning has never been an either or proposition, in terms of tools or other resources. Companies that get it right understand that teams are better than individuals, that the focus must be on needs not tools or glamour, and that effective e-learning doesn't have to be complex or costly. Getting the right blend of focus, tools and people remains key to success.

  • Thu, 29 Oct 2009
    Post by Michael Hanley

    While Bob mentioned a number of so-called rapid e-learning (REL) tools, he did not discuss REL's key component: the REL process. If you merely provide SMEs with a range of authoring tools and tell them to get on with "brain dumping," all yo u will end up with is a bunch of undifferentiated content. The learning professionals' activity in the process is, in my view, to elicit SME's tacit knowledge and skills and facilitate the design, development and delivery of appropriately focused instructional material to learners. For the record, I am a "purist" (in the sense that it's used in the article) and I certainly do not sneer at the concept. In fact, I find REL an invaluable (and valid) way to train large numbers of learners quickly and efficiently. --

  • Wed, 28 Oct 2009
    Post by Jennifer De Vries, CPT

    I appreciate Bob's comments on the topic of Rapid eLearning, but I think that you first need to define the term. Unfortunately, this term has been hijacked by eLearning tool vendors to mean "SME-developed eLearning" because there are more Subject Matter Experts in the world than Instructional Designers and therefore they can sell more product if they define it that way. However, I wrote the original White Paper on the topic of Rapid eLearning for Bersin & Associates in 2004 and the real definition of the term is:

    Rapid E-Learning is often developed in response to urgent business needs, such as a product launch or competitive situation. It may also be developed as part of a continuous update program, or when the content has a short shelf-life. Most Rapid E-Learning courses are developed in response to a request by a line of business organization. Rapid E-Learning is usually focused on awareness and immediate action and the modules are created in a matter of days or weeks. They are developed internally, with little or no budget and the base content is often developed by SMEs who use PowerPoint or a set of authoring templates. (c) 2004 Bersin & Associates

    So, the definition of Rapid eLearning is NOT that SMEs develop the content. It is that SME use readily accessible tools (e.g. PowerPoint) to provide source content that eLearning/training professionals can more quickly turn into an instructionally sound course that meets performance objectives.

    To learn more about the true Rapid eLearning process, see this White Paper that I researched and wrote for Adobe Captivate.