Fifty shades of authoring tools

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Written by Bob Little on 1 April 2013 in Features
Features

Bob Little takes a rapid look at authoring tools – or is that a look at rapid authoring tools?

There's a lot more to the term 'authoring tool' - even 'rapid authoring tool' - than you might imagine.

There are four basic 'types':

  • PowerPoint plugin, which uses PowerPoint as the authoring environment but allows you to add interactivity and assessments, and then publish your content in a form that can be tracked via a learning management system. The most popular tool in this market is Articulate
  • standalone, which is installed on your desktop and tends to give you more flexibility and control over the learning content's style and interactions. Examples of this type of tool includes Adobe Captivate, Lectora and Articulate Storyline
  • server-based, which is hosted on a server and tends to be accessed via a web browser over the Internet. Examples of this includes Coursebuilder, Mohive and Atlantic Link
  • interactivity-building, such as Camtasia, Code Baby and the ubiquitous Raptivity. While possession of an authoring tool is a sine qua non for producing online learning materials, building learner engagement with those materials through interactivity is a further - and important - step.

There are also some significant price differences, with these tools costing between a few hundred and several thousand pounds.

In the old days - well, up until about the turn of the last century - this growing diversity of authoring tools didn't need to worry buyers very much. They could commission a team of professional instructional designers, employed by a specialist learning content development company, to produce the e-learning content in consultation with their own organisation's subject matter experts.

Then came the growth of rapid authoring tools - with the promise that they were intuitive: you didn't need any programming experience in order to use them. Sometimes - as in the case of Raptivity - you didn't need any knowledge of instructional design either, since the tool would allow you to search its available interaction templates by instructional design theory. Consequently, these tools have been marketed as ways in which in-house SMEs can build online learning content for themselves - thus cutting out the middleman (the specialist learning content development companies).

This has led a number of these content development companies to reinvent themselves as rapid authoring tools distributors, offering their customers training in how to use them, or as consultants to the SMEs now charged with developing all this in-house, 'cheaper' , 'quicker' learning content.

Without this sort of professional help, there's a danger that the resulting online learning programs - admittedly ready for use quicker than in the pre-rapid authoring tools days - will not be of sufficient quality to engage the users. Consequently, the learning experience is devalued and the learning materials are ineffective.

However, supporters of rapid authoring tools argue that they put the SMEs back in charge of the learning materials - so the 'content is king' even if the structure of the learning materials isn't perfect from an instructional design point of view. Moreover, they allow the SMEs to get these materials out more quickly, tailored more easily to the learners' organisation-specific needs. Furthermore, getting the SMEs directly involved in creating the learning materials motivates them to produce high-quality work.

David Patterson, operations director of Learning Light, the Sheffield-based organisation that promotes the use of e-learning and learning technologies, believes that there are some potential benefits in keeping the development of learning materials in-house.

He says: "An in-house L&D team, along with SMEs, should know their audience - and, so, know what works in terms of approach and structure of the learning materials. On balance, this should lead to more effective and engaging learning materials for the users - and greater value for their organisation.

"It should also be easier, quicker and cheaper for the SMEs to make any updates that the learning materials require over time - rather than having to brief a third-party instructional design specialist and then wait for the work to be carried out to everyone's satisfaction.

"Furthermore, the rapid development tools' 'no programming expertise required' aspect helps those who know their subject to be able to convey it, without falling at the hurdle of needing complex IT-related knowledge and skills."

Some commentators - Neil Lasher of The Learning Coach among them - suggest that the nature of online learning is changing, especially with the advent of Tin Can, otherwise known as Experience Application Programming Interface (Experience API). Lasher says: "Rapid authoring tools deliver what the trainer is trying to do but instructional design specialists are beginning to realise that these resulting learning materials aren't delivering what's really needed."

These commentators maintain that instructional designers need new skills - including those related to content modelling and using analytics to spot knowledge and skills gaps - in order to meet users' changing demands, which are based around tracking 'experiences' not learning events.

Yet Learning Light argues that these views are still some years away from being generally accepted - if, indeed, they ever will be. Learning Light's Gillian Broadhead says: "Situations are becoming more complex and students are becoming more demanding of their learning materials but this is merely putting pressure on instructional designers to be increasingly competent and professional. There are many rapid authoring tools currently on the market and there is still a robust level of demand for tools with a template approach."

Of course, merely buying a rapid authoring tool doesn't make anyone a competent instructional designer or learning content developer. These tools are only effective if they're used skilfully to produce learning materials that are both relevant to their users and able to be used appropriately. In particular, as students become more demanding of their learning materials, they're also encountering more distractions to their learning activities than ever before. One solution to helping them keep focused on their studies is to build interactivity into the learning materials - via an interaction building tool such as Raptivity.

Of course, no single type of interaction fits every learning situation. Finding the appropriate interaction for the learners' needs is important. That's why it's a good idea to have access to a wide range of potential interactions, from which to choose. At this point, cost can become an issue, since access to this range of interaction types is likely to be determined by the budget available to the learning developer.

However, by itself, an authoring or interaction-building tool won't deliver cost and efficiency savings if there are bottlenecks elsewhere in the development process. In addition, although these tools are key components of the rapid e-learning approach, there are other components that also contribute to successful online learning.

These include:

  • the project scoping and training needs analysis
  • the instructional design approach used
  • scripting and content organisation
  • the use of graphics and media
  • managing sponsors
  • SME support
  • marketing and user support
  • the learning materials' deployment and hosting
  • evaluating the impact of the learning materials on the learners.

In deciding on your rapid authoring tool of choice, you need the answers to a number of questions. According to Poonam Jaypuriya, senior general manager - product management (innovation and products) at Harbinger Knowledge Products, these questions include:

  • what's the budget for the tool(s)?
  • what authoring tool and instructional design skills and experience exist within your organisation?
  • how often will your team be using the tool(s)?
  • what type of learning content will you be developing?
  • how are the learning materials going to be delivered?
  • what's the tracking requirement?
  • do you need SCORM 1.2, for example, to help the content comply with the requirements of your LMS?
  • do your online learning materials need to be translated?
  • what level of outside technical support are you likely to need?
  • does this have to be localised or can it be from a globally-based source?
  • do you plan to incorporate interactivity to engage your learners?
  • would you like to be a 'one-man shop' without having to depend on Flash developers and graphic designers?

"These days, you need a tool that copes with both Flash and HTML5 outputs," says Jaypuriya. "This saves time for the designer and developer and enables the resulting learning materials to be produced more quickly and easily - and delivered more widely across multiple platforms including mobile devices."

About the author

Bob Little writes about, and commentates on, corporate learning - especially e-learning - and technology-related subjects. He is the author of Perspectives on learning technologies (http://www.theendlessbookcase.com/ebooks/). He can be contacted via bob.little@boblittlepr.com

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