“Choosing eLearning authoring tools is one of the most crucial decisions any training organization, project, or developer can make.”
- Advanced Distributed Learning (adlnet.gov) - (2015)
Online learning isn’t a new idea. Every year new organizations look to reduce training costs, improve compliance, simplify tracking and enjoy the myriad of benefits offered by online learning and learning management systems.
There are, essentially, two sides to the elearning coin. To successfully deploy an elearning initiative, it’s important to understand both sides. First, the training content must be created. In some cases, LMS content creation is enough. If there is no need to assign, track, control distribution, or otherwise manage your learning content you may only need software that helps you create online courses that you can then distribute to your staff. The second side to the coin is Learning Management. Let’s take a quick look at these two different, but related, applications.
What is an eLearning Content Authoring tool?
According to Trivantis, publisher of Lectora Inspire, “e-Learning authoring tools enable trainers to integrate an array of media to create professional, engaging and interactive training content. With an authoring tool, you can repurpose digitized elements or learning objects from an existing course for use in a new course.” In simple terms, content authoring is a platform where you can create or arrange HTML Pages, video, audio, interactive media, quizzes, games and more depending on the features of the authoring tool. Another important feature of most elearning content development tools is their ability to publish their courses to a standard format (SCORM) that can be used in most learning management systems.
What is an LMS?
A learning management system (LMS) is a software application designed to catalog, store, assign, deliver, track, and report on training content utilization. The key word here is “Management”. The audience can be employees, customers, sales channels, association members, students, or pretty much any other group of learners. The managed training content can include instructor led training, all manner of online elearning, or a blended learning approach combining instructor led training with elearning. Training can be assigned and monitored as specific learning elements, individual courses created with a course authoring tool, or learning paths consisting of many courses.
Should Content Authoring be “Built-in” to my LMS?
There has been a trend recently, particularly among first time LMS buyers, to want their course authoring software built-in to their LMS. It’s easy to understand why. It seems reasonable that a built-in authoring tool would save money and reduce the learning curve. In truth, it isn't really that simple.
Built-in utilities are nothing new in computer software. Microsoft has been including some version of a paint tool since the earliest days of windows. Many PCs come bundled with some sort of word processor or spreadsheet software. And yet we still use photoshop and MS-Office or Google apps. Why? Because they just work better. They offer functionality and portability that the built-in software simply doesn't.
So how does this apply to course authoring software? Let's start with some important basics.
What is SCORM?
SCORM is a set of technical standards that allow elearning content to plug, play and communicate with an LMS. Learning content that is SCORM compatible is portable and can work in any SCORM compliant LMS.
Why does SCORM matter?
Over time, most organizations build a library of learning content. When such content is published to SCORM standards, that content can be hosted on any Learning Management System. The best of breed Content Authoring tools all publish their content to SCORM. Non-SCORM content can tie an organization's hands making it hard or impossible to leave their current LMS vendor.
Course assembler vs. Course Authoring Tool
These two terms are similar, but mean completely different things.
Virtually every LMS comes with some way of assembling Courses. This allows you to organize different Learning Elements (SCORM, PDF Files, Videos, Webinar Links, etc.) and place them in the LMS’s Course catalog. The LMS is then able to assign and track and score the different Courses.
A Course Authoring Tool is used to create compelling elearning content that can be used as a learning element in an LMS course. The learning element that is created with a course authoring tool can be an animation, interactive game, quiz, or a video rendition of a powerpoint presentation.
Caveat Emptor: The risks of “built-in” authoring tools.
The likelihood of finding the best LMS platform for your needs that also has the best content authoring tool for your needs is remote. More often, you may find one or the other doesn’t fit your unique requirements. Here are some specific content authoring pitfalls to avoid.
Some “built-in” tools are really just course assemblers with limited functionality. The courses created with these built-in tools will work great with their host LMS, but if they are not published to the SCORM standard it is likely that they can’t be moved to a new system if there is ever a reason to change vendors.
Most companies specialize. An LMS company that designs an authoring tool will likely create what is known in the industry as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). In other words, the software is just good enough to get the job done, but not a robust, feature rich application.
As training departments grow, they often bring professional course authors into the fold. Asking these professionals to use most built-in authoring tools is a little like hiring a graphic designer and asking them to use MS-Paint.
Reputable third party eLearning content development tools are continually being updated and enhanced. This means that their focus is on adding new features and functionality to help create more vibrant and interesting content for your learners. Built-in tools are only one feature in a larger system that is usually the primary focus of the vendor.
How do I select a Content Authoring Tool?
Like any software investment, the first step is to understand and articulate your requirements. Questions you should consider include:
Do I really need to create courses?
In some cases you may be better served by purchasing pre-built courses from a content provider like OpenSesame. In other cases, you may need bespoke courses (aka custom built courses) but lack the expertise to develop content to the quality that you require. There are many boutique content developers, e.g. BrokenMyth Studios, who can work with you to create custom training content.
What kind of courses do I want to create?
If, for example, you’re training customers to use the latest and greatest version of software that you sell, you may want to focus on a system with excellent screencasting and video editing tools like TechSmith’s Camtasia. On the other hand, if you plan to convert existing PowerPoint decks to online courses, you might consider a company like iSpring for their simplicity and PowerPoint conversion capability.
Who are my course developers?
If you have highly skilled instructional designers, you’ll want their input to match the authoring tools to their skill sets. You might consider a full featured suite like Articulate Storyline or Lectora Inspire.
If you plan to have your subject matter experts (SMEs) create your courses, you might want to evaluate software like Easy Generator or Elucidat, that specialize in ease of use and help guide the process.
What is my budget?
Course Authoring eLearning content development tools come in all prices. Some of the ‘built-in’ content authoring tools actually cost more than third party applications. Understand how many authors you’ll have and how often they’ll be creating elearning content. Monthly subscriptions to SaaS tools can be a great way to save money if you only create courses intermittently.
Be sure to select an authoring tool that publishes to SCORM for the greatest portability between LMSs. Some e-learning systems such as the Accord LMS, can seamlessly integrate with third party tools via automatic FTP transfers. This automatically uploads the course to the LMS when it’s published from the authoring tool.
Start Your Research
Once you know what you’re looking for, start your online research. There are countless articles that highlight the pros and cons of the leading elearning authoring tools. Here are a few links to get you started with your LMS content creation.
The three big “built-in” myths
Myth #1: It's cheaper
Third party SCORM authoring tools are relatively inexpensive, some are even free. Even the more expensive tools can be less expensive that the premium charged by LMS vendors for their built-in solutions. Some third party tools are available in an affordable monthly cloud hosted license. This allows intermittent course designers to have access to the most powerful tools on an as-needed basis.
Myth #2: It's easier
Inexpensive software like iSpring and Camtasia can create a SCORM course with a few button clicks. iSpring, for example, can be configured to automatically upload content directly into your LMS. If it ever becomes necessary to move to a new LMS, simply uploading your SCORM modules into your new system will be far easier, and less expensive, than recreating your courses created from ‘built-in’ tools.
Myth #3: It does everything I need.
That may be true today, but as your needs grow, will a built-in tool keep up with the latest technology and advanced feature sets?
The bottom line - Choose the best tool for the job
Choosing an LMS for it’s built-in authoring tool is a little like choosing a pick-up truck for its camper shell. You owe it to yourself and the success of your training program to evaluate your LMS and authoring tool independently.