Microsoft Word is a world-class word processing tool that helps millions of users produce high-quality reports, memos, letters, and other text and graphical content. Without it and other similar products, authors, writers, and publishers would struggle to produce high-grade content. The same is true for eLearning content authors. Without the right authoring tools, eLearning content would be that much harder to create.
What exactly are authoring tools?
At an academic level, these are software-based enablers that help instructional designers create highly professional, interactive, appealing, and engaging eLearning courses. At a more practical level, eLearning authoring tools help course developers leverage a range of digital content—text, audio, graphics, video, 3D art, interactive imagery—to create and deliver customized learning experiences.
These tools provide great amounts of flexibility when creating eLearning courses. A significant benefit to using eLearning content creation tools is that they inject speed, convenience, and efficiency into the course design and development process. Imagine a course creator who must spend hours (sometimes days!) scouring for course design elements—backgrounds, sounds, graphics, pictures, outlines—before writing the first chapter or module of a course.
That’s all changed! The best eLearning authoring tools come with libraries packed with the functionality required to produce professional eLearning content. Using these pre-packaged elements, such as outlines and templates, course creators can now spend more time generating subject matter content and less on layout and presentation. The tools give eLearning authors a jumpstart on producing their courses.
How do authoring tools work?
Authoring tools work like “enablers” in the content creation process. They provide the building blocks for authors to focus on content rather than the process of creating it. The tools also enable groups of individuals, teams, subject matter experts (SMEs), and technology specialists across organizations and beyond to collaborate and cooperate in the creative process.
With the best eLearning authoring tools supporting their development efforts, organizations can better enforce development processes, visual identity standards, themes, and corporate branding and imaging. And, by using built-in data and feedback collection features and analytics tools, course developers can continually improve learning experiences for their target audiences.
Types of course authoring tools
Before we wade into the specific types of course authoring tools available, it’s important to understand the difference between elearning software and the tools used to create eLearning content. Learning software is an all-encompassing term used to identify a wide spectrum of eLearning technology. T
hat technology includes, for example, the Learning Management System (LMS) used to manage, monitor, and administer eLearning across the organization. Instructional developers then use eLearning authoring tools to create the courses hosted and managed by the LMS.
Common types of content authoring software include:
With these types of tools, users must download, install, and configure the software before using it. Extremely popular before the age of mobile learning took effect, desktop-based tools are still a good choice for small, co-located teams of developers or for producing one-off learning content.
Understanding authoring tool standards
In days gone by, video cassette recorders (VCR) and players were classified as meeting certain standards, such as PAL or NTSC. Today’s DVD players follow standards that allow them to play various types of disks, including MPED-2, AC-3, or PCM. The same is true with various types of course authoring tools. When choosing a tool for your organization, it’s important to gain familiarity with those standards.
Like VCR and DVD devices, the best eLearning authoring tools in the industry support a range of industry-standard eLearning formats. These standards have names and acronyms such as SCORM (1.2, 2004), xAPI/TinCan API, HTML5, MOOC, AICC, cmi5, and LTI. The greater the number of formats and standards that an authoring tool supports, the broader its applicability and interoperability is across learning platforms and environments.
How to choose the right eLearning authoring tool
What separates good eLearning content from average or mediocre ones? Skills and experience certainly rank high on the list. Today, however, it takes more than just knowledge and skill to produce highly engaging and informative content. Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, once said:
“Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things.”
And that saying holds true for eLearning content creators just as much as it does for atomic scientists. To create high-quality courses, having access to the right content authoring tools is just as critical as having the right subject matter experts (SMEs) on an eLearning team. The challenge, however, is how to choose the right eLearning course development tools?
The best answer to that question is to use a tried and tested process. If your organization is looking for a course authoring tool to support your in-house eLearning strategy, here’s a suggested four-step process to use to find, evaluate, and choose the best eLearning authoring tools that are right for you:
1. Identify program needs
Each organization’s eLearning program needs differ. So, the first step is to understand what your company’s learning needs and objectives are In order to identify the tools required to support them.
WHY? Because this exercise will give you a high-level insight into the functionality needed in the authoring tools. For instance, if you envision using training approaches like Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) to train your staff, then your course development tools must support those approaches.
2. Identify in-house capabilities
As Dr. Gershenfeld alluded, it is people who will ultimately use the tools to create extraordinary things. Therefore, understanding your development team’s capabilities to use the authoring tools you provide them is critical.
WHY? Because if you choose tools that are too complex or advanced for your team to understand or use, it’s unlikely that you’ll meet your course development objectives. Alternatively, choosing tools with advanced capabilities does set you up to address future needs, but you’ll have to invest in appropriate training to upskill your team.
3. Identify course-specific needs
Next, identify the types of eLearning courses you wish to create. If you intend to just produce cookie cutter-based courses, most tools today come with libraries of ready-made templates for a wide range of courses. If your needs require customizing complex interactive content, however, then you may have a more limited set of eLearning authoring tools to choose from.
WHY? This step is critical because it narrows the range of authoring tools available to meet your organization’s needs. If your organization has a vast library of existing PowerPoint or PDF-based content and all you need is a tool to edit, port, and present that content, then the specifications for the tool must reflect that. In most cases, you may not require tools with advanced features to meet such needs. Using out-of-the-box functionality will likely fit your specific requirements.
4. Conduct market research
The above steps set you up with a fine understanding of what to look for in a course authoring tool and an appreciation of the authoring tools’ benefits to your organization. However, choosing a tool that’s right for you is more involved than just going online and performing a Google search—though that might be a good start. Sound market research involves creating detailed checklists of your needs (based on Steps 1, 2, and 3 above), and evaluating each prospective tool against those needs.
WHY? Technology changes rapidly and so do organizational eLearning needs and analysis. Using a structured checklist approach ensures that you evaluate each tool, not just for today’s needs, but for what you might potentially need in the future. Sound research will also help you compress the list of potential vendors, dropping non-compliant suppliers early on, to ensure that you then evaluate only the best eLearning authoring tools in greater detail.
Next steps—Request for Proposal (RFP)
Your quest to choose the right authoring tool isn’t yet complete! Upon finalizing your short-list of potential tools, next, you’ll create a formal document called a Request for Proposal (RFP). Typically, vendors respond to the RFP with a proposal outlining their solutions in greater detail. You then evaluate each response on multiple criteria, including best-fit and cost, before choosing the right content authoring tools that meet all (or most of) your needs.
Best eLearning authoring tools
Here is a list of the most popular eLearning content development tools (in no particular order):
Among the best eLearning authoring tools available today, Articulate Storyline 360, which is part of the Articulate 360 suite, can produce interactive eLearning content for a wide range of environments, from laptops and desktops to tablets and smartphones.
When you need the flexibility to build courses from scratch or use a template-based approach, then Evolve may be right for you. It comes with more than 60 ways to present content, a live preview option, and the ability to publish courses directly to the web, host them on the Intellum platform, or integrate it with a host of commercial LMSes.
This is a great tool for organizations looking for content authoring tools to rapidly build fully-responsive content. It also allows course authors to integrate features like interactive video, VR, 360o assets, and branching scenarios.
Many organizations find that some of the best eLearning authoring tools are those that come with a look-and-feel your staff is familiar with. So, if you’re looking for a tool with a familiar, PowerPoint-like environment, then iSpring Suite is it. It offers a minimal learning curve to developers, yet supports content like video tutorials, interactive assessments, screencasts, dialogue simulations, and more.
With a focus on HTML5 courses, Elucidat features pre-built templates, a custom theme builder, a user-friendly design interface, and collaboration tools. Content can load and run quickly on any OS and browser combination.
This is one of the many free, adaptive, HTML5 eLearning course authoring tools available. For organizations looking for a no-cost solution, Adapt is ideal. It is SCORM-compliant and produces responsive learning content that intuitively delivers unique viewing experiences, depending on various devices used to consume the content.
To better understand how authoring tools can help you, why not discover how ELM Learning creates smart, beautiful eLearning experiences to engage employees and create real change?
When assessing the best eLearning authoring tools, it’s important to know what you are looking for before you engage in procurement discussions. Know if it’s a desktop, cloud-based, or open-source solution that fits your needs, and be familiar with the features and functionality of some of the leading authoring tools before selecting the one that’s best for your organization.
And finally, before preparing your RFP and distributing it amongst qualified product vendors, it pays to follow a structured process when reviewing each tool for the features and functionality that you need. By not doing so, you may end up receiving too many responses for products that don’t meet your needs.