This is a common question that’s been hotly debated since the spike in popularity of e-learning. There are a ridiculous amount of options to choose from when looking to start creating course content for your users, from free open-source software, to heavy hitters from some of the biggest names in the creative industry. Below is an overview of some of the most popular options that should give you a good idea of what authoring tool(s) will work best for you.
What are my options?
Here’s a list of some of the most relevant and powerful tools currently on the market taken from a comprehensive article on elearnmag.com:
This relatively 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 so 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, 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 some of the other tools on this list.
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.
Suddenly Smart SmartBuilder
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.
You can probably expect ZebraZapps’ learning curve to be 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.
So which should I choose?
Really, there’s no universal answer to this question. Each solution offers pros and cons and each one is aimed at accomplishing different tasks. Some are designed for creating courses quickly, some focus on powerful functionality, and others focus on polished bells and whistles. The choice really comes down to what you’re trying to accomplish, how quickly you’re trying to accomplish it, and your preferred approach to presenting your material.
In many cases, a combination of several of these solutions is the best answer. For example, here at Quality and Education Services, we use a combination of Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Articulate Studio, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses, but when used in tandem allow us to create some really powerful and engaging experiences. Luckily, almost all e-learning authoring solutions are compatible with the AAA Institute LMS, which makes it easy to distribute your courses to students and accurately track their progress.