Five Questions to Ask about Authoring Tools

One of the mantras of these crunching times is (or at least should be): if it’s worth doing, have a look at doing it yourself, before you pay someone over the odds for it. Ok, so there’s probably a snappier version of that mantra out there! Let’s just say, "You should look at rapid e-learning authoring tools". You won’t have to look too hard – the market’s flooded to its banks with them. But what’s right for you? Here are five questions to ask during your search...

1. What can we afford?


If you’ve got limited funds (say $2500 or less) you’ll want to consider one of the desktop tools available. Server-based tools will be outside of your budget. Desktop tools tend to use Word or PowerPoint as their base authoring environment, or include screen capture capabilities. They add various functions on top, depending on the package. Articulate and Captivate are probably the dominant players here.

If you’ve got more to spend, are looking to scale up your authoring across the organisation, or have a dedicated team, it could be worth considering a collaborative server-based authoring tool. These tend to have more powerful capabilities and some are multi-purpose, allowing for systems and non-systems training.

But you can also spend nothing at all – there are a few free-to-use authoring tools out there, including Exe and Udutu. If it’s truly cheap and cheerful you’re after, and you want to keep things very simple, they’re worth a look.


2. Who’s going to use it, and what’s their skill set?


When you bring a tool into your team, you need to think about who’s going to be working with it, and how much training and support they’re going to need to design and develop quality output. Are they already technically adept – and therefore could they handle a more advanced tool – or is it better to stay with a desktop plug-in? Desktop tools will have an immediate ring of familiarity by working with standard Office applications. This means there is a relatively simple learning curve. Server-based tools, while sharing some features of Windows applications, will require a longer familiarisation period but can deliver more sophisticated results. You’ll need to weigh up the pain versus the gain when making your choice.

One thing to bear in mind here: you don’t need to bring the full skillset for e-learning development in-house. You can leave tasks like Flash animation development – and even graphics development – to specialists, and bring in-house only the parts of the process where you can add value and reduce your costs; typically, the scoping and content development.


3. What’s our ambition?


You need to think about the quality of output you want to achieve. If you want to produce simple, static content adorned with questions and quizzes, a desktop authoring tool will do you fine. You could, with a little imagination and skill, stretch things a little further. Many can be customised to look as good as bespoke e-learning. All market-leading tools accept audio, video and Flash animation files. You can commission rich media or create it yourself for integration into your e-learning. But generally, the more ambitious you are about how you present your learning, the higher-end tool you'll need to aim for.

Have a look at the demos on the various vendor sites – lower or higher than your desired output in terms of quality and engagement? Bear in mind they’re no doubt showing off their best stuff, possibly crammed full of customisations– so it's best to ask for examples of what standard outputs look like so you’ve got an idea of what you could be producing in limited time


4. Do we need do systems training?


If your aim is primarily or even exclusively to train in systems (e.g. SAP HR, call centre software) you should consider a specialist systems training authoring tool, or one that at least has a component within it that will enable systems training. Captivate and Content Point (part of the Atlantic Link suite) are ones to consider, but there are many others out there too.


If you are planning to produce non-systems training (e.g, product knowledge, new hire orientation, management skills) then a generalist tool will offer wider scope for content authoring, but it won’t lend itself well to systems training. So think ahead about the potential uses before you commit.


5. How accessible does it need to be?


Authoring tools and accessibility are a lot closer in the dictionary than in real life. Most of them output Flash, and do not do much to adhere to accessibility standards. Some – Lectora for example – will produce html, but most authoring tools are poor on this criteria. So you need to be clear on how important this is for your rapid e-learning output. If you need a single accessible version, your choices will be much more limited in terms of tools. However, you can always consider a standalone HTML or accessible PDF version depending on your organisation’s requirements.

Looking at authoring tools can make sound financial sense – as long as you know what you’re looking for. You can find out more by exploring our reviews of many authoring tools.

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