Last month, I wrote about the various factors you should consider before purchasing an authoring tool. If you haven’t read last month’s review, it would be a good idea to read it before continuing here.

This month, I will discuss the various tools, any of which might fit your specific needs based on your learner audience, the content they need to learn, and many of the other factors discussed last month.

The difference between an LMS and an authoring tool

Very often, I talk with folks who don’t understand the difference between a learning management system (LMS) and an authoring tool. Here’s what I tell them:

  1. A learning management system is an administrative and registration tool. It is software that sits on an organization’s server or in the cloud, allows managers to enroll employees in courses (or lets employees self-register), and presents the learner with a menu of lessons from which to choose. Once a learner chooses an item, it then launches that lesson. The lesson is usually not created in the LMS.
  2. An authoring tool, also called an eLearning development tool, is used to create the lessons themselves. Once you have created a lesson by combining the proper amounts of media, interactivity, and other elements, you publish the lesson into a set of files that allow a learner to see and interact with the lesson. The set of files is normally zipped, and the zipped file is then uploaded to the LMS, where a menu entry is made to let the registered learners take the lesson.

Before a lesson is published, you will usually indicate in the tool that you want the lesson to track the learner’s progress. To do so, you choose from a set of communication protocols. These are usually one of four: AICC, SCORM 1.2, SCORM 2004, or Experience API (Tin Can). It’s important that the protocol is supported by the LMS; after all, both the LMS and the published authoring tools have to speak the same language. In theory, and usually in practice, you can take a lesson that you created in SCORM 2004, for instance, and use it with any LMS that supports SCORM 2004.

There is a third category besides those of the LMS and the authoring tool: the learning content management system (LCMS). An LCMS typically is an LMS to which the LMS vendor has added an authoring tool. In my experience thus far, the authoring tool included in an LCMS is very limited. It also makes it difficult for you to be flexible. You’ll usually do better using a stand-alone authoring tool. In addition, if you become dissatisfied with the LMS portion of the LCMS, you almost always have to throw away all of the lessons you created because they are part and parcel of the LCMS.

More recently, we also are seeing authoring tools, primarily those that are cloud-based, adding LMS types of capabilities. Some of these may warrant consideration, though I suspect most should be avoided for the same reasons you may not want to use an authoring tool that is built into an LMS.

I tend to focus on authoring tools and not on learning management systems because my main passion has always been the creation of great lesson material and not the administration of student populations, and both the LMS market and the authoring tool market includes hundreds of examples. It’s a full-time job just focusing on authoring tools.

Wow, lots of authoring tools!

In fact, I decided recently to start making a list in Excel of the authoring tools of which I’m currently aware. I did not include learning management systems, though I did include learning content management systems in most cases. I have been taking notes for a long time and surprised myself when my list ended up with 201 entries … so far!

How I divide tools

There are three broad categories of tools:

  1. PowerPoint add-on tools, of which there are only a handful
  2. Tools you install on your computer, of which there are quite a few
  3. Tools that are in the cloud, which includes almost all new tools and is becoming the biggest category by far

Over the last six or so years, I’ve evaluated many tools, but many remain and new ones seem to be popping up every week!

The big ones

Most have heard of the three tools that have the biggest market share. You install these on your computer, and in the case of Lectora, you also have a cloud-based version.

  1. Adobe Captivate
  2. Articulate Storyline
  3. Trivantis Lectora

These are used by the majority of eLearning developers. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, price points, and similarities and differences. I’ve reviewed each a few times.

Right behind those are the top-three PowerPoint add-on eLearning tools. They don’t do as much but they have become quite feature-rich since their earlier versions.

  1. Articulate Studio
  2. Adobe Presenter
  3. iSpring Suite

I have also reviewed each of these, and again they both differ and resemble each other in several ways.

The not-so-big ones

And then there are the 195 other tools I have in my list. Notable ones that I have reviewed in Learning Solutions Magazine include (in alphabetical order):

  1. ApprenNet
  2. BranchTrack
  3. Composica
  4. DominKnow Claro
  5. easygenerator
  6. Harbinger Raptivity
  7. LearningStone
  8. NexLearn SimWriter
  9. Qarbon ViewletBuilder
  10. Train by Cell

Finding the best tool: the right questions to ask

Using the criteria I presented in last month’s review and those that I’ve included this month, I hope that you’ll be able to find the best tool for your use by asking vendors the right questions. Here are a few that you must ask:

  1. What are your tool’s greatest strengths?
  2. What can I not easily do with your tool?
  3. What types of media does your tool support?
  4. What types of freeform and wizard-based interactions can I create with your tool?
  5. Tell me about your tech support options.
  6. About how many developers are using your tool?
  7. If I need help or training with your tool, are there independent contractors I can hire or do I need to talk to you each time?
  8. How often do you bring out new updates and features?
  9. What are the initial costs to license your tool?
  10. What recurring costs should I expect?

Other questions may be important to you:

  1. If I need to create a lesson in multiple languages, how do I do that with your tool?
  2. How can I make sure my lessons look good on mobile devices?
  3. How easy is it to extend your tool’s capabilities by using JavaScript or other means?
  4. What capabilities does your tool include for creating and editing images, audio, video, and animations?
  5. How can I allow learners to collaborate using your tool?
  6. How long have you been in business?
  7. How many versions has your tool had thus far?
  8. What reporting standards does your tool support (SCORM, AICC, etc.)?
  9. Do my lessons need to be launched only from your site or can I place them on my own server or in my LMS?
  10. Is your tool a PowerPoint add-on, an installed tool, or a cloud-based tool?

I’m sure you can think of other questions to ask. It all depends on your organization’s particular needs. Remember that, just like finding the right house or the right car for your needs, choosing the right eLearning tool can make all the difference in how good your eLearning will be.

Make the tool you choose support your instructional design needs; do not limit your instructional design needs to what any particular tool will allow!

Questions? Comments? Include them below.

P.S. When was the first authoring tool proposed? Would you believe in 1960? Yep, that’s when PLATO was envisioned. Whoa! This was the original idea, though the equipment needed to support it did not yet exist.