I’m about to reach 34 years working in the eLearning industry! It’s hard to believe that time has passed so quickly. When I give presentations and teach classes at conferences held by The eLearning Guild and others, I often like to poll the audience with the question, “When was the first eLearning development tool created?” Many times, I hear attendees respond with a date in the 1990s or even way back in the 1980s. However, it was way back in 1960 that the National Science Foundation funded the creation of PLATO and work began at the University of Illinois. That year was also when I was born. Coincidence? I think not!

PLATO incorporated the first use of email, group chats, and more. A fascinating short overview can be found on YouTube. In 2010, the Computer History Museum hosted a six-session conference on the PLATO learning system, which you can find by searching for PLATO@50 on YouTube.

So I joined the industry way late, 23 years after its inception, though very early by today’s standards. Much has changed, of course, since then. We are no longer tied down to terrestrial networks because we have The Cloud, which has brought us the ability to reach millions of people with our eLearning at little cost, both on desktop and mobile devices. Moreover, the cloud is where more eLearning development tools reside. In many cases now, we no longer download and install software, including authoring tools; instead, we go to the cloud to use the actual tool. Most of the new authoring tools are, in fact, now cloud-based.

What’s happening today? A lot is happening and it can be confusing, as evidenced by the many people with whom I speak who don’t understand certain terms. So, let’s start this year by getting all of us onto the same page. Here’s a guide to licensing an authoring tool.

Licensing an authoring tool

Subscription vs. full licenseMany see the word subscription as synonymous with online or cloud-based. However, subscription simply refers to the way that you pay for a tool license. It is true that most cloud-based tools are subscription-based, but lots of tools you install and use on your hard drive are, as well.

An example: Full-price license for an installed tool

Let’s take as an example a tool called PractSynth (not real). It is now in Version 5. Perhaps you started using it back in 2012 with Version 1 and paid $600 for a license. You downloaded the installer, you installed PractSynth, and PractSynth V1 is still there on your hard drive, ready to be used. Since then you’ve upgraded with each new version, though the price has gone up at times. Let’s see how the pricing on these worked out:

PractSynth Version

Full License Price

Upgrade License Price

Version 1



Version 2



Version 3



Version 4



Version 5



Table 1: Licensing costs for a fictional authoring tool

You paid full price for Version 1 and then the upgrade prices for subsequent versions. To date, you have spent $1,900. In each case, you’ve downloaded and installed the new versions. Each version is on your hard drive, and you can use each for as long as you want. You can save the installers as well, so that if you ever switch computers, you can transfer PractSynth to the new computer. In many cases, though, you’ll have to activate your license so that it’s tied to the current computer. It usually does this by registering your computer’s hardware address, meaning that even if you were to reformat your hard drive and reinstall PractSynth, you’d be fine.

However, before moving it to another computer, you’d need to deactivate it on the current one. If your computer were to die and you could no longer boot it, you would need to call the PractSynth vendor and have them deactivate it manually in their servers so that you could then install it on the new computer.

An example: Subscription license for an installed tool

Let’s suppose instead that PractSynth has always offered a subscription price of $15 a month and you decided to go that route. After five years, you will have spent about $900, saving almost 50 percent over the regular pricing (assuming one version upgrade per year). The drawback is that your version of PractSynth will work only as long as you keep paying the monthly subscription price. How does it know if you stop? When you first license and download the installer, you will have set up an online account, and every time or every few times that you open PractSynth, it will check online whether your license is still valid.

Authoring tools are upgraded often, some more often than others. You can decide whether the subscription pricing makes sense to you. Full disclosure: I’ve been using the subscription pricing on a few products, as for me it saves money.

Cloud-based tools

Unlike traditional authoring tools that offer you an installer to download, which you then use to install the product on your hard drive, cloud-based tools are those you use directly in the browser. You install nothing on your hard drive in most cases, though in a few cases you may install a small helper application. To use the authoring tool itself, you open your browser, log in to your site account, and start building your learning there. Almost all new authoring tools are cloud-based.

Obviously, you’ll want to ensure you have a good, fast connection to use cloud-based tools, especially if you are going to use videos and other media that you need to upload from your hard drive. The advantage of cloud-based tools is that you can start to build a lesson in one location and then continue building it somewhere else, so long as you have Internet access. If you don’t, you’re dead in the water. However, it’s becoming rarer in many places to not have fast access, and while most of us have plenty of hard drive space, we can rest assured that most tool vendors use multiple backup techniques and rarely go down. Switching to a new laptop? No problem. Just access the site on your new laptop and you’re good to go. Note that you probably won’t be able to log in from two different computers at the same time.

Whereas you may be able to pay for tools you install on your hard drive using traditional pricing or on a subscription basis, you pay for cloud-based tool licenses almost always on a subscription basis.

Evaluating the features of an authoring tool

It can be difficult to compare tools based on their features. Two vendors, for instance, may both claim that you can create drag-and-drop exercises with their tools. However, dig a little deeper and you may find that Tool A has a simpler but much more limited drag-and-drop capability, whereas Tool B lets you create much more free-form and complex interactions, at the cost of a steeper learning curve.

No matter the tool, you’ll want to ensure that it will grow with your needs. In many cases, you might be tempted to license a tool that is easy to use but that forces you to stay within many design constraints so that soon you have to make a choice to either simplify your instructional design, rendering it less effective, or abandon the tool for a more powerful one. As I’ve mentioned before, you always want to focus on what instructional design features, media, interactivity, and other factors will best help your learners learn the content that you need to provide to them in the context in which they need it. In addition, you want to ensure that your learners will be able to access your learning, meaning you must ascertain the publishing options that tools offer.

How do you make sure the tool you choose will serve you well? Look for online reviews (like mine) and communities of practice, and try to find those already using a tool you’re researching to find out what they like and don’t like about it. When you go to a Guild conference, look for experts like me, who will give you their honest appraisals. Just as when you buy a car, don’t buy the first one you see. Make sure it will be reliable and have all the features you need.