If you’re in the business of designing and developing eLearning, you probably have had to create one or more software simulations. For some of you reading this, systems training may be all you do. It’s a rare business nowadays that doesn’t use computer software to store and retrieve information, communicate with team members or customers, and make its employees more productive.

This hinges, of course, on whether or not we use the software wisely. If you are told to start using the new CRM’s BIMS to ensure GMP, your first instinct might be to run. However, you breathe a sigh of relief when you find out the company offers training on the subject. If then you find that the training does little more than explain that this means you need to know the Customer Relationship Manager’s Business Information Management Suite to ensure Good Manufacturing Practices, you would probably feel just slightly more enlightened.

Approaches to creating software simulations

Software training, systems learning, and desktop simulations are all synonymous. Every software application requires that users learn enough to employ its features and avoid frustration. There is no software that does everything for everybody and so there is always something more to learn, especially because new updates and releases occur; sometimes sporadically, sometimes frequently.

In many instances, it may be enough to show users how to perform a task when it is simple and intuitive. When the task requires multiple steps, however, users will usually need to practice those steps in a safe environment. I’m reminded of a large project I oversaw to develop interactive for the POS (Point of Sales) systems in post offices. At the time, the USPS had implemented a new system that comprised 12 different devices and the learning had to run on those same devices without interference. As an example, we needed to let the postal clerks practice printing shipping labels that normally include the cost of shipping. In so doing, we had to ensure that those labels generated by the learning all calculated $0.00, otherwise it would have affected the accounting system’s revenue statements! This took an extra effort on our part to have our software simulations reach out and communicate with different devices. Most software simulations, though, don’t need this level of sophistication. However, learners can always benefit by practicing the software tasks they need to perform rather than just watch a demo.

A range of choices

Today, there are many ways to create software simulations that demonstrate a series of steps. However, few of them allow you to easily let learners practice those steps. Many are free; others are included as part of an authoring tool; and some dedicated software simulation applications are powerful and more expensive. Which do you choose? It all depends on what your learners need to use the software that is required they know. You need to find the balance between not giving them enough and going overboard.

A simple online search will show that there are many available tools that will record your screen while you go through the steps you need to show learners. However, almost all of them don’t create simulations that test learners on which steps to take; they just record the screen and produce a linear video. That can be very helpful but may not be enough.

Here are three true authoring tools for which software simulations are just one feature among many. I have listed them in alphabetical order. Two of these will be familiar to many readers; one will likely not be as familiar. All three allow for:

  • The creation of software simulations in more than one mode, including at least:
    • Demonstration, which may also be called View
    • Training, also called Practice or Try
    • Test, also called Assessment
  • The ability to add interactions, shapes, images, and more to the simulation
  • Publishing to HTML5
  • Communication with a learning management system or learning record store

Be sure to note, however, how each of these takes a different approach to publishing to different modes. Each of these tools provides a free trial version so you can try it before you buy it.

Adobe Captivate 2019

Adobe Captivate is available for both Windows and Macintosh. Before starting the simulation, you can tell Captivate to create one-to-four separate slide files: Demonstration, Training, Assessment, and Custom. You can turn individual settings on or off for each slide file. Once you finish recording, Captivate will open each of the files you’ve chosen (you can have many files open in Captivate at the same time). If you wish, you can then copy the slides from one file and paste them in another. For instance, you can copy the slides form the Training slides and add them to the bottom of the Demonstration slides. Grouping the slides makes this easier.

Captivate lets you create responsive projects, those that readjust the output to fit the learner’s screen size and orientation with no wasted space. When you record a software simulation from within a responsive project and you play it back on a smart phone, it intelligently switches between showing a zoomed out full screen version when necessary and zooming in to show what is being clicked or typed. You can adjust each slide as needed.

You can license Captivate at $33.99/month; this entitles you to every new version as long as you keep your subscription. This is the least expensive option. You can also purchase a perpetual license for $1,299 (or $399 for students and teachers). Other options are available. See more at https://www.adobe.com/products/captivate.

Articulate Storyline 360

Storyline is available for Windows only, though you should be able to run it on a fast Macintosh with a Windows emulator. Once you have recorded the steps, you choose to create slides as View, Try, or Test, and a scene will be created that contains the slides. You can take advantage of the already recorded screencast and insert them again into a second scene, then to a third (or add them to the first scene). In this fashion, you can choose to have a scene for View, another for Try, and another for Test. You can adjust each slide as needed.

Storyline does not produce responsive lessons, though its player will adjust responsively. This means the table of contents, comments area, and any other items you wish to include as part of the player will adjust but the content you create does not adjust to the screen size. With software simulations, this can be especially problematic because on small devices the simulation may be too small to see clearly. If you need to deliver software simulations on mobile devices, take care to create them so that you’re not squeezing too much content on small screens.

Storyline’s pricing is $999 per year for individuals or $1,299 per year for team members. This gives you access to all the tools in the Articulate 360 Suite. Team members receive extra services and discounts are available. See more at https://articulate.com/360.

Atomi ActivePresenter 8

In this tool, available for both Windows and Mac platforms, you go through the sequence of steps and it creates the slides for you. You can then publish separately to Demonstration, Tutorial, Practice, and Test lessons. This is convenient but doesn’t allow you to easily combine modes in one lesson, such as first showing a Demonstration and then allowing the learner to Practice within one lesson.

ActivePresenter also lets you create responsive projects and, like Captivate, also intelligently chooses how to show each slide when published. If this is not to your liking, you can make changes to the approach in the player settings. Another nice feature is the ability to fine-tune output for each object in a slide. You can open its properties and select in which modes it should show, from one to all four modes.

ActivePresenter pricing is reasonable. For the standard version, it’s $199 for a perpetual license and $399 for a pro license, each with one year of free upgrades. Volume and educational pricing are available. After the first year, upgrades cost 40% of the original price. See more at https://atomisystems.com/activepresenter/.

Other choices

Consider the very popular Techsmith Camtasia if you need to create screencasts that you intend to publish to video. It contains some great video editing features. It does not allow for all kinds of interactions but it does allow quiz questions to be inserted. A Camtasia perpetual license is $249. See more at https://www.techsmith.com/video-editor.html.

WalkMe is a high-end tool for enterprises. It places an invisible overlay on top of running software to record the steps users take and create training as a result. Your IT department works with WalkMe to allow it to operate correctly. Consult WalkMe to receive a price quote at https://www.walkme.com/.

Know of another tool comparable to those above? Let me know about it in the comments section below.

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