Creating an effective, engaging learning course requires more than pretty pictures and fancy animations. The best learning project starts with careful instructional design planning—and the best tools.
For many organizations, training’s effectiveness directly impacts profitability. So, choose the tool that offers the greatest long-term return on investment (ROI) and the tool that you and your team will not outgrow. The better the tool, the better the results.
The growth of eLearning: Why do you need an eLearning authoring tool?
Switching from face-to-face training to eLearning or a blended learning solution (combination of both) reduces or eliminates travel costs and inconsistencies created by having multiple facilitators. Using an authoring tool to build eLearning can help you quickly deliver consistent, easy-to-update learning content to your entire organization. It can also boost productivity, increase employee retention, and allows you to accommodate all of your learner’s needs.
Of course, there are many authoring tools on the market today, so it is extremely important to consider your workplace learning needs and performance goals when selecting software for your organization. As this is where PowerPoint just doesn’t cut it.
Choosing the right eLearning authoring tool for your organization can have a powerful impact on learning effectiveness, and therefore your organization’s business results.
How do you choose an authoring tool?
While all authoring tools will help you develop eLearning, they vary widely in focus and approach. Some tools emphasize ease and speed to enable beginning Instructional Designers (IDs) or Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to rapidly and efficiently publish learning for online delivery. Other eLearning authoring tools boast power and workflows for meeting business needs. A few, offer content management and collaboration features, while others boast built-in tools to help meet WCAG guidelines for authoring accessible eLearning.
With all of these competing priorities, which authoring tool is the best fit for you or your organization? How do you know which tool will help you achieve the best outcomes? And what if your development needs and priorities change from project to project?
In this eBook, we’ll focus on 10 key considerations that will help you choose the right authoring tool to meet your organizational learning and performance objectives.
Consideration 1: Training Requirement & Content Authoring
Table of Contents
- Consideration 1: Training Requirement & Content Authoring
- Consideration 2: Administration & Collaboration
- Consideration 3: Accessibility
- Consideration 4: Inclusion, Translation, & Localization
- Consideration 5: Tools for Productivity & Scalability
- Consideration 6: Interactivity & Mobile (Adaptable & Responsive)
- Consideration 7: Extensibility (Extend Features & Functions)
- Consideration 8: Tracking & Reporting (Training Metrics)
- Consideration 9: Publishing
- Consideration 10: Support & Training
What are the training requirements?
More and more people are getting into the training/learning and development field and creating ever more eLearning products and solutions. Before you choose an authoring tool, it is important to understand the needs and requirements of your specific training project. Does it need to be eLearning or face-to-face training? Would an instructional poster or job aid meet the learner’s needs? Do you need to track if the user completed the training? If it does need to be eLearning do you need images, videos, and/or virtual reality? What are the outcomes that you want this training to accomplish? How are you going to show that you met that goal?
The answers to these questions will vary and this is where a Needs Analysis and/or a Task Analysis is beneficial.
Once you understand the business training needs required, you can decide what can be accomplished with a job aid, a video, or eLearning. With a clear understanding of the project, the eLearning tool features and capabilities can be reviewed to ensure it meets your current and future needs.
Content authoring tools
The foremost feature of any eLearning authoring tool is the ability to create material quickly. Most of these learning projects will include pages or slides, images, text, audio and video.
From there you will look at which tool suits the development need. Are you going to create a simple page-turner or single scrolling course? I.E: if your developers are new to the field and most comfortable with PowerPoint, this might be the most efficient choice. If you have a need for branching scenarios or simulations using analogies and case studies, you will want to make sure your authoring tool can meet those needs.
Consideration 2: Administration & Collaboration
What does eLearning administration mean and how does it work?
Very much like a Learning Management System (LMS) the administration features of your software can be a huge timesaver no matter if you manage a team of users or just yourself.
Organization administration of all users and the tools refers to the flexibility as an administrator to easily manage all of the users within your organization. With this flexibility, this can save an administrator time from managing a separate software inventory spreadsheet. Administrators often want to know how many licenses they currently have, who is using those licenses, and what software or role is available to each user. In addition, many administrators are often the first line of support so they need to be able to assist those users with things like application provisioning and password resets.
Individual administration gives users the ability to navigate the tool and utilize the features and functionalities the way that works best for them. It gives the user the flexibility of a single sign-on along with having the flexibility to set up personal preferences enabling the ability to set up the tool to work in with your own style. Being able to set up language settings, adjust the workspace with movable windows, having a variety of tools, dockable panels, being able to view and preview in multiple modes, and enable auto recovery for those inevitable technical issues are all time-saving features.
How can a tool help with collaboration?
Most eLearning projects involve more than an instructional designer and eLearning developer. Aside from subject matter experts (SMEs), global organizations may have a team developing a course or larger curriculum with the need to share resources. These individuals or teams also need to complete the project on time and the authoring tool should enable collaborative authoring allowing multiple authors to work on the same project, streamline feedback, approvals, and revisions, along with assisting in the overall project management with all the involved stakeholders.
Consideration 3: Accessibility
What is accessibility?
Accessibility in eLearning involves the creation of an online learning experience within which as many people as possible can participate. Around the world, government agencies, those with government contracts, educational institutions, and many businesses focus on accessibility because their country has laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
While there are laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities, these laws vary on if the law applies to public sectors, private sectors, and the government. In Canada, the law is known as Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) or the Canadian Human Rights Act; in Europe, it is the European Accessibility Act (EAA); in Ireland, it is the Discrimination Disability Act (DDA); in England, Scotland and Wales, it is the Equality Act of 2010; or in the United States, it is Section 508. No matter what it is called around the world, people are working diligently to make sure that accessibility standards are harmonized and don’t contradict each other. These laws are most often based on the international, technical standard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
It is essential to be aware of the existing standards and if your project is subject to any laws. This knowledge of whether accessibility is a gesture of goodwill or a crucial requirement will affect the development process and the tools you choose.
Accessibility is often equated with serving the needs of people with disabilities and many businesses look at accessible eLearning as a means to alleviate the litigation threat; if we instead look at accessible eLearning as an opportunity to give learners multiple ways to access the content, we will create a better learning opportunity for all participants.
According to the Center of Disease Control, 26%, or one in four adults in the United States, lives with a disability. If one quarter of your learners cannot access your learning content, imagine the impact on your organization—including profitability.
In the modern workplace, accessible learning has broadened to include considerations for every learner of any age, in any state of health, with different needs and abilities. As the corporate world moves to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, the focus on accessibility has increased as accessibility is an outcome of inclusive design.
“Accessible eLearning” refers to making courses accessible to those with visual, auditory, physical, and/or other disabilities.
How accessibility impacts businesses
Creating accessible online training actually benefits all of your learners, not just those with disabilities. Thus, there is a strong business need to create accessible content. If your learners include older adults or anyone with a disability, your course must be WCAG-friendly. Some authoring tools make it easier than others to execute this. When accessibility becomes an afterthought in the creative process, special (and oftenunsuccessful) workarounds must be employed to make the output accessible. Using an authoring tool that’s designed with accessibility in mind will give you a head start and make developing accessible content easier.
Ensuring that every visual also includes audio or an alt text description read by a screen reader will benefit both a visually impaired learner and an on-the-go learner. For example, the onthe-go learners who want to listen to their training while driving to and from work will have this option. Many learners, not just those who identify as disabled, would appreciate larger text or sharper color contrast.
Accessible eLearning is more convenient and less frustrating for everyone, leading to higher learning retention and greater learner satisfaction all around.
Does the authoring tool help me create accessible courses?
Making sure that everyone can take your eLearning course is at the heart of accessibility. In order to respect the different audiovisual sensory needs of individuals, accessibility features can change or add on-screen elements, interactions and formatting in order to suit different audience needs.
Most of the major authoring tools include features to make it easier to create accessible digital learning. Whether it’s creating a seamless experience or sustaining the learning experience, easy integration makes accessibility an easy implementation.
Some of the adjustments our tools are able to incorporate include:
- Keyboard accessibility
- Alternative text (ALT)
- Organized labels for screen readers
- More learner controls
While following accessibility guidelines and requirements may have you focusing on features and functionality that you need; there’s no reason that an accessible course can’t also be engaging and interactive. We know that it is our duty to ensure knowledge is delivered clearly, concisely to, and for everyone.
As you try authoring tools (many have a free trial), explore the included templates to see if they will support a variety of learning formats, such as accessible formats as well as nonlinear, interactive, adaptive, gaming, just-in-time training, and microlearning formats. Look for interactive templates with builtin navigation, designs that follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and included instructions to give you a head start and reduce development time.
Here’s a list of features to look out for in an authoring tool in order to make your e-learning development more accessible:
- Compliance with Section 508 accessibility guidelines
- WCAG 2.0 support
- Closed captions (CC)
- Keyboard-accessible navigation
- Accessible font sizes
- Custom tab order
- Skip navigation
- Language ID for screen readers
- Translation file export
Consideration 4: Inclusion, Translation, & Localization
Does your authoring tool help with inclusion, translation, and localization?
While not part of Section 508 or WCAG guidelines discussed as the previous consideration, making a course accessible to all (referred to as Inclusive Design) includes considering the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference. We need to consider the learner demographics, locations, and cultures. We know that learners retain more when they can access it in their native language, but we also want the learners to be engaged, motivated and relate to the content.
How can an authoring tool help with inclusion and localization?
Authoring tools cannot identify and remove bias from the writing, but your tool may include visual items (videos, images, cut-out people, icons, etc.) that you can incorporate into your projects to help visually represent diversity. While many tools provide images and cutout characters, can you filter down your image search by gender, age, ethnicity, and country of origin? For the cutout characters, do you have the ability to search and/ or sort the characters by age and ethnicity?
How can an authoring tool help with translation?
If you are creating content for learners across the globe, you may need to evaluate localization features. For example, if your learners speak another language or multiple languages, you may need your authoring tool to have strong translation capabilities, basically a built-in translation workflow. Look for XLIFF support to make translation as simple as possible. XLIFF (XML Localization Interchange File Format) is a standard file used for storing language translation information. A single file can be exported from your project that includes all of the text that needs to be translated in addition to having the format or space for the translator or Language Service Provider (LSP) to enter the translated, localized version of the text, making it easy to import and export localizable data.
Consideration 5: Tools for Productivity & Scalability
What tools or features are included to help me develop my content? In the simplest sense, a rapid authoring tool accelerates training development and delivery. As a general rule of thumb, this speed is accomplished using one or more of the following strategies:
- Provide pre-built templates
- Provide starter content
- Reduce complexity by limiting authoring choices
While those items are important, we should also look at the Authoring tool as a long-term investment; for example, in addition to current requirements, one should also keep an eye on the future when searching for the appropriate system. It is often tempting to make a decision based on the requirements of current projects. But what will the situation be in a few months or in a year or two? Just because a company may not currently need mobile learning, gamification, accessibility, and/ or interesting, unique courses, does not necessarily mean that will be the case in the coming year(s).
It makes sense to choose an authoring tool that not only meets current needs, but also offers development potential for the coming years with a tool that has flexibility and scalability.
What should I look for with flexibility?
What kind of learning do you want to create? Scenarios, games, micro learning, branching, pre-assessments, or through storytelling? Is your tool highly template driven, fully open, or both? Even in eLearning, trends come and go. Some stick around while others don’t. Is your tool investment short-term trendy, or in it for the long haul? Will you hit a wall and be forced to make a costly change when you want to add virtual reality or accessibility? Does your tool encourage the flexibility to create your own layouts and templates? Does it encourage and allow you to reuse learning objects? Sharing and reusing content is very important for today’s developers.
What should I look for with scalability?
How much eLearning content do you need to produce and how quickly? Is there workflow that boosts productivity after your initial investment and does it increase over time? In today’s rapidly changing world, we need to be able to do more with less so the authoring tool should also scale up to the demands of updating and upgrading your projects. While all of the major authoring tools offer themes and templates to assist in your development, and as mentioned with a previous consideration, many of these built-in assets can also be used to assist with the inclusion, localization efforts, and accessibility. Templates can range from a single page layout, to a more complex interaction, to a set of matching layouts with the same overall design scheme. Depending on the project and the deadline, a custom project or organization template set can get you to the finish line in record time. However, basic templates that support rapid authoring may not be enough, especially as you become more experienced.
You want your finished project to be the highest quality possible, or align with your workplace brand or approved course framework or flow, and not all templates will live up to that standard. As you’re trialing authoring tools, really explore the included templates to see if they’ll support a variety of learning formats, like non-linear, interactive, adaptive, gaming, accessible, just-in-time training, and microlearning formats. Look for a tool that offers the development agility you need to grow your learning library and your development team. Look for interactive templates with built-in navigation, designs that follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), and include instructions to help you take your content to the next level.
Another way to save precious time and money is through software integration. This occurs when all of your eLearning tools work together harmoniously. For example, if you have a specific screen recorder or video editor you work with, can that be integrated into your development tool? Do you want to explore virtual reality (VR), having directly integrated tools at your fingertips (versus logging in elsewhere and/or exporting or importing external files) could be a big productivity boost. We will also address integration with a Learning Management System (LMS) with Consideration 09 – Publishing.
Consideration 6: Interactivity & Mobile (Adaptable & Responsive)
Am I going to outgrow the software?
Great eLearning courses incorporate unique and creative ways to engage learners and assess learner knowledge retention. Sure, you could just put a PowerPoint presentation online and call it eLearning, but with a good eLearning authoring tool you can truly create a learning experience. So, it is important that your authoring tool can spark and match your creativity in building interactions and assessments. You can find many prebuilt quizzes and knowledge check templates, but depending on your learning objectives, you may want to customize those or create different styles of interactions. In addition to ensuring your training doesn’t look and feel like every other training, the training projects need to be engaging to a diverse audience, while your development tool needs to be adaptable to the changes within modern technology. All of this requires some different considerations.
As you attend how-to webinars and start to ask questions on user forums, you’ll learn new tricks and ways to push your eLearning development. At that point, you may find yourself outgrowing the more basic, linear templates. Then, the more exciting things about developing eLearning is dreaming up new ways to add interactivity to a course. If your authoring app is not flexible enough to let you develop higher-level cognitive exercises, your results won’t be as amazing as they could be.
Look for the following features in the authoring tools you’re considering:
- Strong Interactivity
- Quizzing & Assessments
- Tracking and Analyzing
These functions will give the tool the most longevity as you strengthen your instructional design and development skills.
Some of the most commonly used interactions are scenarios, click and reveals, drag and drops and hotspots.
Scenarios allow you to incorporate higher level cognitive reasoning into a course by challenging the learner to think deeply about what choice to make. Branching scenarios in particular allow you to realistically show the learner how both positive and negative choices might play out.
Click and reveal interactions provide an excellent way to share a large amount of information in small chunks. You can organize information into categories and get the learner interacting with your content instead of just skimming text and clicking “Next.”
You can turn almost anything into a drag and drop. Suppose you’re trying to educate employees on what items are recyclable versus compostable versus just plain trash. You could create a drag and drop challenge where the learner has to drop the waste item into the appropriate receptacle.
Drag and drop interactions are also great for testing personal protective equipment (PPE) knowledge. Present the learner with a scenario and have them drag the appropriate PPE onto a cutout character or silhouette.
Hotspots are another versatile function. You can use a hotspot to create an invisible button, that only does something when hovered over or clicked on. For example, you could add hotspots to a detailed graphic of an engine, and ask the learner to click on different parts to learn more about each. The hotspot would then trigger a popup with more information.
As you get more comfortable with eLearning development, you’ll see how you can use actions, variables, and triggers in your authoring tool to create more complex interactions. If you want to be able to create really out-of-the-box, unexpected interactions, you need an authoring tool that gives you that flexibility.
How do they support computers and multiple mobile devices?
According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, over 85% of Americans own smartphones and that increases to 95% of Americans between 30 – 49 and 96% of Americans between the ages of 18 – 29, with higher percentages in other countries.
Another Pew Research Center survey stated that in 2016, Americans between the ages of 21 to 36 became the largest segment of today’s workforce and smartphones rarely leave their side. Creating a course that is “responsive” or mobilefriendly is now a typical requirement, not an afterthought; as employers do not want to risk pulling workers away from their jobs as that is counterproductive.
Some types of eLearning, such as “time-of-need” or “just-intime” training and “microlearning,” which refers to short bursts of content for learners to study at their convenience, are directly dependent upon how content works or “responds” to mobile devices. Therefore, selecting an authoring tool with strong “Responsive Design” capabilities should be a top consideration. You’ll need it to provide an optimal user experience across phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, ensuring your courses can be taken as comfortably on a PC as on a smartphone. The key question is, how do you create mobile content in an authoring tool?
Obviously, you’ll want the responsive design creation process to be very easy or automated. You’ll also want to have control over how it looks. Sometimes an automated one-size-fits-all approach could make your course look terrible, so you want a tool that offers more options and can meet your requirements.
Consideration 7: Extensibility (Extend Features & Functions)
How easy is it to extend the feature & functions?
Extensibility (sometimes referred to as expandability) is a software design principle that measures both the ability to extend the features and functions of a tool beyond its natural capabilities, along with the level of effort required to implement the extension. As a developer, can this be done over time without changing tools? Are you sacrificing the long-term ability to grow (ROI) and the total cost of ownership (TCO) for simplicity and speed?
The degree an author needs to learn how to write custom code to accomplish everyday tasks varies widely across tools. With a few authoring tools, like the open-source Adapt Learning framework, some basic coding ability is more or less a prerequisite to success. On the other end of the spectrum, the most highly templatized tools trade extensibility in favor of ease of use; Articulate® Rise does not allow extension using custom code.
Consideration 8: Tracking & Reporting (Training Metrics)
Are training metrics easy to track and do they measure effectiveness and impact?
While creating flashy interactions and assessments is just one facet of eLearning development, you also want to make sure that your projects are driving knowledge retention, not just looking cool.
The newest standard for tracking learner activity is the Experience API (xAPI). Note some may still refer to xAPI using the original project name “Tin Can”. This specification makes it possible to collect data about the wide range of experiences a learner has.
How does xAPI work? Any activity in your course—a button click, a video view, the amount of time spent considering a multiple choice question before selecting an answer—can be recorded with an xAPI statement. This gives you far more insight about areas your learners are struggling with and what content they’re fully understanding than previous learning specifications offered.
If your authoring tool supports xAPI, you’ll should be able to select from built-in xAPI statements or create your own custom statements. When an activity needs to be recorded, the application sends secure statements in the form of “Noun, verb, object” or “I did this” to a Learning Record Store (LRS.)
The LRS records all of the statements made and can share these statements with other LRSs. An LRS can exist on its own, or inside a Learning Management System (LMS).
Does your learning tool allow you to use the full power of xAPI? Can you can track learner behavior inside a project with or without an LMS/LRS? Ensure that your tool allows you to use xAPI statements to track offline learning and without any crossdomain limitations. In addition, your tool should allow you to create custom xAPI statements to add the provided statements.
Consideration 9: Publishing
What publishing options are available?
You will want to verify what required format is needed for your particular delivery platform. Most authoring tools will publish your project to a SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), AICC (Aviation Industry CBT Committee) or xAPI (formerly known as TinCan) package. This package can then be imported into a LMS (Learning Management System) or LRS (Learning Record Store) which will allow the learners’ progress to be tracked.
When the authoring tool is publishing, you will want to ensure it is not publishing to Flash (discontinued by Adobe® in 2020) and that it does produce an HTML5 output, needed for viewing on mobile devices.
As referenced in an earlier consideration, direct integration with your specific LMS (such as SumTotal, HealthStream™, and Saba®) can impact your authoring tool decision as the direct integration can be another time saver for you and your team.
Consideration 10: Support & Training
What type of support and training do you want or need?
Both novice and expert developers will benefit from access to readily available product support and training. Software products usually come equipped with a knowledge base and or some form of documentation. Some also offer an online community where you can interact with other developers and designers, ask questions, and get troubleshooting help.
While some resources will be better than others, being unable to reach an actual person in your moment of need can be frustrating. Therefore, you will want a clear understanding of how support tickets are handled and who answers them. While very few companies offer on-demand phone support 24/7, they should at least offer a phone number, live chat support, and/or a sales representative who can assist during urgent situations. It is also worth asking if product support comes with your purchase, or if it is charged separately as this can make a big difference in your authoring experience.
Permanent contacts, workshops, webinars, consultancy services, both before and after the purchase are all measures of good service, thus creating a trustful rapport with the service provider as this is normally a long-term relationship.
In addition to regularly scheduled webinars, some additional support and training could include: tutorials and how-to guides, video guides, updates and upgrades. The company should also include instructor-led training through the company or training partners.