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eLearning Authoring Tools

by Ron Kurtus (revised 20 January 2006)

eLearning authoring tools are software applications that allow you present the course material, sometimes along with animations, audio or video.

These tools also include the capability to provide interactive tests or exams and to save the grades for the instructor. (Note that we are not talking about course management applications here.) The authoring tools are divided into those for Internet delivery and those for CD-ROM or DVD delivery.

At the basic level, Microsoft Powerpoint and Adobe Dreamweaver and Flash are used to author eLearning applications. Macromedia Authorware and Director and SumTotal Toolbook II fill in the next level and are especially used in Computer-Based Training (CBT) applications, where the material is distributed on a CD-ROM. There are also numerous other proprietary authoring tools available, many including course management capabilities. At the academic level, BlackBoard seems to be the major player. Since companies come and go, the best best is to depend on the major software sources.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions.



Basic level

Although Authorware and Toolbook were once major players in the development of CBT titles, they have now been deligated to a minor role. Microsoft PowerPoint and Macromedia Dreamweaver and Flash are the primary basic eLearning development tools.

PowerPoint

At the simplest level, you can use Microsoft PowerPoint or a similar presentation application to author eLearning. Although a PowerPoint slideshow is usually linear, you can include hyperlinks to jump to other sections. This allows the user to get more detail on a subject of interest. You can also include audio and video clips in a PowerPoint presentation. Testing and scoring is not easy in PowerPoint.

A PowerPoint presentation can be distributed as a CBT or WBT. Delivery on the Web can be viewed either graphically or as text-only.

HTML and JavaScript

Standard HTML pages that include quizzes written in the JavaScript language is a simple way of developing eLeaning material for Internet delivery.

Dreamweaver and Flash

Dreamweaver offers the Coursebuilder extersion that allows the addition of testing to Web pages in an eLearning application.

Animations can be done in Flash, making for a very flexible and usable product that can be delivered via the Internet or on a CD-ROM. Sometimes Director is used instead of Flash, because of its program language capabilities.

Mid-level programs

Besides the development techniques, there are other factors to consider. such as cost, distribution, and use on the Internet.

The cost factor

The cost of buying the program can be a factor for those without the "deep pockets" of a large corporation. As of August 2000, Authorware costs $2,699 from Macromedia and ToolBook II Instructor 7.2 cost $2,495 from Click2learn. Schools and colleges can get the programs for around $1000 from educational vendors..

Distribution of code

In order to distribute your work on floppy disks, you need to compile your CBT as a run-time file. An Authorware title can be compiled into an executable (.EXE) file, which can be easily distributed on at the minimum of a single 1.4 MB floppy. Toolbook requires run-time files and .DLLs that fill a minimum of three 1.4 MB disks.

The Internet connection

Both Toolbook II and the latest version of Authorware can be distributed over the Web, but the solution is less than grand.

Toolbook uses Java or Neuron

A Toolbook CBT can be compiled as an HTML file, using Java for some effects. Unfortunately, most of the special effects available through the standard Toolbook files, that are scripted with OpenScript, can not be used in this form.

A regular Toolbook CBT can also be viewed on the Web using Asymetrix's free plug-in Neuron. That seems to work fairly well, but it is limited to computers using Windows 3.11, 95, or NT.

Authorware uses Shockwave

The Macromedia solution to sending material over the Internet is to use their Shockwave plug-in. They have a Shockwave plug-in for their Director program, as well as a separate plug-in for Authorware.

Shockwave for Authorware chunks the data sent, so that interactions do not take as much time. It seems to work fairly well.

Other choices

There are numerous other programs used for CBT authoring.

Allen Communications Quest is probably ranked third in popularity. An advantage of Quest is that it is closely integrated with their Designer's Edge instructional design application.

Summary

Although Authorware has many advantages, I feel that Toolbook still is a good choice for most CBT development. I certainly like its ease of use. Also, Authorware can be an overkill for straightforward projects. On the other hand, the tie-in with Director and Shockwave makes Authorware a potent tool of the future for sophisticated titles.


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