6_-_730_x_350Interactivity is at the heart of today’s best e-learning content; the days of passively reading plain text on a page are fading away. Educators need to keep learners stimulated through deeper engagement, and requiring users to interact with material enriches the experience and reinforces the lessons at hand. Interactive training material can be created without much technical know-how thanks to authoring tools – software that enables the building and packaging of e-learning content.

When it comes to selecting an authoring tool, consider what software is best suited to building a particular course, and how its features can be harnessed to get the job done and meet learning objectives. Ask yourself:

  • Is it easy to use? Is the design and layout easy on the eye and easy to navigate? Is the UI intuitive?
  • What features does it have? As well as integrating media, you may want some kind of assessment capability or feedback function. Collaborative authoring might be another selling point, usually offered by online-only tools. While content authoring tools abound in the form of both desktop and web offerings, cloud-based systems usually incorporate more flexibility, sharing, and the ability for real-time collaboration. Conversely, installed packages can pack a more powerful punch in terms of the number and scope of features.
  • Conversely, what limitations are there? Is it a WYSIWYG tool, or will you need programming nous to find your way around? Are there templates for content, and if so, just how customizable are they? What output formats are supported – Flash, HTML5? Take into account any key features that might be missing, such as audio or video recording capability, and factor in the cost of those additional tools.

For starters, here are five great authoring tools that don’t require a wealth of technical knowledge to use.

Articulate

Articulate boasts more than 30,000 customers, including Microsoft, GE, FedEx, Dell, and Visa. It offers two different packages: Studio and Storyline.

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Studio is based around the ubiquitous Microsoft Powerpoint software and is geared toward users with Powerpoint training content that they want to repurpose, enabling quick conversion of presentations into e-courses. Studio encompasses four key packages: Presenter, Engage, Quizmaker and Video Encoder. Respectively, these four tools enable the creation of Flash-based presentations, assessments and surveys, quizzes and interactive content, and video conversion or recording.

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Storyline ups the ante; while it also has a Powerpoint import facility, it’s a rather advanced tool aimed at more experienced developers and more complex projects. With Storyline, you can create virtually any type of quiz, course, interactive content, or software simulation, either built from scratch or using a template. Content is input via form-style fields, or placed into slides via drag-and-drop.

Users can build interactive scenarios, making objects react to user actions – for example, a button could change color once clicked – or triggering feedback in response to interactions, such as an incorrect response to a question. These can also branch out into evermore complex storylines. What’s more, they’re reusable, meaning they can be duplicated in other projects and tweaked as needed – a real time saver for anyone building multiple courses along similar lines.

One of the most powerful features is the screen recording function and the option to augment the resulting video with captions, characters, and various effects. If you want to create a software simulation, Storyline will automatically break it up into step-by-step tutorials. Learners can watch how to perform a task in view mode, then try it out for themselves and assess their aptitude in test mode. Plus, content can be tailored to the needs of individual learners – for example, if a person performs poorly on an assessment, you could choose to insert additional information at the end for their benefit.

Output formats are web and mobile friendly, including HTML5, Flash and iOS compatibility (Studio can also publish to Word, podcasts, and CD). Articulate offers a 30-day free trial on its products; both Studio and Storyline are currently on sale for $1398. Download to use.

Adobe Captivate

Adobe Captivate is e-learning software with all the bells and whistles. While it’s in direct competition with Articulate, the overall learning curve will likely be steeper for non Creative Suite users, though those already used to the Adobe interface through its other packages like Photoshop will probably find it familiar.

Captivate allows you to build on its themes and templates to create your own content, and maintain consistent formatting by defining object styles at the outset. You can import material from a variety of formats, including Powerpoint, documents, images, sound, animation and video. Extras to make your courses come alive include a host of characters and themes. Alternatively, switch it up with participatory elements such as quizzes and branching scenarios. Want to record HD video or simulations, and add effects? No problem. Given that Adobe pioneered Flash, it’s no surprise the animation tools are especially comprehensive.

Other nifty options in Captivate include aggregating multiple content modules into a single course, and hosting published or in-progress projects in the cloud to be shared with other reviewers or learners. (Many users report that Captivate generates somewhat bloated file sizes, which may be worth considering.)

Articulate can publish projects to the web, desktop, YouTube, or mobile (through HTML5); it’s also developed its own mobile player app to render content specifically for the iPad. Adobe Captivate requires a download; a full license costs $899, and there’s a 30-day trial version.

Composica

Composica stands out for its inherently social features. It’s a compelling proposition that’s landed customers including Intel, DHL, Travelex, Mitsubishi, and Johnson & Johnson.

It enables real-time collaboration among team members with chat, blog, task, dashboard and commenting functions. Any resource within Composica can be tagged, from the course itself, to documents, tasks, and media files. The tags can then be used to search, filter, and sort through items, with tag clouds showing which tags are most popular.

In terms of its content authoring capabilities, Composica offers a WYSIWYG layout, and the user interface itself is available in multiple languages. A range of file formats (documents, images, audio and video) are supported – yes, you can import that Powerpoint – or take it to the next level with the built-in audio recording tool and integration of YouTube, Google Charts, RSS feeds and mashups. Those who want to build on that dimension even further will be spoiled for choice in customizable interactions, from multi-choice to fill-in-the-blanks to educational games and more.

Composica’s highly interactive on the front end, too – learners can rate objects as well as see how others evaluated them. Moderated or open course blogs can be embedded within the content, adding another two-way opportunity to engage.

Composica allows for publishing to the web, executable apps and zip files. There are both online and downloadable packages (starting from $150 a month for hosted), with a 30-day free trial.

Lectora

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Lectora Inspire is another all-inclusive WYSWIG-style program, reminiscent of the Microsoft Office package. Its technology has been used by the likes of KMPG, Nestle, Bank of America and NASA to develop online courses.

Its built-in wizards and templates enable you to simply drag-and-drop content as desired, from documents to interactive games and animations from the Lectora library. Your media and files can be shared online with other Lectora users, too, which is handy if you’re working in tandem with a team to create e-learning courses – no need to email, FTP or store files on a network.

Audio and video is well catered for, as Lectora Inspire comes bundled with the latest screen capture, recording and animation software in the form of FlyPaper, Camtasia, and Snagit, enabling you to quickly create dynamic video and custom Flash content. Alternatively, it also supports the streaming of inserted videos from the internet.

Lectora can automatically push HTML5-compliant content to the web, mobile, CD or DVD. If you’re publishing online, then the appropriate HTML code for web browsers will be generated.

Lectora Inspire is downloadable software (there are also ‘lite’ versions, Lectora Publisher and Lectora Online) with a starter price tag of $2495 and a 30-day free trial option.

KnowledgePresenter

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KnowledgePresenterX is e-learning authoring software that operates in a drag-and-drop WYSIWYG-style environment; editing can be done step-by-step, slide by slide basis, or on a timeline basis, for those who prefer to keep one eye on the bigger picture.

Its capabilities, particularly in multimedia, stem from integration with other KnowledgePresenter applications – Capture, Simulator, DocumentaryMaker, and Learner Manager. As the names suggest, these enable screenshot capture for software simulations, recording and editing of live screen action, creating videos from digital images, and tracking the progress of learners.

If you’d prefer to use existing content from else, KnowledgePresenter supports the insertion and conversion of a number of media formats, plus embedding of YouTube videos. Complement this with surveys, narrated tours, presentations, quizzes and more; question options include multi-choice, matching, sequencing, true/false, and other answers.

Content can be exported to mobile, browser, .exe application, images, Word, Powerpoint, HTML, Flash, or for Windows Media. More recently, KnowledgePresenter added the ability to develop mobile apps, in particular, for iPhone/iPad/iPod.

KnowledgePresenter costs $1999 to purchase, and requires a download to install.

And here’s something extra

These days, you’d be hard pressed to find an e-learning course that doesn’t include some form of video content. Training videos are an increasingly popular way to involve learners in a fun, engaging manner, and GoAnimate makes it easy to create animated video lessons.

 

Basic accounts are free and there are plans specifically tailored for schools and businesses. Either build on a template using the Quick Video Maker – choose a background, characters, type or record your dialogue and press play – or take full creative control with the Full Video Maker and its drag-and-drop tools. As director of your own video, you’ll choose your own sets, camera angles, and audio tracks. Dialogue can be recorded, input via text, or imported as audio files.

The finished videos can be shared to YouTube and Facebook and used to complement your own interactive e-courses. It’s a great method for reinforcing key messages that learners can both see and hear, enriching the overall experience and increasing the likelihood of retention.