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Content builders
- tools for e-learning authors

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by Clive Shepherd
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Design may be the most important element in the development of e-learning content, but it's not always the most difficult. There's a lot of work to be done in transferring your ideas from the script to the browser and plenty of scope for disaster. In this article, Clive Shepherd takes a look at the tools that are currently on the market to help you 'author' your e-learning content and tries to work out whether you're better off with or without them.

Contents
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When design isn't enough
History lessons
Along comes the web
Specialist e-learning tools
Making your choice
Authoring tools compared
Resources

When design isn't enough
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Those who, for some reason or another, have been following this column in recent months, may have detected a certain hobby horse of mine - at least the one I've found myself riding most often so far in 2001. If, even more extraordinarily, you have missed out on all this, let me recap. It's my opinion that the biggest single problem facing e-learning is the quality of design. Far too many e-learning products are re-workings of CD-ROM designs based on outdated theories of adult learning. We need more collaboration between learners and other humans, more relevant, practical activities for learners to participate in and content that today's learners will find engaging. If designers have the will to make these changes, then they will find a way. It's essentially an intellectual and creative challenge.

But, as any builder will tell you, as he looks aghast at the architect's plans, it's one thing coming up with a design and another thing entirely constructing it. Building e-learning content is, as they say, non-trivial. And generally speaking, the more imaginative, engaging and interactive the design, the harder it will be to assemble it and then make it work with the browsers used by your target audience, within realistic bandwidth constraints and compatible with those all-so-important emerging technical standards. You get the picture.

The development of e-learning content is just a bit technical and this creates a business opportunity. Find some programmers who positively thrive on technical difficulties, and have them build a tool that reduces the complexities for others, effectively making themselves redundant. Amazingly they will do this and the good news is, they have. The bad news is that the programmers were American and so the tools are called 'authoring systems'. Unfortunately, these tools will not help you to win any Booker prizes as you can't do any writing with an authoring system. You can, however, build e-learning content.
 
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History lessons
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The concept of an authoring system is not a new one. As long as there has been computer-based learning - and that's well over 20 years now - we've had highly sophisticated tools to assist us in product development. Few readers will want to admit their recollections of such legendary brands as Plato, Wicat, TenCore and Microtext, yet these systems provided interactive capabilities which many products fail to deliver today.

In the 90s, three products emerged as front runners in the race to support the potential of multimedia CD-ROM on PCs and Macs. Macromedia Director provided the animation capabilities and audio-visual power. Authorware, from the same stable, along with Toolbook from Asymetrix (now Click2Learn) provided the specific functionality required for learning applications. These tools matured and provided an increasingly-sophisticated feature set. All was well, but then along came the Internet.

As you may have heard me say before, networks change everything. E-learning provides pleasures that CD-ROM could only dream of, not least interaction between learners and between learners and tutors. It also brings its share of pains, largely because of constrained bandwidth (even a x1 CD-ROM - and yes they did once exist - supplied data at 170K a second, whereas some of us are still stuck with 28K modems).

All at once, nobody wanted to make learning applications that ran as executable files on CD-ROMs or from hard drives; they wanted network delivery through a browser. And that's when the fun started. Products like Director, Authorware and Toolbook output their data in the form of massive files in their own proprietary formats. The only way that browser delivery could be accomplished was using special plug-ins (Shockwave for the Macromedia products and Neuron for Toolbook) and then only with severe bandwidth difficulties. Because, for some peculiar reason, many IT departments seem to regard plug-ins as of the work of the devil, and bandwidth constraints are going to be with us for years to come, these could only be temporary solutions. E-learning needed e-learning authoring tools.

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Along comes the web
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Luckily, the huge success of the World Wide Web created a flurry of activity from tool makers, initially those working from a garage, followed eventually by the household brands, to support the millions of enthusiasts building web pages. In the spirit of the web, these tools ranged in price from free to very cheap, but were still feature-packed and generally reliable. Of course these tools were not made for producing e-learning, but that didn't stop them being used for that purpose.
There are hundreds of web development tools, many of these HTML editors, but some providing WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) facilities that keep a distance between the developer and the code. Using just the basic facilities of HTML and without special coding in scripting languages such as JavaScript, it is possible to produce quite reasonable e-learning materials, albeit with a very restricted range of interactivity.

Add JavaScript to the mix and you can do just about everything you need interactively, including all sorts of question and answer routines, dragging and dropping and simulations. The problem is that, although JavaScript sounds like a friendly sort of a language, it requires serious programming and the help of a programmer, serious or otherwise. Your typical e-learning developer should not be expected to do this sort of work.

So back to the toolmakers. Surely they will extend their tools to provide templates and editors that allow you to create the interactivity required in e-learning, without the need for direct contact with the code. Well in one case they have: Macromedia have created an extension to Dreamweaver, perhaps now the de facto WYSIWYG web editor, called Coursebuilder, which does just that. There are no similar facilities in Microsoft FrontPage or any of the other web development tools, but then only a very small proportion of their customers are using the tools to create learning materials.

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Specialist e-learning tools
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Most developers agree that e-learning product should conform to the standards of the web - HTML, JavaScript, perhaps a little Flash or Java - and not require users to download enormous plug-ins just so they can view the output of legacy authoring systems. On the other hand, not all e-learning developers have access to programming support and will not want to be restricted to simple HTML. They need something more than generalist web tools.

A number of new, specialist e-learning authoring tools have arrived to fill the space. Each provides the functionality of a full-blown authoring system, yet delivers its output as standard web files. Several of these have attracted a strong reputation, not least Trainersoft, with more than 4000 users, and the strangely-named DazzlerMax from MaxIT.

So as not to be left behind, Click2Learn has adapted Toolbook, so authors now have the option of outputting directly to HTML and JavaScript. Unfortunately, similar functionality is not available for Authorware or Director.

And, of course, with the enormous projected growth of e-learning, there will be many new entrants to the market, exploiting new technologies and new approaches to development. Amongst these is Edugen, from Maris Technologies, which is based on XML, to provide platform independence and the flexible deployment of a learning object-based approach.

Specialist e-learning authoring systems do have their advantages. They should protect the developer from the need for specialist programming expertise. They should make it easy for the developer to employ a wide range of interactive techniques and to have their content communicate with a learning management system. If there is a price to pay, it is some loss of flexibility: the easier the tool is to use, the less you can do with it. But given that the real worth of e-learning content is in the design and the writing and not the bells and whistles, many developers will be prepared to sacrifice a little flexibility if it means a sensible budget and timetable.
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Making your choice
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For some e-learning developers an authoring system is simply not an issue. If your course consists of collaborative activities, web research, individual assignments, downloadable documents and virtual classroom events - and this includes most educational online courses - then there is no need for an authoring system. Yes, you'll need simple web development tools and the aid of specialist software for collaboration, tracking and running virtual classrooms, but these are relatively non-technical and easily available. Authoring tools are primarily needed when you require sophisticated interactivity between the learner and the materials - tutorials, assessments, simulations, games, animated models and so on.

If this describes your needs you have - as I have already described - two main choices: you purchase an e-learning authoring tool or you use a general purpose web development tool and bring in some specialist programming support.
Some choose to the former. Barry Conway is Head of E-learning at Unipart Advanced Learning Systems: "We chose Authorware primarily because it is specifically geared to creating interaction, including dynamic student pathways. It also helps us control the way the final product looks on the user's screen, as well as keeping our code completely secure." Barry is aware that some users will have an issue with the Authorware plug-in (it's a one-time 8MB download) but believes that the end result justifies this inconvenience.

Others go with generic web development tools. Norman Lamont is an e-learning developer at Lloyds Bank. Norman's been using Dreamweaver for a couple of years now, and the Coursebuilder extensions for the past few months: "Dreamweaver is excellent for building web pages and whole sites. The Coursebuilder add-on provides a good way of doing things like drag-and-drop and giving feedback to questions - things for which you'd otherwise need to be very proficient in JavaScript." However, Norman is cautious about the extent to which you can divorce yourself from the code: "The more you understand about the underlying HTML and JavaScript, the more you have control. If you don't know any HTML, you're likely to be surprised by what appears in your browser. No web tool can be fully WYSIWYG."

SmartForce has one of the world's largest development teams, based in Ireland and multiple US locations. For their latest generation of e-learning product, they've chosen a hybrid approach. Says Dr Ed Hatton, Head of Instructional Design: "We use Flash for animations with integrated audio and Director for simulations where we need a tightly-defined environment. Surrounding this is our own custom web interface, built using standard web tools." Although the use of Flash and Director requires users to have the Shockwave plug-in, this is so widely used as to be almost ubiquitous.

When you're teaching software applications, a specialist tool can come in handy. Gill Breeze is an IT trainer at law firm Morgan Cole: "We looked for a tool that could reproduce the environments of any application, even bespoke ones. We wanted to be able to create practical exercises, that could be authored without difficulty in-house, and which combined an administration module to create syllabuses, keep records of skills achieved and plot progress. TutorPro came out in a very good light."
What about the specialist studios? Epic Group is the UK's largest developer of bespoke e-learning applications. Andrew Hooley is Production Director, Technology: "We will use authoring systems if that is what our clients require, but more generally we use our own custom-built library of templates produced by our programming team. Many clients are resistant to the use of anything other than standard HTML and JavaScript, so we seldom even use Flash or Java." David Welham is Director of Learning Technology at KnowledgePool: "In the past we have used Authorware for applications delivered on CD-ROM, but we have yet to find a similarly-featured tool designed for the web. So at present we create our own routines, although we're always on the lookout for new tools."

New e-learning developer Brightwave Learning has created its own tool, called WavePool, specifically for large-scale development using teams of specialists. Says Simon Brown: "We work with the client to come up with an overall design, from which we will map out a series of templates. Subject-matter experts are then able to work directly with the tool, through their web browser, to populate the templates with content. For ease of maintenance, we store this content in a database, although for delivery it is converted to standard HTML and JavaScript. Using this tool, we find it is possible to produce an hour of high quality content in about three person days."

In January of 2001, The MASIE Center conducted a survey to find out how e-learning content was being created. Of 1615 respondents, 85% were using standard document creation tools, such as Word and PowerPoint; 71% were using generic web development tools; 52% were using learning-specific authoring systems; 47% were using programming tools; and 38% were using authoring tools built into a learning management system, such as LearningSpace and Blackboard. Clearly, developers are tending to use a combination of methods.

As you will have guessed by now, there's no standard way of developing web-based e-learning content and certainly no right way. Most of the professional development studios use their programmers to create custom tools that suit their own working methods and styles. In-house units and teams of one are much more likely to employ an off-the-shelf tool which helps them to avoid the technical minefields and concentrate on the realisation of their designs. If you do choose to purchase a tool, you'll want to ensure it has the right functionality for the job in hand and a way of delivering the end-product that conforms to the hardware and software capabilities of your audience. 
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Authoring tools compared

Tool Purpose Browser delivery
Authorware Learning applications Using Macromedia Authorware Web Player
Director Interactive multimedia Using Macromedia Shockwave Web Player
Flash Web animation and interactivity Using Macromedia Flash Player (also included in Shockwave Player)
Toolbook Learning applications Either using Click2Learn Neuron plug-in or standard HTML and JavaScript
ReadyGo Learning applications HTML and JavaScript
Trainersoft Learning applications HTML and JavaScript
DazzlerMax Learning applications Java
TutorPro IT training applications OCX file
Dreamweaver General web development HTML and JavaScript
Coursebuilder E-learning templates as an add-on to Dreamweaver HTML and JavaScript
FrontPage General web development HTML and JavaScript

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Resources
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Authoring tools:
Authorware 5, Director, Flash 5, Dreamweaver from Macromedia
www.macromedia.com 

Toolbook II from Click2Learn
www.click2learn.com

Trainersoft 7
www.trainersoft.com 

DazzlerMax from MaxIT
www.maxit.com 

ReadyGo
www.readygo.com 

Edugen from Maris Technologies
www.maris.com

Software simulation tools:
TutorAuthor from TutorPro
www.tutorpro.com 

LeeLou from Qarbon
www.qarbon.com 

iTutor from SAP
www.sap.com 

RapidBuilder from Xstream Software
www.xtreamsoftware.com

WizTIM from Wizart
www.wizart.com 

Assessment tools:
QuestionMark Perception
www.questionmark.com 

SmartTest from AES (now part of SmartForce)
www.aes.ie 
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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