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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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Is Your E-Learning Authoring Tool Controlling your Design?


The long-awaited upgrade to Articulate's Studio product recently arrived on the virtual shelves of their online store. 

Doubtless there will be lots of long-time Studio users who are celebrating the many tweaks and improvements to their software that any major upgrade inevitably brings.

Personally, I've always tried to keep away from Studio and similar PowerPoint-centric authoring tools. For me, they have always been part of the e-learning problem and not the great solution their makers present them as. (And by the way, I'm not being mean to Articulate here - I'm a user and big advocate of their alternative Storyline product - more on this later). 

The danger with any e-learning authoring tool? Unless you take great care, it's features will dictate and control your instructional design. And the more limited and controlled the features, the greater the danger.

Authoring tools that greatly restrict what you can do on a given screen are what I would loosely call form-based tools. They are often template driven, only give you the option of laying out content in a set number of ways and greatly limit the kind of interactions you might be able to apply. At their most extreme, these tools only allow one specific type of layout per screen and one specific interaction type connected to that layout.

Sadly, this tight control and lack of functionality is usually sold as a benefit. Why? Because it enables subject matter experts (SMEs) to create 'e-learning' in a tightly controlled authoring environment.

The mistaken belief sitting behind this thinking is that you don't need to waste your money on an instructional design process. Just have the SMEs bang the content into a template, add a few multiple choice and drag and drop interactions and 'hey presto' your e-learning is created quickly and easily, for next to nothing.

The fact that you usually have next to nothing of value to show for your efforts, seems to get entirely forgotten.

At the other end of the scale are what you might call the freeform authoring tools. In theory, these provide endless opportunities for creativity and good instructional design. You can pretty much achieve whatever you want with these tools.

The only catch? They are hellishly difficult to master. They often require a degree of coding knowledge to really push them to their limits. 

I criticised the form-based tools for killing off instructional design thinking. The freeform tools can similarly kill off or dull this thinking for entirely different reasons. 

Because they are quite complex and difficult to use, it's rare to find an individual who has both sound instructional design knowledge and skills and is also good at using one of these tools. 

So the people who can do the instructional design, don't really have their head round what these powerful tools can achieve and, therefore, design within the realms of what they know and understand. 

The people who can use and manipulate the tools are obsessed with showing off their 'cool' tool and their development skills. So they focus on features that look impressive, but tend to have more novelty than instructional value. 

All in all, an opportunity missed.

But the good news? The world is changing. We are slowly moving to a point where authoring tools have power, but are not so complex that your average instructional designer can't use them - or at least get their heads around what the tool is capable of achieving.

We are not there yet, but two authoring tools give me cause for hope. The most well-known is the previously mentioned Storyline. This, it seems to me is a tool which is moving in the right direction - shifting the balance between powerful functionality and ease of use in the right direction.

The second less well-known tool which also gives me cause for hope is called Zebra Zapps. I haven't used this hands on yet, I've only seen it demonstrated. It looks to be incredibly powerful and I think it can probably achieve a great deal more than Storyline

It's drawback? It's conceptually different from other authoring tools, so it's development interface is very different. I suspect  it would take non-technical users a good deal of effort to learn it - although I'm sure the developers of the tool would dispute that. And as I haven't actually tried using it yet, I could be entirely  wrong. 

But if you are up for the challenge I'd say Zebra Zapps and Storyline are both authoring tools worth exploring.

If you are just getting going with Storyline or want to find a few simple ways to make your use of Storyline a little more efficient, take a look at our Top Storyline Time-Saving Tips and Techniques guide.

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Andrew Jackson


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