How Do You Choose Between Different Types Of eLearning Authoring Tools?

Illustration of a laptop with question marks on its screen
December 14, 2021
12 Minutes
Illustration of a laptop with question marks on its screen

Picking an eLearning authoring tool can be simple; picking the right one can feel downright impossible. Before diving headfirst into comparing individual features, knowing what category of tool suits your needs can narrow your options, spare some confusion, and make it easier to find the right fit.

Know Your Options And Find The Best Fit For You

When rummaging through your toolbox for a home repair, you're looking for the right tool for the right job. To choose the appropriate one, you need to know the names, applications, and best uses of everything in the box. It's the same when you're choosing an eLearning authoring tool, but sometimes it's easy to get caught up in marketing and hype and shiny features when making your selection. Rather than comparison shopping right away, it's best to stop for a moment and consider what job you need to do, how it needs to be done, what types of jobs you are looking to do in the future, and what types of tools exist right now that suit your purpose.

There are many kinds of eLearning authoring tools on the market today; each one is the right tool for some job, but what's right for yours? Let's review some major categories that affect the utility of an authoring tool and who would be best served by each.

Types Of eLearning Authoring Tools By Platform

The first way you can divvy up different categories of eLearning authoring tools is by platform or, where the software actually lives.

Desktop Authoring Tools

Desktop authoring tools are installed on your hard drive. They might still utilize an old-school perpetual license, but many desktop solutions now work on a subscription model.

You may have access to cloud storage through the software, but in most cases, your software lives on your local drive instead, which makes collaboration difficult. Using third-party cloud storage on actively updated files is risky; many desktop software providers warn against keeping courseware files on OneDrive or Dropbox because you risk file corruption as you save changes. That means they’re limited to backup storage and not a good solution for central asset control.

Even when you can sync files for central access and backup storage, you'll still need to worry about multi-device access, license difficulties, version confusion, and just remembering and taking the time to back them up frequently. Operating system compatibility is also a bigger problem than desktop vendors want to admit. If the software isn’t native for your OS, any workaround solutions just lead to performance issues and other problems.

All of this makes desktop software a less than optimal choice for anyone with a medium or larger development team, a large number of reviewers, or the desire to maintain central control of your course files.

Best for: freelancer developers who complete projects alone, companies with one- or two-person development teams.

Cloud-Based Authoring Tools

Cloud-based eLearning authoring tools that you access with a login on any browser are the alternative to a desktop. In the past, these were often invariably more limited in functionality than their desktop cousins, but these days, a cloud-based authoring tool can be as robust and full-featured as any desktop tool (and, in some cases, more so). You just have to pick the right software.

You're undoubtedly familiar with the benefits of cloud-based software at this point, but the chief benefits for eLearning authoring software include central file access, content update once/ reuse, permissions control, and a range of functionality that facilitates teamwork, collaboration, and oversight. These coauthoring/cooperative features can take many forms to many degrees, so do your homework to learn what suits your needs.

Cloud-based tools are also more likely to provide modern mobile-first responsive design than their desktop counterparts.

Best for: medium to large or scattered development teams, multi-organization eLearning efforts, teams with WFH benefits, teams with high turnovers or a large number of freelancers.

Types Of eLearning Authoring Tools By eLearning Format

The other main way to slice up the market is by the categories of eLearning that the software can effectively author.

PowerPoint And PowerPoint Add-Ons

Microsoft PowerPoint is well-loved and familiar to subject matter experts (SMEs) and other non-developers that need to produce "eLearning." These days, there are plenty of options for add-on software that can push .pptx courses from "works in a pinch" to something that actively behaves like eLearning.

Some services simply allow you to add a voiceover to your slide deck with minimal technical knowledge, while others allow you to add navigational elements, eLearning assessments, or incorporate standards like SCORM or xAPI.

Best for: part-time developers, newbies at eLearning who've had training piled on their plate and don’t see this as a big part of their responsibilities, and small organizations with simple development needs who don’t want new software.

Authoring Tools Focused On Traditional eLearning Design

Some of the most well-established authoring tools take the traditional eLearning design approach of a fixed layout originally intended for desktop displays. This is the same approach used by PowerPoint, which makes it easier for new developers to get going (albeit with a dated approach to content design).

Traditional eLearning isn't great on small screens like mobile devices, but as long as it's authored entirely in HTML5, it can do in a pinch (and with a zoom). If your learners will largely view projects on something at least as large as a tablet, you'll be just fine in terms of usability for the learner.

Calling these "traditional" can be a bit misleading; a fixed-pixel authoring approach can open doors for all kinds of creative eLearning solutions, from movie-style animations to games to, yes, slide-style courses.

Best for: organizations who do a lot of formal learning and aren’t interested in adding less traditional approaches, those that need visual content synchronized to voice-over narration, and those that don't want or need to deliver on mobile.

Responsive eLearning Authoring Tools

Responsive authoring tools produce eLearning that seamlessly adapts to the learner's screen size. eLearning produced in a responsive tool will look great and function well on all devices.

You can still build formal courses in the responsive style, but this design choice opens other possibilities, like scrolling infographics and searchable knowledge bases.

Many responsive authoring tools are limited to rapid authoring from a more templated design approach. The imposed design limitations can leave the impression that responsive eLearning itself is limited in capability. Not true! Responsive design requires a shift in thinking from traditional design, but you can find tools that let you achieve even greater creative flexibility than traditional eLearning.

Best for: companies whose employees are in the field or otherwise away from a desktop, organizations that rely on informal and time-of-need learning, circumstances where it's best to minimize the number of page loads, and organizations that want a single set of assets optimized for all devices.

Specialized Authoring Tools

Most general-purpose authoring tools have the capacity to create one or more of the "specialized" types of eLearning described below. However, specialty tools either tend to do the basics while saving you money or offer more sophisticated features than general-purpose tools manage.

Best for: organizations that only need to produce eLearning in a certain format, teams that produce a high volume of a certain format, special-format projects that can benefit from complex or advanced features.

Screencast And Software Simulation Authoring Tools

While you can create software lessons with screenshots, image editing, and elbow grease, it's a lot faster and simpler with specialty tools. There are a couple of solutions to choose from, depending on your goals and needs. "Screencasting" tools often make it easy to save screen recordings, then mark up, voiceover, and share these videos.

There are also software simulation tools that build the lesson as you go through the motions: logging clicks and keystrokes to generate screenshots with hotspots alongside written instructions. This technology also allows learners to practice the steps in a simulated environment (and be tested on it later!).

Branching Scenario Authoring Tools

Branching scenarios (or simulations) are eLearning's answer to experiential learning. Some processes and problem-solving scenarios are too dangerous, inconvenient, expensive, or rare to recreate in reality.

Branching scenarios make it possible for a learner to walk through a series of decisions in response to prompts and experience the consequences—then try again. Tools to author branching simulations simplify the setup process. Look for tools that provide authors with a map of all possible forks in the learner's decision tree; this makes development and editing much easier.

Branching simulations typically focus on dialogue or behavior (action), and tools provide a library of context-appropriate visuals to support the experience. Some dialogue simulation tools also provide the ability to add audio.

Interactive Video Authoring Tools

HTML5 put video learning on steroids by adding interactivity; the ability to add hotspots, comprehension checks, turn the video into a branching simulation, and more. Interactive video authoring tools make it easy to add these features without advanced knowledge of video editing.

VR/AR/3D Video Authoring Tools

There are specialized tools for creating virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and/or 3D video eLearning. They typically allow you to transform 360° video or equirectangular photographs by adding hotspots, 3D objects, animations, branching simulations, quizzes, and other elements. Additionally, they often include special publishing capabilities compatible with popular VR headset brands.

Authoring Tools With Extended Capabilities

Some eLearning authoring tools offer additional capabilities to enhance your authoring experience. Some cloud-based tools include baked-in communication and review capabilities that provide context for conversations and keep all project communication in one place.

Another category of extended capability is publishing. For example, dominKnow | ONE offers a hosting option called Convey to simplify publishing and streamline course updates, as well as a mobile app add-on service that supports offline course access for learners.

A Tool With Versatility

dominKnow | ONE is a cloud-based tool with traditional and responsive design options, software simulation and branching scenario capabilities, built-in collaboration tools, and optional extended publishing support services.

Want to know if dominKnow | ONE is the right fit for your elearning authoring needs? Sign up for a free trial right here.

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