Testing the Teachers' Tools

Aug 07, 2007

Perhaps the most valuable digital content on the planet is the kind that educates us, in the general knowledge that makes us realize our personal intellectual potential, but also in the specific skill sets that make us valuable in the marketplace. Enlightened companies have long realized that a major part of their investment is in human capital.

I went to the Blackboard World 2007 User Conference in July to see the latest developments in eLearning technology. With 2500 attendees from 40 countries, BbWorld included many users of recently acquired WebCT. The emphasis was on higher education and I found that large companies have training relationships with strong eLearning teams at nearby universities.

I asked about the major tools used to produce eLearning content. Familiar tools like Word, Web pages (HTML) from wikis and blogs, and especially PowerPoint presentations are most popular. But turning a PowerPoint into a digital learning asset available online 24/7 requires something more. We need to record the presentations and add quizzes to assess the amount of learning going on (think No Child Left Untested).

Returning from BbWorld, I asked all the major tool vendors to send me review copies, which I installed in my lab. I looked for several capabilities: How extensive were testing options? How easy was it to capture content and add the learning assessment? Most important, can the content and the tests be reused? Can they be exported as structured reusable learning objects (RLOs). Finally, can they be easily localized?

Putting Them to the Test
I test drove Adobe Authorware 7 ($2999), SumTotal Systems ToolBook Instructor 9 ($2795), Lectora 2007 Publisher ($1790), Adobe Captivate 3 ($699), SoftChalk LessonBuilder 3 ($695), Wimba CourseGenie ($599), and Camtasia Studio 4 ($299). (Many of these products offer substantial discounts for multiple licenses and for educational institutions.)

Just as I completed my study, Adobe announced they discontinued Authorware. I can see why. The much less expensive Captivate 3 has greatly extended its testing capabilities, with randomized questions and answers, as well as question reuse from a question pool. The range of question types is as broad as any tool: true/false, multiple choice, multiple response, matching, sequence, drag/drop, hotspot, fill in a blank, short answer, and likert (ratings). It has separate feedback and actions for multiple incorrect answers. When you record in Captivate, it now simultaneously creates a demonstration, a software simulation, and an assessment file. Each of these can then be edited and published separately, a terrific time saver. It has Powerpoint integration, which in Lectora Publisher is a $395 option. It exports files as industry-standard XLIFF, for easy localization.

As you would expect, the mature ToolBook Instructor and Lectora Publisher have extensive pre-built objects and templates developed over years of experience. I liked Toolbook's handy catalog, which lists hundreds of ready-to-insert objects.

Visual Aids
The metaphor in Captivate and Camtasia is that you are producing a movie or video. You can edit and publish individual learning segments and quizzes, just like editing a movie scene; Camtasia even exports to Apple Final Cut Pro and publishes to the iPod format. You can package your eLearning as a podcast. But you'll need a full web version to exploit branching (jump back for more training if a quiz score is too low), which I found easy to design in Camtasia 3. Also, although Camtasia has only three question types, its amazing range of output types and very low price makes it a must for learning content developers.

The more traditional metaphor in the classic eLearning tools Authorware, ToolBook, and Lectora Publisher is the Book or Title. The book is then broken into chapters, sections, and pages. These tools publish to web pages with JavaScript. They can include Flash, but it's not their principal output format, like Camtasia.

Do I detect a generational paradigm shift here? Are we moving from reading a comprehensive linear textbook to nonlinear multimedia on specific things we want to know? Certainly in corporate training and education the move is to task-oriented content--just in time and what you need to know. And will we prefer animated video to plain text instruction? (Can we learn from YouTube or will it prove to be a digital Boob Tube?)

Wimba's very clever CourseGenie does not have a metaphor. You just use Microsoft Word to develop your content, and then apply styles from their drop-down menus to structure objects into learning objectives and many different question types. I liked the plain view of each question in the Word original. Sending questions to colleagues for reuse as Word files couldn't be simpler.

LessonBuilder from SoftChalk has a very friendly visual developer interface (the older tools tend to use dialog boxes and property inspectors) and it produces plain HTML pages with interactive questions done in JavaScript. This makes it easier to export and cut into reusable elements.

Whatever the metaphor or lack thereof, in all these learning tools you can export SCORM-compatible objects for interoperability with your LMS.

The most amazing exhibitor at BbWorld was Elluminate, a collaborative eLearning and Training server application. Elluminate blows away other web conferencing tools I have used. It costs much more, but it's far more powerful and integrates with all the major LMS. For less than the cost of one more full-time staff person, Elluminate delivers instructor-led digital content in a virtual classroom where you can see students raise their hands, extending your training and sales presentations worldwide.