Rapid eLearning Development: Choose the Right Tools for the Work

What are Rapid eLearning Development Tools?

You’ve seen the nightmare unfold too often before. Upon entering a classroom or conference center, hoping to glean nuggets of wisdom from your professor or trainer, you are instead met with…Death by PowerPoint! Slide after slide, 11-point text, droning lecture, and the only thing you have to interact with is your pen.

So how does this so often pass for complete, effective, meaningful learning programs? And what can you do to help?

Whether you are an eLearning developer, trainer, or manager, you can help combat poorly designed and delivered training while also reducing the training budget for travel by moving appropriate materials online (i.e., nothing too complex that absolutely requires in-person instruction).

Rapid development tools, or authoring tools, are software applications used to author learning content that is published and made available via a computer, laptop, and increasingly, mobile devices. When used appropriately, rapid development tools enable you to create deliverables that mirror actual job requirements and lead to performance-based, on-the-job training. At the same time rapid development tools can minimize the costs associated with a traditional training department or the constraints of a traditional classroom setting.

“Rapid” development tools become even more useful when you must develop several similar courses for a functional area–because they can leverage reuse of templates and design elements. The functionality of rapid eLearning development tools bulks up the usefulness and quality of learning materials by providing on-the-job practice scenarios. These tools also save effort by importing legacy content rather than having to manually enter each piece into a system.

Rapid Development Tools Benefit Learners, Developers, and Your Bottom Line

We have become the tool of our tools. – Henry David Thoreau

In the past, learners often resorted to mindlessly clicking to advance to the next slide while simply listening to provided narration for bulleted text. With rapid tools to produce content, learners benefit from interaction, engaging more with the material as the process develops. And, learners have continuous access to the materials at any location, which means they don’t have to spend all lunch breaks in workshop sessions. They can review content and complete courses at any time, not requiring in-person instruction or grading.

When functionality to build advanced online courses was first developed, you needed advanced programming skills to be able to code and work directly within tools to create the content and design. “Rapid” tools evolved to make the process easier and remove the need for advanced tech skills. Now, eLearning developers have access to workflow functionality and a wider variety of software elements than ever before. But ease-of-use with the newer rapid tools actually poses a risk. Rather than ensuring well-designed content that meets the learners’ needs, it allows developers to “exercise creative license,” which often means just uploading bad PowerPoint slides into the software and regurgitating them into something that appears to be a meaningful course. And some clients will push this agenda because they believe it will save money and reduce ramp up time.

Challenged by budget and resource constraints on one hand, and the need to deliver effective and relevant learning, you need to balance some important considerations when you decide to purchase a development tool.

Not surprisingly, rapid development tools cost money, but the initial cost of software licenses is often far lower than allocating cost for travel to all-day workshops and training sessions. With a modest amount of server space or cloud space, you can store content and make it readily available to all employees and/or customers 24/7, which increases the availability of the programs and further reduces costs. In addition to the rapid authoring tools, by adding learning management system (LMS) capabilities, you can record quiz scores, print out certifications, track completion rates, and run reports — all features that traditional classroom training cannot provide.

How to Approach the Rapid eLearning Development Tool Selection Process

Whether you work in a corporate learning development team, or consult with organizations, expect challenges when selecting a development tool. If you’re a company employee who wants to get access to a rapid eLearning development tool, you’ll be lambasted by budget and resource constraints. On the consulting side, you will likely have a client who is gung ho about buying a specific product but hasn’t really taken the time to understand the value or if it’s even necessary for their company. These are two very different problems, but some of the business case conversations are the same. Most important is to promote the focus on the learners’ needs and ROI.

Common Features

Although each company’s needs vary when selecting rapid development tools, there are common features that should be present  to ensure the purchase and time commitment are worth the money and effort. These features change over time as more research leads to better understanding of online learning, blended learning, and accessibility. The features also change as communication methods and technologies change.

Each software application comes with its own features, and you need to document your understanding based on client and project. For example, is the goal to provide rich, realistic practice scenarios for the learners? If so, a tool with more robust features (and possibly a higher price tag) might be the best option. But if the goal is just to provide visually rich videos, you might not need a complete eLearning tool, but rather, a lower-priced video development tool. The best value is to find a solution that will work long-term and allows you to grab content pieces from the system rather than holding them hostage in the authoring tool. Also, a tool may be great for a particular project or client, yet without software updates, could be useless in the future.

The table below provides detailed guidance on the specific features you need to be aware of and communicate to decision makers.

Feature Specifics
Interactions
  • Can you create them?
  • Are there freeform options or just locked/pre-defined templates?
  • What kinds can you create? (e.g., two-person scenario, tabs, FAQ, drag-and-drop.)
  • How will your company/client use them? Are they needed at all?
Interface/Ease of use
  • PowerPoint-like ribbon/timeline or set up with own interface?
  • What’s the learning curve?
  • What pre-existing knowledge is required?
Advanced features
  • Can you create branched scenarios, variables, actions?
Insert/import media
  • What types of media can be imported?
  • Can you record and/or input videos using a webcam?
  • Are there built-in characters and avatar-type characters that come with the purchase, but additional characters cost more?
Screen recording
  • Is there a built-in screen recording tool?
  • Can you publish as simulation, demo, test, etc without having to save as each file type separately?
Quizzing features
  • Can you create quizzes and record results?
  • Are there built-in and free form question types?
Publishing outputs
  • What are the publishing options for a course, module or recording? (e.g., standalone HTML5, iOS, Flash, SCORM, AICC, Tin Can, HTML5.)
Compatible with LMS
  • Does it work with LMSs? Which?
  • What are the reporting features?
Accessibility
  • Is it 508 compliant?
  • Are any compliance elements suggested by the software?
Mobile use
  • Is it mobile-ready?
  • Does your content display correctly among devices?
  • Is there a standalone app for the product?
  • Do the interactive elements work on other devices?
Community
  • Is there a good online community or LinkedIn group to ask questions, get ideas?
Design limitations
  • Is it robust enough for your needs? Some tools have things that throw people off (e.g., in one, you can only use one type of circle bullet point).
Cost
  • What are the costs per license?
  • Are there group or education license discounts?
  • Is there a subscription model?
Subscription options
  • How do you download and access the tool?
  • Is there a desktop version? Is there a cloud-based/web version?
Support and maintenance
  • Are there support plans offered?
  • Is the software updated on a regular basis?
  • What are the costs?

 

Resources to Support Rapid eLearning Tool Selection

Your manager or client might ask you to research and report findings and make recommendations. To make the best sell overall, focus on specific metrics important to your company or client that you can improve. Include the timeframe for when they will improve, and by what percent. Cathy Moore, an eLearning guru, describes these data points and metrics in greater detail in many of her blog posts.

Rapid eLearning development world includes a wide range of tools from vendors large and small.You might want check out TrainingIndustry.com’s annual list of top eLearning authoring tool companies. The rankings factor in the tool features and capabilities, potential for company growth and innovation, and number of clients/users.

Conclusion

When opting to purchase a rapid development, or eLearning authoring tool, you need to determine the value of moving content online and how the software can help you reach the audience effectively. Each company’s tools offer various benefits and drawbacks, so try to find the best long-term solution based on development needs and costs. Don’t be afraid to call the vendors, ask questions, and schedule demos.

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Jill Parman

Jill is the owner of ForWord Consulting, LLC, which provides instructional design, technical communication, and business analysis services. She is a master of useless trivia, has a slight obsession with Pilot fine tip pens, and spends her free time chasing around a toddler and two dogs.

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