Who here likes saving time and making their life a little easier? Raise your hand!

Did you raise your hand? I definitely did! My name is Kristy, and I have several years of experience creating online courses and custom eLearning content for both the public and private sectors. If you, like me, are interested in creating engaging interactive features for your eLearning, without having to invest an entire second lifetime creating elements from scratch, then this article is for you.

Before I found out about eLearning authoring tools, almost every time I wanted to add a new interactive feature to one of my course builds, I would have to invest a lot of extra time to develop JavaScript, HTML, and CSS to support the feature – adding a lot of build and testing time to the project scope. It also took time away from my overall instructional design and ability to add enough interactivities to my course to keep balanced engagement across the entire learning experience. 

A road with two cars driving toward the viewer. There is a blue car in the front with a blur indicating it's going very fast. A label that says "No Code" its pointing at the blue car. In the distance, is the second car. It's yellow and has a label pointing to it that says "Code."

The end result would often be that the course would begin with tons of interactive elements that would gradually become non-existent as learners progressed through later modules; developing the interactive features from scratch would become too time-consuming and unsustainable, particularly for a smaller production team.

Authoring tools are time-savers that will help breathe life into your eLearning content and enable you to create, add, manage and update graphics, animations, and interactivity more easily into your course without learning how to program or code (and arguably without having to learn design, though understanding some design and accessibility basics will always help you produce more polished courses).

Four blocks are stacked in two rows of twos with items that make up an eLearning authoring tool. Going clockwise starting from the top-left: Create modules, animate elements, build interactivity, manage and update. In the center of them is a plus sign. To the right of the blocks is an equals sign. Beside it is a fabricated UI of an eLearning authoring tool with drag and drop elements.

In this article, we will:

  1. Outline what an eLearning authoring tool is, 
  2. Tell you how it can save you time and increase the quality of your eLearning, and 
  3. What features to look for when choosing an authoring tool for you or your team.

What is content authoring?

If you are looking for an authoring tool, you probably already have an understanding of what course authoring is. But for those of us who appreciate a refresher on terminology, and I know I do, course content authoring is everything that is a part of the process for the development of learning and educational content, including the creation of courses, lessons, modules, assessments, and certifications that include media elements like graphics, videos, animations, or interactivity.

So, what is an eLearning authoring tool?

Back in the day, when I first started building online courses, we were coding pretty much everything from scratch – courses consisted of HTML and CSS templates that were uploaded into the LMS system. Most features (like click-to-reveal flip cards) were controlled through coding and editing JavaScript. We wanted to create gamification and fun interactive and animated elements, but our capacity for producing any meaningful amount of these features within expected deadlines while keeping and testing accessibility standards was limited and time-consuming.

Two rows, showing two ways to build a set of flashcards. The top row shows a block of representative code and an arrow pointing to a fabricated set of flashcards with lorem ipsum text. Between the two is a large red circle with an "X" in it. The row below it shows a fabricated UI of a drag and drop authoring tool, with an arrow pointing to the same flashcard image as seen in the top row. There are yellow sparkles scattered around this row and between the two items is a green circle with a checkmark.

My first authoring tool was a plugin for the LMS I had been previously creating and editing code for, and after experiencing how much faster and simpler it was for my team and me to add and manage interactive elements, I will tell you that an authoring tool is eLearning magic.

To expand on that, an authoring tool is a standalone software or plugin that provides you with a simple interface for building eLearning and digital training, allowing easy integration of interactivity and multimedia with a learning management system (LMS) or delivery through the web. Examples of authoring tools include Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and iSpring. An example of a plugin authoring tool is the H5P plugin for learning management systems.

What problems does an authoring tool solve?

Imagine having the ability to create amazing interactivity for your content, without having to learn how to code, program, animate, etc. The best thing about an authoring tool is that it should be relatively simple to use – you won’t need programming skills to build a course with an authoring tool, and you may not even need design skills (though an understanding of the basics will always help, especially if you don’t have brand guidelines to follow). If the interface provides users with libraries and templates that are easy to use and can speed up development for customizations or gamification features, then most of the development process has been done for you! All you will need to do is make minor edits and apply the built-in design elements to your content.

Training a team how to manage content or add interactive features without an authoring tool can be an overwhelming and time-consuming process. An authoring tool provides a much more streamlined and less overwhelming experience and is much quicker than coding or editing JavaScript and CSS, or using an HTML template.

[...] showing your team how to use and manage an authoring tool to add interactive features to a course is a much more streamlined and less overwhelming training process than trying to teach them how to edit JavaScript and CSS, or how to use an HTML template.

How does an eLearning authoring tool work?

It’s pretty simple, and depends on the tool you choose to work with. If an authoring tool isn’t already part of your online learning platform (E.g., LMS, LXP, or microlearning), most authoring tools will either be available either as subscription-based software or as an add-on plugin for your existing LMS.

What is a plugin?

Good question! A plugin is a smaller program that can be added onto larger programs or web applications to extend or enhance the functionality of the existing software with features that it didn't initially include. I like to compare adding plugins to Transformers: if your original software on its own is Optimus Prime, it’s pretty great. But if you add plugins to this original software, you are combining component parts and abilities that add power to Optimus and transform him into Omega Prime, one of the most powerful Autobots in the Multiverse (my nerdy side is showing)! 

Once you decide which type of tool you would like to use, you have two possibilities: 

  1. You are able to either easily create eLearning that features complex interactivity and gamification elements and export course packages that can then be uploaded and offered to learners through your LMS.
  2. In the case of an authoring plug-in, add fun interactive activities directly into courses in your LMS (though plugins are usually more restricted in terms of overall design capabilities, as they can be limited by the capabilities of the software they are added to).

If your learning platform doesn’t offer an authoring tool, or you are unable to add a plugin to your LMS, you can use an external eLearning authoring tool to publish and share your course content. If you opt to use this method, you will need to check the requirements for your LMS system in order to successfully export and upload your authored course from the tool of your choice, or you can’t use your content. 

An vector image of a woman sitting at a desk. On the desk is a monitor with an export symbol (a file with a right-pointing arrow). Aroung the woman and the desk are four examples of ways to export a from an eLearning authoring tool. From left-to-right: A fabricated UI of a SCORM course for LMS/LRS distribution, a piece of fake code for publishing to web, a document with fake text and a scroll bar for publishing to Microsoft Word, and a video with a play button for publishing your course as a video.

Authoring tools usually support multiple export types and often include the following options:

LMS/LRS distribution

  • This is the most standard export type for eLearning course packages
  • Includes cmi5, xAPI, SCORM 2004, SCORM 1.2, and AICC
  • Note that it is crucial to know the import requirements of your host destination!

Publish as a video file

  • This is an option available in Articulate Storyline
  • It’s great if your export is intended for a video-hosting platform

Publish as another electronic document type

  • Publish for the web
  • Produces an HTML export that can be uploaded to the web via FTP server
  • Publish to Microsoft Word
  • Good for producing handouts or accessibility transcripts of the course content

What are the top 7 features should you look for?

Now that we’ve covered the basic idea of what an authoring tool is, time for the most important question. 

What features should you look for when shopping for the best authoring tool to use in your course development? Every authoring tool is different, and your choice will depend on your needs and the custom eLearning content you are planning to author. 

Let’s review a brief checklist of the seven basic features you want your eLearning authoring tool to provide.

Content Management

Your authoring tool should help you manage eLearning content. Look for features like code-free content creation, question banks, and structured media and template libraries. Collaboration features like shared, centralized content repositories can also help organize content for authorized users inside and outside the company.

Formatting and interactivity

Does the authoring tool enable users to make adding interactivity faster and more intuitive? Ready-made buttons, sliders, checkboxes, and much more should be available for quick customization and easy to add wherever you want them in your course. Look for visual drag-and-drop builders that don’t require users to know how to develop code – just drag and drop your interactive elements right onto your page and customize them from there. You can also look for tools that offer libraries and templates for interactive features; some resources can even include templates for pre-built gamification.

Adding and creating media

To create a video-based course, for example, a series of interactive lecture videos, additional production steps, and software are usually required. As an alternative, look for an authoring tool that offers media editing capabilities like trimming and adding titles, transitions, or graphics to your videos. Additionally, the authoring tool may give you access to a resource library; a robust resource library of videos, graphics, and audio clips is truly an invaluable time-saving resource when generating engaging content.

Assessments

Assessments help determine learner retention and progress through a course and the overall effectiveness of the materials. Prior to choosing an authoring tool, ensure that the assessments will be compatible with the gradebook functionality of your LMS.

Authoring tools should offer the ability to create question banks, accessible question types, scoring, and the ability to track and report on learner analytics.

Built-in accessibility guidelines

Accessibility guidelines can take some time to become familiar with. If you want to make your content accessible to all learners, but are overwhelmed by all the ins and outs of accessibility or don’t have access to an accessibility expert, look for an authoring tool that offers the following features:

  • Meets accessibility guidelines (Section 508, WCAG 2.0)
  • Generates captions/subtitles, or supports the upload of SRT files (SRT is the file extension for a SubRip Subtitle file, which contains the sequential titles, text, and timecodes that are displayed as subtitles or captioning for videos)
  • Allows you to control tab order
  • Supports keyboard navigation, or keyboard accessibility
  • Supports multiple languages or translations

Be wary of existing accessibility concerns when choosing question types for your course; for example, drag-and-drop activities can be fun but may not be accessible through keyboard operation alone. This can present difficulties to learners who struggle with small movements and dexterity.

Quality assurance

Quality assurance helps to ensure the delivery of high-quality content that will meet the expectations of your stakeholders, clients, and brand, and enhance the overall experience of your learners when they are engaging with your course. Some authoring tools, like Articulate Storyline, even allow you to export your versions of your course specifically for review and to collect feedback. Additionally, look for a tool that adheres to built-in standards for web and accessibility and allows for versioning of your project.

Publishing and output types

Prior to selecting your authoring tool, always check your LMS system requirements. Your authoring tool publishing and export needs will depend on which file types are supported by your LMS. File types that are incompatible will not import into the LMS correctly or may not import at all. General export formats include Includes cmi5, xAPI, SCORM 2004, SCORM 1.2, and AICC.

Setting the standard with SCORM

SCORM stands for “Sharable Content Object Reference Model” and is an export type that is meant to be shared across and reused in different learning systems. Since SCORM references a collection of existing sharable content standards, an authoring tool that offers SCORM compliance only means that that tool offers a set of technical standards for software. Since SCORM means compatibility across most LMS systems, look for a tool that offers this compliance even though xAPI and cmi5 are both newer compliance initiatives (cmi5 bridging SCORM and xAPI). Since different systems will have different requirements, you may need to export and test uploading different file types to see which is the most effective for your purposes.

Consider the level of support you might need

As part of your decision-making process, don’t forget to assess the level of software support you and your team may need when choosing an authoring tool. Whether you will be using external software or a plugin for your existing LMS, be realistic and consider your development needs and whether the level of support offered by the authoring tool provider will meet those needs. You can even consider conducting a needs assessment across your team to make sure you invest in the best tool for everyone.

Potential support resources that authoring tool providers can offer include helplines, guidebooks, tutorial videos, chat features, or even training sessions.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
Neale Donald Walsch

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this article and are hopefully leaving with a better understanding of what an authoring tool is, what these tools can and should offer you, and how having one would help to enhance your eLearning courses, modules, and activities. Let’s summarize the points we covered:

  • Authoring tools make it easier to create, add, and manage your course content and interactive features.
  • Simplifies the process of updating and managing course content with both internal and external production contributors.
  • The top 7 features to look for in an authoring tool are content management, formatting, and interactivity, adding and creating media, assessments, built-in accessibility guidelines, quality assurance, and publishing/output types.

My sincere hope is that you use this knowledge to explore eLearning authoring tools with new-found confidence, eager to discover the exciting possibilities they provide. Authoring tools really give us the capacity to support the design of much more intricate and unique learning experiences than ever before. Learners are waiting to see what you can come up with, so embrace these incredibly useful tools and get creative!

Poor Use with
Adult Learners
Effective with
Adult Learners

Games

Simple games layered on top of content

Scenario-based games that use the content

Leaderboards, competition

Fan excessive competition among employees or teams by offering large prizes for top performers and/or shaming those with lower scores

Challenge employees to beat their own past performance, or design a leaderboard that shows each employee only the four scorers above and below them

Points, rewards, badges

Award points or levels for completing sections of training or playing for a set number of minutes

Award levels, badges or points for recalling or applying content correctly, demonstrating mastery

  • Remember — bookmark, google, link, search
  • Understand — annotate, Boolean search, journal, tweet
  • Apply — chart, display, execute, present, upload
  • Analyze — attribute, deconstruct, illustrate, mash, mind map
  • Evaluate — comment, editorialize, moderate, network, post
  • Create — blog, film, integrate, podcast, program, publish
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Comparison of the Three Levels of eLearning Content
Type
Off-the-shelf subscription libraries
Pros
  • Saves development time - you don’t have to create any courses yourself.
  • Good fit for a limited budget.
  • Quick to set up and launch.
  • Access to hundreds of courses on a wide variety of topics.
Cons
  • Users cannot make any changes to the pre-existing content.
  • Users do not own any of the content.
  • An overwhelming amount of courses and a short time in which to complete the training can create a higher likelihood of users experiencing learner fatigue.
  • Learners may view content that isn’t relevant to their learning objectives.
  • Time and resources can be spent curating your content library to suit your learners.
Type
Course customization
Pros
  • A premade course that is quick to set up and launch.
  • Customization options such as adding your logo, branding, choice of colors, or some fonts.
Cons
  • You do not own the content of the course.
  • You cannot make significant changes to the content of the course (e.g. adding your own images, data, or organization’s terminology).
  • You cannot make significant changes to the content of the course (e.g. adding your own images, data, or organization’s terminology).
Type
Fully custom courses
Pros
  • Completely tailored to meet your organization's audience, needs, and strategies.
  • You have limitless creative potential.
  • You own the original content/IP.
  • Prevent learner fatigue through personalization.
  • You can change, personalize, and maintain the courses however you want and at your discretion.
Cons
  • More expensive - custom courses are a bigger investment for both time and resources.
  • Learners will not have access to as many course options as quickly as they would through a library subscription.
  • A professional eLearning development team should be assigned to this project - either hired in-house or contracted.
Kristy Lacroix

Kristy has over a decade of progressive and diverse experience within the fields of higher education, television production, studio animation, global retail manufacturing and marketing, and graphic design. She enthusiastically believes that creating effective and memorable learning experiences is where conscious design, good storytelling, and accessibility meet.

Read more articles by Kristy Lacroix