Authoring tools are time-savers used by both eLearning and instructional designers to help add interactivity and increase opportunities for learner engagement when building eLearning content. We can create, add, manage and update graphics, animations, and interactivity more easily, all without learning how to program or code (and arguably without having to learn design, though understanding some design and accessibility basics will always help produce more polished courses).

Without access to an eLearning authoring tool, designers may have to invest a lot of extra time developing or editing JavaScript, HTML, or CSS to support desired interactive features for course builds. Building by hand adds a lot of extra time to your project scope and can consume the time that is needed for the overall instructional design. For example, a course that begins with tons of interactive elements may gradually become non-existent as learners progress through later modules; developing interactive features from scratch can be time-consuming and unsustainable, particularly for smaller production teams.

In this article, we will:

  • Review what an eLearning authoring tool is, 
  • Discuss how authoring tools save us time and increase the quality of our eLearning, 
  • Key considerations when comparing authoring tools,
  • The different types of authoring tools and their features.

What is an authoring tool?

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. For more information about what authoring tools are, visit our previous article, “What is an eLearning authoring tool?

Why do we need authoring tools?

You CAN develop an online course without an authoring tool, but you most likely won’t want to. In fact, as someone who began building online courses without an authoring tool, I strongly advise against it.

Over the years that I have spent as an eLearning designer building online courses and eLearning objects, I have had development experiences that ranged from having no resources, except my coding skills and an outdated HTML template, to having access to the very best tools on the modern market. Building an online course from scratch requires coding or development knowledge, and the costs are high in time and efficiency. Not only are you responsible for developing the content, but you also have to design any interactivity from scratch. You are responsible for making sure that the content and activities meet the required accessibility standards for the course, and you will be responsible for testing the formatting and compatibility of the course output (SCORM compliance, anyone?).

In short, investing in an authoring tool to build your eLearning gives you a valuable chunk of your time back.

The no-code alternative for eLearning content creation

When I first started creating online courses, the expectation was to code everything from scratch – courses consisted of HTML and CSS templates that were uploaded into an 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, and templates weren’t always available.

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

Authoring tools place your focus back onto the learner experience

Authoring tools provide an immeasurable difference in streamlining the development process and allow instructional designers to quickly create digital courses without requiring them to have the coding abilities of a developer. These tools can make it easier to create responsive content and often offer built-in readability and accessibility features. Output and distribution options are handled through the authoring tool and meet formatting and file packaging for different learning standards or SCORM compliance. Additionally, I have found authoring tools provide more inclusive opportunities for collaboration across teams with varying skill sets and make it easier to include people in the design and development process who may not be comfortable reading and editing code.

A female character looking content (happy) representing an individual creating an eLearning course with an authoring tool is sitting while using a laptop. Icons float around her, featuring commonly available options within authoring tools like document support, creating links, building checklists, developing branching scenarios, or measuring results.

The less time you spend creating code or graphics to produce the features (don’t reinvent the wheel!), the more time you can put towards enhancing your learning experience. Ensuring your course material is relevant, your learning objectives are met, your content’s structure makes logical sense and that it relates to real-life scenarios go a long way in improving the performance of your eLearning program.

Authoring tools provide an immeasurable difference in streamlining the development process and allow designers to quickly create digital courses without requiring them to have the coding abilities of a developer.

What should you consider when comparing authoring tools?

How exactly do authoring tools make it easier for anyone to create professional-level online courses? Before we dive into a comparison of the different types of authoring tools available on the market and the types of projects best suited to each, let's e a few key features to keep in mind.

A female character appears confused and represents an individual comparing the options available with eLearning authoring tools. The individual is standing in the middle of the image and is holding a clipboard and pen. To her right is a list of common considerations when shopping for an authoring tool, represented with icons – analytics, cost, ease of use, file output types, and maintenance options. On her left is a fictitious checklist grid representing her evaluation of three tools. The tools are labeled ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and in the column below is a series of checkmarks or ‘x’ that represents whether or not the authoring tool has the feature needed.

Analytics

Most authoring tools will have built-in options for you to collect and use data about your learners, helping you to identify trends (like how many people are accessing your eLearning on mobile vs. desktop) or find the questions and topics learners are struggling with. Your authoring tool's built-in learning analytics will help inform your future training or upgrades to your course materials and learning goals.

The cost of an authoring tool

The types of authoring tools we will discuss in the next section support a wide variety of content development goals and offer unique features; thus, the prices of each tool vary. Some tools are free, others are based on subscriptions or plans, and some allow you to purchase a lifetime license. No matter which tool you choose, using an authoring tool will save you money and time that otherwise needs to be spent on testing and debugging code, allowing you and your team more freedom to explore different design ideas and content delivery methods.

What if there are objections to the cost?

For the reasons listed above, using an authoring tool to create your eLearning content will be an advantage in almost any situation. While an eLearning authoring tool’s price may be shocking at first, calculate how much your time, or the time required of your eLearning team, will cost versus creating content with an authoring tool versus without. Knowing how much time your organization, and the dollar value saved, should put any eLearning authoring tool cost objections to rest.

Ease of use

Authoring tools should help you manage responsive, code-free eLearning content and enable all users to add fast interactivity in the form of ready-made buttons, slicers, and more, with quick customization and easy integration. Some tools even include templates and asset libraries that can even include pre-built gamification.

Output types

Authoring tools allow you to export your content in different formats to be shared and reused across different learning platforms. This saves you from having to either hire an external eLearning developer, which means your schedule has to align with their availability, or, if you're a developer, from having to test and debug the file outputs manually. Always check your LMS requirements before selecting an authoring tool – your LMS may even offer an integrated tool (like SmarterU).

Shelf life

What does your maintenance schedule look like for your course materials? Some training courses may need to be updated; in many industries, updates may be required for every year for annual compliance training, for example. As we previously discussed in this article, manually updating a course takes time. With an authoring tool, it is much easier and faster to track and publish changes to your eLearning than to make changes to coded course materials.

Types of authoring tools and features

LMS integrated authoring

Some learning management systems (LMS) come with built-in authoring tools and so can be considered tools for course authoring. These LMS tools may not offer more advanced features like gamification or branching scenarios. Still, the benefit is that users will not need to switch between the LMS and an external authoring tool or worry about import and export compatibility and testing that comes with using independent authoring tools to author courses for your LMS.

A fabricated user interface showcases the drag-and-drop ability of an eLearning authoring tool used to create training courses. The left side of the tool has options for placing audio or video content, adding gamification elements, developing branching scenarios, or building interactive quizzes. On the right side, it displays a web browser window with an icon representing a mouse movement of dragging an image from a panel and placing it onto the course.

Some examples of learning management systems with integrated authoring tools are SmarterU, 360Learning, and Cornerstone.

General authoring tools

A general authoring tool is any common software that can be used to create and publish a course. Simple course designs can be built with tools that many already have access to and know how to use, like PowerPoint or Google Docs. Reusing these resources to create online learning saves organizations time on training to use new or different technologies. Document processors like Google Docs and Microsoft Word can be used to write course outlines and organize written course content and are particularly useful to have if the content will eventually be handed off to an eLearning designer and built into an LMS or authoring tool or if written drafts of the course need to be edited or reviewed by multiple stakeholders. Google or Word documents can also be added to LMS, or authoring course builds as linked PDF resources.

Some authoring tools can also convert PowerPoint presentations into eLearning courses. There are also authoring plugins available for PowerPoint that will allow users to easily add quizzes and other interactive features to regular PowerPoint presentations. Remember that when using PowerPoint to build eLearning, you are building a course, not a presentation. The content must be easily understood and accessible for delivery on its own, without requiring the presence of an instructor or presenter.

PowerPoint and Google Docs are two good examples of general authoring tools.

eLearning authoring tools

As standalone platforms that often have the flexibility to suit all skill levels of development and design, eLearning authoring tools are used to quickly develop large volumes of interactive eLearning content that would otherwise take much longer to create. Though users can build unique or specialized content from scratch, most eLearning rapid authoring platforms will also provide access to out-of-the-box or fully customizable course templates or asset libraries or make it easy to create and add interactive quizzes, images, and videos to your course. Most eLearning authoring tools also provide options to easily share and reuse multiple types of content and include baked-in responsive design and accessibility features.

Examples of standalone authoring tools include iSpring, Adobe Captivate, and Articulate Storyline 360.

Specialty eLearning authoring tools

Some eLearning experiences, like simulations and scenario-based training, can be costly and time-consuming to develop, even if authoring tools are used. For projects like these, specialized authoring tools that are designed to support the production of simulations are probably worth looking into. Some tools offer interactive maps, 2D and 3D simulations, software simulation training, libraries of characters, customizable branching scenarios, and additional media, adding game-based training interactivity that makes content more engaging.

What is a simulation?

Simulations create immersive real-world eLearning experiences that replicate processes for technology, machinery, or even building interpersonal skills. They allow learners to explore at their own pace and interact with systems or characters in safe environments without real-world consequences if they make mistakes.

Simtutor, ITyStudio, and ETU are all examples of specialty eLearning authoring tools and are all ideal tools to look into using if you are developing simulation-based training.

Don’t forget to dig into the details

One last tip before we wrap up: before choosing the authoring tool that will best support your learning or training goals, it is a good idea to conduct a needs assessment and refer to the outcomes of that assessment to decide which specifications your authoring tool will require for your eLearning project to be successful.

What is a needs assessment?

A needs assessment is a project management process used to identify the gaps between current and desired states and outline the steps or solutions required to meet the project’s desired goals. When applied to education, training, and eLearning, a needs assessment is typically conducted by instructional designers to identify learning gaps or performance problems and plan the solutions that will best achieve the desired learning outcomes of the course content.

Of course, you need an authoring tool!

As we reach the end of this article, I hope you have come to the conclusion that you should be using an authoring tool to create your eLearning or training courses. Investing in an authoring tool will save you time and money and open undreamed-of doors for creative content delivery. Plus, with all the options available on the market today, there is no reason you won’t find your perfect eLearning authoring tool regardless of course complexity, learner needs, or eLearning development experience.

As you embark on your journey with finding, selecting, and using an eLearning authoring tool to assist with your training content development efforts, check back for new eLearning authoring tool articles in our learning hub.

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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As Neovation's Manitoba Territory Manager, I'm continually reminded of the resiliency, innovation, and initiative of Manitoba’s business community. Seeing these budding entrepreneurs develop and present their business plans reinforces that Manitoba is a great place to do business.

– Gord Holmes

Traditional learning
Adaptive learning
Difficult to measure results
Measurable analytics to prove ROI
One-size-fits-all training
Personalized training workflows
Facilitates skills gap between employees
Reduces skills gap between employees
Lower engagement and course abandonment
Increased engagement and user satisfaction
Time-consuming
Time saved for the L&D department
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