10 tips for the selection of authoring tools

There are many reasons for in-house production of learning units, be it lower costs, a faster and more flexible development process or independence from service providers. However, in order to produce high-quality learning units yourself, there is usually no way around an authoring tool. But how do you find the best authoring tool for your needs?

Thanks to a modern authoring tool, high-quality learning units can nowadays be created in-house even without programming knowledge.

The choice of authoring tools available in the eLearning market is large, which can make the right choice difficult. Which functions are required? Is the authoring tool also usable for relative beginners or is it only suitable for experts with sufficient experience? Should the self-produced learning content also be compatible with mobile devices? What license models do the authoring tools have and how flexible are they? These are just a few of the questions that should be considered when searching for a new authoring tool. In order to support you in this search, the editors of the eLearning Journal have compiled 10 central aspects, which you should definitely pay attention to when selecting an authoring tool.

1. Variety of functions

One of the most important selection criteria is the functionality of the authoring tool. Even simple and streamlined systems nowadays offer basic functions such as WYSIWYG or the integration of texts, images or videos, which can be used to design practical and attractive learning units such as web-based training. But beyond these standards there is a whole range of functions, in which the authoring tools on the market can differ considerably in some cases.

In many companies there are extensive collections of training materials typically in the form of PDF or PowerPoint. For this reason, many authoring tools offer an import function with which these documents can be converted into a rudimentary learning unit. With import, however, no film should be produced, but rather the individual elements of each page should be taken over, so that these can then be edited in the external tool.

Another helpful function is recording/capturing. This allows images and videos to be taken or recorded directly in the authoring tool, edited and then used in learning units. The medium “video” is nowadays used in more and more learning units, which is why the simple creation, editing and dubbing of videos should not be missing in any authoring tool.

In addition, there are many other functions that may be relevant for selection. Which standard elements does the authoring tool have that can make the design of learning units easier and more interesting (e.g. forms, tables, text fields, but also avatars or gamification elements)?

Which and how many media and output formats are supported? Can the authoring tool be used to produce training and/or work materials in addition to pure learning media? Is it possible to create tests with the system (keyword: learning success control)?

With so many functions and options, it is therefore important to be aware of your current and, if possible, future needs. If only relatively simple WBTs without much interactivity are used in-house, a relatively simple and inexpensive authoring tool can be sufficient. However, if a balanced media mix of WBTs, video training, simulations, gamification and more is to be created with the system, then the selection of suitable products on the market is already very limited.

2. Mobile Learning and Responsive Design

According to the current eLearning BENCHMARKING Study 2018, just under a third of the companies surveyed already use mobile learning, while about another third plan to use it. Against this background, it is no longer sufficient for many companies that the available learning content is only optimized for the desktop PC.

There are authoring tools with which learning content can be created specifically for PC, tablet or smartphone. If learning content is usually always produced for certain target groups and/or end devices, such an optimization may already suffice under certain circumstances. However, if such an authoring tool is used to create learning content for several end devices, this means additional effort.

For this reason, it is recommended to use authoring tools with which learning content can be generated “responsive”. Responsive design means that both the screen content is automatically aligned based on the size and resolution of the screen and the control or operation is adapted (e.g. wipe instead of click). This ensures that learning content can be used comfortably from the PC to the smartphone, i.e. responsive learning content offers employees the greatest possible freedom of use while simultaneously reducing production effort.

3. Usability

The more user-friendly and intuitive an authoring tool is, the larger the pool of potential authors. For a company, it can be advantageous to activate this potential, because, as a rule, Subject Matter Experts (SMOs) are not located in the human resources departments, but in the specialist departments. If even laypersons can produce usable learning units with an authoring tool after a short training period, this can not only relieve the personnel or eLearning department, but also allow specialist departments greater control over their own learning content.

For these reasons, an authoring tool should enable efficient and intuitive creation of media without necessarily requiring programming skills. A wide range of standard elements such as predefined grids, fonts, shapes, interactions and the like make it easier for beginners to create attractive learning content. In this context, templates that offer authors a prefabricated structure also play an important role, making the creation of pages or entire learning units both significantly easier and faster. These templates can be created by eLearning service providers as well as internal experts individually, according to their own needs.

4. Connectivity & Interfaces:

Authoring tools are part of the eLearning infrastructure and must fit into a company’s system landscape like an LMS. More and more often, authoring systems should not be operated as stand-alone systems, but integrated into a system landscape, so that certain processes can be mapped. For example, the authoring tool is to be linked to the HR system in many companies, for example to generate logins, to keep the master data up to date and to be able to synchronize or create new users. So that an authoring tool can be integrated into your own IT infrastructure as easily as possible, it is therefore important to ensure that an authoring tool offers the appropriate interfaces.

5. Multilingualism & Localization

Digital learning content is traditionally widespread, especially in large medium-sized businesses and large enterprises. This target group in particular is typically international, which is why the localization of learning content can play a not inconsiderable role in the production process. The more often multilingual learning materials are used in a company, the more important is efficient production without great additional effort. Therefore, the authoring tool should support standards used by language agencies (XLIFF and HTML, for example).

It is also important to separate design and content, i.e. it should be possible to make all changes to screen and speaker texts that arise in the context of a translation in one document. This document can be easily translated by the appropriate expert and then integrated again with the help of the authoring tool, so that the entire medium is translated directly. This eliminates the need to edit each media page and menu item separately, which speeds up the translation process.

In addition to language adjustments, differences in content may also have to be taken into account in an international rollout. For example, a particular product may not be available in all regions and should be removed accordingly in the localized version. Ideally, the authoring tool therefore offers the possibility of blocking or releasing individual pages and/or even individual elements, in order to enable the national organizations to exchange these elements (images, texts, videos, etc.).

6. Knowledge management

Once a new learning medium has been created, the work is not necessarily complete. Often, learning content must also be maintained and updated after practical use. In order to keep this effort to a minimum, authoring tools that support the “single-source-of-truth approach” are recommended. Content and variables are created centrally once and can then be reused in different media. This approach significantly reduces development and update costs while reducing the risk of errors. With a simple update management, adjustments such as knowledge units, numbers, information graphics and the like only have to be made once, whereby these changes are then carried out automatically at each point of use.

7. Security & Trust

Thanks to the new basic data protection regulation, the topic of “security” is more topical than ever. Security and data protection also play an important role in the context of authoring tools, especially when it comes to a web-based system. Similar to the selection of a Learning Management System, some questions should be answered in the authoring tool. Is a certification available? Where is the data stored? Are the servers in Germany? Is the data encrypted? These are just a few of the questions that should be clarified before making a decision.

But it is not only for security reasons that it is relevant to pay attention to the service provider behind the selection. The purchase of an authoring tool is usually a long-term matter, which is why a trustful cooperation with the service provider is important. Permanent contacts, joint workshops and good service, both before and after the purchase, are all measures that create trust and should be considered when deciding.

8. Trial version

Responsive design is an important selection criterion so that the learning content produced can be used on various end devices without great additional effort.

Most authoring tool providers offer potential customers a free full-featured trial version. Apart from the promises of the sales department, a test version offers the possibility to get a comprehensive picture of the strengths and weaknesses of an authoring tool. How intuitive is the user interface? How good is real image/WYSIWYG?

Are self-produced learning contents really responsive? Does the variety of functions keep its promises?

If several authoring tools are shortlisted, a short, concrete course can be created with the various test versions, which would actually be produced in-house in this way or similarly. Such a practical application can underline the differences between the different authoring tools on the one hand and on the other hand give you the certainty, that the “front-runners” are really compatible with your own needs.

9. Price & Licensing Model

In addition to the variety of functions and the service provider behind it, the price and the license model are of course another basic selection criterion. Similar to the Learning Management Systems, there are sometimes significant price differences between the different products on the market in the authoring tool market. From low-cost authoring tools with a smaller range of functions to the more expensive premium products, with which even the most complex learning units can be successfully produced, the range is wide.

In addition to the price, attention should also be paid to the licensing model. So that you really only pay for the aspects that are really needed, you should ask yourself the following questions before buying: How many authors are needed? How many learners do I have? Which media do I want to create? How and where should my media be published? Depending on the answers to these questions, one should try to find a suitable license model together with the provider.

10. Sustainability

Authoring tools are a long-term investment, i.e. in addition to current requirements, one should also keep an eye on the future when searching for the appropriate system. It is often tempting to make a decision based on the requirements of current projects. But what will the situation be in a few months or in a year or two? Just because, for example, the topic of Mobile Learning has not yet played a role, does it make sense to select an authoring tool with which no responsive learning content can be produced? Just because the topic of gamification is currently not relevant, this does not necessarily mean that this will still be the case in the coming years.

Therefore, not only the current requirements should play a role in the decision, but one should also try to look as comprehensively as possible into the future. It can therefore make sense to choose an authoring tool that not only meets current needs, but also offers development potential for the coming years.