This post was triggered by BJ Schone’s question “How do you build e-learning courses?

So, here’s my question: How do you build your e-learning courses? Do you build them from scratch (ex. HTML, JavaScript, etc.)? Do you use an authoring tool for the whole course structure?

This is an interesting question. Personally, I use home-grown solutions, not any particular e-learning authoring tool, though I often use e-learning authoring tools such as Adobe Captivate to create some of my animated content.

However, I think before you can really dispense advice which particular development approach is best, there are a number of factors to consider.

Questions abound

Who’s using the tools?

Development tools are generally used for two things: creating new courses and updating existing courses.

Here are two common scenarios for teams creating new courses:

  1. The team is large, with specialists. I know of some e-learning companies who have specialists for each type of project task, with strict orders to maintain the development boundaries: the instructional designer only works on curriculum development, the writer only writes, the web developer only works on the technological elements, the graphic designer only works on graphic elements, the subject-matter expert only provides insight about the topic and is not involved in any technological development tasks, etc. Apparently this makes it easier to subcontract the work and replace or augment team members where needed.
  2. The team is small, with generalists. In most cases, each person in an e-learning development team wears multiple hats: the instructional designer also does some web and/or graphic design, the subject-matter expert writes large chunks of the curriculum, etc. There often isn’t an experienced web developer on the team, so the team may be forced to learn an off-the-shelf program such as Captivate or Lectora just to get the course out the door. Sometimes, if the team can afford it or is in a time crunch, they may hire a subcontractor to do the technical work.

I think situation #1 lends itself to standard web development tools, whereas situation #2 lends itself to e-learning authoring tools. More on that in a minute.

When you get to updating courses, the question becomes: Who is responsible for maintaining the course? If the course is internal, do your coworkers know how to use the software, too? If the course was for a client, are they expected to purchase the development tools you used, and have enough technical expertise to use them?

Is portability a concern?

The portability of the content is an often-overlooked issue. When I speak of portability, I mean portability in three senses:

  1. Portability as a course from one LMS to another
  2. Portability of the content fragments within a course from one course to another
  3. Portability of the entire course to other file formats or mediums, such as XML, PDF, a database, etc.

What about accessibility?

We should never forget that there are a significant number of people taking our courses who may have special needs, including people who may be deaf, blind, color-blind, have low-vision, or other physical impairments (such as limited ability to use a mouse or keyboard).

Where are you going with this?

Buckle your seatbelts, you may not like this statement: Most e-learning tools do not promote the creation of effective courses, do not promote web standards, and do not promote accessibility; they merely make cookie-cutter course development easier for technically inexperienced course developers.

There, I’ve said it. Please don’t hate me.

Let me take a few moments to explain my thoughts on the subject.

Effective courses

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that e-learning tools cannot create effective courses. However, I do believe that the templatized nature of most e-learning development tools leads many course developers to favor convenience over effective communication and education.

More time is spent on shoehorning course content into templates, and less time is spent on the instructional design aspects of course-building, where you stop and ask “how can I really engage the audience during the course?” (And by ‘engage’ I don’t mean just adding a simple quiz question.) Personally I don’t find the pre-built interactions in many e-learning tools to be very good. And the few that are good tend to be so overused that they get stale fast.

Since many of the developers using these authoring tools are not experienced web developers, they rarely venture ‘outside the box’ with the tool, and tend to stick to the course options presented by the software. Thus, the course developer’s options are often limited to the tool manufacturer’s instructional design preferences and notions of what constitutes a ‘proper’ course. This may lead to a boring, unimaginative course, or even worse, a course that doesn’t meet the needs of the learner.

My gist is that the tool, with its limitations and hard-coded inclinations, often winds up driving the end product more than the instructional designer. This is not unlike PowerPoint’s relationship with presenters, and how PowerPoint templates have reshaped modern notions of what a good presentation should be.

As I see it, PowerPoint presentations became the standard for two key reasons: they make presentations seem more ‘official’ or ‘professional,’ and entry-level users found the software’s templates to be very easy to use.

PowerPoint is not the answer

“Need to create an online course but don’t know how? Our tool allows you to convert your existing PowerPoint presentations into effective, engaging courses in MINUTES!”

This sounds like a dream come true for non-technical people who need to create an online course fast. But let me ask you a question: how many GOOD PowerPoint presentations have you seen that were created by non-designers? C’mon, be honest… we all know that 90% of PowerPoint’s built-in templates are ugly and hard to read.

More importantly, truly effective PowerPoint presentations are secondary (and complimentary) to a good, dynamic classroom trainer. These presentations are often simple outlines, minimalist in nature, designed to focus the attention on the presenter, not the PowerPoint file.

Simply stated, a PowerPoint presentation is designed to display a linear presentation of bullet points. How does a linear presentation of text (perhaps with a few animations thrown in) have any bearing on effective web-based training? Short answer: it doesn’t.

To expect a trainer’s PowerPoint presentation to be an effective online course without the trainer is preposterous. The trainer’s experience, charisma, presentation skills, and ability to fine-tune the course content to the needs of the individuals in the classroom is paramount.

(An ugly little secret in our industry is that quite a few course developers — and clients — don’t care about the effectiveness of the training nearly as much as they care about being able to say the training has been created and is available to the client. But rest assured: If you’re reading this, you probably aren’t one of them.)

e-learning development tools

I’m not implying that all e-learning tools follow the “let’s import PowerPoint!” model of course building, but you can’t deny how rampant PowerPoint-to-e-learning conversion tools have become in our industry. My belief is that our industry (and others) has a fixation on PowerPoint simply because of its ease of use.

The most popular e-learning tools I’m aware of today are Adobe Captivate, Articulate Presenter, Rapid Intake’s FlashForm, and Lectora. What do these all have in common? They’re geared towards users with little or no development expertise. Yes, they’re geared towards the PowerPoint crowd.

Each of the tools has its strengths, and I’m not telling people not to use them. However, I’d like to point out that each of the tools either creates files in proprietary formats (which requires purchasing their product just to make edits), or outputs courseware that doesn’t adhere to web standards and best practices.

What’s the alternative?

Using standardized web development techniques, including writing valid page markup, maintaining the separation of content from presentation via valid cascading stylesheets, and using unobtrusive JavaScript, will free your course from the shackles of a proprietary e-learning development tool format.

The most persuasive argument for using specialized e-learning development tools has been maintenance — the desire for easy updates and not relying on technical experts to handle the editing.

But I disagree; not being tied to a particular tool or proprietary format means that practically anyone with general web development experience will be able to make edits to your course or even create new courses using your system. Millions of people around the world work with HTML, and hundreds of thousands work with JavaScript. I’m willing to bet that the number of people familiar with proprietary e-learning development tools is much smaller, probably numbering in the thousands. It’s a niche.

Maintaining courses built with web standards means you can hire just about any college student or web designer to come in and make changes. It means YOU can make changes if you learn a little about HTML, or use a standards-supporting WYSIWYG editor such as Adobe Dreamweaver. The key is for your course system to adhere to web standards.

ELearning software that outputs to HTML (such as Lectora and ToolBook) do not output HTML documents that adhere to web standards. Same for many homegrown proprietary formats that have caused grumbles in offices like yours and mine. Not only are these courses harder to update, but they’re more likely to have browser compatibility issues and are less likely to be ‘future proof.’ Adobe Captivate is a good example: The latest Captivate SWFs aren’t even compatible with Flash SWFs created in Flash CS3 (publishing to ActionScript 3).

Using standard web technology means you will have the greatest flexibility possible, including the ability to embed rich media (Flash, Quicktime, etc.) whenever you like. It also means your courses will work in the largest percentage of browsers possible, including mobile devices and game consoles (depending on what type of rich media you embed in your courses).

Until e-learning development tools offer greater content flexibility and create courses that adhere to best practices for web design and accessibility, I heartily recommend using standard web development tools in place of specialized e-learning development tools.


Web sites built for any federally-funded project are required by law to meet a certain standard for accessibility. So why don’t we ever hear anyone talk about accessible online courses? No matter how well you think you may know your audience, don’t ever think it’s reasonable to assume no one with special needs will ever take your course.

Accessibility is imperative for a certain percentage of people. It’s a complete downer for another segment of the population, who think making a web page accessible means making the web page boring and free of any rich media. Perhaps this used to be a fair assessment, but not anymore. Many good people have put in long, hard hours making formats such as Flash SWFs and Adobe PDFs more accessible. Plus many alternative web browsing devices can now parse JavaScript, enabling some JavaScript-heavy sites to maintain a reasonable degree of accessibility (disclaimer: it really depends what you’re trying to do with the JavaScript).

What’s even better is that web standards have finally taken root over the last half-dozen years, enabling manufacturers of alternative web browsers to improve their handling of the modern web page. This means that adhering to web standards will take most of the effort out of making your site accessible! You may need to tweak a few things here and there, or put some extra effort into improving the quality of the accessibility — specialized CSS, a little extra markup, and descriptive text are good starting points — but you will have at least met a basic level of accessibility without even trying. This is way cool.

This is yet another reason why using standard web development tools is a good idea, and using e-learning-specific authoring tools may not be the perfect tools their marketing departments would have you believe.

e-learning authoring tools need an overhaul

I understand that it is simply not reasonable to expect all e-learning developers to learn code and create courses using web standards. In my experience, many self-described “e-learning developers” are either instructional designers who know very little about web development beyond using a WYSIWYG editor like FrontPage, or are web developers who know little about instructional design. “Dabblers” are the norm, and I accept it.

With such a large number of non-technical people in what is largely a technical endeavor, who can blame the non-techies for wanting to use an e-learning authoring tool? They’re cheap, they’re easy, and — most importantly — they get the course out the door. The demand is there and is undeniable. Everyone wants better tools that will make their lives easier, even me.

But we can make these tools better. MUCH better. And these better tools can lead to better courses. That’s what we ALL want, right? Isn’t that why we’re in this business?

Based on what I’ve seen, the e-learning tools industry needs to shape up and provide better solutions for its customers. Here are some suggestions.

Make your tools adhere to web standards and best practices.

Make accessibility easier

When creating courses using your product, why not include tools and gentle guidance that aids the developer in making the course more usable and accessible? For instance, you could prompt users to enter descriptive text for any image imported into the course. You could have a warning appear if the user writes a sentence in all capital letters. You could have a tip appear informing the user that the table they just imported should have a long description, and should only be used for tabular data.

Use better markup and styling techniques

Speaking of tables, the documents created by your tool should never use tables for layout! Adherence to web standards means all page styling (fonts, color schemes, etc.) should be handled by external CSS, not inline styles or deprecated font tags. You should also use JavaScript sparingly, and as unobtrusively as possible. Let the page markup (HTML) and styling (CSS) do as much of the work as possible. Avoid browser-specific code, such as Microsoft’s ActiveX, like the plague.

Allow users to export their content into easily reusable formats

If your tool adheres to web standards, it should be easy to export (most) course content to a reusable format such as XML. Allowing users to export their content to XML in turn allows the user to easily repurpose the content for different media, such as importing it into a print-based document format such as Adobe FrameMaker, using server-based conversion tools to create dynamic on-demand PDFs, or syndicating the content via RSS feeds.

Give the developer more flexibility — and encouragement — to try instructional design approaches your design team may not have thought of.

Many courses are designed to be page-turners with a few interactions scattered around. I’ll admit I’ve created my fair share of these courses. Tool manufacturers often promote their built-in templates as meeting or exceeding well-established instructional design principles. Entry- and mid-level developers in this field may actually believe your marketing spiels, and think that your templates are the holy grail. This may be good for your business, but it certainly isn’t good for the person taking the course.

Why not build more navigation and format flexibility into your tool, encouraging the user to think outside the box? Remind the user that your templates are just starting points and the real power of your tool is the flexibility it provides. Adobe Captivate’s success with its branching feature is a good example of how hungry developers are for alternatives to standard, page-tuner-style linear navigation.

Wrapping this thing up

Getting back to BJ’s original question, I use custom home-grown course solutions. This isn’t for lack of wanting a good all-round e-learning authoring tool; I just think there isn’t one out there that meets my needs yet. And until there is, I feel more confident working with standard HTML, throwing in the occasional Flash or Captivate file. I recommend this approach to others because I think it’s the most browser- and platform-neutral method, and opens up the development environment to any web developer without requiring expertise in a niche (and ultimately limiting) e-learning authoring tool.

What do you think?

Wow, OK, I sure didn’t intend to write this much. As you can see I had a few things I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for a while. If you’ve made it this far, you must be interested in this topic, too, so I ask you to kindly let me know what you think. Am I off-base here or what?

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  1. Great post… Here are some thoughts:

    You said, “I do believe that the templatized nature of most e-learning development tools leads many course developers to favor convenience over effective communication and education.”

    True, there are still many folks who are convinced PowerPoint is an e-learning tool… But I would hope the course developer can realize when a learning experience is becoming less effective because of the lack of capability of the authoring tool.

    You said, “Since many of the developers using these authoring tools are not experienced web developers, they rarely venture “outside the box’ with the tool, and tend to stick to the course options presented by the software. Thus, the course developer’s options are often limited to the tool manufacturer’s instructional design preferences and notions of what constitutes a “proper” course. This may lead to a boring, unimaginative course, or even worse, a course that doesn’t meet the needs of the learner.”

    That is definitely a concern; people get stuck in a rut. After a while, I would hope that an organization would realize that a) they need to get more talent on their staff and b) they need to get more advanced tools.

    As much as I hate to say it, you’re dead on regarding the PowerPoint stuff. Yuck.

    You make great points about using HTML and JavaScript vs. an authoring tool. I feel better knowing that others are thinking along the same lines. When I first wrote my blog post, I initially got the feeling that I was the only person in the e-learning world that wasn’t using Lectora! 🙂

    I wish more people cared as much about accessibility and standards as you.

    Site note: I think more tools will tend to output to the Flash format (because it is so ubiquitous) rather than move toward more standards-compliant HTML. There are certainly pros and cons for this, but more cons for people who require content to be accessible in special ways.

    Here’s a thought: Maybe there should be an open-source course shell that is 100% SCORM 2004 compliant. It could have standard navigation controls and be adjusted to create new courses (i.e. make it easy to drop in content). Sounds like a good weekend project… 🙂

    Again, great job!

  2. Great post! One thing I keyed on was – ‘Allow users to export their content into easily reusable formats’

    This, in my opinion is one of the greatest potential disruptive trends in the industry. The abstraction of content to a common source and common data definition is going to be a key feature and practice over the next 5 to 10 years.

    The JPTC and ADL Colab are moving to require S1000D and DITA formats for all delivered technical and training materials.

    Content portability between systems and data standards are the ultimate way to defeat being painted into a corner by a proprietary toolset.

    I would also like to see a standard dialed back from the output. In shareability, the courseware designs are what is important to me. There is also an inherent problem with the way designs are documented. There is no standard. I have proposed a ‘design cartridge standard’ that would offer portability at the design level between courseware build processes.

    One other area common source data may transform courseware assembly is the idea of a ‘dynamic SCO’. This is a SCO that can contain ‘hard coded’ content or externally reference DITA or S1000D content from a central source, possibly on another server. This involves a change in mindsets as well as an adjustment to the way SCO packages and manifests are defined (much of the manifest data isn’t used by most LMSs as it is AFAIK).

  3. Building Courses.

    Do not let small e-learning technology budgets limit creative e-learning thinking going forward.

    You can avoid all technology investment hassles, programming and resourcing issues by working with a web-based B2B e-learning service provider. This will enable you and your team to focus on the work and not the technology.

    Both at once is a steep learning curve and all deliverables will be affected.

    So how do web-based service providers work?

    For example here at AegilitySMART you have two choices:

    1) BUILD YOUR OWN – We supply all the tools and the space
    We provide a secure password protected web-based environment where you can easily develop your client’s course/s, modules and pages.

    There is no programming involved you work on an interface similar to Word programme, into which you can place text, graphics, multi-media objects, tasks, games, quizzes, assessments and simulations. There are many types of interactive learning technologies that can be deployed on our system.

    Authors and learner costs are on a per head, per course basis for deployment, track, measure, audit and report. This includes our progressive assessment to assist remedial intervention. Results are sent to your clients LMS in interoperable data

    On a technology level, we never charge for upgrades as this is a continuous process here at Aegility.

    We can further partner you by developing and migrating the content for you. We deploy a rapid e-learning development approach that makes us faster and therefore cost-effective.

    We charge on a per head per course basis for deployment, track, measure and audit. All results are sent in interoperable data to you or your client’s management systems or LMS. Our transparent development process is open to authorised project management at all times.

    A TIP: Focus on how you are going to measure the learner’s uptake of each key point. This in turn will re-focus you back on the learning objectives, ensuring you hit the deliverables on the brief.

    If we cannot measure the student’s interaction with the learning material, then we change it. There is no point in sinking budget into an engagement device that does not measure the learner interaction, uptake and ultimately skills transfer.

    And it certainly is very hard to defend a disproportionate amount of your budget being spent on a learning device that cannot show the client specific results.

    All the best with your projects going forward.

    Kind regards

    Lee Solon
    AegilitySMART eLearning

  4. @BJ
    You said “I would hope the course developer can realize when a learning experience is becoming less effective because of the lack of capability of the authoring tool.” I agree, but I think part of the problem is the stubbornness of the developer (which may be due to ego or lack of funding); some people are absolutely convinced they can create a top-notch course with bottom-rung tools that they don’t know how to use. Not to mention many people have much lower standards than us, which means they’ll be satisfied with something so low-fi I’d never even show my mom. The popularity of MySpace, with its ugly malformed code base, is testament to people’s desire to have something cheap and easy, nevermind making it look good or making sure it adheres to any kind of standards. 😛

    I’ve been impressed with ThinkingCap’s approach (both Thinking Cap and EdCetera Training, one of their partners). They use XML for all textual content, which makes it portable, and also means they never have to export content from another format to XML, which simplifies the process and reduces chances for errors. Plus they use custom schemas to dictate what should and shouldn’t be a part of the course; Enforcing instructional design pedagogies via the XML schema is a pretty neat idea.

    Can’t say I’m a fan of unsolicited advertising on my site, but I approved the post for one reason: I think it’s a good point that non-developers don’t necessarily need to buy tools and learn how to make courses; they can serve as SMEs and hire a company or consultant who specializes in making standards-based, engaging learning activities.

  5. Philip, your post led me to muse at my own blog, though the trackback doesn’t seem to have made it here yet.

    One part of the barrier to effective instruction is one of practice versus technology. You (rightly) highlight instructional developers who don’t know web stuff well; another concern is the web developer who doesn’t know how people learn.

    Both can lead to what I think of as the trash-with-Flash phenomenon, which can as easily become junk-with-JavaScript or humbug-with-HTML.

    Outside of your main point but related to it: many developers (instructional and web) could profit by seeing well-done examples of effective interaction. By way of analogy, much of what you say here is concerned with how the motor works [e.g., CSS and XML]. Elsewhere, though, we needs ways to get people out of not only the PowerPoint rut but out of the frame of mind that thinks Jeopardy is always and everywhere an effective instructional model.

  6. You are right on target with your post!

    I’m partially, in a wierd way, kind of happy that my department’s seminar budget has been reduced for 2008, so I don’t have to go to yet another “elearning developers conference” where everyone I talk to it seems does nothing more than powerpoint. I am a one-person e-learning shop, though admittedly 75% of my day-to-day tasks are related to managing a classroom training function. About 4 years ago I was asked to come up with an e-learning program (whatever that meant, no one knew) for my company. I was thrilled. I immediately started learning everything I could about html, flash, etc. As you know, during this time the number of powerpoint-to-flash conversion tools has skyrocketed. I was shocked, and still am, that so many in our field took to these tools.

  7. I use many tools to train people. Lectora, Flash, Snag it, Captivate, Audacity, PowerPoint, Word, Media Creator 10, Dubit, Lotus Notes, Moodle, Adobe encore etc. I am a training designer. I build training courses, classroom and E-learning as well as performance tools and job aids, that meet the needs of the learners. I love building in flash but I am not married to it.

    As to your comment:

    “Most e-learning tools do not promote the creation of effective courses,”

    Effective in what sense? An effective course means that the learner improved performance and behavior was modified. ROI is something we watch in the training world and being “flashy” does not equal an effective course and a good ROI. AND may even detract from it. Effective in being portable…or being marketable? It’s hard to use an off the shelf product to make a course you can sell, but if you want to build a product to teach. They can work very well.

    “do not promote web standards,”

    Tools do not promote anything, standards or otherwise, people do. Just like SAE vs Metric, you pick the one that fits. The tools don’t set the standard. Promoting “WEB standards” is also not the goal of e-learning nor even the goal of the ADL.

    “and do not promote accessibility;”

    Accessibility for whom…? Web Designers? Instructional designers? Learners? Vendors who wish to sell a product? Back to ADL again – the desire is to deliver the highest-quality learning and performance that can be tailored to individual needs and delivered cost-effectively…. Darn it, Individualized AND Cost Effective. Accessalbilty to a org with 300 employees means something different than to one with 15,000. Just because its all in xml doesn’t mean much. AS for accessiblity for learners with special needs, ID’s have always have to work this into any course, e-learning or classroom, I was glad to hear 508 made it offical. A designer that doesn’t know his target audience may have special needs is a poor designer, and if the course is meant to reach as many people as possible, then the course design is not focused enough(individualized) to be effective. It’s just another canned course. The tool has nothing to do with it

    “they merely make cookie-cutter course development easier for technically inexperienced course developers.”

    Have you seen some of the stuff vendors are putting out? Canned off the shelf junk that they rent to you like block buster video rents movies, and don’t get me started on “branding and build your own with our tools” sites. Welcome to the “WalMart” of training. I would welcome some technical inexperience and a little imagination over these lack lust courses.

    Where am I going with this?

    It’s not the tools you use, but how you use them.

  8. @rick

    I understand what you’re saying (and largely agree), but I think you may be missing some of my points. Let me clarify:

    Effective courses
    Most e-learning development tools focus on allowing non-technical people create “Mickey Mouse” courses quickly. They don’t help the user understand instructional design processes and best practices. That doesn’t mean that a motivated instructional designer can’t adapt the tool to their needs. Thus, for a seasoned instructional designer or training professional, it’s true that “It’s not the tools you use, but how you use them,” but for entry-level trainers who don’t know any better, they’ll wind up using templates that may or may not be the best solution for their needs.

    And I would never equate “flashy” with ‘good.’ I would hope anyone who reads my site would understand that. 🙂

    Web standards
    Most e-learning tools output poorly written HTML markup and JavaScript. If the development tool is a WYSIWYG editor, the user can’t be expected to know how to write the code, and thus the burden of using web best practices falls squarely on the development tool. The tool should use proper semantics in the HTML markup and clean (preferably unobtrusive) JavaScript. This means no tables for layout, no inline JavaScript (such as body onload=”myFunction()”), no browser-specific code, etc.

    In my experience, most e-learning tools appear to output bloated 1998-style HTML and JavaScript, which demonstrates an utter lack of understanding about how the web has evolved over the last 10 years. I would love for someone to point me to some e-learning tools that use modern best practices. I really would. I may even buy it.

    Accessibility refers to the ability of people who use alternative web browsing tools to be able to access the course content. This means blind people who use braile, low-vision people who need to enlarge the screen (either by full zoom or just enlarging the text), deaf people who use closed captioning, and people who use alternative control devices due to lack of arm mobility (paralyzed people, people with conditions such as MS, people with carpal tunnel, etc.)… not everyone can use a mouse.

    In my experience, e-learning development tools have paid practically zero attention to accessibility. Using modern markup and JavaScript best practices would go a long way in making a course system accessible.

    You shouldn’t need to “know your audience” to make the course accessible. A well-designed system is accessible regardless of audience, and e-learning development tools should help course designers make this a no-brainer, with little or no extra effort required. The person using the e-learning development tool can’t be expected to be a usability or accessibility expert.

    And yes, I agree with you that canned “off the shelf” courses generally suck. That’s why I write about adopting best practices… I’m trying to do my (little) part to help spread the word and make some change.

  9. Hey Philip, It’s my first time to visit and read your blog. I can say that wow, amazing and excellent post. You did a great job explaining and breaking down the topics into pieces. I believe that eLearning tools is very effective in any way. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  10. Thanks for maintaining a great site chock full of useful information. You mention Articulate, Captivate and even Lectora but not Toolbook. Toolbook can do all the things these other solutions offer and much more. As a matter of fact, you can inbed Articulate, Captivate and Flash material inside Toolbook authored CBT. I find one of the best qualities of Toolbook is its ability to fully communicate via SCORM with a LMS without having to know a thing about SCORM calls. Just thought I’d add that for your readers. Great site, keep the goodness flowing.

  11. Hi, there,

    You make me want to cheer with what you say about accessibility. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to include my findings on how accessible I found a lot of these e-learning authoring tools. I’m a user of Jaws For Windows screen reader. I am also a content CREATOR as opposed to a recipient. My audience is both sighted and unsighted. My curriculum written with MS Office features visual aids which, thanks to Microsoft’s astounding level of accessibility, are possible for a blind person to produce and have them pass muster. I hope you allow this posting because there seems to be a lot out there on the web about the experience of the course consumer but next to nothing about the experience of the unsighted creator.

    For those who are in love with brevity, here’s the nitty gritty: None of these e-learning authoring tools are accessible to a person using a screen reader. Any user of screen readers trying to author content using these solutions will run full tilt into a brick wall. Either the authorign tool itself isn’t accessible or the stuff it spits out is not accessible. The commercial producers of this stuff don’t really even care either. So, if you, dear reader, are someone who uses screen reading software either to create curriculum, make presentations, or produce web-based course materials either for a corporate audience or an audience in an educational institution, learn to develop html content and javascript content on your own. It can be done. Don’t waste your time with these tools. I’ve personally tried quite a few in the last month or so with no success. Here are my findings:

    Commercial (non-free) authoring tools:
    Studio Pro by articulate: Add-in to Powerpoint. The first screen or so is moderately accessible and then it just goes down hill. The content I produced was not at all accessible. When I mentioned it on one of their blogs, I was given to understand that mine was not a big enough segment of the population to bother with modifying their software and that if they did modify their software, they felt they would be selling a “watered down” version of it. Most distressing that.

    Lectora by Trivantis: Much of the product’s menus and wizzards were accessible to a point. Actually pasting content into their software, however, was like pulling a hungry lion’s teeth bare-handed and without anesthesia, painful and unnecessarily time-consuming. It’s because they use nonstandard window classes and their dialog boxes, buttons, controls and such don’t even seem to be child windows. It’s all sort of jumbled together from the prospective of a Jaws user. It’s a real pity because I think it could easily be made more accessible and looked pretty promising. According to a developer I spoke with there though, it’s not nor is ever likely to be 508 compliant (yes, those were the words this person used.) One of their main clients is the CDC. I would be interested to see what would happen if a blind person who is a good writer and a gifted trainer with something of value to contribute were to apply for a training position there and was unable to get the job because their prefered authoring tool appears to be Lectora which is inaccessible. ADA accomodations, anyone?

    Toolbook by SumTotal systems: Wizards are totally inaccessible as are the menus. Scratch that, the installation wizard is accessible as is the field where you’re supposed to go get a license after your free trial. They made it accessible for me to cough up money but not for me to use their product. They also hauled off and wrote a veritable compendium on how to make content produced by their software accessible but appear to have completely forgotten about how to make their own product itself accessible. “In the house of the blacksmith, they use a wooden knife.”–My grandmother.

    iSpring Presenter: Add-in to powerpoint. One or two of the templates produce flash that doesn’t render the text into images. The quiz maker was totally inaccessible though. Comes up in a pop-up completely without keyboard navigation and chalk- full of unlabeled graphics.

    Huntington’s Thesis Professional: Targeted at people who use all of Microsoft Office from Word, to Powerpoint, to Excel, this installs an add-in in the ribbon of Office 2007 or a submenu in the File pulldown menu of 2003. My disappointment was vast with this one since it seemed extremely likely to be accessible. However, the dialog boxes to either configure the settings or to create assessments come across as forms with limited to no keyboard navigation enabled. The program doesn’t seem to recognize the clicking of the mouse using a screen reader either. There’s also a stand-alone object manager to organize your stuff prior to publishing to scorm. It’s pretty much inaccessible too. Reads lots of the screen just fine but won’t acknowledge keyboard commanded mouse clicks.

    Open-source or freeware solutions:
    Courselab: Heard good things about this product but couldn’t use it due to keyboard commands not working.

    Xerte: Impressive content created with this free product but it is also not accessible. Not really sure what it was. Jaws thought it was flash but it was it’s own application totally outside of a browser.

    eXE: Very promising but also not accessible. It appears to use a Firefox interface but the web-based interface doesn’t appear to have been designed with a screen reader user in mind.

    This makes 8 inaccessible bits of software in one industry. I have not encountered such a concentration it of inaccessible technology since the advent of windows 3.1 in the early 90’s. I am going to wind up using Moodle both as an authoring tool and an LMS since it appears to be the best thing I can find for my needs. It is entirely web-based, has wysiwyg editor that works just fine for me and, in a pinch, I can import powerpoint presentations as lesson activities. The frosting on the cake? It’s free. Totally, absolutely, free. It’s open source and has a very active community of nice folks that seem very willing to help with any issues encountered. A more helpful bunch than the posters on their discussion boards it would be difficult to find.

    That’s my two cents. Very long, I know. Very sorry. I really wanted to chime in on this though because I think Ihave a perspective that is not often mentioned in the e-learning community, that of the educator needing accessible AUTHORING solutions as opposed to the end user who needs to have accessible content written for them. What I have found has shocked and appalled me. It has taught me that there is still much progress to be made in the screen-reader accessible arena. If anyone knows of an authoring tool that proves me wrong, please let me know. If you work for one of the vendors that manufacture the products I’ve listed above and my findings are incorrect, please let me know and show me how to make your products work. Never was there a time when I wanted more to be proven wrong. to the open-source creators of Xerte and eXE, I would be delighted to assist with testing of any future releases of your software if you need someone to tell you if your software is accessible to a blind user.
    I would also be interested to know if any other trainers who write content and have special software requirements have encountered similar hurdles. How do these tools do with sip and puff mouse solutions for quadroplegics? What about screen magnification? What of someone who uses a BAT-style keyboard to input data one-handed due to cerebral palsy or motor defficiencies in one of their hands? There are lots and lots of folks out there with wonderfully keen minds and a lot to offer in this forum since many of them can’t physically stand before a class and deliver content. Distance learning is a natural fit for many of them. Imagine enrolling in a distance learning course taught or facilitated by Steven Hawking!

    Thanks for reading. Have a nice day.

  12. @dave from where i sit, i haven’t seen much change. technology-wise, it seems like most vendors have hunkered down and become even more entrenched in their ways (including the love affair with PowerPoint and Flash).

    on the bright side, some vendors (esp the newer ones) appear to be putting more emphasis on instructional design.

  13. The polytechnic at which I teach is migrating from WebCT to D2L but, as far as I can see, there is little difference in functionality (although sys admin should become easier).

    My main complaint is that neither system does much of a job with calculated/arithmetic/algorithmic-type quiz questions. (I’m sure I would have more complaints if I was knowledgeable enough about instructional design to use an LMS for effective/engaging content delivery … but I’m a math/engineering instructor who codes in his spare time.)

    (For content, I tend to use LaTeX compiled to PDF to reinforce what I deliver on the old-fashioned whiteboard.)

    I have had good results (i.e. increased student learning/satisfaction) with a system (built using PHP) that allows multi-part questions, with instant marking or feedback for each solution submitted. These quizzes are primarily formative and the feedback seems to encourage students to keep plugging away until they achieve as much success as they have time for. This seems an improvement on the more typical LMS equivalent: complete a quiz, get it marked and then repeat the whole process in order to try for an improved result or to investigate errors.

    Our institution brought this functionality into our existing LMS by inserting javascript marking, buttons, etc., into the LMS question statement. I am extremely loathe to use this practice in our new LMS.

    I’m currently thinking of rolling my own SCORM test packages using Flex. I know that Flash has issues, mainly surrounding web standards, and I presume this extends to Flex also. But it does seem a good tool for this particular job. I suspect that Googe Web Toolkit would be preferable, from a standards perspective, but I seem to be having trouble getting my head around GWT and I do have experience with Flex.

    So, does this seem sensible? Or am I heading in completely the wrong direction?

    Any thoughts, feedback, … from you or pipwerks visitors?

  14. @dave

    That’s not the first time I’ve heard people complain about math questions in e-learning. It’s a common frustration.

    Building a custom solution using Flex is perfectly reasonable, as it will allow you to control the logic and let the learner build on previous results. If you SCORM-ify it, it should run in your LMS with few (or no) issues.

    If you aren’t using heavy animation or video, you could also build your course in HTML/JavaScript; ActionScript and JavaScript are both ECMAScript-based languages, though ActionScript’s strict typing might be advantageous with mathematics.

    Regardless of authoring language, in your case, SCORM would do little more than store data between sessions, and perhaps let you report on the outcome of specific interactions, should you choose to report that data to the LMS.

    You might want to post your topic on the eLearning Technology and Development Google Group, there are a few people there who would probably enjoy this conversation.

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