Choosing a specific technology for your e-learning courseware

This question came in via email. I figured I would post it (keeping the author anonymous) because these are very common questions, and maybe this post can help other people out. I also want to give others the opportunity to throw in their 2 cents! 🙂

The question(s):

I am trying to decide among three vendors for an e-learning project. Two of them are advocating using Flash/XML, Javascript, .swf files, etc. One is planning to use Toolbook for the development.

I am trying to decide the advantages of one method (rapid e-learning tool like Toolbook) over the other two (combinations of tools). I have a basic understanding of all of the technology, and I have been trying to research this (this is where I got your site), but I’d really like some non-vendor insight as to the pros and cons of one approach over the other.

This is a standalone e-learning course. It can be run through an LMS system, a web browser or if need be, we could distribute it on CD although we don’t forsee doing that. It needs to be SCORM, AICC, and 508 compliant.

Could you help me out? If you could advise on areas such as ease of translation and skills/tools needed to update later on as well, that would be great.

Choosing a tool/course file format

I don’t have enough time to get into the depths of the issue, but here are my gut reactions:

Toolbook.
Avoid Toolbook! It was a great program for its time, but it doesn’t work in a native Web format; anything created in Toolbook is Windows-only (no Mac compatibility). To create a course that works online — and with Macs — you’ll need to export the project to a Web-friendly format with reduced functionality. That’s a recipe for disaster these days. We bought a copy about a year ago — for ~$2000! — and have never used it because of these issues. Yuck.

Note: if anyone from SumTotal’s Toolbook team is reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; is the latest version any better? Is there new functionality I’m not aware of?

Flash/Flex with XML
This is a popular option, especially if you’re concerned about localization (XML files containing one language can be swapped with XML files containing other languages), but Flash is not particularly accessible and could potentially hurt your 508 compliance. Adobe is working on this, but they’re not quite there yet. Flash also has limitations when it comes to handling (and styling) large amounts of text.

Most e-learning vendors’ tools output to Flash SWF format; I think it’s probably for two reasons: Flash gives you a lot of control over the course (including the ability to easily add rich media such as narration or animations) and Flash is an easy way to avoid cross-platform (Windows versus Mac) issues.

(X)HTML with JavaScript
Personally, I lean heavily towards (X)HTML-based courses. HTML courses are much more flexible, accessible, and easy to update than Flash/Flex courses. Thoughts on HTML courseware:

  1. Flexibility: An HTML-based course is basically a web site with some extra JavaScript that can keep tabs on a user’s progress. As with any website, you can import almost any kind of rich media, including Flash animations, Captivate simulations, videos, images, music, quizzes, etc. Localization is a breeze because it’s HTML; by nature it can handle just about any language you throw at it. Wikipedia is a great example (though Wikipedia uses a database and PHP to handle the localization).
  2. Accessibility: HTML is much more accessible than just about any other course format out there (including Flash and Silverlight). Of course, the level of accessibility depends how the course is built; it’s up to your developer to be responsible and avoid pitfalls that can make your course less accessible. Heavy use of mouse events or xmlhttprequest in JavaScript, heavy use of rich media without providing textual equivalents, and bad development practices such as using table-based layouts and deep framesets can render an HTML page pretty inaccessible. If you import Flash SWFs on every page then you’re really no better off than you were if you just went all-Flash to begin with.
  3. Cross-browser/cross-platform: This used to be a huge barrier for web developers. Thankfully, with the emergence of Web standards and JavaScript frameworks over the last few years, things are much easier and more compatible than they used to be. Most of us are just waiting for IE6 to go away! 🙂

Delivery options

A couple of things to understand:

  1. SCORM and AICC are competing standards for course tracking/LMS communication… you don’t usually have a course that conforms to both, it’s one or the other. You can think of it as a choosing a cell phone provider: AT&T and Verizon both do roughly the same job, but with a few different ‘plan’ options. After weighing the differences, you pick the one that suits your needs (and budget). SCORM is newer than AICC and is currently the more widely accepted standard, but AICC still has a loyal following and is a viable option.
  2. SCORM/AICC tracking requires an LMS that supports one of those standards. You can’t use SCORM or AICC tracking from a non-LMS website unless someone has built a ‘lite’ LMS for you that implements a database and the API for SCORM or AICC. Likewise, SCORM/AICC won’t work from a CD-Rom.

If you need the course to be able to work (without tracking) from a website or CD-Rom, be sure to discuss it with the vendor beforehand.

Thoughts?

These were just my gut reactions to the questions. I’m sure a bunch of you have pretty strong feelings on the subject. Care to share?

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4 Replies to “Choosing a specific technology for your e-learning courseware”

  1. I hope you don’t mind a vendor response but at Atlantic Link we have a rapid e-learning authoring product (Content Point) that will allow you to build the content you need quickly and easily. Our system outputs in Flash but makes the Flash Section 508 compliant automatically. You can find more information on our website.

  2. good answers!

    as a “from scratch developer” aicc is harder to develop for – SCORM is much easier, thanks in large part to people like you.

    if accessibility issues were not a concern, i’d use Flash for nearly everything. it provides a “prettier” experience to the jaded, video game playing gen-y learner.
    and as a tool developer it’s easier to create a firm template to for others to develop with. off shore vendors can’t muck with the code if all they are doing is editing the XML files; but if you give them code, they try to customize it and cause days of delay. i don’t know if many people have had to deal with that issue.
    also, it’s easier to block users from cheating by viewing the code and copy/pasting screen text.

  3. (x)HTML/CSS/Javascript … all the way. Used to use Toolbook and hated every minute of it. Because of that experience, I’ve kept my company away from “all-in-one” packages. Designing along web standards offers much more flexibility. And with easy-to-use platforms like jQuery, creating engaging UIs is more fun as well.

  4. I see your comments were from 2008. Well, I just spent 12 months and $6000 only to be hosed by Sum Total Systems (makers of ToolBook). Crappy product with worse support. Arrogant management and low level employee turnover.

    We switched to Articulate in order to salvage a product and we LOVE it!!!

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