As the evolution of e-learning continues, the rapid content authoring tools (RCAT) market follows suit. This is a growing market with new vendors showing up, but at the same time, others disappearing.

While the assumption would be that all the products are alike, or that fee based tools are superior to their free counterparts, nothing could be farther than the truth.  Sure, there are quite a few RCATs, fee based that are very impressive, there are an equal number that are unimpressive or bewildering.

The RCAT market, regardless if it is fee based or not, has come down to a single key question:

What is a WBT course?

  • Is it PowerPoint converted to Flash?
  • Microsoft Word converted to Flash?
  • Templates with some learning objects?
  • A robust learning solution of multiple capabilities and outputs?
  • Or on-going hodgepodge of objects or pseudo objects hoping that something will stick?

That was then..

If a RCAT vendor tells you they have been in business for over 10 years, they are somewhat misleading, since WBT courses really didn’t start to hit the mark until 2000 and then you have limited choices on how to build.

  • Macromedia Authorware and similar products
  • Macromedia Director
  • Toolbook
  • HTML and Javascript

That was pretty much it.  RCAT’s were non-existent.  While some could argue that Authorware was a RCAT, I disagree. It was difficult to say the least and learning it wasn’t much easier.  Once you did though, you could do quite a lot with the tool.  The Macromedia set typically would toss in Director, which created an equally impressive array of course capabilities, but a deep learning curve.

Eventually, Macromedia Dreamweaver came into the picture.  The learning curves went from somewhat challenging to somewhat easy, but you really needed some tech skill sets.

That has changed.

This is now..

Let’s be blunt – the growth of RCATs are a result of multiple factors:

  • A growing audience new to the industry who lack tech skills
  • A growing audience who lack tech skills, but are not necessarily new to the industry
  • People who are not WBT instructional designers or content developers or have a deep background in either field and are now handed off the task of creating content/courses
  • An alarming rate of “get the content up now, ASAP” regardless of what it looks like, instructional design is typically tossed out the window, especially when the ID, CD or whomever is tasked to create is handed a stream of documents in Word or PPT or some other form
  • Quick, Immediate, Easy to Use
  • Instructional designers who come from the paper based development or the creation of content for instructor led training
  • Trainers handed the task of building courses and incorporate the builds as an extension of ILT – i.e. linear

RCAT Categories

  • Screen recorder or desktop recorder converted into Flash or .AVI or .WMV or MP4 format or other formats, with audio/video editing and recording (not all mind you offer audio/video editing)
  • Simulations only
  • PowerPoint or Word converted to Flash, instant, virtually no add-ons, i.e. additional learning objects
  • PPT or Word to Flash and the end user can add a TOC, some assessments, audio, video, even additional flash learning objects and attachments
  • WYSIWYG templates (either one flavor or multiple flavors) and minimal capabilities inc. assessment tools may or may not exist, attachments, preview windows, limited outputs, maybe audio/video or maybe not
  • WYSIWYG/HTML/Javascript/maybe CSS options as well, perhaps even additional programming languages you can incorporate, a full package of capabilities inc. mini and full previews, assessment tools, interoperability standards, multiple outputs, ADA 508 compliance, SAAS, include templates, as well as ones you can build yourself, etc. Flash conversion, work with the Ipad and other tablets, m-learning, simulation capability

Name Recognition

Sure there are over 100 vendors in this industry and probably 95% you have never heard of and whom have great products that can meet or beat the big players.  Then there are those who stand out and inquired about  by end users, mainly due to name recognition and not necessarily because they have a great RCAT.

Two of these products (Toolbook & Lectora), I am not a big fan of, and believe there are so many products in the industry that are far superior.

  • Articulate Presenter (Yes, it comes as part of Studio, but people use AP a lot, some use the Quiz tool [yes they incorporate it into Presenter], Engage – moderate audience [and if they do, they incorp. it into Presenter, it can be a stand alone] and the video encode tool – small )
  • Adobe Captivate
  • Rapid Intake
  • Lectora
  • Camtasia
  • Toolbook

Open Source Free Content Authoring Tools

There are two, IMO, that can match and depending on what you want to do – surpass the big names.  Oh, and they are free.

  • CourseLab – ADL SCORM certified, no less
  • Wink tied with CamStudio

Break it Down – DATA (based on my directory of vendors)

Let me think about this.. My market is huge, I need to differentiate myself, I need to show quickly what I can do – get the audience’s attention, show them the product, etc.  What do I do..What do I do..

Trials

  • 43 Vendors do not have one. So nobody can see their product.  If they do, it is not listed on their web site, so how many people do they think are going to stick around and actually call them or e-mail them?  We – T&D ppl as a whole – want to see it, let me touch it and let me do it.. we love trying and testing it out
  • Vendors who require you to “register” first before dl the trial. Should be banned, because you can expect two things – a phone call by a sales rep (and addl calls to follow) or e-mails or both.
  • If you have to “register” and do not want to be bothered – you can do the following:  a) Use a dump e-mail account (i.e. a temp one or one that disappears) or create a new internet email address with the intention you never are going to use it, b) create a fictional phone number. Be warned that some sites have figured out that the 555-1212 won’t work or the 123-456-etc. won’t work.  That said, many haven’t.

Desktop or SAAS – i.e. you either dl the software and work on it on your desktop or your server OR you access the software in the “cloud”

  • Desktop – 80
  • SAAS – 15
  • Both options – 9
  • Unknown – 2

ADA 508 compliant

  • 9 (pathetic. Again, the RCAT may be, but if you aren’t telling me on your web site and I need it, do you think I’m going to email or call you?)

PENS

You may have heard of it and thought to yourself – wow, this must be something brand new. It isn’t, but there are a few vendors starting to add it to their interoperability standards and yes a few LMS vendors too.

PENS was created in 2005 by AICC as a new interoperability standard.  In my directory, I found 3 RCAT vendors who list on their site that they accepted this standard. Three.

AICC

Why is anyone still offering this interoperability standard? Yeah, it was great – YEARS AGO.  But today?  When I was looking at a LMS/LCMS vendors in the last few years, one of my first questions, “Are you SCORM 2004 or 1.2 compliant?”  If they said yes- I listened. Otherwise, L8R!

IMS Common Cartridge

Interoperability standard created in 2008, but you may see it popping up now on some vendor sites, especially in academia – their target market. I have seen it in some open source LMS solutions.  NOT WIDELY ADOPTED. Nor do I see it anytime in the near future.

SCORM

Backwards  (downward) compatability with all 2004 SCORM editions, but not other SCORM versions. Thus a LMS with SCORM 2004, 4th edition, will work with your SCORM 2004, 2nd edition & SCORM 1.2., etc.   But if you have version SCORM 1.2 it is not upward compatible.  You would need a migration tool, and trust me, its not worth it.

  • SCORM 2004, 4th edition (newest version, 2009)
  • SCORM 2004, 3rd edition – widely adopted by LMS/LCMS vendors
  • SCORM 2004, 2nd edition – widely adopted by LMS/LCMS vendors
  • SCORM 2004 (may be listed by vendor as 1st edition OR SCORM 1.3)  – still used
  • SCORM 1.2 – Highly adopted by LMS/LCMS vendors
  • SCORM 1.1
  • SCORM 1.0 (some vendors just state SCORM. Be aware that some vendors state SCORM, but it maybe SCORM 1.2. If you are unsure, always ask. If the person on the other end of the line seems to just say “yeah” and you think they have no idea, have them connect you to a person in their tech support)

Bad Trends

  • RCATs who do not offer multiple outputs – say to the web, other media and of course a LMS/LCMS – it is amazing, how many do not offer an output to the web, but offer it to a LMS/LCMS
  • No preview window or preview in your browser of the entire course, prior to converting it for appropriate output
  • Certain types of interoperability standards and nothing else. This is a big issue. If your RCAT only outputs to SCORM 2004 and my LMS vendor only accepts 1.2, I can’t use your product. Same issue if your product outputs to only AICC, and my LMS vendor does not accept the AICC interoperability standard
  • Does not output to any interoperability standard. Again, why? More importantly, why would I want to buy your product?
  • Does not work with Windows 7 64 bit
  • Only one flavor of the RCAT or can only be viewed in English (or vendors in other countries – their native language), and not any other language

Good Trends

  • SAAS capability – “in the cloud”
  • Outputs to SCORM 2004 3rd edition, SCORM 1.2  – one vendor I found outputs to SCORM 2004 4th edition
  • Multiple features, inc. capabilities for end users who have a high level of tech skill sets, inc. programming languages like CSS and can create and manipulate in that language
  • Simulation capability included in their application
  • Assessment tool functionality as part of the RCAT and not an add-on or additional purchase
  • Offer trials and list their pricing on their web site (about time)

Academia

There are a surprising amount of vendors who tailor only to this industry and not any other industry.

Final Notes

  • A well known vendor has struck a deal to have a RCAT fully integrated into their LMS, so that it becomes their authoring tool; the RCAT vendor’s logo appears within the LMS – i.e. when end users go into the authoring tool.

Why can this be a win-win?

  • Greater exposure, new audience and revenue split (or some type of revenue deal) for the RCAT
  • LMS vendor does not have to re-build the wheel, they cut development time and cost and any updates, new versions, etc. is handled by the RCAT and goes into the tool
  • RCAT still sells their stand alone product

Now, think about the bigger picture. You are the LMS vendor – you strike an exclusive deal with a RCAT, so that they their tool can only be integrated and be used as your tool and not any other vendor. The RCAT still sells the stand alone tool, via desktop, SAAS, both or future.

What I would do, if I wanted to use an authoring tool in my system, use a free open source one with strong functionality.

Industry

Lastly, this is a turbulent industry. There are plenty of vendors who existed five years, four years ago who are gone or still exist but no longer are a RCAT.  There are plenty of vendors who are less than two years old, which is good – because they can look at the RCAT industry from another perspective and innovate.

The RCAT market is constantly evolving, modifying, enhancing and growing. Growth is a good thing. Ease of use is a better thing and innovation is an awesome thing.

We are in an age where change happens faster then ever before and at the end of the day, the players who will be standing – will see it, grasp it and revolutionize it.

As for the others? Well, there is a reason it is called evolution or in your case, extinction.

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