Last week, I attended DevLearn. I readily admit that I was unsure what to expect. I knew that its core audience would be instructional designers and e-learning developers.  

I suspected that the expo would feature a large quantity of rapid content authoring tools.  I wasn’t disappointed.

From products that ranged from the latest versions of RCATs to new vendors in the space, including text to speech. 

I was enthralled. Not so much, from what I saw – some of the tools were underwhelming (granted some were quite impressive), but rather how the vendors themselves perceived where the market is going and what customers want in their authoring tools.

Anyone for Avatars?

Everywhere you looked, someone was incorporating avatar characters. These were not characters that rarely moved, rather you could position them all over the screen, place them in the background and even record audio as part of the output.

While most people were oohing and awwing over Articulate’s Storyline, virtually no one was checking out Sh!FT’s Aura product.  Lucky for me, I did.

Not only was it doing the new “avatar” experience, similar to Storyline, but when you recorded your audio, they claimed it would synch up to the character’s lips – that is right, real synchronization. 

In the demo at their booth, they readily showed numerous avatars, and it would have been very cool to see the true synch experience – something that Storyline cannot do.

Sadly, for whatever reason, the feature was not in the demo.

Avatars sound very cool and they are being used. Most of folks tie them to virtual worlds, but they have been used in the past with courses – customized mind you, but they are not “new” the scene. 

Let’s do the Template Tango

Back in 2000, the knock on rapid content authoring tools were they “pre-template” driven solutions. Everything was there for you, and the person simply plugged in images, etc. right into the template.

For e-learning developers and instructional designers, they were aghast and in shock. Who in their right mind, would use these tools?

Eventually, the RCAT market moved away from pre-template builds, or as instructional designers and developers saw as plug and play. 

Now, however templates are storming back.

They are template packs – various backgrounds or capabilities, activities and games that are ready right out of the gate. 

While templates in the authoring tool market is not new – they have been around for many years – the number of vendors launching templates as part of the product is staggering. 

In the recent past, Raptivity has been recognized as the king of template space for RCATs, especially with simulation templates. I believe that is going to change.

Simply put, one vendor has over 200 Flash-based templates in their product. Another vendor I spoke with, is offering 80 templates.  Other vendors are falling suit. If you have a mere 20 templates, you are going to be at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

Am I fan of templates? Yes and No.

Some templates such as the Pyramid template, serves really no purpose. Yes, you can input text into the pyramid, but who sees that as engaging and interactive?

I would argue that many templates – are just that – templates.

There isn’t anything engaging or interactive about them – unless you consider viewing them with your eyes as interactive.   Many are just cool looking graphics or 3D images and text. 

I’d rather see robust scenario based templates – simulations if you will – then static. 

Collaborative Review

Another expanding feature set in the RCAT market. Not only was it quite present at DevLearn, but in general, this is one of the new “hot” items in the space.

Again, there were RCAT vendors a few years back that began with peer review/collaboration. One such vendor is Rapid Intake. I remember seeing the feature and saying to myself – “very cool” and “makes perfect sense”.

Anyone who has ever created a course, regardless if it is a RCAT or not, dreads the “peer or SME review”, mainly because of the inherent challenges that befall you.

  • Sending it out – via e-mail, zipped via e-mail (and some of the folks can’t figure out how to unzip it), mail it (yes, even in 2011) or hand deliver/deliver it via your company’s pickup
  • Setting deadlines of when you need it back – how often have people missed the deadline? Then you have to contact them – which is a nightmare in of itself
  • The infamous words, “I never got it” – anyone who has ever had to send a course for review, has experienced these words of dread. Often it is because the folks whom you sent it to, never opened up their e-mail or deleted it thinking it wasn’t relevant for them to open it
  • Working with someone else who is a slacker. I’m a super Type A personality. As one CEO once said to me, “I’m a type A, but you are an ultra type A personality”.  What irritates Type A personalities? People who aren’t, especially ones you have to work with or are part of your SMEs.
  • Collaboration is a new concept. There is nothing worse then one person doing all the work, while the other person does virtually nil. Especially, when there are deadlines for a course deliverable.

With the new collaborative features, many if not all of these horrible experiences are going by the wayside.

Case in point: Claro Online Authoring System.

With this product, you can collaborate in real time. Let me say that again – real time.  Now, I know what you are thinking – my course authoring tool offers real time. But does it really?

Real time means that Sarah is California can be working in the course at the same time as Paul. However, they cannot be in the same page, lesson, learning object at the same time.  Rather they can be in the course, just working in different areas.

For some authoring tools, peer review/course collaboration is a two way, but not at the same time. That is to say, Steve works on his parts, then signs out. Then, Daisy works on her course components and so on.

Besides, real time co-authoring, a few other features really stood out:

  • History – you can see in real time – when the people worked on the course, date/time stamped
  • Everyone – including peer reviewers can see feedback that was left by other peer reviewers, course designers, SMEs, etc. – nothing is hidden. This avoids, “fix abc” and then someone else says “fix abc”. Redundancy is gone. 
  • Setting deadlines. Dates on when the course must be reviewed can be set and locked in. However, if you need to extend the date, this can be done too.

Some of the challenges, we all face, may not disappear but you will be surprised on how many do.  This, by the way, is one of advantages to using a SaaS based platform.

Get your Red Hot Assessments & Surveys

Very popular and increasingly being seen in the RCAT space. The assessment tools can be quite expansive and include mobile outputs. Surveys and Polls can be instant (via mobile). 

HTML5: Must be a Fad

The number of vendors who can publish to HTML5, are six (UPDATE).  However, the sixth one – Knowledge-Direct is available only in the LMS, and not available at this time as a stand alone. The vendor is Digitec Interactive. 

Storyline will be able to output to HTML5, but it is currently locked down in beta.

The next version of Articulate Studio will output to HTML5. Yet, the timetable for its actual launch is still not known (Articulate has said it will be Dec. However, previously they have changed their launch date from early Fall 2011, to Q2 2011 and now Dec. 2011).

The irony to all this, are the number of vendors who state that their product will work with iOS and specifically with the iPad. Thus, this creates confusion, because for many folks it implies output to HTML5.  Many vendors will argue otherwise, but if someone says to you that it works on blah blah and the app is available on iTunes, then one could assume, the the product can output to HTML5.

Here is the reality. Vendors who can output/publish to HTML5 have an advantage.

The iPad/iPad and future editions are not going away. Microsoft has announced that their next browser version will support only HTML5 and not Flash. The other main browsers of course support both, but Chrome for example continues to heavily expand its support/feature capabilities towards HTML5.

I know people are going to tell me that you can view Flash on alternative browsers with the iPad. True, but it is somewhat misleading.

I have tried the big three alternative browsers that support Flash, and all of them are buggy. Skyfire is the biggest name, but it can drag on speed with Flash and it sometimes boots you out. Puffin, works with Flash, but it also is quite slow in startup and often slow in viewing, and yes, will boot you out.

Photon offers great capabilities. But in order to utilize Flash, you have to go to the settings in the browser and turn on something called Flash streaming. Otherwise it won’t work. Plus, it can be choppy.  Oh, it is also not free. In fact, none of the top three alternative browsers are free.

Lastly, when you click on an app that goes to a web site, the default is Safari, which does not support Flash.

Bottom Line

The RCAT market is continuing to develop and expand. More vendors. More capabilities. More features.

This in turn, forces vendors to adapt and others to innovate.

And, there is nothing wrong with that.

E-Learning 24/7

I will be posting my top ten of rapid content authoring tool vendors as a separate page, which can be found on this blog, later this week.