“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” is a popular quote from Abraham Maslow. It refers to relying on a familiar tool or mindset too much. When a builder only has a hammer in the toolbox, then each project will resemble some sort of spike; even if a putty knife might be a better fit for the job. It is important to assess the scope of your project in order to identify the right tool that will best carry it out. 

What do a hammer and a nail have to do with creating eLearning content? Let’s pound this out together and find out.

If you are looking to create eLearning content for the first time, you’ll need to determine which eLearning authoring tool to use. Organizations that already have a working way to create engaging content might be tempted to view eLearning projects through the tools, products, and methods they are familiar with. For example, if all you have is Microsoft Word, then eLearning content will end up looking like a Microsoft Word document—which is not the most efficient tool for developing online training content or learning courses. When it comes to creating effective training content, you want to be able to spark learner engagement through different elements, such as interactive content. That’s why using the right eLearning authoring software is pivotal during the production stage.

Professionals focused on learning & development (L&D) and technical documentation have many software options for getting the job done. As eLearning industry trends emerge or new authoring tools come into the market, it makes sense to periodically evaluate them for optimizing your L&D program.

Finding the Right Authoring Tool for Content

Developing content for eLearning programs involves designing, creating, managing, and maintaining digital assets. An authoring tool helps you as a content creator to create digital content, while the eLearning authoring tool enables you to develop digital assets for eLearning purposes. An eLearning authoring tool allows you to create engaging materials such as video clips, interactive questions or other forms of content.

Not all eLearning authoring tools are the same. Some are basic in their functionality. These have simple interfaces and templates for building a course fast, but they can be limiting because they only offer out-of-box interactions to include in a course. Some eLearning authoring tools are more advanced. Although some can be easy-to-use, they provide features for custom-made interactions and project scalability. You have more freedom to work and create content exactly how you want to.  

Types of eLearning Authoring Tools

The best type of eLearning authoring tool really depends on your project needs; your team’s capabilities, schedule, and budget. Consider how you want to author content within your organization, and what you want learners to experience when they take the course. The following are possible tradeoffs when drilling down into the right tools for you.

  • Level of Functionality High-quality eLearning authoring tools offer capabilities beyond just creating a learning course quickly. They might provide built-in templates and getting started tutorials, but they also allow for customizing eLearning features and multiple interaction types. Some offer responsive output for different user devices, various formats, and multi-channel publishing. In contrast, tools that only have pre-built course templates and a certain number of features can be restricting for elearning professionals who need to customize and scale content.  Another degree of excellence in an eLearning authoring tool is the ability to reuse content from one set of source files.  
  • Level of Effort Some eLearning authoring tools are built for speed. Out-of-box, minimal effort is required because they might offer a dashboard with drag and drop objects, and a path for a person with little experience to produce a course in a pinch. Over time, courses are likely to take on the same look and feel. Features and branding in these tools can be harder to manipulate. Adding more functionality to this type of tool might invite additional costs. Tool efficiency is another aspect to consider if you seek team collaboration, source control features, and productive workflows. Tools that provide effortless ways for multiple people to share content, review and provide feedback for files, and work on the same project at once are ideal for streamlining and optimizing processes.
  • Level of Scalability It may be of importance to change the size or scale of a project. First, if you expect your L&D program to expand, you might consider choosing a tool that can grow along with your company. As you gain experience with digital learning content, it might be advantageous to innovate course designs, customize content, and develop online learning centers. Second, it is possible you might have to scale up production. Some eLearning features that can assist in scaling content are: reusing content within one project or multiple projects and editing that content easily, topic-based authoring, accessibility, producing multiple outputs, importing or exporting features and files, and translation options. Third, some eLearning authoring tools are part of a learning management system (LMS). However, if the tool is a standalone application, it should provide a way to generate standard LMS packages that are compatible with your external LMS for tracking progress, maintaining coursework, and distribution.

Essential eLearning Authoring Tool Features        

Just like carpentry or masonry tools have essential characteristics to accomplish a task, eLearning authoring tools also have necessary features. The main point is that your tool should enable you to create engaging courses in the form of quizzes or knowledge checks. Look for features that are fundamental for creating digital learning courses.

  • Content The tool should provide a way to develop relevant and concise information for the course. Material should be written clearly and simply. A tool that lets you organize content in small “chunks” according to learning objectives or topics can improve knowledge retention.
  • Navigation Learners should be able to intuitively navigate through the course content and easily see the elements guiding them through it (e.g., buttons, links, menus, arrows).
  • Engagement The tool should provide features for the learner to be interactive with the content (e.g., test questions, slideshows, pop ups, tasks, games). Tools that have attractive design elements or allow you to create your own, add interest and life to a course. Visuals and multimedia such as images, videos, audio, or color help to enhance a course. 
  • Tracking An eLearning authoring tool should support eLearning technical standards (e.g., SCORM, xAPI) to work with your LMS. The LMS platform manages coursework, allows learners to access training material, and tracks the learner’s progress. You can adjust your learning program and courses based on analyzing data derived from the LMS.

Features for Effective eLearning Content

Now that we’ve nailed down some basic attributes of an eLearning authoring tool, let’s look at a few features that may prove beneficial when you need to build content and maintain effective performance. 

  • Content Reuse Single-sourcing means to reuse content and produce multiple outputs from the same set of source files. This can help leverage content for different purposes. You can reuse test questions for different variations of the same course, but content for repurposing can be anything from text or images, to project or topic files. 

When you optimize content for reuse, it can reduce costs, improve collaboration between technical authoring and L&D teams, enhance workflow efficiency, increase productivity, and provide for quick content updates as products change. 

  • Customization Tools capable of customization are flexible and often have an open architecture. They support XML, HTML, and cascading style sheets (CSS), which can make content easy to manipulate as needed. Tools that are open format with built-in functionality to edit CSS files allow you to see custom-made updates as you build output. Because of this you can change the look and feel of eLearning content, course output and deliverables, corporate branding, or design templates. In short, you can personalize content.

With this type of format, it is possible to make updates using a basic text editor on any device, host files on the web, and distribute files without viewing a software application. You will not be limited to a proprietary system; rather you will be enabled to integrate with other technologies and applications. You have complete control of your learning materials.

It is powerful and freeing to be able to customize your eLearning course. Don’t let a wrench be thrown into the works if you hear that a tool of this nature requires advanced coding skills—that is a misconception. There are applications that allow for customization and scalability where there is no need for technical programming expertise. They ease you into advanced capabilities while you gain experience, but also act like a rapid eLearning authoring tool.

  • Multi-Channel Publishing Tools with multi-channel publishing allow you to draw from a common set of source files to generate and publish output in multiple formats (e.g., online versus print). This helps to ensure content is accessible to learners, wherever they are, and however they prefer to consume the information. 

Since you want learners to be able to access a course on devices of different sizes, such as mobile phones or tablets, constructing a course with responsive online output is an invaluable feature. Content automatically adjusts to display according to the device used. Using a mobile-friendly design looks good, and it’s a fair bet that learners will view the course as a positive learning experience. 

  • Out-of-box Production To be able to get the job done, and get it done right, is the goal for tools equipped with either basic or advanced functionality. Look for tools that allow you to add your own content and a way to produce effective output with minimal effort. An easy interface, templates, built-in eLearning features, and the ability to create engaging quizzes or knowledge checks right away will allow you to get started quickly. Not only that, but consider additional resources like tutorials, how-to videos, the community of users, and readily available customer support.

Obvious functionality and features that aid in building courses are different types of questions (e.g., multiple choice, multiple response), feedback for answers, randomizing answers, scoring, limiting test attempts, customizing test results, or generating compliant LMS zip packages. Taking your course to the next level—out-of-box—would be to create impressive experiences for the learner. 

Many eLearning authoring tools overlap in what constitutes efficacy of features and criteria for a solid tool. It is up to you to select the perfect tool for the job; it may even be a combination of tools that work well together. Your eLearning authoring tool will handily optimize your L&D program, your eLearning content, and your capabilities.

If you don’t have the right tool from the get-go, you might spend a lot of time and creative energy to make do with what you have. (Admittedly, it is somewhat entertaining when using the wrong tool works—like when your uncle successfully shaves with an axe.) Ultimately, using the right tool for the job increases efficiency and saves money—and at times, saves face.

A “Tough as Nails” eLearning Authoring Tool

MadCap Flare is a flexible standalone software application for creating digital assets with advanced content authoring capabilities. It offers rapid eLearning authoring tool efficiencies and features for organizing “chunks of training,” creating questions and answers, interactive content, plus a whole lot more. It lets you build exactly what you want with features that allow for content reuse, custom-made interactions, and multi-channel publishing. Flare is geared toward the non-specialist to create simple interactions and tests, who might need to seamlessly scale content and projects. 

Flare can be regarded as the robust multi-functional tool in the toolbox because it blends technical authoring and L&D programs together—fulfilling eLearning authoring tool demands. Flare leverages content across an organization and maximizes its reuse through sharing files. Teams tend to unite and collaborate with the common goal of helping people learn about something—by producing eLearning courses, online Help, knowledge bases, or learning centers. Trainers, writers, or instructional designers can use Flare to develop, manage, and publish content, as well as produce innovative quizzes and knowledge checks as part of any project. Learners can access relevant courses when they want to from the LMS, and consume it in a way that meets their learning style. So, the next time you reach for your trusty hammer and nails, think about the right tool for your eLearning job. With the latest product update of MadCap Flare 2021 r2, learning & development teams can now update, optimize, and create eLearning deliverables, visit our what’s new page to learn more.