What are eLearning Authoring Tools?
Whether you're employing third-party training content from websites as diverse as Harvard.com to LinkedIn or using a business training and learning platform of your own, it's easy to train employees in new job skills, employee policies, or even general interest topics for off-hour enjoyment. However, to deliver custom training content, you'll either need to hire an expert to create such courseware or do it yourself by using eLearning authoring tools specific to the task.
That's not only because creating courseware is different from a design perspective. It's also because today's business training platforms and academic learning management systems (LMS) use specific file formats and standards that aren't available in more generic content creation tools.
In this article, we'll examine 10 of the best eLearning authoring tools we've seen, most of which deliver training content that's built to specific standards. We'll tell you what to look for when making a purchase and give you an overview of what makes each tool unique. To test these tools, we gained access to a test account after which we attempted to create an eLearning course and quizzes by using traditional and investigative means. In other words, we tested the tools as they are intended to be used, but we also pushed them to see if they could perform out-of-the-box tasks.
After testing and weighing the pros and cons of each tool, we determined that Articulate Storyline 2 (which begins at $1,398) and Trivantis Lectora Inspire (which begins at $2,174) are our Editors' Choices for the eLearning authoring tools category this time around. We found them to be the most feature-rich, the most adequately priced, and the easiest to use. They're definitely worth a test run. However, keep in mind that what's good for PCMag might not necessarily be what's good for your business. Because of this, be sure to read all of our eLearning authoring tool reviews and match up your specific needs with each offering's key features.
Since we did our first test in this category, we've added five new tools to our roundup. In addition to Trivantis Lectora Inspire, we reviewed Gomo Learning, iSpring Suite 8, Raptivity, and SmartBuilder. With the exception of Raptivity, we highly recommend each of these tools for business content creation. For a more in-depth breakdown, be sure to read each review. For an overview of what all 10 tools offer, check out our feature breakdown in the table at the top of this article.
The Articulate Storyline 2 Template Menu
Pricing and Plans
Before purchasing your software, it's important to determine how the solution will be delivered to your business; this bit of information will help prepare you for cost analysis. For example, will your software be installed locally and run exclusively on a specific device? Or will the tool be a cloud-based managed service, making it accessible via a web browser? Cloud-based tools in this category tend to be less expensive and more flexible in terms of who uses the tool and where they'll be using it. If you've got an H5P log-in, for example, then you can access your account on any device, in any location. Cloud-based tools can also be updated remotely, so any new features or pricing options can be accessed without completely changing the tool on the user's end.
The only problem: Cloud-based tools mean you'll need internet access to log into your account. Locally run tools, such as Articulate Storyline 2, Lectora Inspire, and TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8, are desktop applications (though there's a slightly less feature rich version of Lectora Inspire, called Lectora Online, available via the cloud). In order to run those programs, you'll need to download the apps onto your desktop. You'll be able to use the tools whether you have internet access or not, but you're limited to the one device. So, whenever the next version of the tool is released, unless the vendor has taken steps to update local customer installations automatically via the web, you'll have to manually upgrade by purchasing and downloading the new software.
At the bottom end of the pricing spectrum is the aforementioned H5P, a free, open-source tool which is ideal for one-off content creation or for small businesses that don't have budget to apply to training content. H5P is easy to use, takes only minutes to get up and running, and will plug in nicely to your WordPress or Drupal content management systems (CMSes). But, because it's a free tool, it lacks some of the rich multimedia functionality available in other eLearning authoring tools. If price is your sole consideration, then H5P is the best option on the market.
Shift eLearning also offers a customer-friendly pricing model in that it lets users scale as their needs grow or shrink. Shift eLearning starts with a barebones free trial, which can be used by one person to create one course of up to 120 HTML5 screens. You can go to the first tier, which costs $1,200 per year for one user for up to three courses of 120 screens each, or you can become a "Power User" and gain access to an unlimited number of courses of unlimited length, with 30 reviewers who can comment on and make suggestions to your training content. Shift eLearning's Enterprise plan is the biggest and boldest plan we review. With it, you get access to three users, 30 reviewers, an unlimited number of courses, and nearly endless scalability for a whopping $8,500 a year.
If you think $8,500 is expensive for the high-end version of a tool, then know that Elucidat costs $7,500 at its basic and only price level. Articulate Storyline 2, which also comes in only one model, costs $1,398 for one user license. Articulate Storyline 2, Elucidat, and Shift eLearning are the most expensive but also the most capable eLearning authoring tools we reviewed. They're built for midsize business up to large enterprises that conduct consistent, regular training sessions. Of these three, we think Articulate Storyline 2's price is the most palatable when weighed against functionality and ease of use. However, if you need something that can scale, then you should choose Shift eLearning.
TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8's price is difficult to compare to that of other eLearning authoring tools. It features a relatively low price tag of $299 for one license (with big discounts coming after the fifth license purchased) but it's primarily a video-based tool. We'll delve into this more in the next section but it's fair to say that, if your company is focused on creating video-only training sessions, then TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8 is your best bet after factoring in functionality and cost.
TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8 Video Editing
Core Features and Functionality
All of the tools we review in this roundup provide basic features that you should consider must-haves for the eLearning authoring tool you ultimately choose. For example, the ability to include video in training content is a no-brainer. All of the tools we review offer different levels of video functionality. For example, Articulate Storyline 2 and TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8, among others, allow you to record video directly from your webcam into a course. But they all offer at least the bare minimum, which is the ability to insert a video link into a course. If you test other tools that don't give you at least that much functionality, then look elsewhere.
Another ubiquitous feature should be the ability to drag and drop elements from one place or course to another; this is a quick and easy way to develop your courses, especially for organizations that run many similiar courses that have to cover the same information from different perspectives. This feature lets you develop your courses without having to learn to code or use multiple keystrokes and browser loads to get from element to element.
The tools we review each allow you to save your courses as online or local files. This means you can send your completed course as a link that people can access via their web browsers or you can send them a file that they will download and open from their desktop. This feature gives you the flexibility to load files into any eLearning authoring software or send files to anyone who does or doesn't have access to the eLearning authoring software. It also lets people take courses whether or not they have internet access at all times.
Even H5P, the lowest-priced tool, offers a wide array of different course creation templates that you can use to begin creating content. This is a must-have feature, especially for companies that require training content but don't have an in-house designer. The amount of templates you have depends on how much you paid for your system. H5P offers 20 templates while Elucidat offers roughly 25,000 page templates and subtemplates. So keep templates in mind when you make your final purchasing decision.
The H5P Create Content Screen
The ability to import Microsoft PowerPoint slide decks into your eLearning authoring tool is a nice feature that you should look for when making your final selection. Because so much of your company's existing visual and training-oriented content was likely created in Microsoft PowerPoint, the ability to upload slides as ready-made courses or as a near-complete course can save you loads of time and effort. Unfortunately, H5P and Shift eLearning, among others, don't allow you to do this. This means you'll have to convert all of your old Microsoft PowerPoint training materials into brand-new documents within those authoring tools.
If your business doesn't have access to a stock photo account, then you'll appreciate the vast image libraries that Articulate Storyline 2, Elucidat, and Trivantis Lectora Inspire offer. These libraries are troves of business-focused images that you can use to illustrate your training content with Lectora Inspre even offering stock videos you can use in the same way. H5P doesn't offer an image library but, because it's a free tool, you shouldn't let this factor alone sway your decision.
Having the ability to embed webpages isn't absolutely necessary for training materials. But if you plan to have users access online content during courses and you don't want them to leave the authoring system or the training console, then you'll want a tool that can embed webpages into training content. This feature lets users click on a link and view an entire website from within the confines of the eLearning authoring tool or the content management system (CMS) in which they're viewing your content. Only Articulate Storyline 2, Elucidat, and Trivantis Lectora Inspire offer this feature.
Companies that are design-focused will want a tool that lets creators work outside of the confines imposed by HTML5. Unfortunately, only Articulate Storyline 2, Elucidat, SmartBuilder, and Trivantis Lectora Inspire let this happen. The other tools require you to work within strict templates and architectural parameters. Most basic users won't care about this option (we'll be so happy to have the help), but someone who creates web-based content for a living will wish to have their handcuffs removed.
Screen recording is a hugely important feature to many training content developers when you consider things like software or hardware demo-style learning; yet, surprisingly, you can't find it in every eLearning authoring tool. For software-based companies, the ability to watch someone navigate a website is integral to operations. Think about it: If you work at Netflix and you need to train people to use the website, then the easiest thing to do would be to record your screen as you navigate through different categories and menus. Unfortunately, Elucidat and H5P, among others, don't offer this option. This means you'll have to work with a third-party tool to capture your cursor and webpage movements. This is a huge knock on Elucidat, which is otherwise a wonderful and easy-to-use tool.
The Elucidat Start Menu's themes
Some Unique Features
More than anything, Articulate Storyline 2 is designed with Microsoft PowerPoint users in mind. Its course-creation layout is a near-replica to what you'll find when you open Microsoft's presentation tool. The homage to Microsoft PowerPoint makes Articulate Storyline 2 easy to pick up and use, as does the mind-boggling number of interactive elements that allow for out-of-the-box course and quiz creation. The tool features easy-to-add buttons and markers that let you easily layer content with text, image, and video via pop-out boxes that hover above the original slide. Articulate Storyline 2's Number Variable tool lets you ask users to input multiple numbers that then get factored into a decision.
For example, if you wanted to determine how healthy the learner is based on how they answer a predefined set of questions (for example, how many hours of sleep do you get each night or how many hours do you exercise per week), then you could use predetermined score ranges for healthy, unhealthy, sickly, and then add the responses up for an overall health score. The tool's screen recording functionality is the best we reviewed; it enables users to retroactively change the duration of the cursor's movement during a presentation and even adjust cursor movements so that you can make straight paths. When a video is put in "test mode," the software automatically generates hotspots for correct answers based on the cursor's movements. The tool automatically removes the cursor from the video so that you can test a learner's comprehension. It's easy to see why this tool was named one of our Editors' Choices.
The same goes for Trivantis Lectora Inspire. While Articulate Storyline 2 follows a strict Microsoft PowerPoint structure for content creation that can be bent and twisted as your heart desires, Trivantis Lectora Inspire offers an intuitive course creation structure that's supported by exhaustive templates and logical interface navigation. Trivantis Lectora Inspire offers comprehensive video editing, video recording, and screen recording functionality via its free integration with Techsmith Camtasia Studio. Articulate Storyline 2 is significantly less expensive, which warrants your immediate attention. However, because both tools offer a free trial, I recommend you give them both a whirl before making your final choice. Either way, you won't be dissappointed.
Elucidat isn't too shabby, either. The tool features a gorgeous home screen with modern, upper-central navigation with pathways and buttons that are clearly marked. Pages are very easy to create once you've selected from a predetermined template. You are essentially given a WYSIWYG format for creating content. You'll type in text and upload images within the allotted sections that are determined by your chosen templates. Elucidat does an excellent of job guiding you through the creation and publication process. For example, as you finalize a project, a cool instructional video pops out to give you feedback on your course release options. The most impressive Elucidat feature is its responsive slider tool, which lets you preview how specific pages will look and perform on any device or any resolution. You select a device, resolution, or form factor from a drop-down menu, and the page on which you're working appears on your desktop as it would on the selected device.
Any one of these tools—save for Raptivity, which is a limited and frustrating tool—will provide you with enough functionality to create solid eLearning courses. They are each quite distinct and their prices vary dramatically, so hopefully you'll be able to use this roundup to pare down your priorities. We will continue to test new tools and retest these tools as they are updated by their manufacturers. Happy hunting.
The Articulate Storyline 2 Hotspot Quiz
Bottom Line: If you're looking for the best eLearning authoring tool on the market, look no further. Articulate Storyline 2 has it all.
Bottom Line: Very little separates the best-in-class tools in this category. At the end of the day, Articulate Storyline 2 is significantly less expensive than Inspire, which warrants your immediate atte…
Bottom Line: If you don't need organic video creation functionality and you don't mind spending a lot of money on a system, then eLearning authoring tool Elucidat should be on your company's shortlist.
Bottom Line: If you've already mastered PowerPoint, then you'll absolutely love iSpring. Conversely, if you're looking for a standalone tool, or if you hate PowerPoint, then iSpring won't be right for yo…
Bottom Line: Gomo Learning can do most of what you need it to do. However, it won't do everything and it will take longer to accomplish most tasks than its better competitors.
Bottom Line: SmartBuilder is a capable but complex tool that veteran course creators will enjoy. But it might be more complicated than your standard course creator requires.
Bottom Line: If you're only interested in video-based course content, then TechSmith Camtasia Studio 8 is an ideal eLearning authoring tool. But if you need interactive, text-based, HTML5 course content,…
Bottom Line: Shift eLearning isn't ready for prime time. It's a decent enough eLearning authoring tool, but it's several iterations behind the industry leaders.
Bottom Line: H5P is a solid, free eLearning authoring tool that's ideal for one-off courses or companies that can't dedicate budget to training. However, it's missing a lot of the great options available…
Bottom Line: Raptivity is on the bottom shelf of content authoring tools. It's great as a PowerPoint supplement, but that's about it.