How to Choose the Best Course Authoring Tool

Man in suit selecting an icon from a group for course authoring

If you’re just getting started out in online learning, one of your first big decisions will be selecting a course authoring tool. But there are so many different options out there it can be overwhelming!

This blog article looks at the pros and cons of the two main methods of authoring online learning: web-based vs desktop tools. We’ve also included a list of handy questions you can run through at the end to help you decide which solution is best for you.

Course Authoring in the Cloud

Web-based (or Cloud-based) course authoring tools are a recent phenomena by comparison to desktop course authoring, and have rapidly grown in popularity in recent years. Cloud-based tools allow you to create elearning within a web application or platform, from any computer with an internet connection.

Cloud-based authoring tools are accessed through your web browser and usually sit within web learning platforms which also allow you to allocate online courses to your learners, via a cloud-based LMS. Some platforms also allow you to sell courses to your customers or the general public through included eCommerce features. In other cases, you may require an additional integration to achieve this.

Cloud based authoring tools illustration for creating an online course

Cloud-based authoring tools allow you to build an online course page by page. This gives you the flexibility to choose the content you want on each page, similar to how you build pages on your website. Cloud-based tools are easy to use, with most platforms offering the option of adding text and images to your course pages. Some platforms allow you to add audio and video, as well as quiz questions. The most advanced platforms include interactions which you can include to improve learner engagement. You are also more likely to create a course that can be delivered to multiple devices using cloud-based authoring tools, which is another plus.

While cloud-based authoring tools are very easy to use, they are often limited in the level of interactivity you can provide in your elearning. This won’t pose a problem for most people, unless you need to provide rich simulations or want to include gamification in your elearning. Some examples of where cloud-based authoring tools can be used effectively are outlined below.

Person holding tablet studying a course on an online training platform

Case Study 1: Converting in-person training to online learning

A fast-food franchise runs an in person training session on safety and hygiene with an expert visiting from head office. The manager videos the session, and afterwards edits the video into short topic-specific segments. Then they build an online course that includes the short videos interspersed with pictures, quiz questions and key learning points. Staff who missed the in person session can then study this course on the go on their smartphones or tablets.

Case Study 2: Converting an article into engaging elearning

A law firm invites a judge to speak at an in person training session for lawyers. The judge gives a presentation based on a 5,000 word paper. The Learning & Development Manager at the law firm converts the paper into an online course by cutting the text of the paper into short bite-size segments. Images add colour, while quiz questions help to reinforce key learning points from the presentation. Lawyers who were in court while the presentation was on can now learn this content via their computer at the office, or on their tablet or smartphone on the train home. 

Course Authoring on Your Desktop

Desktop course authoring has been around for decades, with tools like Captivate and Storyline hugely popular with instructional designers worldwide. These are called desktop tools because you need to purchase and install the software on your desktop computer.

You can use desktop course authoring tools to create eLearning and online courses, usually as a single file. Once you have created your course file, you can upload it to your learning management system (LMS). From there, you can allocate it to your learners. If you want to sell your courses to customers or the general public, you will also need to set up an online shop or ecommerce plugin.

Desktop authoring tools illustration for creating an online course

Desktop course authoring tools are great for experienced instructional designers who want to create unique and highly customised eLearning experiences. Features of some of the top desktop authoring tools include: creating animations, simulations, quizzes and interactions. Many also provide the ability to create learning branches. One example of this is serving learners different content depending on whether they answer a question correctly or incorrectly, which can be helpful to address skill gaps between learners.

While desktop course authoring tools are powerful and can be used to create some truly fantastic learning experiences, they also take considerable time to master. You can take week-long courses on how to use some products! For some of these tools it can also be helpful to have some HTML or CSS skills to get the most out of the product. Most desktop authoring tools need to be purchased up-front, with prices ranging from $800 to $4,000 for the most popular products. In addition, a majority of the interactions and simulations can only be viewed by learners on large screen devices like laptops and desktop computers.

When balancing these different factors, you really need to focus on the type of eLearning or online training you need to deliver. The case studies below provide some examples of where desktop course authoring tools could be used to deliver unique and highly engaging eLearning experiences.

Man in blue shirt using laptop to create an online course

Case Study 3: Interactive Simulation

An energy company wants to train its workers in how to safely run an emergency shutdown process at a coal fired power plant. Building a rich, interactive simulation of the key areas of the power plant will improve learner engagement and allow them to practice critical safety procedures.

Case Study 4: Gamification

A surf wear company wants to provide an interactive tour of the company supply chain and product features, where each step of the tour is narrated by an animated surfer guide. Each step of the tour incorporates gamification, challenging the new employees to solve puzzles to progress to the next step.

Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Course Authoring Tool

Here are some helpful questions you can ask yourself to help you choose the right course authoring tool for your elearning project.

  1. What level of interactivity do I want to provide? Think about whether you want standard text and images, rich media or gamification and simulations. You can then choose an authoring tool that meets these requirements. 
  2. How much time and budget do I have for my project? Do you have the budget to purchase a more expensive authoring tool, and the time to learn how to use it?
  3. What are the technical capabilities in my team? Are there any experienced instructional designers in your team? If not, you may need to consider undertaking training or selecting an more intuitive authoring tool.
  4. Do I need an LMS? If you choose a desktop authoring tool you will also need to find a compatible LMS to upload your course files to. If you are looking at cloud-based tools, try to find one that offers an LMS feature that allows you to allocate courses and track learner progress within the platform.
  5. How do I want my learners to access the training? Consider your learners needs – will they want to do their training on a computer? Or on the go on their table or mobile? Providing the option for mobile training 

We hope this will help you kick-start your search for the right course authoring tool. If you are still feeling overwhelmed and want to chat through the options with someone, please get in touch with us!

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