Selecting an Online Course Authoring System: Corporate Markets

by Vicky Phillips

If you currently administer an instructor-led or CD-ROM computer-based training (CBT) program you are probably considering how some of your program mix might be better developed and deployed using the power of the Internet or your company intranet.

Many instructor-led courses are being considered for conversion to electronic or distance delivery. A recent HRD survey by the American Society for Training and Development predicts that by the year 2000 only an estimated 54.8% of training will be instructor-led, compared to 80% in 1996. By contrast, the market for training delivered via new technologies is expected to go from 10% in 1996 to over 35% by the year 2000. Web-Based Training (WBT) is expected to account for a sizable portion of these electronic course developments and conversions.

Web-Based Training, or Internet-Based Training (IBT) as it is sometimes called, is abuzz with hot new course authoring products and distance delivery systems that promise to electrify your training program, overnight -- in same cases, for very little in the way of capital outlay. Many training departments are sold on the concept of WBT/IBT as a possible cost-effective part of their instructional mix. Yet confusion remains about the best way to get a course online and operational. The question: which WBT product fits your unique instructional needs and technology infrastructure, at a price and learning curve that your training division can honestly afford?

Not Just New Products - New Instructional Potential

Companies like Macromedia, Aimtech, and Asymetrix, producers of an older generation of powerhouse CBT multimedia authoring systems like Authorware, Toolbook, and IconAuthor, have developed Net-enabled editions of their classic authoring systems. Many training departments are using the Net-enabled editions of these old favorites with great success.

One major factor that limits the older generation of CBT/WBT authoring systems is that CBT and WBT are not necessarily instructional twins. In terms of instructional power, multimedia CBT authoring systems like ToolBook and Authorware were built based on the assumption that learning would occur in a state of solitary confinement. The learner would sit alone at his or her PC, clicking through instructional pages, getting automated feedback until the program detected that an acceptable level of competency had been achieved. With CBT, interaction occurred primarily on one level: between learner and content.

The Internet allows for an expanded instructional approach because it supports many more levels of interaction. An Internet-delivered course can easily break the CBT sentence of solitary confinement. Hypertext (HTML) and Java, the dynamic languages of the World Wide Web, allow learners to experience instruction on three levels: 1) between learner and content (e.g., taking a server-graded pop quiz online); 2) between learner and instructor (e.g., e-mailing or chatting in real-time with the instructor for special help); and 3) between learners (e.g., electronic bulletin boards where groups gather to brainstorm issues).

In terms of instructional power, a new generation of distance learning products are breaking the CBT instructional mold by centering the power of online learning in the interactive or collaborative potential of the Net. The big buzzword that defines online learning is "collaboration." A new generation of collaborative course authoring and delivery systems -- Symposium, TopClass, and LearningSpace among the top contenders -- allow instructors to build richly interactive classrooms. TopClass, for example, supports not only an HTML-based course authoring system, but built-in asynchronous message boards where classmates can gather to dialogue about course issues and team projects. Centra’s Symposium is an instructor-led collaborative system that supports real-time audio chat in an electronic classroom environment as well as real-time application sharing and asynchronous threaded discussion boards. Symposium also allows learners to revert back to stand-alone CBT exercises, presentations, and tutorials once live class sessions are completed.

The amount of collaboration that an online system allows should not be the only deciding factor in choosing a system. In fact, in some cases, such as the mastery of concrete concepts, collaboration may be just another razzle-dazzle feature, not at all essential to the instructional process. How do you know which online system best suites your needs? What should you be looking for in a system? High-powered video potential? Or a collaborative learning structure? The golden rule: the delivery system you select should be capable of delivering the kind of instruction that best suits your educational needs at a price that your company can afford.

Step 1: Assess In-House Capabilities

Course Development Skills

Stand-up trainers are skilled at developing and presenting their curriculum "live," but most do not have backgrounds in developing curriculum for computer-based delivery (instructional design and flowcharting) or in computer programming. If you intend to rely primarily on subject matter experts (SMEs) rather than instructional design and programming teams to develop your WBT, look for authoring systems that have low learning curves relative to instructional design and programming -- or prepare to budget for extensive training in these areas to bring your SMEs up to speed.

Despite the marketing cry that this-or-that authoring system requires "no programming skills!" all higher level programs require advanced abilities to write and/or alter code if you hope to tap their full instructional potential. The more power a system promises for building custom applications that support "fat media," like video and animation, the more programming and design skills your course development team must possess. Consider carefully how much time you want your course developers to spend mastering an authoring system as opposed to developing and delivering their course loads.

Quick-Start Options

Several systems stand out as "quick start" possibilities for SMEs with limited programming or CBT instructional design knowledge. Digital Trainer is the quickest system to master. If you seek to author simple, tutorial-style courses, and want your course developers isolated from the advanced flowcharting and icon-based methods of course development used in more sophisticated design systems like Authorware, and IBTauthor, DigitalTrainer is a good first-level authoring option. Digital Trainer isolates course developers from code and flowcharting by presenting a simple toolbar of options that makes developing auto-tutorials as easy as working within a drag-and-drop desktop publishing program.

Two other first-rate programs that enjoy much more power than DigitalTrainer for custom design, yet can be mastered at the entry level with a week or so of dedicated practice, are Toolbook and QuestNet+. QuestNet+, a Windows-based development tool, features floating toolbar WISYWIG visual authoring. For course authors who know C programming, QuestNet+ allows for the extended development of courses that support advanced animation and visual effects. Toolbook is less powerful than QuestNet+, but remains an excellent all-around choice for SME’s because it features an easy-to-understand book metaphor and comes with course templates and widgets for quick-start authoring.

TopClass, selected by "PC Week" labs as their number one, all-around authoring system in 1997, also insulates SMEs from flowcharting and scripting. One of the first systems designed specifically to deliver training using the collaborative potential of the Web, TopClass lets stand-up instructors quickly assemble courses by transferring existing notes, syllabus, reading assignments, and group hand-outs into an online format that is as easy to author in as the successive frames of a WYSIWYG Web page. TopClass is a serious, cost-attractive option for anyone seeking to transfer instructor-led training to an online collaborative platform.

Consider Current Investments

Companies who’ve done extensive CBT/CD-ROM development may already be heavily invested in the older generation of benchmark authoring systems. Toolbook, Authorware, and IconAuthor are among the most widely adopted older generation systems for CBT, with editions recently launched for operations in an online environment. If you’re already invested in a system for CBT, and it works well for your needs, consider pledging allegiance to that system for the time being to save on retraining and retooling -- unless your educational content or the needs of your end-users clearly dictate otherwise.

Systems like Authorware allow for older generation CBT/CD-ROM training developed within them to be treated with Macromedia’s Shockwave system -- or "shocked" as it is termed -- so that they can be accessed from any standard Web browser, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. Developers can use high-power multimedia systems like Authorware to develop either CD-ROM or WBT, or a unique hybrid of both. Because Authorware is an established program, many newer delivery systems have been designed so that Authorware learning modules can be easily imported into them. In fact, some newer collaborative systems, like Symposium, have been designed not so much to "author" tutorial style courses as they have been to allow for the import and sequencing of courses built in established CBT systems, like Authorware and PowerPoint, into the overall flow of their electronic classroom structure.

Assess Development & Deployment Infrastructure

If possible, select an authoring system that "fits" your existing technology infrastructure. Consult with your information technology team to determine which systems you can support with the least amount of new capital outlay. There is no sense in buying the latest bells and whistles if they won’t run -- and well -- on your infrastructure. Lotus’ LearningSpace, for example, allows instructors to build a rich collaborative learning environment, and is fairly easy for SME’s to master, but deployment requires a Lotus Domino server. (Students can access courses via a Web browser, but developers and administrators must operate within a Lotus Notes environment.) TopClass, another collaborative system, enjoys many of the same instructional features as LearningSpace, but in contrast is operational across a plethora of platforms, and is easier to learn and navigate than the Lotus database structure.

Step 2: Assess Learning Content Needs

Not all educational content is identical. Design and delivery should follow the demands of your content rather than the desires of your design team to use a new system because it boasts a "cooler" animated spin feature for the company logo. We are a TV society. Every one loves to see movies embedded in educational content, but given the bandwidth considerations of the Internet make sure that movies, audio, and animation serve clear educational purposes rather than acting primarily as artistic embellishments. Decide, given your delivery infrastructure, which course authoring systems can best deliver your essential multimedia elements.

At present, the best and most versatile systems for delivering customized animation and video rich training from the Web may be the Macromedia family of older generation products like the Authorware Suite with Director (a high-power animation and sequencing program) bundled in, with the option to create and "shock" CD-ROMs using Authorware and the Shockwave plug-in that Macromedia pioneered.

Don't overlook the mix-and-match option to create custom hybrid course systems. Toolbook was designed as a CBT tool, so much of its book-like instructional design assumes that a learner will be working in isolation, waiting for auto-feedback prompts to move him or her along. With Toolbook, even in it’s Web-enabled form, interaction occurs primarily on one level: between the learner and the educational content.

But what if you already have the technology and the knowledge to use Toolbook, and want to add collaborative features to your Net-based Toolbook course? Perhaps you have 50 sales managers scheduled to take a Toolbook tutorial on sales motivation over the Web. You’d like for these geographically separated managers to stop mid-course and "gather" online to brainstorm problem sales scenarios that they have encountered at their locations. A good solution may be to author your course in Toolbook and add-on a separate, free-standing conferencing tool that will allow your managers to meet on the Web mid-course to discuss their real-life problems and issues. You could also develop the essential fact-based content inside the Toolbook tutorial interface and import or hyperlink these tutorial pages into a collaborative delivery system, like TopClass.

Step 3: Assess Audience/Client Needs

Reception Capabilities

WBT is still in its infancy. Problems include the limits of the Internet to reliably deliver multimedia, especially video and animation -- the so-called "fat media" -- which tend to choke and challenge smaller networks and high-traffic portions of the Internet. Streaming, a technology that allows non-text media to be delivered in chunks only as it is needed to the recipient’s Web browser or computer, has improved Internet-enabled video delivery, but not yet solved the problem. Solutions to "fat media" problems for the time being include avoiding excessive video and animation in online course development or turning to a hybrid CD-ROM/WBT option where "fat media" is stored on a CD-ROM with Internet hyperlinks for flexible updates to time sensitive materials. Avoiding the open traffic of the Internet and deploying your training via the company intranet is another common ploy that will give you more delivery power for multimedia rich instructional activities.

Never build an online course that might overshoot the technical reception abilities of your target audience. Before you develop courses that require specialized Web browser plug-ins to access and run, keep in mind that while many people can use a Web browser, few may actually have the know-how to undertake tasks like downloading and installing RealAudio (for audio reception), Acrobat’s Portable Document File (PDF for files that download in full graphical splendor), or QuickTime (for playing video segments). Never over-estimate the computer-savvy of your clients or end-users. Doing so can easily result in no one being able to "view" or "hear" your widely touted "worldwide accessible" Internet-enabled courses.

If course access requires special browser add-ons or ancillary programs, make sure all the receiving workstations or home/office PCs can be properly configured before the course starts. Even in larger corporations, where state-of-the-art equipment may be readily available, networked computers may not be universally equipped with simple multimedia features like sound cards, or Web browser plug-ins like Neuron, the program that makes Toolbook courseware accessible via a Web browser. If your training is going to be delivered to multiple company locations, check with the network teams at all receiving locations to make sure that your courseware is compatible across what may turn out to be widely divergent desktop and network configurations. What you don’t want to do is invest in a courseware development and deployment system only to find out that the European sales division can’t fully access the instructional platform that you’ve chosen or that your client can’t easily access course management statistics because the course system you have chosen uses an odd database system for tracking and reporting purposes.

Course Management & Administration

While most CBT/WBT systems support an automated course management feature, generally a server-side function that tracks and reports on student progress by course or learning module, not all online course administrative packages are equal in their power or potential. Consider carefully what kinds of reporting you want available to you or your client at the end of each training activity. Macromedia’s Authorware system has no built-in course management system, for example, but the Suite pack option includes Pathway, for course management. Pathway, however, is an add-on, and itself runs only on Windows, whereas Authorware, the multimedia course building software, supports cross-platform development and deployment.

One of the most sophisticated and complex course management systems is supported by Phoenix for Windows. Phoenix uses a relational database to automatically track, store, and report on student online activity and progress. Custom reports can be issued based on need-to-know requests like the amount of time it takes students to complete a course or average group scores. Phoenix can also auto-perform complicated assessments, like isolating test items and areas that are often missed or misconstrued by learners, and setting up pre-tests and post-tests that help auto-graduate learners or make remedial assignments. However, automated assessment may not suit your educational needs. Collaborative, instructor-led systems like LearningSpace support individualized instructor feedback, mentoring, and coaching.

Step 4: Ready! Set! Test Run

Never buy blind. Once you know the parameters of your desired system in terms of in-house development abilities, multimedia development and delivery, and your technological infrastructure, take your top three contenders for a test run. Testing an authoring system is easy. Most courseware companies have free demo versions available for download from their Web sites. Additionally, many companies house sample courses, hands-on tutorials, and white papers in their online product showcases. The best way to fully test a system is to pilot design and deploy a small course that mimics your essential needs in all areas. A pilot launch is the ultimate test of a system and how it will, in reality, match your unique instructional needs.

If you want to talk to people who have been through the adoption and deployment process -- you will probably find this kind of real-life input invaluable in making a final comparative analysis -- the Internet supports several active, open discussion lists and electronic forums where experienced developers and instructional designers congregate to discuss the real-life pros and cons of online instructional systems in action.

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