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How do you build eLearning courses? January 17, 2008

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
Tags: , , ,

I ran into an interesting situation this week. We brought in two eLearning contractors at work to help us with a large project. Upon giving them a tour of our LMS and our existing eLearning courses, the contractors were both stunned to see that I have built our courses using a custom template created using HTML and JavaScript. They couldn’t believe I wasn’t using Lectora or another similar authoring product. They stressed that my courses would be difficult to maintain over time (in case I leave the company). My point of view was a little different: I chose this method because I have greater ability to customize courses as I please, and I can control every little detail of the course. I can easily embed Captivate movies, Flash movies, and anything else I please. I have a background in web development, so it was very easy for me to lean in this direction, too. And I think it’ll be just as easy to find somebody with HTML and JavaScript experience compared to Lectora or other authoring tools. But that’s just my opinion – I could be wrong.

So, here’s my question: How do you build your eLearning courses? Do you build them from scratch (ex. HTML, JavaScript, etc.)? Do you use an authoring tool for the whole course structure? I’m anxious to hear your response!



1. Mike Taylor - January 17, 2008

I’m on the other side of this fence. Personally, I think you’ll be more likely to find someone with training/elearning expertise who knows the authoring tools. I use an authoring tool and can also embed Captivate, Flash movies, etc. etc.

When I build courses I usually use a combination of authoring tools and content that can come from virtually anywhere such as flash movies, html, java script, etc.

My two cents….


2. B.J. Schone - January 17, 2008

Good to know – thanks for responding, Mike!

3. Christy Tucker - January 17, 2008

I’m not sure what would be easier to find for employees, although I think at least basic html knowledge is fairly common. I develop html pages to be housed in an LMS like you do. I’ve mostly managed without needing to learn Javascript, although I’ve copied a few snippets here and there. I do Captivate when that’s what I need, and I’m trying to learn Flash to give me more options. I agree that having the ability to customize is important, and I would hate to be restricted to just what I could create in Blackboard. Ick. Like Mike said, I want to combine whatever tools I have available, depending on what I need.

When I did my snapshot of ID jobs last summer, many of the jobs required Flash, Dreamweaver, html, or multimedia experience. A few wanted Lectora, but not as many. Perhaps what matters is less what experience the IDs have right now and more what employers are looking for when building their teams.

4. Tony Karrer - January 18, 2008

I published my response –

eLearning Course Authoring

You probably won’t like the answer.

5. B.J. Schone - January 18, 2008

Thanks for responding, Tony. I definitely see your point, and I agree with the general arguments for using a tool like Lectora. Our solution has worked really well for us, but I’m not going to say it is better than every other possible solution. Live and learn, right?

One other thing I didn’t mention: I also leaned toward a homegrown solution in the beginning because of budget limitations. I figured, “Hey, I can build that – we don’t need to spend an extra $xxxx.” Maybe Lectora will be in next year’s budget?

6. Matt - January 18, 2008

We also use html with a little ASP.Net mainly to track user progress and to add some extra features. We are looking to transform our e-course template into some sort of content management platform, such as drupal or wordpress, to speed up content development and the edit/revision process.

Anyone have any advice on this?

7. gockow - January 19, 2008

I’m an independent developer, so I do pretty much what the client has in place. One of my current clients uses HTML, Javascript, the Coursebuilder behavior for Dreamweaver, and Flash. I’ve worked with them for 7 years on this project, sometimes with other developers, sometimes not. It’s been an excellent arrangement. I developed the templates, so now pretty much anyone with DW can edit or create new courses.

Another current client went with Authorware about three years ago. It was great for me, because they thought they’d learn to use it and just have me help out, but they never had time, so I’ve developed all their courses.

But now, they’re in a quandary, because Authorware is not going to be developed any further. Thus they need to create new courses, but using what? It doesn’t make sense to use AW, since it’s essentially dead. We’ve been reviewing authoring tools, and there isn’t one we’ve found that will fit their purposes. And which tool will still be in business in 5 years? Which tool will convert to something else when it does go away? That’s why I’m not crazy about Tony’s answer. Given a choice, I’d set them up with HTML using something like Drupal, and then have them use FlashForm or something like it. Right now, though, we’re just in a holding pattern.

8. pipwerks.com » Blog Archive » How I build my eLearning courses - January 20, 2008

[…] post was triggered by BJ Schone’s question "How do you build eLearning courses?" So, here’s my question: How do you build your eLearning courses? Do you build them from […]

9. philip73 - January 20, 2008

i use a home-brewed HTML/JavaScript system most of the time.

however, your question triggered me to write quite a detailed response in my journal.

the (controversial?) highlight:

“Most eLearning tools do not promote the creation of effective courses, do not promote web standards, and do not promote accessibility; they merely make cookie-cutter course development easier for technically inexperienced course developers.”

i won’t go into any more detail here, but please feel free to comment! i’d like to know if i’m alone in my feelings on the subject.

– philip

10. B.J. Schone - January 20, 2008

Matt – It sounds like you are recreating some of the features found in a typical LMS. It may be necessary given your situation – I’m not familiar with the details. However, it may be tougher for you to bring in courses/content from 3rd party vendors if you stray from standards such as SCORM and AICC. Just my two cents. Chime in if you want to provide further details. I’m always interested to learn how other people implement their eLearning solutions.

gocko – Excellent point about Authorware. I’d forgotten about that. We know HTML and JavaScript will outlast most of the authoring tools. Well, that’s my guess anyway. 🙂

philip – I just read your full response over on your blog/journal. Wow – you’ve given this some great thought! I’ll share my thoughts on your reply soon.

11. Ryan - January 22, 2008

I use a variety of methods to develop eLearning here at Upenn. Some modules demand full blown flash (which I’ve developed a template that includes bookmarking and all LMS communications) and others are fine using the Articulate products. It’s more of a ‘right tool for the job’ approach. We have many developers that also employ the similar approach…and others that just use Articulate (b/c they don’t have flash or html skills).

12. Mike Becvar - January 22, 2008

I saw this on Tony Karrer’s blog. I think this is a good question. I am currently working on a course created with HTML and JavaScript. The course uses code from another course that was created last year by another developer. Since the course is HTML and JavaScript, another developer should be able to edit the text/graphics/audio as needed. It may be more complex for someone else to add/remove modules or pages.

When I started working on the course, I built a simple XML template and a utility that transforms the XML into the individual HTML files. If the future developer has access to the XML file and associated scripts, it would be a lot easier for them to maintain the course.

My last employer used a similar approach. We had two XML templates that both coverted content into HTML for delivery via a LMS or CD.

I have a former client who I have helped a few times. They have a CBT that was created in ToolBook several years ago and have needed to make text changes. They would like to migrate their course to a newer technology, but have so far only opted to make the minimal text changes. An added problem, some of the scripts were removed which prevents them from upgrading to a newer version of ToolBook.

I feel that HTML and JavaScript are here to stay. Other tools will come and go. If you pick a tool like Articulate (another tool currently used by my current client) then you will always have your source content in PowerPoint and may be able to move to another tool in the future without starting from scratch.

Another advantage to using HTML and JavaScript is the fact that the content will be more accessible to users of adaptive technology such as JAWS. JAWS can read the HTML content better than it can do for Flash content generated by other tools. This is an issue for my clients since they are the Federal Government.

13. Matt - January 23, 2008

You are right in that we are recreating the functions of many LCMS’s. However, we have not found a very good LCMS that works well for the delivery of self-paced, text heavy content. We have considered using things like authorware, but it seems to require a lot of web developer time. Our Instructional designers are not highly technical and we typically have hourly developers creating our web pages/sites.

We do use Moodle as our learning managements system, and have AICC/Scorm capabilities. The problem we find with most course development platforms is that they lack flexibility, make content look like PowerPoint, lack accessibility features, etc…

Our current thought is to develop a LCMS by modifying WordPress. This will allow our Instructional Designers to write courses in the wordpress interface, make changes and edits, and review content and comments. Our developers would also be able to embed interactive elements and develop new templates and apply them to our catalog of courses.

Let me know what you think or if you have any advice. You can review our site at http://www.eppley.org . There are some free courses you can sign up for about the National Park Service it you want to check our one of the courses. The courses as they are now are developed using mostly HTML with a splash of .Net.

Thanks for your time.

Matt W.

14. Rainy Horvath - January 25, 2008

We have begun to use Articulate, which is a great and versatile program. Originally, we used FLASH, but it is really time consuming and complicated, and the idea of Elearning course development today seems to hinge on speed, so Articulate works great for relative speed.

15. rod borillo - February 1, 2008

I’m in a quandary as well…how can I convert my face to face orientation powerpoint into online? I have experience in Blackboard around 5 yrs ago so I am leaning towards (although pricey now) this since it will cut down on my development time….don’t have time to learn another platformbut lately, thoughts anyone?

16. B.J. Schone - February 6, 2008

Hi Rod,

You can use tools such as Adobe Presenter or Articulate Presenter to convert your PowerPoint slides into a format that is generally easier to digest for your learners. However, it is highly recommended that you take the time to design the content for online delivery. Simply making content available online doesn’t necessarily make it useful for the learner. There are several great instructional design and eLearning resources out there, such as Cathy Moore’s blog. Do some research and you should be on the right track. Good luck!

17. Phil - March 8, 2008

Hi All. Good discussion. I’ve read and discussed a lot on this topic over the years so here’s my take on it.

I use multiple software tools to develop our elearning. Lectora and Toolbook are used for the majority of development along with Flash for interactive/animation pieces. Since I develop for different Learning Management Systems, using the authoring tools make the job easier. I tend to like the flexibility of Lectora when it comes to adding custom code (JavaScript, HTML, ASP, etc.) so I can extend the capabilities of the authoring system. Since I don’t develop a lot of “software” training courses I don’t use programs like Captivate very much. I also don’t use PowerPoint slides to elearning conversion software.

I’ve developed multimedia and elearning since “94” and have used quite a few authoring and development tools. Most don’t exist now, but I got to use a lot of great tools along the way. For the most part I like a software tool that allows me to write code when the built-in components don’t cut it. But… overall I am less interested in the software and more interested in designing and developing interactive objects to engage the users/students. That’s the fun part of the job. My 2 cents!!

I am trying out a freeware authoring tool called CourseLab. It’s got a few warts, but also some interesting abilities. Not ready to make the jump yet though.


18. Sangeeta - March 23, 2008

Hi all,
Here’s my 2 cents on this.
We use a variety of e-learning authoring tools. The advantage is that one can directly publish to SCORM standards or to HTML or make an exe. We use authoring tools like WBTExpress (made by 4systems) & Elicitus (made by Harbingers). WBTExpress can publish the course as a single exe (useful if you would like to copy protect it and sell it off the shelf).
Also we are trying out Courselab (its a free tool) to see if it can meet our needs.
All of these tools can embed third party software objects like movie files, Flash (swf) files, audio, etc.Plus the ready-made assessments and tests are very useful (better than developing from scratch).

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20. Jo - May 28, 2008

Hi All
It has been really useful to read your comments on e-learning tools. I am seeking comments on a dilemma I have. We are a small training company that want to develop some of our courses into e-learning packages. I find it really hard to obtain sound objective advice. Do I get a company to do this and pay them each year for the licensing and development? Is is feasible for me to learn to do this myself for the very reason Mike mentioned to ensure it is accessible to all and educational sound? If I do get a company to do how much should I pay for the service and what pitfalls should I look out for. Do I have to pay them a fee each year for the authorizing tool. any comments from you guys would be very gratefully recieved

21. B.J. Schone - May 28, 2008

Hi Jo,

It all depends upon your situation. If you have the time, interest, and a tiny bit of technical know-how, you can use a tool like Captivate or Lectora to build your courses. If this is the case, download a free trial of these tools and give it a shot. If you like one of those tools, but it and build your courses. If you are more technically advanced, you can learn HTML, JavaScript, and AICC/SCORM, which will allow you to build your own courses from scratch. These two options give you the most flexibility and ownership, but they can also be very time-consuming, especially if this is new to you.

If you’re short on time, and if you have the money, you might consider using a vendor. Get quotes from at least 3 – 5 vendors and compare them carefully. As you mentioned, there could be recurring fees, and each company has a different pricing model. Just be sure to understand all of their terms before you sign anything. And try to negotiate, too! I hope this helps… Good luck, and don’t hesitate to ask more questions!

22. Jo - June 6, 2008

Hi Again

You said don’t hesitate to ask more questions so here I am. I took your advice and started obtaining more quotes and after discussion with the rest of the team we want to consider the option of contracting someone in who will help us to build our own e-learning packages who we will pay for for their time. This options makes us feel that we may have more control and input into how it evolves and also gives us flexibility to expolore all the software options. I have read the comments above and I am still not sure what kind of skills I should ask for and how much should I pay. or where to find someone any guidance from any one on this site would be very welcome. Even if it is to tell me this would be a bad idea. Open to your comments regards Jo (from Surrey)

23. B.J. Schone - June 6, 2008

Hi Jo,

If you’re dealing with an eLearning service provider, you’ll want to make sure they have good experience working with LMSs (I’m assuming you’re wanting to put the content in your LMS). It’s even better if they have experience working with your particular brand of LMS (ex. SumTotal, Plateau, etc.). Other than that, I would want to look at specific examples of the work they’ve done, rather than drill down too much into the technologies they’ve used. (If you have an IT contact at your organization, you may want to have them ‘talk tech’ with the service providers to make sure everything sounds ok.) I would also ask for references; make sure you can talk to a few of their past clients to get feedback on the experience, quality of work, budget, etc. I hope this helps…

24. Sangeeta - September 21, 2008

Hi Jo,
You could also try out a free authoring tool called Course Lab. We have found it pretty easy to learn; it will save you the time and money that you would spend in hiring a company to do this for you. Also courses that are so built can be readily exported to Moodle, another free LMS.

25. Matt - October 15, 2008

To follow up on this old topic, we have started to build a drupal template for our e-learning content. Once in place, this will allow us to rapidly deploy new elearning modules. Once completed with this project we hope to be able to share something with the community that will help with rapid deployment.

Matt Wolf

26. Nick - October 28, 2008

May be i am not understanding something. How can you create courses with tests if you uses only HTML and JavaScript?

27. B.J. Schone - October 28, 2008

Hi Nick,

It can certainly be done. Of course, you will need to include images and other media, such as Flash, video, etc. But JavaScript gives you enough power to add interactivity for the user along with communication between SCORM/AICC and your LMS. I recommend searching the web for good tutorials, and check out this article that I wrote a while back. Good luck!

28. Alex - May 24, 2010

I am undoubtedly a very late comer to this thread but, it hit so close to home, I simply could not resist. I am going to lean very very heavily on the side of learning to use html and javascript developed from scratch whenever possible instead of any authoring tool like Lectora, Articulate, Toolbook, Thesis, Courselab, Xerte, iSpring, or even eXE.

Let it be known that I do this in spite of personally not knowing how to do this stuff myself. I think it will be far easier for me to learn these two ways of producing content than it would be to work with all of these companies without exception. Why? You ask? I am a user of Jaws which is the screen reader mentioned above. At this time, there are no, none, zilch, nada nessuno e-learning authoring tools, commercial or open sourced, that are accessible/508 compliant.

There are tons that fall all over themselves boasting about how their stuff PRODUCES accessible content but, if you are a sight impaired person who is a talented trainer and you want to go somewhere like the Federal government that uses these tools heavily, you will be unable to land that job without knowing how to create html and javascript yourself because not a single one of these tools works with any screen readers I know of. If it’s a job like the one described above requiring experience with Lectora, toolbook, iSpring or something like it, you are up a creek even then! I have no idea how they get away with this.

I’m surprised the VA or the NFB hasn’t jumped on this by now though that could be just because it’s looming particularly large for ME at the moment. That being said, however, I am sure I am not the only blind trainer in the country (I’ve met coleagues) nor do I believe that the idea of one of us applying at the CDC, the IRS, the FBI, or some university or other that exports to Moodle or Blackboard is so far-fetched that not one of these software solutions can work with Jaws or Window Eyes or any of the other screen readers out there.

Try it, download all of these and see for yourself if you are a Jaws or Window Eyes user. None of the scorm authoring tools work with screen readers. As for you software producers out there, I do realize that market forces drive what comes across your developers’ desks. I don’t expect you to make your products accessible out of the kindness of your hearts. I do think that the first one of you that manages to do this, however, will corner an as-yet untapped portion of the market because, sooner or later, somebody is going to go work for a federal or state agency and will need ADA accomodations because they are the best man or woman for the job their special needs notwithstanding. Or, they will not get the job and raise a truly monumental stink over it and appeal and appeal until something gets done. It’s how a lot of the stuff out there now was made available to the disabled community.

Sooner or later, someone will lobby for this and have 508 compliance requirements rewritten such that equal opportunity is extended to all prospective employees of certain institutions by making sure they don’t run software that is inaccessible due to negligence on the part of the producers. Very costly to scramble ot keep perfectly happy customers over something like this at the last minute. Best do it now under your own terms. If you can swat up on how to sell your product to people who want to produce accessible content and spend millions in manpower and in time to write tomes of guidelines on how to get it done, you can absolutely figure out or find someone who can figure out how to make your own product itself accessible to someone who needs accessibility on the authoring end of things.

Make your software with standard window classes, make it possible to control your software using the keyboard, yes, even drag and drop features can be done with a keyboard now, and label your graphics using text labels. Some of us do graduate, you know. Go on to do all sorts of things, trainers among them. If you are a producer of e-learning authoring content and your product is accessible, accept my apology and contact me at Alex.Midence@milliman.com. You will find someone ready to do business with you provided you don’t charge something outrageous like 5 grand per license when everyone else is charging 1 to 2 grand.

The gauntlet is thrown. Who will pick it up? My real vote is fot eh open source community. Waht you guys have accomplished is very admirable with things like moodle and Open Office. I’m almost positive it’ll be one of you who does this while your commercial counterparts are too busy arguing the matter back and forth in board meetings.

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30. Sly - November 5, 2010

Really interesting point, Alex. But, forgive me, I don’t understand how someone who is visually impaired (cannot see) can work effectively in multimedia development.

I, personally, would love to have the skill to code with my eyes closed – I think I might be slightly more productive. But I couldn’t run layouts, plan illustrations, or construct visual presentations without sight.

I’m curious to see how someone that is visually impaired navigates the challenges of Web development as a visual medium. I’d imagine that this is one of the barriers to complete accessibility for certain disabilities in this field. There aren’t many visual impaired folks working as skilled visual media specialists. If there are I would truly be interested to read their stories – fascinating.

31. Kim Green - Atlanta - January 27, 2011

Thanks for the post – great discussion. I can see both sides. You will notice the ambiguity in my answer.

I can understand the desire to want to control everything, to make the training the best that it can be. That’s our artistic side and, to some extent, our professional side. But we create learning for business (or other entities that are run like a business) and efficiency is very important. It is simply more efficient to have software that can be easily updated by anyone (without sacrificing two much quality).

However, I don’t know the real answer on what is easy to update. It may vary from company to company. I would think that a company should have a style sheet and sheet templates or formats that help the company keep a uniform look. If you are the primary training person, the contractors need to adjust to your preferences rather than adjust to theirs. You will probably be at the company next year and they won’t.

I am a little concerned about the idea that it is easier to find someone who can code than to find someone who knows a particular program. A web developer is not the same thing as an instructional designer.

As you can see, I a bit wishy-washy on this.

Kim Green

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