Essential Guide to eLearning Authoring Tools

July 27, 2021

eLearning authoring tools provide an avenue for learning experiences to be transported from the classroom to the web. As the need for remote training increases, so does the quality and quantity of eLearning authoring tools. Yes, authoring tools are more than likely responsible for that boring compliance or onboarding course you took 5 years ago. The good news is that these tools have come a long way in the last 10 years. At this point, there is no excuse for building a boring eLearning course.  In this article, we will break down the top 5 authoring tools while answering a few important questions along the way.

Find the following topics below:

What is an eLearning authoring tool?

What are the different types of eLearning authoring tools?

What to look for in an eLearning authoring tool?

Overview of the top 5 eLearning authoring tools

- Comparison chart of the top eLearning authoring tools

Are eLearning authoring tools easy to learn?

What is an authoring tool?

An eLearning authoring tool is a piece of software that allows you to build interactive learning experiences in the digital space. Many of these tools look and function like the familiar Microsoft PowerPoint and are used by instructional designers and eLearning developers to create custom learning experiences.”

What makes an authoring tool different from PowerPoint?

1. eLearning authoring tools can create interactive learning experiences.

2. Authoring tools have the ability to create complex learner pathways.

3. These tools can publish content using customizable settings that are compatible with websites and Learning Management Systems.

4. Gamification is a key component to a good learning experience.

Check out what our lead instructional designer has to say about how the pandemic has affected eLearning.

What are the primary types of eLearning authoring tools?

eLearning tools can be categorized as: 

  • Local software
  • Cloud based software
  • Multimedia and screen capturing tools

Local eLearning authoring software

Also known as “locally hosted authoring tools”, this type of software is downloaded to your computer. These authoring tools generally come with everything needed to develop awesome courses.

What are the pros and cons of local eLearning software?

Pros:
  • Ability to work offline
  • Generally serve as “all-in-one” tool
  • Allow for tons of customization

Cons:
  • May take up significant hard drive space
  • Steep learning curve
  • Most expensive option

Cloud based authoring tools

These are authoring tools that can be accessed from a web browser and don’t need to be downloaded. Often times these tools are marketed as a software subscription with monthly or yearly fees. Cloud based tools generally service more niche needs than standalone authoring tools and thus come with a more approachable price tag.  

What are the pros and cons of cloud based eLearning software?

Pros:
  • Don’t take up space on your hard drive
  • Easier to use than standalone authoring tools
  • Monthly subscription allows for a more accessible cost and regular software updates

Cons:
  • Less versatility than standalone tools
  • Monthly subscriptions can add up
  • Must have a strong internet connection

Multimedia & screen capturing tools

This category encompasses a wide variety of software that eLearning developers use to supplement the functionality of standalone or cloud based tools.  A few examples are: video editors, screen capture tools, audio editors, and image creators.

What are the pros and cons of multimedia & screen capturing software?

Pros:
  • Allow Instructional designers to build more interactive and engaging learning experiences
  • Less expensive than standalone authoring tools
Cons:
  • The cost of multiple software subscriptions adds up quickly
  • Many tools have a steep learning curve
  • It takes experience to know which tool is best in a given situation

What to look for in an eLearning authoring tool?

We used the following criteria to determine our top 5 eLearning authoring tools.

How much does the authoring tool cost?

The cost of an authoring tool can range anywhere from $10 per month subscription to $1,300 for a full license. It’s important to understand your needs as well as the full functionality of the prospective authoring tool before jumping in to a large purchase or subscription.

Each authoring tool on this list offers a free trial.

Free Trials

Many authoring tools offer free trials that allow instructional designers to get a feel for the tool before making any commitments.  

Below are links to free trial offers from a few of the leading authoring tools:

Articulate 360– 60 days (No credit card required)

Adobe Captivate – 30 days

Camtasia– 30 days

Snagit– 15 days

Learning Curve

There are so many tools out there that all claim to be user friendly and easy to learn. The truth is that there is a huge spectrum of usability among eLearning Authoring tools.

It's important that each authoring tool in our top 5 is not only user friendly, but also offers learning experiences for new designers to help the get going.

Later on, we'll rank our top 5 authoring tools from easiest to most difficult.

You'll also find recommendations from our designers as to where to begin if you are picking up these tools for the first time.

Beautiful out-of-box Interface

You might be asking yourself, "why do I care what the interface looks like? I just need a tool that gets the job done."

The truth is, the interface of an eLearning development software is one of the most important components.

A good interface should have a proportional layout, include labels or icons to help identify buttons, be customizable based on project needs, and offer convenience by having everything needed in one place.

Prebuilt Templates

It has become standard practice for eLearning development software to come stocked with large libraries of prebuilt templates, images, videos, icons, and more. While most instructional designers will opt for designing their own content, a little inspiration never hurts. The authoring tools that made our list all come with stock assets. The quality and quantity of these assets varies widely and it is important to understand what each tool has to offer.

Customizable Interactions

Custom interactions are one of the primary features that make eLearning the amazing tool it is. Local or standalone authoring software tends come with tons of customization options while cloud based authoring tools generally come with more out of the box solutions that are les customizable. Our clients love when we build custom interactions and animations into our courses and we believe that these are critical for engaging learners.

Mobile/Multi-Device Compatibility

We want our training to reach learners where they are, not the other way around. Thus, it's becoming incredibly important to create mobile responsive content.

LMS Publishing Options

It is important that the eLearning course you are building is published in a format that is compatible with your organization’s LMS.  The most common publishing formats for an LMS are SCORM 2004, SCORM 1.2, and AICC. The eLearning authoring tools in our top 5 offer a wide variety of publishing settings that work great with any LMS.

Review of the top 5 eLearning authoring tools

1. Articulate Storyline 360

Storyline serves as a standalone eLearning authoring tool. Developers will find a comprehensive tool that contains everything needed to create interactive eLearning.  

Here are our favorite features of Storyline 360:

  • High level of flexibility to bring a vision to life
  • Screen recording
  • Basic video, audio, and photo editing
  • Accessibility features
  • Slide-based
  • LMS Compatible
  • Published courses are responsive to various browser sizes
  • Media library allows for real time collaboration with adobe products & other creator tools
  • Add complexity to any course using triggers, layers, variables, and object states
  • 60 day free trial for new users
  • Easily publish courses to Review 360 to gather stakeholder feedback 

How much does Storyline 360 cost?

An annual subscription to Articulate 360, which includes includes the entire Storyline 360 suite (Storyline, Rise, Review, etc.), starts at $499 for the academic plan, $999 for the freelancer plan, and $1,299 per user for the teams plan.

Academic plan: $499

Freelancer plan: $999

Team plan: $1299 (per user)

Does Articulate Storyline offer a free trial?

Storyline 360 offers a 60 day free trial.  

2. Articulate Rise 360

This is a cloud based authoring tool that’s included in an Articulate 360 subscription.  This rapid development tool offers the perfect contrast to Storyline.  Rise provides a “website” feel that looks very different from Storyline’s slide based functionality.

Here are our favorite features of Articulate Rise:

  • Very short learning curve compared to Storyline 360
  • Rapid development
  • Web-based courses look and feel modern
  • Highly responsive to mobile phones and tablets
  • LMS compatible
  • Offers just enough flexibility
  • Publish to Review 360
  • Duplicate courses for even faster development 

How much does Rise 360 cost?

Rise 360 is included in the Articulate 360 suite. An Articulate 360 annual subscription starts at $499 for the academic plan, $999 for the freelancer plan, and $1,299 per user for the teams plan.

Academic plan: $499

Freelancer plan: $999

Team plan: $1299 (per user)

Does Articulate Rise 360 offer a free trial?

Rise 360 offers a 60 day free trial.  

3. Camtasia

Camtasia is Techsmith’s video editing software designed specifically for developing learning content. This is your all-in-one tool for screen casting and video editing. The dynamic publishing feature makes it possible to published videos using a wide variety of settings that fit any need. Best of all, Camtasia is much easier to use than other video editing software such as Adobe Premier and while some advanced features are missing, Camtasia offers everything needed for eLearning development.

How much does Camtasia cost?

A license to download and use Camtasia starts at $170 for education plans and $250 for individual/business plans.

Education Plan: $170

Professional Plan: $250

Does Camtasia have a free trial?

Camtasia offers a 30 day free trial.

Is Camtasia a subscription service?

Unlike other eLearning development software that are largely subscription based, a Camtasia license is a one-time purchase. While this straightforward pricing is a welcomed relief, be aware that this one-time price may not include software updates that will be needed over time to keep your Camtasia software up to date.

4. Adobe Captivate

At one time Adobe Captivate was the undeniable leader in eLearning software. It led the way in system simulations and interactive design. It's now become less popular than the Articulate products based on the steep learning curve and lack of new features, but there's still many reasons that people love Captivate. Captivate can make beautiful interactive online courses featuring images, audio narration, branching, system simulations, video, and more.

Captivate is especially strong with publishing options, with many options that tightly integrate with different LMS. It also strong at using external videos, and branching. The biggest drawbacks about Captivate are the steep learning curve, and the price. Captivate does not come with Adobe Creative Cloud and is purchased independently. It has also lacked the innovation of the Articulate competitor. Lastly, Captivate takes longer to develop complex interactions, requiring more testing to ensure it's working properly for the end user. A lot can go wrong if an interaction is improperly built.

Captivate is known as "A great tool! If you know what you're doing."

 

How much does Adobe Captivate cost?

An monthly subscription to Adobe Captivate costs $33.99 /mo.

Monthly Subscription: $33.99 /mo.

Does Adobe Captivate offer a free a trial? 

Adobe Captivate offers a 30 day free trial.

5. Elucidat

Elucidat courses are beautiful. The out-of-box interface wows instructional designers from the beginning with the easy to work with interface, beautiful templates, image libraries to choose from, and overall simplicity. You can quickly build beautiful online courses with branching and an intermediate level of interaction complexity. The courses also look great on mobile devices.

What prevents Elucidat from rating as a top contender is the lack of flexibility outside of the out-of-box templates and the steep price.  Elucidate costs $2500/author/year, and they want you to start with three authors. This makes an upfront investment of $7500/year. It's easily the most expensive and restrictive authoring tool. Most experienced instructional designers want more design flexibility and a lower cost to their tool. Elucidat is sometimes perceived as the posh tool used by organizations or teams with a large budget, who don't need highly customized learning experiences.

How much does Elucidat cost?

A subscription to Elucidat costs $2,500 per year, per user. Unlike the first 4 authoring tools, Elucidat does not make their pricing public so finding up to dat information on pricing can be difficult.  

Does Elucidat have a free trial?

Elucidat offers a free demo here.

Comparison chart of the top eLearning authoring tools

Are eLearning authoring tools easy to learn?

Each authoring tool has its own learning curve. Some tools like Rise 360 and Elucidat are relatively simple and easy for new users to pick up.  While other tools such as Storyline 360, Camtasia, and Captivate are more complex and can take months of practice to get started.  

We ranked our top 5 authoring tools from easiest to most difficult:

Rise - Easiest path to developing eLearning courses

Elucidat - A few hours of practice to get started

Camtasia -Steeper learning curve for those new to video editing, easier than other video editors

Storyline 360 - The basic features can be learned relatively quickly, but the full functionality may take months to years to master.

Captivate -The most difficult authoring tool to learn, as there are a lot of advanced features and the interface is not as friendly as Storyline.

Which eLearning authoring tool is the easiest to learn?

Rise 360 is the easiest to learn and we recommend this as a starting point. This tool will get new designers off the ground and on the way to developing an eLearning course without months of struggling through Storyline’s complexity.

Which eLearning authoring tool is the hardest to learn?

Both Adobe Captivate and Storyline 360 can be very challenging, taking months to learn and years to master. We love that Articulate Storyline comes in the same package of Rise 360. This gives new users the chance to quickly build courses in Rise while they spend time learning Storyline.

See what Trainicity's designers have to say about the different types of learning objectives.

Max Henderson

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