Rapid Intake Flashform Review

 UPDATE: Since this original review I’ve spoken more with Rapid Intake and have changed some of my opinions. Read this review, then read the updated review.

On the surface, Rapid Intake Flashform looks like a very promising course authoring tool, but the reality simply does not live up to the promise. The Rapid Intake web site is slick, polished and well designed; it does a great job of promoting the products and drawing you in, but the product does not meet the lofty expectations set by the marketing hype. Kudos to the marketing department for a job well done, I wish I could say the same thing for the actual product. I don’t want to just bash Flashform, but I will say I was disappointed. It does have a lot of features and is certainly much cheaper than many other authoring tools. Flashform also rated well in the customer satisfaction survey I read.

Usability

Usability was the major stumbling block for me. Flashform is a very simple tool that suffers from poor interface design and usability issues. The UI doesn’t follow standard conventions – the buttons are split into two toolbars, one at the top of the screen the other at the bottom. Normal convention is to have toolbars and menus at the top of the screen, or in palettes that can be moved around.

Flashform is the right name for this product because that’s what it is – a Flash based application that uses form fields for creating courses. Flashform looks and feels like a Flash executable, which isn’t inherently bad, but in this case the implementation is lacking. For example, with most applications when I expand the application window to full screen I don’t expect all the interface elements to scale, I expect more screen real estate for my work area. Expand this browser window to full screen and the menus and toolbars stay the same size, but the viewing area gets bigger without scaling anything. Flashform scaled everything, like a Flash file does when you view it at full screen. It’s just odd for an application.

Other usability issues include:

  • For some changes Flashform does not prompt you to save unsaved changes when closing the file. For example, when adding a sound file it prompted me to save, but when I changed screen text it did not.
  • When publishing, there was no indication that publishing finished.
  • You must save projects in different directories or else published files will be overwritten. I had two project files saved in the same directory, so whenever I published or changed themes it overwrote the other project with no warning.
  • Switching between project files does not work. When I tried loading a second project it looked like it refreshed the screen and the title bar changed, but the content was from the fist file.

Features Review

By now, you’be probably got the idea that I don’t recommend this tool, so I’m not going to go into great detail on all the features and functions, I’ll give you the highlights.

Text Editing
Text editing is clunky at best. Issues I encountered included:

  • There is no undo and no spell checker. (This actually shocked me, undo is the most basic of functionality.)
  • Pressing CTRL+B inserts an unknown character, erasing the text. I expected bold text.
  • To make a bullet, you have to select the entire line of text, not just have your cursor in the line.
  • There is only one level of bullets, no sub-bullets. I tried adding sub-bullets in HTML code, but the player just ignored them.

Additionally, you cannot import content, although you can edit the XML. If you have some programming background, you can convert existing content to properly formatted XML and then use it to start a new course. That’s a work-around, but I consider it a plus. I like programs that let you into the source files.

Media
When adding media, files are copied to the project folder. That’s good. I don’t have to worry about moving files to the correct location before importing, which makes my unorganized file management a little easier.

When trying to link to an MP3 file I got the following error message:

A script in this movie is causing Flash Player 9 to run slowly. If it continues to run your computer may become unresponsive. Do you want to abort the script? [Yes] [No]

I clicked Yes to abort, but Flashform imported the audio and automatically included a basic player. There was no volume control on the player, which I think is required.

Adding images is straight forward, but there are very limited options for placement. You also can’t resize images, it chooses the size for you based on the screen type. Images must be sized to fit the place holder before you import. This is the only authoring tool I’ve seen that doesn’t allow you to resize images after they’ve been placed on a screen.

Futhermore, Flashform only supports JPG images. There is no support for GIF or PNG. Flash has great support for PNG files, so that surprised me. Also, I got above error when trying to link to an image, but it worked. I don’t like seeing error messages that mean nothing.

Themes and Course Structure
Flashform segments courses into topics which include pages. The fact that Flashform allows for Topics with pages is good. The table of contents can have multiple levels and you can move topics and pages around. It’s not always easy, but once you figure it out it becomes routine.

Flashform comes with a lot of stock themes that define the look and feel of a course. I changed the course theme, which changed one of my topics into a page, thus breaking the structure of my course. I used the Promote button to make it a topic again, but it stuck it at the bottom of the TOC. I was then unable to move the screens originally in the topic back into the topic. That was little frustrating. I eventually figured out that to get screens back into the topic I had to move the screens to the top level, then move them down, then demote them. Very odd. It should be drag and drop. This is Flash, so that shouldn’t be hard to manage.

PowerPoint Conversion
I tried the PowerPoint tools, and was completely unimpressed. It will convert PowerPoint to flash, but as a single SWF embedded in a page. I assumed it would convert the PPT file and create a page for each PowerPoint screen. You can also create a screen capture while the presentation is running, but I don’t really see the point of that. The capture software is basic, it just records whatever is on the screen as a movie, which it then converts to an SWF.

Quiz Tool
The quiz tool is pretty cumbersome, although I did get it to work. I created a quiz with two questions, but only the first question displayed when I previewed the course the first time. Amongst all the options on the quiz screen there is one that says “number of questions to display”. That is set to 1 by default, so as you add questions you have manually change the number. I also got a security warning from Flash about an unsafe operation when I clicked the “check answer” button. I didn’t think the quiz tool was very intuitive. It does have some options for tracking via an LMS, but I didn’t use an LMS to test the feature.

Summary

Flashform makes it easy to create a very basic course, or presentation, but you have to really plan things out and design specifically for this tool. I found reworking course structure cumbersome and changing themes problematic. I suppose if you storyboarded extensively this tool could work well, but I would be concerned about reworking course sequence or structure later on.

You are better off spending more money on a tool like Lectora or Outstart Trainer. For around the same price Articulate Presenter offers a more mature and easier to use tool. Bottom line, Flashform is not all it’s cracked up to be. The marketing department gets kudos for making this product sound really cool.

Now the disclaimer: This review is based on my experience with the trial version of Flashform. Based on the customer satisfaction survey I saw I assume other people have had a much better experience. Please feel free to comment and correct any misconceptions.

Articulate Presenter Review

Articulate Presenter is probably the leading PowerPoint to Flash tool aimed at the eLearning market, and for good reason. It is very easy to use and produces clean, user-friendly presentations in a matter of minutes. The interface is simple and intuitive, and Articulate Presenter comes with a nice mix of publishing options. It is not without its faults, however. The short-comings are few, and don’t really take away from the overall effectiveness of the tool. The bottom line: if you want to produce attractive online slide shows and have a bit of money to spend, Articulate Presenter is probably a good choice. The base price for Presenter is $499. The Studio Professional version is $1398. See Articulate’s store for pricing details.

One caveat, a good tool does not necessarily make good training. Presenter is a good tool, but you have to use it appropriately and within its limit to create effective training. It is not a course authoring tool; it is a slide show tool. If you think online training means adding some quiz questions to PowerPoint presentations, then this is the tool for you. I personally don’t think that is eLearning. I think that is “shovelware”. Again, the tool does not make the training. Training needs to be effective, not just pretty and easy to produce. That is not to say that Articulate Presenter cannot be used to make effective training, because it can. They have really good example of ergonomic training on their blog that shows you how effective the Articulate tool set can be. (Note, the example used Articulate Engage in addition to Presenter).

Features
Presenter has a lot of useful features that really make it stand out above other similar tools. I’m not going to go into all of them here, but I’ll highlight a few key features. You can view a full list of features online.

You can add basic quizzes using Articulate Presenter, but the quiz tool is lacking. I could not even figure out how to edit the color default color scheme. Presenter’s built-in quiz tools suffers because Articulate needs to promote Quizmaker, and obviously focuses quiz development efforts on Quizmaker. It is clear they want you to buy Articulate Quizmaker and use it for quizzes. That’s probably a good idea, but will cost you extra. Quizmaker comes with the Studio versions of Presenter.

You can add audio to slides and sync the timing to match the audio file. I imported a four minute MP3 file and it performed well and sounded fine. You can also use the built in recording tool to add audio. Adding Flash files was not as straight forward. If the Flash file is larger than the presentation size, you have to launch it in a separate window. If you’re running the presentation from a web server, this isn’t a problem and actually prevents you from accidentally scaling the Flash movie. However, when testing the output on my local system I got the obligatory security warnings and the simulation didn’t launch. This will probably happen for CD based presentations. There may have been a way to avoid this, but I ran out of time on my demo version to fully explore the options.

You can customize the presentation look and feel. Presenter gives you a lot of options for changing just about every interface element. I found it easy to change the color scheme, add my logo, and save the scheme for use in other presentations. I think Articulate Presenter had the best built-in color customization tools of all the slide conversion tools I looked at. The only minor gripe I had was that you can’t tab between fields when changing colors. One thing I liked was the ability to not show presenter video. Some people like seeing a person talking, but I don’t. It was an easy thing to turn off.

One feature I really liked was the ability to add multiple levels to the Table of Contents. You can create hierarchy of slides so that users can clearly see how topics are organized into sections or topics. I easily grouped slides into multiple nested topics. The published output had a clear table of contents showing the organization. Learners like to see things in small, logical chunks and this tool lets you quickly create modules within a presentation. This was probably my favorite feature.

Publishing
Publishing is easy either as a SCORM package or standalone presentations. You can use the default compression for images and audio, or choose your own settings. I recommend using a high image quality setting because the output quality of the slides wasn’t great. I could see a lot of compression artifacts. Also, the custom bullets I used did not render properly. They were behind the bullet text.

Another feature I liked was the ability to choose how the presentation launches. You can choose to launch it in a pop-up window, at the normal size, or scaled in a window. I like the flexibility. It shows that Articulate thought about delivery options and realized not every presentation will use the same cookie cutter approach.

Customization
I’ve already talked about customization, but there’s more. If you buy the Platinum support plan you also get access to the Articulate SDK which includes an API reference and some FLA files. This gives you a much wider range of customization options because you can actually use Flash to change interface elements. I thought cost was a little high, but it does come with product upgrades. A smart Flash developer might be able to make customization without the SDK because of the way Articulate has structured the output files. I took a close look at the published output and was impressed with how they were accomplishing things, at least from a Flash programming point of view. I would have done something very similar.

Summary
Overall, a very good tool, the best of the PowerPoint converters that I looked at.
The good:

  • Customization options
  • Multi level navigation in TOC
  • Available SDK

The Bad

  • Built in quiz tool
  • Compression artifacts
  • Price – initial cost, and especially the SDK

I will likely recommend purchasing Articulate presenter with the Platinum support plan because I know I’ll be able to make high quality presentations with it. I could probably build a similar tool myself, but Presenter will get me going much faster.

Ratings
On a 10 point scale, 10 being best

General
Ease of Use 8  
Interface Design 8 Simple, clear, intuitive.
Ramp-up 8 I was able to get output fairly quickly.
Help 7 Included help is adequate. I downloaded a PDF file, which is good, but the page numbering didn’t sync with the Acrobat page numbers.
Support 8 They have a support web site that looks good. It has forums, which I always like.
Customer Satisfaction 8.5 From the Course Authoring Tools satisfaction survey.
Course Authoring
Customization 8 I easily customized the presentation colors and added my own logo. The interface has some minor quirks, but is overall very good. I wish I could set the presentation size.
Integration 8 You can add audio and Flash, but the size limitation of Flash annoyed me.
Quizzes 5 It does incorporate quizzes, but the built in tool is very limited. I couldn’t figure out how to customize the colors. They want you to buy Quizmaker, so this tool suffers.
Publishing 9 I had no problems with the publishing and liked the various options. I also liked that I can set the audio compression.
Output Quality 9 There were some issues, but you can change settings to help overcome them.
Total 8  

If you have any comments, corrections, or a different opinion, please post a comment or email me directly. This review is my opinion of my experience using the 15 day trial version of Articulate Presenter. It is entirely possible I missed something. If I did, let me know.

Update: I found this review – http://academictech.doit.wisc.edu/resources/products/pptoweb/articulate.htm for anyone interested in another opinion.

SWiSHZone Presenter Review

SWiSHZone Presenter is not really an eLearning development tool, and is not marketed as one, but it’s worth looking at if you need to convert PowerPoint to Flash. PowerPoint conversion is all this tool does, and it does it fairly well. I ran into some issues, but overall it’s worth considering and has some practical application in eLearning development. At $99 US, Presenter gives you a cost effective, but very basic PowerPoint to Flash converter with limited features and output options. This tool doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It’s just conversion tool – nothing more, nothing less.

For this evaluation I downloaded the 15 day trial version. Getting the trial version was pretty straight forward and installation was painless. Also, even though I had to register my email address to get an unlock key for the trial version, I haven’t been getting spam from SWiSHZone. Thank you.

Features

Presenter is very easy to use, mostly due to the fact that there aren’t a lot of options. You don’t get a lot of bells and whistles with this tool, so the interface is straightforward and simple. About the only thing you can do with Presenter is add audio to the presentation. There are no quiz tools or tools to embed Flash or other media. Presenter assumes you just want to package presentations for the web, so most of the features revolve around publishing. You can add WAV or MP3 audio on a per slide basis and sync the slide duration to match the audio file, but that’s about it.

Publishing

Presenter breaks the publishing process into three simple tabs. From all three tabs you can select the slides to include in the output. By default all slides are selected. In the first tab you set the size and playback rate; it defaults to 720×540 at 12 fps. (Tab 1) In the second tab you set the slide length and optionally add audio. You can also set up slide transitions. (Tab 2) In the third tab you set the output format and playback controls. You can also choose to export individual SWF files for each slide and export an SWI file, which you can open with SWiSHMax. (Tab 3)

The output format is always SWF, but you can set the image type for export as GIF, JPG, vector, or image. With image and JPG you can set the quality level much like typical JPG export controls on graphics programs or in Flash. I found the JPG quality to be lacking even when using 90 (100 is the highest quality). With vector and GIF export there is no quality settings. With the GIF export the text was not smooth, but there were no compression artifacts. I had problems with the vector output – it never worked well. On my first attempt some colors in some graphics were not reproduced accurately. In my second attempt, the vector output only had the first slide.

You can view samples of each output here with various playback controllers:

Because this is not an eLearning tool, there is no SCORM or AICC output. However, you could easily add SCORM tracking in another application.

Playback Controls

The playback controls are pretty standard. There are only a few options, but they are the right options in my opinion. Depending on the theme you choose, you get slightly different options for playback controls. Generally the options include full controls and minimal controls. The full controls include a pop-up table of contents, slide notes, and volume controls. The styles are pretty generic and will work with pretty much any color scheme your organization may have.

There are not a lot of playback control customization options in Presenter. The help file says you can make changes to the playback controls by editing an XML file that stores settings, but I couldn’t make it work. Additionally, the settings are stored in the Presenter program folder so they get applied to every presentation. That’s fine if you want to change options for every presentation, but not so good if you want to be able to change them for each presentation. I changed the XML file to remove the notes, but when I published the notes button was still there.

There are also tutorials that explain how to make custom controls using SWiSHMax, so if you want to spend the extra $100 on SWiSHMax you can theoretically customize the playback controls. I would have liked to be able to remove the slide notes from the full controls, but other than that I thought the default controls were adequate. I did not try to create custom playback controls in SWiSHMax.

Summary

Overall, Presenter is good for straight PowerPoint to Flash conversion. While it is not an eLearning tool, it could be have applications for basic presentations or exporting slides for inclusion in a course as Flash assets.

The good:

  • Easy to use
  • Inexpensive
  • Can add audio to slides
  • Adequate controls

The bad:

  • Output quality is not great
  • Customization did not work as documented (could be a trial version issue)
  • Vector output did not work

Ratings
On a 10 point scale, 10 being best

General
Ease of Use 8 Editing XML to change settings knocked this score down.
Interface Design 10 All controls and options were well organized and clearly labeled. They used well understood labels for controls.
Ramp-up 10 I was up and running in minutes.
Help 7 Decent help, but not stellar
Support 7 I liked what I saw on the website, but didn’t want to create a support account to login. Since you have to register your email address to get a key, they should give you access to the support site.
Course Authoring
Customization 4 Limited default themes. To create custom controls you need SWiSHMax. Couldn’t get changes in XML to reflect in output.
Integration 4 Only PowerPoint and WAV, MP3. Does not support any other formats.
Quizzes N/A  
Publishing 6 Does not publish to SCORM, just SWF and HTML.
Output Quality 5 JPG and Image setting didn’t look good, vector didn’t work.
Total 6.7 Average based on categories scored

Finally, if you come across any errors or misrepresentations, please let me know. My review is based on my somewhat limited use of the trial version. If you have used SWiSHZone Presenter and have had different results, please let me know.

Choosing eLearning Development Tools, Part 3

The List O’ Tools

To come up with my list I did some research and found some existing lists that provided me with many tools: eLearning Technology blog, eLearning Guild, and Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies.The Elearning Guild has an extensive list with links to vendors that I recommend. You’ll have to weed through it, but it is a great resource.

I broke the tools into groups by function – media development tools, course authoring, online presentation. I focused on course authoring and online presentation tools. Not all the tools here are strictly eLearning tools, many are more general purpose presentation tools. I didn’t specifically research “rapid” eLearning tools because I hate that term. Any tool can be rapid, and rapid tools can be slow. Rapid is user dependent, like typing speed. My keyboard doesn’t make me type faster. No amount of marketing can make me type faster, just practice.

Media Development:

Online Presentation:

Course Authoring (stand alone):

Course Authoring (server based):

In all honesty I did not evaluate all these tools, but I did research all of them. Sometimes that research was a few minutes, other times I attended webinars and had lengthy discussions with sales people. In the coming weeks I’ll post my thoughts on every tool listed here. For tools that I only researched I’ll probably include several tools in a single post. For tools that I spent time using or researching, I’ll post individual reports. If you know of a great tool that I missed, please let me know.
I have no affiliation with any of these vendors. My evaluations are purely my opinion of the products. At anytime, I welcome feedback and comments, especially if I misrepresent something. I only have so much time in a day, so the reviews will be based on limited exposure to the products, but will be completely honest.

Update: Tom pointed out that I had incorrectly categorized Firefly Publisher, so I moved to the correct category.

Choosing eLearning Development Tools – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series I talked about setting goals for eLearning. This time I talk about the evaluation criteria I used to evaluate eLearning development tools.

I looked into over 20 development tools ranging in price from free to thousands of dollars, so needed some way to cull through the list and narrow my choices. Additionally, not all tools are designed to serve all purposes. Flash and Photoshop produce distinctly different outputs and really can’t be compared to each other. They are both essential tools for online media developers and need to be compared to like tools. The same is true for eLearning tools. They don’t all meet the same needs and need to be evaluated based on their specific function. Generally, I stuck to course authoring or assembly tools and left media creation tools alone (for now).

Intended Outcome

Before establishing any criteria you need to define what it is you intend to create. Because the tools range in functionality, you to need to focus on the functionality that matters most to you. The training I’m developing will include:

  • Audio narration
  • Software simulations
  • Quizzes
  • Screen shots
  • Exercises in which learners need to complete complex software procedures
  • Glossary
  • Links to online help
  • Structure will be mostly linear
  • SCORM tracking is required

You could write volumes on defining course development standards, but to get started you really only need to describe basic functions. Before you begin development you must define your standards to ensure consistency within and across courses. This list is admittedly lacking in necessary detail, but provides a starting point for coming up with evaluation criteria.

You also need to consider the goal of your eLearning, and if training is really want you want to create. There are a lot of other learning/training/performance products you can create with these tools. I recommend taking a long look around Tony Karrer’s blog. He has a lot of create articles on different types of eLearning technologies.

Evaluation Criteria

After establishing general course standards, I came up with a simple, un-scientific, and completely subjective set of evaluation criteria:

General Criteria:

  • Ease of use – is it hard to do simple things? Is it easy to put courses together and does the process make sense?
  • Interface design – does it follow conventions, are buttons labeled using obvious terms, does it makes sense?
  • Ramp-up – how quickly can I get something out of tool that is useful?
  • Help – how good is the online help?
  • Support – does the tool have a support site, is it easy to use?
  • Customer Satisfaction – this I took from the Course Authoring Tools satisfaction survey. Not many tools are listed there, but I figured I should consider it for the ones that are.

Course Authoring criteria:

  • Customization – can the templates be customized, and how easily?
  • Integration – what other tools does it work with and what file formats does it support?
  • Quizzes – does it have a built in quiz tool and is it any good?
  • Publishing – is publishing easy and what are the options. Does it support SCORM 2004?
  • Output Quality – does the output look good, or is it over-compressed? Can you change the output quality?

I also decided to rate the tools on the type of course/presentation they produced or were targeted at:

  • Low = page turner or straight presentation with audio and no real tracking capability.
  • Medium = some interactivity like quizzes, or at least the ability to launch Flash files. Does support basic SCORM tracking for completion.
  • High = Full-blown tool with scripting, full SCORM tracking, supports non-linear paths, very flexible.

Finally, and most importantly, what was my overall impression of the tool and the company? This is were a company could impress me, or kill their chances of getting my business. If the process for downloading a trial version is hard, they get a lower score. If their web site is hard to navigate, uses offensive colors, or breaks in Firefox (my preferred browser) then they get a lower score. If the sales person calls me every five minutes and I start getting spam, that will definitely lower my impression.

Next Time…

In the next post I’ll give you my list of tools and how I categorized them. After that, I’ll get into reviews of some specific tools.