Elicitus Content Publisher Review

Elicitus Content Publisher by Harbinger Knowledge Products is a full-blown course authoring system that, based on price and functionality, competes with products like Lectora, Firefly Publisher, and Outstart Trainer. It has a lot of features and options and takes a little time to get acquainted with. The web site advertises “2 hours to learn, 6 more to master”, but I think that’s a little optimistic. I spent several hours with the program and don’t feel like I mastered it. I feel like I know enough to author courses using Elicitus, but would probably have some struggles along the way. That’s to be expected. I’ve used Word for longer than I can remember, and still struggle with it (daily).

Product Information

Price:
Elicitus Interactive eLearning Suite – $2995
Elicitus Content Publisher – $1395
Slide Converter (Content Publisher Add-on) – $295
Elicitus Lite – $495
Version Reviewed: Elicitus Content Publisher (no version number specified)

Unfortunately, my review was somewhat truncated because I ran out of time on the 14 day trial version. I just don’t think 14 days is long enough to evaluate a product, especially one as complex as this. I have a full time job, which is not evaluating software. I sneak these evaluations in when I have time. I will never have time to spend 14 days working with just one piece of software. I wish I could have explored this product a little more, but will at least give my impressions of what I saw. Also, I had some difficulty getting the trial software. Apparently the web site was having problems, but they did email me a direct link to the download.

So, just to get this out before you read too far, this is going to be another not-so-positive review. I’m starting to think my standards are too high. For this product, I thought the price to performance ratio was too high. It’s expensive software that doesn’t perform in its price range. I guess I’m getting used to tools that are simple, elegant, and help me work smarter. I use GMail because it saves me time and hassle. I use Google’s Picasa for the same reason – I didn’t have to “learn” how to use it. I just open the program and start working. I know eLearning development is much more complex, but I still believe tools can be intuitive no matter how complex. I use AuthorIT at work for classroom course development and didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes getting acquainted with the interface and authoring model before I started writing a course. So far my experience with eLearning tools has not been great. They all seem to be lacking in the “ease of use” category. That is not to say Elicitus does not have its good points, because it does.

Good Points

Elicitus includes a course wizard that helps you set up your course. Once you finish the wizard you can go back and make adjustments to the course structure and design. The authoring environment is divided into two main sections – the Course Explorer and the editing screen. (Course Explorer Screen Shot) The course explorer is typical tree view of your course, the editing area shows the screen currently selected in the course explorer. The Course Explorer also allows you to select and edit course preferences, master topics, course glossary, and topic templates. I liked having the course preferences easily accessible, and being able to see the high-level overview of the course. (Course Preferences) Elicitus also makes extensive use of course templates and topic templates. Good idea, a little quirky on the implementation.
Elicitus also includes a nice set of publishing options, including SCORM 2004. I had some issues with the actual published output, but like the available options.

The Not So Good Points

There were several “quirks” that gave me trouble or annoyed me with Elicitus, but I’m not going to go into detail about them. None of them were bad enough to be show stoppers – I would still use the program even with the quirks, with some reluctance and hope they would get fixed eventually. Primarily, I think course templates and master topics need some work. Conceptually, Elicitus has it right – plan everything ahead of time, create your templates, then author the course. Realistically, projects don’t work that way, at least not for me. I always have to go back and tweak things based on feedback and beta testing.

Making simple changes globally across the entire course was not possible, or at least not easy. This was one area I ran out of time evaluating, it may not be as difficult as I thought, but I didn’t get to fully explore the options. I will concede that once you have a standard template for your courses, you should be able to use Elicitus to just crank out courses. The basic editing environment isn’t hard to master. You just have to plan ahead.

There were two things that really gave me a negative impression of Elicitus – the preview and play back behavior and how Elicitus handles media elements.

Playback Behavior
Elicitus always wanted to preview the course in Internet Explorer. I am not a fan of IE and use Firefox as my default browser. Elicitus did not respect my browser choice. Any tool that costs as much as this one does should at least allow you to choose the browser. With IE I got the standard blocked content messages. I know I can adjust my security settings, but why should I have to? I did use Firefox, but had to cut and paste the URL.

When I did view the course, the background image was tiled across the browser window. I specified the output at 1024×768, but my browser window was full screen at 1600×1200 and the background image of the course was tiled. It should have been centered or flush left. (Elicitus Tiled Background )

When viewing a course, the main course screen shows the table of contents, I like that, but when you click a TOC item, it opens a new window. Why? It should just open the course in the same window. If you’re launching from an LMS that launches courses in a new window you will quickly have several windows open. I personally like my courses to stay in one window. The child course screen does communicate with the main course home page, so if you click a new TOC item, it opens in the currently open child window and doesn’t open an additional new window. However, the child window with the course content is not brought forward, and in my case was behind the main course page. I clicked several TOC items before I realized what was going on. Simple JavaScript can fix this and help students manage windows. Again, I would expect a tool in this price range to have this worked out.

Media
Elicitus includes an option to add audio to any screen, however it is poorly implemented. First, when you add audio it does not show up in the Course Explorer like other assets. Additionally, you get no playback options. There is no volume or mute control. Furthermore, there is no indication on the output screen that there is audio. I assumed that a tool at this price level would have robust audio controls, or at least a mute button. If I were to use Elicitus I would have to build an audio controller in Flash, embed the audio in the Flash file (for every screen), then embed the controller. That’s a lot of work.

More importantly, it uses the <embed> tag, so when I played the course in Firefox I heard nothing. I only figured out what was going on by viewing the page source. The Embed tag assumes the learner’s computer has an associated player for the file type you embed, and granted most do, but for me Firefox didn’t know what to do with MP3 file. I checked my options and MP3 files were in fact associated with QuickTime. (I’ve listened to numerous MP3 file directly in Firefox via QuickTime.) Even IE had a mime-type issue and didn’t know what to do, although it did ask if I wanted to associate the mime type with QuickTime. I want a tool that doesn’t make learners jump through hoops in order to take a course. Learner experience makes all the difference, and problems with audio playback do not make for a good experience.

Just for kicks, I ran the page with the embedded audio through the W3C’s HTML validation tool. It failed miserably. It had 31 errors, starting with no doctype declaration. The really funny thing about this is that the Elicitus web site claims “Standards-compliant publishing“. I guess that doesn’t mean W3C standards. By the way, <embed> is a non-standard tag and is not part of the W3C specifications for HTML 4.01 or XHTML. That means you cannot be sure a learner’s browser will support the tag. <embed> is being phased out and shouldn’t be used.

At this point I gave up. I realized that in order to really produce a course you have to plan carefully (which you should do anyway), assemble all the elements outside Elicitus (I had problems resizing images and using Flash), and import everything. And, if a tool that at its core is a glorified HTML editor can’t even produce valid HTML, it’s not worth my time or money. I’m sure other tools produce invalid HTML, I’ve seen it. It’s something that can easily be fixed, and I would be surprised if Elicitus doesn’t correct it in the next release, but why should I pay nearly $1400 for a program that produces sloppy code and uses deprecated HTML tags? A tool in this price range should have better support for audio and should produce valid HTML usable in all modern browsers.

(On a side note, most course authoring tools really are just glorified HTML editors – they all produce web pages with the required SCORM JavaScript – it’s the user experience that sets them apart. I’m starting to think it would be easier and cheaper to hire a good HTML and JavaScript programmer to build some Dreamweaver templates and give course developers Contribute. It really might be a better way to go. I really want to find a good tool and give a really positive review.)

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