It’s time for upgrades, and a Poll

It looks like it’s time to open up the wallet and start purchasing software upgrades. In the past couple of weeks two important eLearning software upgrades have hit the virtual streets:

  • Adobe CS4 came out this week
  • Articulate released the Studio 09 update to all their tools a couple of weeks ago

Tools are constantly going through upgrade cycles, but these are two of the biggest names in the eLearning development tool market, so they caught my attention.

Adobe CS4

This is a huge upgrade, and the first time Adobe has released a unified upgrade for all the Adobe and former Macromedia products. They’ve also changed the bundles – thank you Adobe. The CS4 Web Premium bundle now includes:

The upgrade from most CS3 bundles is $599, even the old Web Standard which did not include Soundbooth, Photoshop or Illustrator. I think Adobe has finally gotten their bundles right making the new CS4 Web Premium bundle an essential upgrade for eLearning developers. I will be upgrading my license at work as soon as possible. The full version is $1699 if anyone wants to buy me an early Christmas present for personal use.

Articulate Studio 09

Articulate Presenter is arguably the most popular PowerPoint to Flash conversion tool available. That’s no fluke, the tool works well and streamlines development. With the right hacking, you can accomplish a lot with Presenter and make it do things it wasn’t designed to do. It’s also an easy way to create Flash animations from slides. I’ve used it for several months and haven’t been disappointed.

Studio 09 Standard includes Presenter, Quizmaker and Video Encoder. The Professional version adds Engage. I downloaded Studio 09, but haven’t tried the new Presenter yet. There were a few quirks and bugs in the old version of Presenter that I hope are fixed. When I have time, I’ll publish some courses and let you know what I think.

For Studio 09, Articualte added Articulate Video Encoder ’09. This tool converts video files to FLV for inclusion in courses. I did take some time to test out this tool and can’t say I was overly impressed. If you don’t already have the Flash Video Encoder (which comes with Flash) then this tool will be useful. It works fine, I just prefer Flash Video Encoder. One feature that Articulate Video Encoder includes that the Flash encoder doesn’t is the ability to record your webcam and convert the file to FLV. I didn’t test this feature, and probably won’t use it. I wouldn’t buy this product as a stand alone purchase, especially for $149, but it’s a nice addition to the Studio 09 bundle, especially for people who don’t have Flash.

Poll

WordPress also added a new tool recently – Polling. Let’s give it a try and see how it works.

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Have you seen Unison yet?

In case you hadn’t noticed, the eLearning development tool landscape changed significantly about a month ago. Rapid Intake released Unison, and now other vendors have to play catch up. For once it feels like a tool developer is actually paying attention to course developers and including features that make our lives easier.

I first blogged about Unison after seeing a demo of it at DevLearn 2007. Since then I’ve had a chance to beta test it, and have not been disappointed. Aside from creating media like graphics, sound and animation, Unison has all the tools I need to manage and develop eLearning courses in one user friendly package. But don’t take my word for it, sign-up for a free account and see for yourself, or attend the upcoming webinar on March 20, 2008.

What makes Unison so cool? For starters, Unison is much more than a course authoring tool; it’s an eLearning project management tool. It breaks the mold of traditional development tools by wrapping authoring, testing, issue tracking, and media management into a single, user friendly package. They’ve made it both easy and robust, something a lot of other tools vendor completely fail to do.

Because Unison is much more than a development tool, a full review would take a long time to write, and would probably be too long to read. For now I’ll just talk about the features that got my attention.

Web-Based Development

Unison has done something a little different. All you need to do to get started is log into the web site. Unison uses the Adobe Flex platform so all developers need to use Unison is the latest Flash plug-in. I tested it mostly in Firefox and never ran into browser issues. Being a web based tool means you have access from any computer with a network connection and don’t have to worry about backups, or upgrades.

Web-based applications are nothing new, Google and others have had them for a long time, but still most software is sold based on an installed license. Rapid Intake understands the old model of install-based licensing is a thing of the past, in much the same way the Apple understands brick-and-mortar music stores are a thing of the past.

What it means for you is simplicity. You can just work without being hassled with installation and managing licenses. Managing who has a license and where that license is installed has always been a hassle in every organization I’ve worked in. Unison frees me of that hassle.

Media Manager

Unison comes with a media manager that creates a library of all images, audio, video, and SWFs used in all your courses. Media can be uploaded from within a course or from the Media Manager tool on the main page. You can upload multiple files at once. Images are automatically converted to JPG files and sound files are automatically converted to MP3. You can choose the compression settings for both JPG and MP3 conversion. Video files are converted to FLV. I tested AVI, MOV, and MP4 files with no issues. Larger files take longer to upload and convert, but I was still impressed with the conversion speed for all media formats.

The Media Manager also allows you to tag files. Tags are essentially keywords that allow you to quickly locate files. The more media files you have, the more important tags become.

I found the Media Manager simple and intuitive. It doesn’t show thumbnails of images, but clicking any media file previews it in the Media Manager, including video, audio, and SWF files.

Issue Management

Simple and efficient. The issue management tool allows you to quickly enter issues, and then track and manage them. Additionally, issues can be assigned to specific developers. The issue entry form only has a few fields (title, description, assigned to, category, and priority) but automatically tracks the page in the course, timestamp, operating system, and browser version.

There are probably more robust issue/bug tracking tools available, but this one is integrated into the development tool and it has what I need without a lot of overhead – streamlined data entry and easy tracking and management.

Price

I’m not going to do a sales pitch here, but the price should make other vendors sit up and take notice. Plans start at Free and go up from there. Yes, free. All the plans include the full set of tools and add more support and capacity as the prices go up. When you add up the number developer licenses and support contracts you currently have for whatever tools you use and compare that to Unison’s pricing, you’ll see what I mean. You get a lot for the money.

Summary

Unison incorporates development and management tools into simple, elegant environment at an incredibly affordable price. There are tools with more robust features, but generally that adds complexity and makes them expensive. It’s not about having more features, it’s about having the right features. Unison has the right features. For the price, you will be hard pressed to find a tool that delivers as much as Unison.

Thanks to Garin Hess and Isaac Hess of Rapid Intake for giving me access to the beta version and putting up with all my questions during the beta test.

One last thing, Brent Schlenker thought he was the last to blog about Unison, but his post reminded me I needed to blog as well. Thanks Brent for the reminder.

KnowledgePlanet Firefly Review

A few months ago I started a series of posts reviewing various eLearning development tools. Life and work intervened, so I haven’t been very diligent about getting the reviews out. I’ve got several posts started about various topics like mobile learning, podcasting, and personal learning environments, but I want to finish up some of the reviews first.

When I started evaluating tools, Firefly topped my list because I really needed a good simulation tool. Of all the tools and companies I looked into, KnowledgePlanet impressed me the most. They were one of the few companies that really seems to understand the instructional development process and the unique challenges of developing online training. They understand that developing online training is not just about converting classroom training or shoveling PowerPoint onto an LMS. They understand eLearning developers their particular needs. They have developed tools specifically for creating effective online training that have their foundations in instructional design, not programming. The tools didn’t always have all the features I wanted or needed, but I felt at the core, they understood online training.

KnowledgePlanet has two tools that I looked into seriously: Firefly Simulation Developer and Firefly Publisher. If I had my choice and money was no object, I would buy their products. However, KnowledgePlanet’s tools are very expensive, so I probably won’t purchase them at this time. I wish I could. I like the products, and the people I talked to. They were very helpful and informative without be overly “salesy” or pushy.

Firefly Publisher

I attended a webinar for this product, so did not try it myself. Publisher is a server-based development tool that requires no installation on the client computer. It is entirely web-based. I love web-based applications. I hate software licensing based on an installation. I loathe having to drag my laptop home from work because that is were my apps are installed. Web based applications offer several distinct advantages over traditional install-based apps, especially if your organization has very strict IT policies. For me it means the data is backed-up and if my laptop dies or get stolen (which just happened at my workplace), my projects are not lost.

Firefly Publisher was specifically designed for team based authoring, without all the overhead of a full-blown LCMS. It includes a lot of useful team based tools, like creating tasks and workflow management, but doesn’t burden you with a complex administration scheme or interface. It is designed for people who actually create eLearning, not people who manage it or administer it.

In the authoring tool market, there are great tools for individual developers and some good enterprise wide LCMS tools, but nothing in the middle. Firefly is that product in the middle. Small to medium sized organizations can really benefit from Firefly Publisher. The authoring environment is flexible and simple enough for novices, but robust enough for experienced developers.

Some of the features I particularly liked:

  • SME Review – You can have people review courses, but you don’t need a license for them. You only need a license for developers.
  • Task Management – A simple tool for adding tasks to screens, like “Replace graphic” or “redo audio”. It’s basically a “To Do” list for each screen, something I maintain manually now. You can run a report for an entire project to get the global picture.
  • Repository – All assets (text, audio, interactions) are stored in a media repository and can be reused.
  • Remote linking for assets – You don’t have store them in the library, you can point to a URL.
  • HTML Editing – Allows you to edit HTML, and won’t step on it. You can add HTML to the theme, so it’s available on every page.

The version I looked at didn’t have a PowerPoint import, but it was in development. It also didn’t support CSS, but you could put it in the HTML for a theme and it would work. So, even though the software had a gap (in my opinion), there was a simple work around.

My bottom line – I want this tool.

Since this post is getting long, I’ll talk about Firefly Simulation developer in the next blog post.

As always, please let me know if you questions, comments, or a different opinion.

Rapid Intake Flashform Review, Part 2

In June I reviewed Flashform, and didn’t have a lot of positive comments. As a result, Garin Hess, the CEO of Rapid Intake, got in touch with me and wanted to go over some of the features that he felt demonstrated Flashform’s strengths. After some vacation for me and eLearning DevCon for Garin, we finally got together last week to talk about Flashform.

Before I get into any specifics I want to personally thank Garin for taking the time to talk to me. He’s very passionate about Flashform and believes very strongly that it can help eLearning organizations speed up development without sacrificing instructional effectiveness. Garin was very open and honest about Flashform and even admitted they have some usability work to do. I was worried I would get the standard sale pitch, but didn’t. I just talked peer-to-peer with another eLearning professional about a tool and what makes eLearning effective. That was extremely refreshing, and speaks volumes about Garin and Rapid Intake.

Now, onto some comments about Flashform.

First, there is a new version of Flashform available. Version 2.2 is out and has some improvements over the version I reviewed. I did not download and look at the new version, but Garin did demo some features. Also, Rapid Intake is releasing a web-based version of the Flashform soon that runs entirely in a browser and adds more functionality. We didn’t get into specifics, but Rapid Intake will issue a press release with all the details. I’ve always had a soft spot for web-based tools, so I’m looking forward to seeing this new offering. He did mention they are adding an Undo function in the online version and are working on spell checker. Also, some usability issues will be addressed in the new online version. He also mentioned new interaction templates like a memory game, flash cards, and other games. In my review I gave the quiz tool low marks, so hopefully these new tools will be an improvement.

XML Based Authoring

About the current Flashform offering, Garin did explain the architecture to me which helped explain some of the behaviors I experienced. For starters, Flashform stores all content externally and uses XML to store all the references to external media. Text is the only thing stored in the XML file. It then uses a Flash swf file to pull in the XML and external content. Content and presentation are separate. In my opinion this is ideal. I strongly advocate for separation of presentation from content and favor tools that understand and take advantage of the concept. For some reason this was lost on me when I first looked at Flashform, but I stand corrected. There are many benefits to this type of architecture, but I’ll save that for another blog post. In short it makes maintenance and localization much easier.

The only caveat to this methodology is that the swf file has to be able to handle whatever is in the XML. Flashform uses a Flash swf to parse the XML and display the course. As you know, Flash is updated on a very regular basis so as a developer you really can’t be sure what version of the Flash browser plug-in your learners have. Rapid Intake decided to standardize on Flash Player 7. This is why only JPG files were supported. They could have given users the option to publish courses for higher versions of the Flash Player, but decided to make things less confusing. They sacrificed some functionality, but wanted less confusion, which is understandable. In a future Flashform release newer versions of the Flash Player will be supported.

Form Driven Authoring

Garin also explained the form-based nature of Flashform – When you develop a course, you fill in the forms which get written to the XML file for the course. With the Professional edition of Flashform you can modify the forms, or create your own. I evaluated the standard version of Flashform which does not allow you to create or modify the forms, but with the Professional edition you get all FLA files you need to build a customized rapid development tool. Once you create forms to author the content, you build a presentation template to view the content. Your organization can have forms and templates to match your needs and help standardize training across an organization.

Garin gave me a couple of examples of large corporations that did just that. They built custom forms based on their instructional model that were distributed to SMEs to author courses. Obviously you need to have an experienced Flash developer available to create and maintain custom forms, but these days that is not a real challenge. The power of Flashform is that once the forms and template are built, anyone can use the form to author a course. Rapid Intake’s goal was to build something that is easy to use, but still powerful. I still question the ease of use, but I do think Flashform has the potential to be a powerful tool.

PowePoint Conversion

Garin also explained the PowerPoint conversion tools. I wasn’t impressed the first time I looked at them, but now at least I understand the logic behind them a little better. I still don’t think they are great tools, but then I don’t think PowerPoint is really an eLearning tool.

Flashform includes two methods importing PowerPoint: Using the PowerPoint converter template or using the Flashform Screen Recorder. I’m not going to describe each in detail here, if you want to see them in action you can view the tutorial on the Rapid Intake web site. I’ll just say that if you must use PowerPoint for specific elements in an eLearning course, you will probably find one of the tools useful. I would personally go through the extra effort and either create real content screens or a Flash animation. If you need simple screen recordings for demos, you’ll probably make good use of the screen recorder.

Summary

Since I haven’t used the new version of Flashform and haven’t seen the upcoming web-based version, I’m going to let you draw your own conclusions. I will say that I like Flashform’s XML based architecture. Also, I can see how creating your forms and distributing them to content authors could really speed up development. You could get a few Professional editions for the developers and distribute the forms to content authors with the standard edition. This could save you a lot of money. I’m a Flash developer, so the concept behind Flashform is cool to me and I would probably enjoy coming up with my own templates and seeing how far I could push the tool. If I had the Professional edition.

So, I guess the only judgment I’ll make is that I would not buy the standard edition. I would insist on the Professional edition and spend the time to customize it for my needs.

Again, Thanks to Garin Hess for his time and effort.

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.)

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.