The history of authoring tools : Some things change, some things stay the same

This blog by gomo Managing Director, Mike Alcock, originally appeared on the gomo blog in January 2014. While many of Mike's predictions and opinions are still true today, this is also an interesting opinion piece on the history of authoring tools.

In 2004, my team and I developed the world’s first server-based eLearning authoring system, Atlantic Link. At the time I wrote an article, modestly titled as Atlantic Link announces the death of client-side authoring’ where I confidently predicted that standalone desktop tools were dead and buried, and that cloud-based products would take over the world.

While cloud computing is now affecting almost every single area of business (just think of Google Docs and Salesforce as well as numerous other examples), much of eLearning is still resolutely stuck in the past. Authoring tool vendors are still producing standalone products that need to be downloaded, installed, and utilized by disconnected, lonely content developers.

In 2004, I highlighted the following benefits of a cloud-based eLearning architecture:

  • Collaborative development – multiple developers, anywhere in the world, can work together to create courses
  • Content management – courses can be updated from anywhere in the world, even through a simple web browser, allowing instant review, QA, and deployment
  • Server-based authoring – all content created automatically on the eLearning server

I also confidently stated:

“Other benefits for our clients include dramatically reduced IT support costs, improved reliability and availability, scalable solutions that can grow with an organisation and future-proofed technology.

eLearning developers looking to revolutionize their production methods, boost productivity and utilize the latest technology should not miss out on seeing this product."

These benefits are as real today as they were 10 years ago—the only surprise is the lack of products or innovation in this space.

The history of authoring tools: So what's changed?

If the nature of authoring tools hasn’t moved on, what has changed dramatically is the delivery landscape. Ten years ago there were no smartphones or tablets. All we had to worry about was desktops and laptops—essentially identical devices in terms of playing back eLearning content.

From a developer’s point of view, we also had Flash, a technology that allowed for rich eLearning interactions and, more importantly, rendered identically across all browsers. All we had to do was create a tool that could output in Flash at a resolution of 1024x768 and everyone was happy.

Thanks to Apple, Flash has now effectively disappeared from the eLearning landscape. Also thanks to Apple (and Google, Samsung, and others), we now have hundreds of devices that can be used to consume eLearning content, all with different sized displays, touch interfaces, multiple browsers, and varying operating systems.

The importance of responsive eLearning authoring tools

It’s clearly neither desirable nor acceptable to have to produce three versions of every course we need: one for the desktop, one for a tablet, and one for a smartphone.

The innovation in eLearning now is to create authoring tools that automatically produce responsive and adaptive content—content that understands the target device and automatically adjusts to give a rich user experience on all platforms.

The main emerging technical standard for this kind of content is HTML5. While not perfect and still evolving, it at least provides a platform where vendors can concentrate their efforts and meet the needs of multi-device learners.

The big factors which are now starting to make collaborative authoring tools more possible are cloud computing and improved web browsers:

  • Cloud computing allows vendors to create tools and services that run in the cloud and can be delivered on a subscription basis or ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS)
  • Improved browser capabilities mean that the development of online authoring tools that have the power and ease of use of desktop software is now much more feasible

The history of authoring tools: Cloud computing and eLearning

Ten years ago, we never even considered using a browser for our server-based architecture. The usability would have been disastrous (we built a smart Windows client that connected to the server instead). Today it’s relatively straightforward to produce beautiful and highly functional user interfaces with drag and drop capabilities, all within a browser and without the need for plug-ins.

Cloud computing, the lower cost of storage, and increased bandwidth mean that online authoring is now cost-effective as well as an enjoyable user experience.

So, are standalone eLearning tools dead? Looking at the most popular eLearning tools of today then the answer has to be no. But will I be eating my words again in another ten years?

This time, I’m going to say very confidently that they will be dead. The eLearning landscape has changed from ten years ago and while there are desktop tools that will survive for a few more years, you can bet that the vendors who sell them are investing every penny they have in the development of server-based, responsive eLearning tools.

When it comes to the history of authoring tools, it will be interesting to see who—or what—rises to the top.

Find out more! Check out our ebook, ‘12 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Authoring Tool’.

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