Four Packages Shine in Different Subjects

But not one of these offerings was clearly head of the class in all fields.

The learning object authoring tools in this eValuation each presented different strengths. Hypercosm Inc.s package got eWeek Labs nod as the strongest object creation tool of the lot but wasnt as complete as Macromedia Inc.s Web Learning Studio. (which has since been acquired by Centra Software Inc.) offered the most sensible design for storing resources. NYUonline Inc.s iAuthor did the best job of handling metadata.

Centras MindLever Composition Suite

With MindLever Composition Suite, MindLever did not reinvent the wheel. Instead, it built on the strengths of current offerings, primarily Microsoft Corp.s, to create a product that stores all resources in a relational database that resides on a separate server. Consequently, multiple users can manipulate all classes of resources at any time.

Using an interface familiar to users of Microsoft Office, Composer for Windows, part of the suite, provides a WYSIWYG environment for object creation. We liked the ability to drag and drop a PowerPoint presentation into the work space of companion program Composer for PowerPoint and have it instantly convert to learning object.

Once complete, the user "packages" the object for upload to MindLevers or any other learning management system. Creating content was reminiscent of using any cookie-cutter type of site creation tool, such as Microsofts FrontPage. One judge wrote, "The entire program is a wizard."

Judges in general had more to say about the quality of MindLevers learning object than the program itself—which leads us to believe that a stronger product presentation would have been in order. However, we, like the judges, preferred MindLevers object to iAuthors and likewise preferred Hypercosms and Macromedias objects over iAuthors and MindLevers for their interactivity.

One judge lamented the lack of native graphics tools and worried that content experts would be overwhelmed by the number of programs theyd need to master. However, we dont count this as a weakness because most organizations will likely use a team approach to create the module and should be free to choose the best tool for the task at hand.

Licensing for MindLever Composition Suite is $5,000 per seat.

Hypercosms Hypercosm Studio

Hypercosm Studio, priced at $1,495, produces interactive three-dimensional models whose behavior can be informed, for example, by scientific formulae. Modeled in Autodesk Inc.s Studio Max or NewTek Inc.s Lightwave, textures are mapped to geometries from photographic information in GIF or JPEG formats. Behavior is added via OMAR, Hypercosms proprietary scripting language, which Hypercosm claims can be picked up easily by anybody conversant with coding.

Hypercosm applets can be posted to a Web site via standard HTML authoring tools. This is refreshing because there are no inflated usability claims. The results, often less than 100KB, are instructive and fun. Users need a downloadable Hypercosm viewer.

Hypercosm also simplifies updating an object: Separate files for sound, texture, geometry and so forth allow a user or team to update objects without having to re-create them.

eWeek Labs found Hypercosms created object the most compelling in the eVal, as did many of the judges. "The object was short but very effective," said one judge, speaking for the majority. "Very interactive at each level. Great detail. Very powerful at engaging learner."

Macromedias Web Learning Studio

The power of Macromedias Web Learning Studio—comprising Dreamweaver, Coursebuilder, Authorware and Flash—is well established. The suite creates rich and interactive visuals, but beginners shouldnt expect a fast start.

We found Web Learning Studio a good choice for creation of dynamic visual content, collaborative administration and learning assessment. The interface across the suite is consistent.

Macromedias suite was the most complete package of the four. It has a large installed user base, affordable training and an attractive price scheme. However, Hypercosms 3-D models were superior to Macromedias.

Web Learning Studio illustrates the trade-off between power and accessibility. The learning objects produced by the suite were, along with Hypercosms, judges favorites—the same judges who were concerned with the time it takes to learn to use these tools.

eWeek Labs found the two Macromedia objects superior to Hypercosms in variety, procedural exercises and assessment. Bear in mind that they were created by several pieces of software and by professional content creator Allen Interactions Inc.

Products in the suite range from $299 to $400; educational prices are discounted 40 percent to 60 percent. The development tools support Macintosh and PC platforms, and the objects play anywhere. Training is necessary.

NYUonlines iAuthor

NYUonlines iAuthor, a stickler for metadata tagging, streamlines collaboration by storing all assets in an online database accessible to many during the creation process. One judge felt that project administration during object creation "was excellent. Probably the strength of the program."

The product was still in beta during this eVal (its release is scheduled for next month), but what we saw indicated that iAuthor required no expert skills to choose templates or skins nor to input text or graphics. The interface was usable if a bit cluttered.

We were impressed with the clear, rigorous way in which iAuthor enforced metadata tagging. iAuthor supports Flash, QuickTime, Hypercosm and other external plug-ins. Still unclear, however, is how NYUonline will resolve the issue of streaming-media content that resides on external servers because it cannot be encapsulated with the object when it is compiled.

iAuthors greatest drawback is its licensing fee of $50,000—the product will likely be "totally inaccessible to the academic market," as one judge put it, and probably too dear for many companies as well.

iAuthors creators offer royalties and a drastic discount to anyone who shares objects with the NYU library. We wondered what NYUonlines revenue model is. Does it want to sell software or license learning objects?

iAuthor requires Microsofts Internet Explorer for Windows. Netscape is not supported, and neither, surprisingly, is the Macintosh platform.

In general, we were unimpressed with the performance of the learning object, which lacked pictures, hyperlinks and interactivity. However, we believe the object did not fully tap the capabilities of iAuthor.