Lessons Learned

eWeek Labs grades tools that build lessons for distance learners.

Distance learning is growing up, as companies and institutions look for efficient ways to reach as many "students" as possible. The tools for creating distance learning objects that deliver instruction online are changing the way organizations package and deliver knowledge.

In its eValuation to gauge the progress of these authoring tools for learning objects, eWeek Labs took four products to school—MindLever Composition Suite, from MindLever.com, which has since been acquired by Centra Software Inc.; Hypercosm Inc.s Hypercosm Studio; Macromedia Inc.s Web Learning Studio; and NYUonline Inc.s iAuthor. Adobe Systems Inc. was invited but did not attend, and Click2learn.com Inc. withdrew, citing plans to de-emphasize its ToolBook authoring tool.

The eVal took place at the University of Wisconsin at Madisons Engineering Hall, where eWeek Labs joined 15 judges from the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Technical College System, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Minnesota and Dow Corning Corp. in examining what the vendors brought to the class. The eVal was run under the auspices of UWs Office of Learning and Information Technology.

The lessons we learned in this eVal: Learning objects come in a variety of types with assorted strengths; content experts must work as part of a team to build the most useful online instruction; and the most visual learning objects are the most memorable.

The challenge facing UWs OLIT, the schools Academic Advanced Distributed Learning program and training departments everywhere is to identify authoring tools capable of creating engaging interactive material for online learning that faculty (or corporate trainers) can access and incorporate into online courses.

We are talking about lessons, what the gingham-frocked schoolmarm used to chalk up on the slate. These days, instructors dont use chalk but a learning object authoring tool. OLIT wants to select one or two authoring tools that will help training departments easily create learning objects and then fit those learning objects into an LMS (learning management system).

The Department of Defense has created through its ADL initiative a standard called SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) to tame these learning objects. All four products we tested are moving to support SCORM standards.

"For a learning object to really be effective, it must easily fit into the LMS," said Judy Brown, an eWeek Corporate Partner and emerging technology analyst for OLIT. "Adherence to the SCORM standard will allow learning objects to easily be interchanged among LMSes."

Ground Rules

Ironically, it is easier to make an informed comparison between jars of pickles at the market than to evaluate a major capital investment. During this eVal, the vendors each had 30 hours to render content into Web-accessible learning objects as judges looked on.

Content, in this case, was the excellent "Exploring the Nanoworld," a suite of simple experiments designed to introduce the learner to the concept of the nanoworld. Supplied by UW chemistry professor Arthur Ellis and created by the Center on Nanostructured Materials and Interfaces (www.mrsec.wisc.edu), it was developed under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.

Centras MindLever Composition Suite, a blend of services and software that draws upon a repository of assets, is well conceived and aptly named. MindLever leverages heavily Microsoft Corp.s Office and sibling programs. It is comparable in scope to iAuthor.

Hypercosm Studio, the tool most limited in scope, provided the most inviting and compelling learning object. Its models can be incorporated into the objects of other vendors. Indeed, MindLever did just that.

Macromedia, the only vendor to offer authoring tools for Macintosh and Windows PCs, presented a satisfying solution based on its Web Learning Studio. One Macromedia representative was party to a most revealing dialogue about usability with one of the judges. (Find out what was said at www.eweek.com/links.)

NYUonlines iAuthor is completely self-contained once the learning object is compiled. Supporting collaborative creation, it seemed quite usable if, as some of the judges felt, a bit too structured.

Click the following links for other stories from this eVal.

Four Packages Shine in Different Subjects
But not one of these offerings was clearly head of the class in all fields.

From the Trenches
With more than 100,000 online students registered at the University of Wisconsin, most faculty and staff have become comfortable creating online content