This is the third of a series of articles on specific tools that are in use in the e-Learning industry. For a quick introduction to the series, please see the first article that covered an assessment tool called Questionmark Perception by clicking here: http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/420/tooloverview-questionmark-perception. The second article discussed an interaction-builder called Raptivity, and this article covers an authoring tool called SmartBuilder. An authoring tool is a software application that is used to assemble and create e-Learning lessons and courses. You can use it alone, but more commonly you use an authoring tool with other tools, such as an image editor. Also, you can often use one authoring tool together with other authoring tools when the results take advantage of the strengths of each.
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What is SmartBuilder?
SmartBuilder is an authoring tool that attempts and largely succeeds in balancing ease of use with power. As such, it is not as easy to use as PowerPoint and not as powerful as Flash, but it also is more powerful than PowerPoint by far and is much easier to learn than Flash is. That’s the sign of a tool that is good for the majority of those who will use it. Most users are instructional designers or subject matter experts and are not programmers. They are not entirely comfortable with scripting or programming but also want a lot more flexibility and features than PowerPoint can provide.
Like many authoring tools, SmartBuilder publishes to a standard Flash SWF format, so learners can run the published lessons in almost any browser. Unlike many authoring tools, the authoring environment is online and runs off a server. If you’ve used other server-based authoring tools and have been horrified at their slow response time when authoring, fear not. SmartBuilder is very responsive in all but a couple of areas. I’ll address that in a bit.
Figure 1: SmartBuilder excels at creating case-based scenarios.
SmartBuilder especially excels at creating case-based scenarios (see Figure 1). These are the kind of e-Learning applications that I like to show to potential clients to convince them about how much better e-Learning can be than the linear and boring lessons that are all too commonplace in the industry. Part of the reason that there is so much less-than-stellar e-Learning out there is that most tools make it too difficult to create good scenario learning with proper decision points and branching. SmartBuilder does a good job of making that process a lot easier.
How hard is it to learn? Of course, that depends on your background. However, with a couple of days of training and a couple of weeks of use, you can feel totally comfortable using SmartBuilder.
Of servers and repositories
You access SmartBuilder on a server through a browser and not on your local machine. You don’t install software on your system, which should make your IT department happy. It also means you can access SmartBuilder to develop your courses from anywhere you have online access. You can start developing a lesson at the office, go home and continue working on developing your lesson there (Oh, joy, working at home!). In fact, you can work on developing your lesson from anywhere in the world, even on airplanes that provide Internet access. This also means that you can access SmartBuilder from Windows, Macintosh, or Linux platforms.
So what about the speed factor? I’ve used a server-based authoring tool before and found it very frustrating because every time I clicked something in the authoring tool, a Please Wait message would appear and I would have to wait (no exaggeration) 15 or so seconds. If that doesn’t seem like much to you, try imagining you’ve just clicked and then look at the clock for 15 seconds. It’s a long time. Remember too that one click does not a lesson make: it takes a lot of clicks to finish a lesson!
SmartBuilder avoids this problem for the most part by caching much of itself to the local drive in the background, a common browser practice anytime you use the Internet. The very first time you use it you may find yourself waiting a bit, but after that things should run relatively quickly, almost as fast as if you were using an application directly off your hard drive.
There is one exception to this rule and that leads us to the idea of the repository, basically a library of media that you build up. If you are going to use an image that is already in the repository, it will appear quickly. If on the other hand you are going to use an image off your hard drive because it is the first time you’ve used it, you’ll first need to locate and upload it to the repository, which usually takes 30 – 60 seconds depending on how quickly you find the image and how large a file it is. The good news is that you can also upload multiple media files in one fell swoop.
Along with your own media there is also a Shared Library, especially useful if you are part of a team of developers. Figure 2 shows an example of the categories in the Shared Library. Once you have your own license, the Shared Library will reflect your own desired folder structure.
Figure 2: The Shared Library is a useful tool for teams of developers.