Among the many choices we have in eLearning tools, those used as extensions to PowerPoint hold a special place among development shops. Seen as easy to use, these tools may not offer all the power of more feature-rich tools, but they make it easier for subject-matter experts and others with little time to create eLearning rapidly.
These tools take advantage of the fact that users can create much of the basic content, such as text and images, on slides in PowerPoint, capitalizing on its inherent strengths and on the fact that many users are already conversant in PowerPoint. Articulate Studio has been the big fish in the pond, but along with it, and offering many of the same features, are Adobe Presenter, Trivantis Snap!, and the iSpring Suite.
Mark Simon gave an excellent overview of each of these four tools here in Learning Solutions Magazine back in September:
In this month’s column, I will explore the iSpring Suite (which I will shorten to iSpring from here on in) in more depth. iSpring may be the least well-known among the four, but it certainly warrants your attention if you are investigating rapid eLearning tools.
iSpring is available for both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows systems (there is no Mac version). It supports all PowerPoint transitions, animations, custom motion paths, and slide ratios.
The best thing about iSpring? You get a ton of features for only $499, the standard price. Currently, you can buy it for only $399 for a limited time. iSpring in the springtime; it seems apt.
The iSpring interface and options
Like all the products mentioned above, you access iSpring by clicking a tab in the PowerPoint interface, which opens the ribbon you see in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The iSpring options in PowerPoint.
As you can see, the iSpring options divide into four logical categories:
You start with your PowerPoint file. Once you have your slides ready in PowerPoint, you can enhance the learner’s experience by inserting Flash animations, quiz questions, interactions, and YouTube links.
Inserting Flash Animations
If you have Flash SWF files that you want to use in your learning, you can quickly insert them on any of the PPT slides using this insert option. Keep in mind that there have been several versions of Flash and three versions thus far of ActionScript, the scripting language so essential to how Flash itself works. Files published in Flash Version 8 or earlier used ActionScript 2 (AS2), whereas those in Version 9 or later use ActionScript 3 (AS3). Some authoring tools can only support AS2 or AS3. iSpring supports both.
In Figure 2 you can see an example of a Flash animation that is fully interactive within the PPT page.
Figure 2: Inserting a Flash
Inserting quiz questions
You can insert two types of quizzes with iSpring: graded quizzes and survey quizzes (which are not graded, but which track the answers). You can see one of the quiz question interfaces, “matching,” in Figure 3.
Figure 3: The matching quiz
In the same figure, you can glean the types of questions that iSpring offers to you, but Table 1 lists all of them with examples.
You have many options in the quiz settings, and you’re able to insert several quizzes into a PowerPoint file. You can set the quiz title and passing score. You can also set a time limit for the quiz and choose to show the elapsed or remaining time on-screen.
Other options include showing the point value for each question, showing the cumulative score, and allowing the learner to interrupt the quiz.
You can show all the questions or treat them as a pool from which you randomly choose a subset, an advanced feature for any tool. You can choose what to show the learner, or not, in the quiz navigation panel.
You can save a lot of time by setting defaults in iSpring. Default options for each question include:
- The number of points
- The number of attempts the learner is allowed
- Whether to shuffle the answers
- Whether to let the learner skip survey questions
- If the learner is allowed to enter partial answers
- Whether to show feedback for both graded and survey questions, and whether to enable branching for graded questions
- The feedback to show for correct, incorrect, and partially correct answers
The above choices act as default values. You can change any of the above individually on any question.
In Figure 4, you can see all the options available for what happens when the learner either passes or fails. The options are the same for each case and can be set separately for each. You can also see that you can send the results to a server or to e-mail.
Figure 4: The quiz result options.
Other quiz options
As if all the above weren’t enough, iSpring also lets you customize the quiz player to a degree and establish text labels for 90 different items you typically see in a quiz. More customization would be nice, but the amount of customization already available in the product surprised me.
Inserting interactions (iSpring Kinetics)
iSpring Kinetics is included in the iSpring Suite. It includes a number of nicely designed interactions, each of which gives you an interface with many options.
Interactions: 3D Book
To the left in Figure 5, you can see the 3-D book interaction interface. It contains the features you need to create an elegant book to include in your learning. The pages flip pleasantly in a 3-D fashion.
You can also create a timeline, often a nice instructional element to assist learners in understanding changes over time. (Figure 6)
Interactions: FAQ and Directory
A frequent request in learning applications, a frequently asked questions section can give learners quick answers to common questions about the subject matter.
A directory is a list of resources for the learner. You can include images, Flash movies, text, and audio narration. For instance, a directory can be a glossary of terms, rich with media. Learners can also search on resources.
Both have a similar interface, seen in Figure 7.
It’s easy to insert a YouTube link. You can preview the video as well, ensuring you choose the correct video.
iSpring offers three main options under Narration:
- Record audio
- Record video
- Manage narration
When you record narration in iSpring you are able to see the slide notes for the PowerPoint slide, if you’ve stored your script in the notes section. In addition, you can navigate through your PowerPoint file from within the audio narration recorder. It is very straightforward to synchronize the narration to bullet points or other animations in your file. See Figure 8.
Figure 8: The audio narration recorder.
You can also record video of yourself narrating the PowerPoint slides and the separate items within each slide. (Figure 9)
Figure 9: The video narration recorder.
The narration manager in iSpring is, in one word, sweet! As you see in Figure 10, there are many options available. The best feature, I think, is the fact that you can synchronize audio and video at the same time. This editor is a pleasure to use.
Among the options available in the narration manager:
- Import audio from a file to a track
- Import video from a file to a track
- Add pin clips and sticky clips
- Record audio and video directly in the editor
- Move the audio and video clips on the timeline
- Adjust the volume of both audio and video tracks
- Zoom in and out of the timeline
Figure 10: The narration manager.
You have three presentation options available in iSpring:
- Presentation explorer
Within the presentation explorer you can perform several tasks, as Figure 11 shows:
- Indent slides to create a hierarchy. This lets you separate the lesson into different topics, with topic-related slides all grouped under the topic start-slide. You can indent up to eight levels.
- Add background audio, such as music or environmental noise. For instance, you may want to have the sounds of nature if your learning scenes are outdoors. If your lessons are about hospital operations, you might have background sounds of the hustle and bustle in a hospital, complete with muted intercom calls (“Doctor Mack, OR8, stat!”). You can loop the audio as well.
- Assign a presenter to each slide. You may assign a presenter to one, some, or all the slides.
- Change the layout to full layout, with sidebar or without. The layout allows the presenter appear at different sizes, as you can see in Figure 12.
- Choose to advance a slide by having the learner click, or after a time factor that you can set.
- Create a new quiz on a slide.
- Create a new interaction on a slide.
Figure 11: The presentation explorer.
Figure 12: Resizing the presenter video.
The links option lets you create a list of Web references and file attachments that will be available within your presentation.
Assuming you will include audio or video narration (or both), you may want to give information about the presenters in the lessons. You can provide the presenter’s photos, names, titles, e-mail addresses, Web sites and more.
There are four options available for publishing your lessons in iSpring, as Figure 13 shows. Each option is rich with features.
Figure 13: The publish options.
There are many features available when publishing to the Web, CD, or iSpring Online. I’ve listed them all here by category.
|Presentation Title||Set a human-readable title for the presentation.|
|Destination||Publish to the local computer, FTP, or send to an e-mail.|
|Slide Range||Publish all slides, or the ones you’ve selected.|
|Player Template||Choose the layout you wish to use, from streamline, which gives you several customization options, to a number of legacy layouts.|
|Flash Output||Options include publishing everything to one Flash file, generating the HTML file, a Windows EXE file and choosing whether to playback full-screen. You can also have each slide be a separate Flash file.|
|Playback and Navigation|
|Playback Options||Choose whether this published version will be self-running (as in a sales kiosk) or controlled by the learner. If self-running, you can choose to have it loop.|
|Mouse and Keyboard Navigation||Choose to let learners advance on mouse clicks. You can also choose to let the learner use the keyboard to navigate and customize the key to use for each of 15 different actions, including next and previous slide, next and previous step, jump to first slide or last slide, volume up and down, and more.|
|Image Compression||Set the quality level for images|
|Audio Compression||Set the audio to the original bit rate or force a new bit rate|
|Video Compression||Set the video bit rate|
|Flash Movie Properties||Set the frame size, in pixels, the frame rate, background color, and Flash version.|
|Preloader||Choose a pre-loader animation.|
|Detach Media Content||Choose to have separate and linked Flash, video, and audio files.|
|Flash Player Menu||Choose to disable the Flash menu or just the print option, if you wish.|
|Multimedia Objects Processing||By default, Smooth raster images and Enable slide video controls are set. Advanced Smart Art processing is normally not set, but you may set it. It allows saving Smart At as vector images, resulting in better quality.|
|Animations and Transitions||There are two options here, on by default, Preserve shape animation effects and Preserve slide transitions.|
You can protect your work in several ways, including:
- Adding a watermark and setting its position and transparency. You can have it be clickable so that it opens your Website.
- Adding password protection.
- Adding a start and stop date for the lesson, which will restrict running it to between those dates.
- Restricting the domain so that it plays only when run from certain websites or local hosts.
Additional options for LMS Publishing
When publishing to a LMS, you are able to choose to set the LMS protocol to any of the following:
- SCORM 1.2
- SCORM 2004, second, third, or fourth editions
- Blackboard 9.x
As noted above, if you publish to iSpring Online, it will automatically handle your student administration and progress.
You can set completion options to number of slides viewed, a score, or quiz results.
As is true of any tool, there are limitations to consider in iSpring.
- As a PowerPoint extension, like other tools of this nature, you do not have the freeform abilities of certain more powerful tools. ISpring aims at creating eLearning quickly rather than providing more flexible features. However, in its class of tools, it excels in the features it offers for the price.
- It is available only for Windows.
- There are only four interactions in iSpring Kinetics. Compare Kinetics with Articulate Enable or with Harbinger Raptivity, both of which offer more interactions, but at a higher price.
- The quiz players could offer more customization settings than they currently do.
The iSpring Suite is a feature-rich set of products at a very good price. While not meant to have all the power of products like Adobe Captivate or the upcoming Articulate Storyline, in its class among other PowerPoint-based tools, it shines.