What does it meant to be a Content Authoring Tool, and does that describe LearnDash?

Every now and then, someone comes to us with a question about our software that uses a term we haven’t heard applied to us before. The Internet, as we all know, is full of acronyms and abbreviations, and there isn’t always an example of what terms belong where. The most recent example was when someone asked us if we were a “Content Authoring Tool.”

It’s a phrase that jumped out to us because it fits in with many of the other jargon terms frequently used in the world of online education. Some of these terms are interlinked, so understanding the differences between them can help you figure out what capabilities LearnDash has to offer, and which tools you may need to find elsewhere.

What is the difference between a Content Management System, a Learning Management System, and a Content Authoring Tool?

LearnDash is a Learning Management System (LMS). It runs on WordPress, which is a Content Management System (CMS). Other examples of LMSs would include Moodle, Blackboard Learn, or Teachable. Meanwhile, examples of other CMSs would include Joomla, Drupal, or Wix. CMSs are programs that help users write, upload, and arrange content for the web without having to do any coding themselves. Learning Management Systems build upon these capabilities to allow educators to create and manage web courses.

A Content Authoring Tool helps educators create lessons that can be incorporated into a website, but it doesn’t actually publish this content to the web, the way an LMS does. Instead, they need to be exported to a content standard, such as xAPI (also known as Tin Can API), which can then be uploaded onto an LMS for publication.

Content Authoring Tools are often very robust, allowing creators to develop interactive courses, or ones that incorporate VR, without needing to code these functions from scratch. Examples of these would include Articulate 360 or Adobe Captivate. For educators interested in offering more sophisticated courses, an authoring tool can be a huge help.

Authoring tools also include many basic functions that are already integrated in LearnDash, as well as many other LMSs. These include quiz options, question banks, and course creation. So while we don’t bill ourselves as a Content Authoring Tool, our plugin means that you don’t need one to create an online course.

So, when should you use an authoring tool, and when is it overkill? Let’s take a look at the functionality you need to find out.

What content authoring features are included in LearnDash?

Here’s some of our core features that are included out of the box.

  • Course creation. LearnDash’s primary function is to help organize your content (pictures, videos, text) into a hierarchical course structure, with lessons, topics, and quizzes.
  • Advanced quizzes. From basic multiple choice tests to interactive drag-and-drop questions, LearnDash gives you a number of tools to assess your learners and measure their progress.
  • Question banks. Create banks of quiz questions and randomize them so that each learner only receives a subsection of questions. Reuse questions in other quizzes without rewriting them.
  • Content management. Upload images, PDFs, audio, and video content into your media library, and insert it into your course wherever you need it.

What content authoring features can be created using plugins and add-ons?

Content Authoring Tools are expensive, with many of the top-line programs running at least $1000/yr. per user. Before you invest in an authoring tool, you may be able to gain many of the benefits using tools already at your disposal.

  • Graphics. Many authoring tools like to show off their custom content slides. These may make it easier for some creators to make content, but they’re hardly a killer feature. You can achieve much of the same from PowerPoint, or a cloud-based graphic editor such as Snappa or Pablo.
  • PowerPoint to video. Speaking of PowerPoint, we are often asked by users if there is an easy way to convert PowerPoint presentations to video to embed in a course. It’s a feature many authoring tools list, and while it’s not one we offer, there are simple options available for educators who need them.
  • Video creation. Suffice to say, there’s a world of video editing tools out there for educators to use, from the very basic to the professional. Some authoring tools include video features specific to eLearning, but at the expense of other editing options that you may find more essential.

What content authoring features require a dedicated tool?

While the above may make it sound as though we’re not a fan of authoring tools, they do have some amazing features that may be exactly what your course needs to take it to the next level.

  • Branching scenarios. Branching scenarios are an awesome tool for creating highly engaging interactive content. While you might be able to work some of these out on your own, the slickest options currently available are through authoring tools.
  • Advanced interactions. LearnDash already offers some interactive quizzes, such as drag-and-drop, sorting, matching, and survey. However, if you wanted to create an interactive video, you would need an authoring tool.
  • AR components. Augmented Reality is still a new eLearning technology, but it’s allowing educators to innovate with new instructional design ideas. If you wanted to give it a try, authoring tools could help you out.
  • Simulations. If you wanted to create a simulation for learners to interact with, some content authoring tools offer this functionality.

Courses are about more than content.

Content Authoring Tools can expand your… well, your toolkit. But they aren’t the end-all-and-be-all of online education. In fact, in many ways, I think they miss out on the heart of many good online learning programs—the community.

Online learners—especially adults who are electing to take a course for fun—aren’t just interested in the content. What they really want is a support group of like-minded peers where they can virtually congregate, discuss shared interests, share their goals, and celebrate their achievements. Not ever course will do this, but if you’ve never considered this as a possibility, you could be missing a big opportunity.

You may need an authoring tool to create the dynamic, interactive content that will amaze your learners. But if you want them to stay with you for years to come, you’re going to need more than a slick presentation—you’re going to need community.

LearnDash is here for when you’re ready to take your content to the web.

As we said before, authoring tools may let you create amazing lessons, but if you want to publish them online, track learner progress, and integrate them into your community, you’ll still need an LMS. That’s when we come in.

We can integrate with SCORM and xAPI to help you migrate your content from your authoring tool to its online home. From there, the world’s your oyster.

Have fun creating.

Laura Lynch photo

About Laura Lynch

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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This is an excellent summary of the differences between content management, LMSes and authoring tools. Distinguishing features and functionality in a marketplace full of tools is difficult (to say the least). This article absolutely nails it. Thanks Laura Lynch!

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