REVIEW: Adobe Captivate Fills The eLearning Niche

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I am sometimes hired to produce electronic learning (eLearning) products such as demonstrations, quizzes and “textbooks on a screen.” In the past I have used Flash and the other Creative Suite applications to create these products, mostly because there’s no other good application for building eLearning tools such as these. I’ve always thought Director would be a good choice for this, but Adobe has only updated the application twice since acquiring it from Macromedia and eLearning is not its primary focus.

I was naturally surprised when I stumbled upon news that Adobe had an application called Captivate and a suite called the eLearning Suite that did focus on eLearning, and just a few months ago Captivate was upgraded to version four (the eLearning Suite is a new product). I’ve been covering Adobe Creative Suite apps for years now and this was one suite that had escaped my attention! This is because it’s targeted to PC-using eLearning professionals and not available for Mac users, which I really can’t understand: Mac-loving designers are often called to produce eLearning products, and unfortunately most of them aren’t aware of the great capabilities the eLearning Suite offers. Fortunately, Adobe tells me a version of Captivate for Mac is already in the beta testing stages, so I hope to see a Mac version released in the future.

The sum of its parts

What struck me about the eLearning Suite was how similar it is to the Creative Suite 4: other than Captivate 4 and some other features, the eLearning Suite consists of CS4 applications including Flash, Dreamweaver, Photoshop, Soundbooth, Bridge and other supporting applications, including Device Central for developing eLearning products for mobile devices. Acrobat 9 Pro and Presenter 7 (normally available in Acrobat 9 Pro Extended) are also included.

The eLearning Suite distinguishes itself from CS4 by a few unique applications and features:

  • Captivate 4,
  • A “Learning Interactions” library available in Flash CS4 Professional. This library includes movie clips for drag-and-drop questions including multiple choice, interactive, true/false, sequential, yes/no and several other formats. Each movie clip comes with detailed instructions so any intermediate Flash user should be able to handle them, but total novices may find them difficult.
  • CourseBuilder Extensions available in Dreamweaver CS4. The extension adds a “CourseBuilder Interaction” item to the Insert panel, which can create the same types of questions produced by Flash’s Learning Interactions but built with HTML and JavaScript. CourseBuilder Extensions is more robust and shows a gallery of question formats to choose from (and some formats have more than one layout and button design). CourseBuilder Extensions produces a lot of code for what it does but it works well for drag-and-drop functionality.

These features, along with the integration inherent between the CS4 products, help optimize the eLearning Suite for eLearning productions.

Adobe is assuming that eLearning producers are not web designers or Flash programmers, and drag-and-drop tools are needed for them to produce successful projects. I would agree with this if their assumption is true that the eLearning community is a separate market from the creative professional market. However, I believe the eLearning and creative professional markets are much closer than that. Designers and multimedia producers using CS4 now will be very comfortable with the eLearning Suite. It’s likely Captivate 5 will be developed for both Mac and Windows, and I hope Adobe Presenter will be as well—if so, it would be great to see the eLearning Suite become a part of the Creative Suite product family. I think it will happen—you heard it here first!

Two workflows

The eLearning Suite is a full complement of applications, so Adobe wisely emphasizes workflow as the key to successful eLearning production. There are two ways to do it:

  • Rapid authoring workflow revolves around Captivate 4 as the primary authoring tool (with Presenter 7 as an auxiliary tool) while the CS4 applications produce content such as graphics, audio and interactivity.
  • Traditional authoring workflow revolves around Flash CS4 Professional and Dreamweaver CS4 as the authoring tools for interactive and online eLearning products, complemented by their Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. Captivate and the other CS4 apps are relegated to content production roles.

Both workflows deploy content through a variety of methods, and I think deployment is the killer feature of the eLearning Suite. It supports all the best formats for eLearning deployment, including SWF, HTML and interactive PDF (made possible by Acrobat 9′s SWF support). eLearning products can be deployed via CD-ROM, the World Wide Web, e-mail, mobile devices or local network. Even better, the eLearning Suite can aggregate and package content so it complies with the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), the standards for web-based eLearning. All this can be delivered with a learning management system (LMS) or an online presentation tool like Acrobat Connect Pro.

Adobe’s holistic approach to content deployment aligns well with today’s technology: companies and employees use many different kinds of devices to receive and send content. If the eLearning Suite focused on CD-ROM or online deployment I don’t think it would be as successful, but the convergence of Flash, PDF and online technologies makes it possible for learning to take place anywhere, on one homogenous platform, and in adherence to the industry standards represented by SCORM.

Captivate 4: Powerful application with familiar features

captivate-box

Working with Captivate 4 was an enjoyable experience, which is not always the case with applications designed only for Windows. Captivate 4 is a power application thanks to elements borrowed from several familiar applications:

  • PowerPoint: The slide-based structure and video/audio support makes Captivate a smart choice for presentation design as well as eLearning production.
  • Flash: Each slide has a timeline so elements can be interactive (and should be if successful learning is the goal).
  • Presenter: Presenter is basically a PowerPoint-to-Flash application anyway, and Captivate imports PowerPoint in the same way.
  • Acrobat: The interface design is mostly influenced by PowerPoint and Flash, but the main toolbar has the same look and feel as that in Acrobat 9.

captivate-screen

The round-trip PowerPoint functionality is excellent: users can import PowerPoint presentations and add content and interactivity not available in the PowerPoint application. I expected a method to export back to PowerPoint, but it seems this is not the case. The next best thing is a dynamic link between Captivate and PowerPoint projects, so elements of the project design can remain in PowerPoint and be updated as needed. However, I’m not sure why anyone would do this because Captivate’s functionality and ease of use is superior.

The coolest feature in Captivate 4 is on-the-fly converting of slide notes to speech! Only two voice are available (“Kate” and “Paul”) and they must be downloaded separately from the Adobe website, but it is a thrill to hear your notes read aloud. The voices are electronic, much better than MacInTalk’s monotone but not up to par with a real human voice—but it’s a helpful feature nonetheless. Paul’s voice seems a little more natural than Kate’s, which is ironic because my clients tend to want female voices in their presentations and eLearning materials.

captivate-reviewer

Captivate 4 includes a Send For Review feature to make it easier for instructional designers and subject matter experts to collaborate on eLearning products. This is facilitated by an AIR-based Captivate Reviewer app so collaborators can view Captivate projects and comment as needed. Adobe has really focused on big-picture improvements over the last few years, such as collaboration and productivity improvements, and the good news is that such improvements are applicable to a wide range of products including Captivate 4.

captivate-timeline

Audio and video is very important to Captivate and the eLearning Suite. Soundbooth CS4 ships with the eLearning Suite and helps produce audio, while video can be recorded on-screen within Captivate. Movie clips, including FLV and QuickTime, can be imported easily and Flash CS4 Professional’s video skins are available. I had no problems importing audio and video, which is to be expected. The one thing I did miss was a video application comparable to Soundbooth CS4.

The other major feature in Captivate 4 is the Table of Contents and Aggregator tools, which are handy for larger eLearning projects. These two tools create a table of contents for easier navigation and/or combine modular projects into one whole. Most of my eLearning projects are not large enough for the Aggregator but the Table of Contents is awesome—in a few clicks I can do what takes me an hour or two in Flash! I wish I could preview the table of contents within Captivate—the project must be published before the table of contents can be seen.

Widgets, mice, questions, interactivity

Captivate 4 comes with a bunch of widgets and other interactive elements, so an interactive eLearning experience can be produced even if a user doesn’t want to monkey with audio and video. The Insert > Mouse command inserts a mouse cursor on screen and can be animated to show movement and clicks. The Quiz menu can create and customize several types of questions, and it pretty much offers the same questions as the Learning Interactions and CourseBuilder Extensions. I prefer to add questions here since I adopted the rapid authoring workflow and most of my eLearning work is done in Captivate. However, I’m not thrilled by the default question designs—part of this is because I’m not thrilled by the way designs look in PC-only apps in general.

The other interactive feature available in Captivate 4 is Flash-based widgets, and they really make a Captivate project look good. Widgets include buttons, check boxes and radio buttons, combo and list boxes, a dynamic certificate and even a jumbled word puzzle. Some of these widgets will not please designers who want a really slick design, but drag-and-drop users will really love them. My big complaint is that widgets don’t seem to preview properly within Captivate: I had to publish my projects in order to test them. A “Live View” feature similar to that in Dreamweaver CS4 would be a great feature for Captivate 5.

Conclusion

Captivate 4 is an anomaly in the Adobe product universe—an application that employs technology from several CS4 applications but doesn’t exist in the Creative Suite family. Adobe had to build an eLearning Suite around Captivate and populate it with CS4 apps. I believe this is the wrong thinking: even though eLearning professionals may not be creative professionals, there are many creative professionals who build eLearning products and can benefit from Captivate’s broad toolset and ease of use. I think the release of Captivate for Mac will draw a lot of these creative professionals toward the eLearning Suite.

If you produce eLearning products as part of your job, Captivate 4 is a strong recommendation. Designers who know their way around CS4 should also consider the eLearning Suite, though for most designers and agencies it doesn’t make sense to carry CS4 and the eLearning Suite—most of the applications overlap. I’ll be watching this new suite closely and will be very interested to see how it evolves in the next few years.

Adobe Captivate 4
Adobe Systems
US$799/299 upgrade
Rating: 9/10

Adobe eLearning Suite
Adobe Systems
US$1,799/599 upgrade
Rating: 9/10