Every content creator has the task of assembling their toolkit, the software applications they need to support them in their work. The composition of your particular toolkit will depend on the roles you are expected to play in your team. Are you primarily responsible for design, or are you expected to take projects forward into development? Is yours a specialist role or do you get involved in just about everything? Whatever contribution you will be making, this guide will give you an idea of the tools you’ll need. What you end up with, however, may ultimately depend on your negotiations with your boss, your IT department or your bank manager.
Here are basic tools that everyone needs:
It’s hard to imagine that you could get by very long as a content creator without a suite of office applications. The most essential element of this is going to be a Microsoft Word-compatible word processor. Even if you do most of your own writing online or in some other application, you’re almost bound to get material sent to you in Word’s .doc or .docx formats. If you don’t want to pay for the Microsoft suite, Mac and iPad users have the option of Apple’s iWork apps, and there’s always the free OpenOffice.
If you are going to be creating slide-based material, then you must have PowerPoint. You can produce e-learning materials in PowerPoint alone, but more likely you will be using an add-in, like Articulate Presenter, that converts your work into a more web-compatible format like Flash or, looking to the future, HTML 5. Be careful, because these add-ins only work in PowerPoint itself, not compatible programs, and then only on Windows, not Mac. A bonus is that, if your content development is going to centre on PowerPoint, you may not need a separate image editor. Recent versions of PowerPoint (2007 on) have fantastic imaging capabilities that may mean you’ll never need to work with another program.
Assuming, like most content creators, that your work will extend beyond PowerPoint, then you will definitely need some basic image processing capability. Let’s start with photo editing. You must be able to crop, resize, flip and rotate, adjust exposure, white balance, tone and colour, as well as remove red-eye. A little more functionality can also come in handy, like isolating a figure from its background, correcting blemishes, creating photo montages, adding frames and shadows, and superimposing text.
There is only one professional choice for photo editing and that’s Adobe Photoshop, although Adobe’s much cheaper consumer offering, Photoshop Elements, has almost as much capability. If you have no serious graphic design pretensions, then almost any other photo editing tool will do everything you need. There are plenty of free tools, including Windows Live Photo Gallery and iPhoto for the Mac and iPad, as well as open source options such as Gimp.
Of course your graphical work is unlikely to be restricted to photos. Most photo imaging tools, including Photoshop, also have excellent capabilities for producing diagrams and charts, as does PowerPoint. Serious illustrators have their own specialist tool in Adobe Illustrator and web designers laying out interfaces and creating icons are likely to turn to Adobe Fireworks, but if you just need to dabble from time to time there’s absolutely no need to spend any serious money.
It’s possible that audio plays no part currently in your content plans, perhaps because you have severe bandwidth limitations, but without doubt that will change over the next few years. Audio editing might seem complex, with all those intimidating-looking waveforms to manipulate, but in practice it’s no harder than working with text. You need a tool that will allow you to record audio from a microphone, edit this audio to remove bad takes and hesitations, adjust and equalise the volume and then save to a variety of different file formats. Any audio editor will do this, including those built in to many authoring tools.
It is possible you’ll want to go further than just capture a single voice. You may want to record from several different microphones at the same time; perhaps mix in music and sound effects; maybe even record and mix your own music. In these cases you will need a dedicated audio editor. The free option is Audacity and this is a very capable tool. Professionals and enthusiasts will undoubtedly want to go further and use a tool like Steinberg’s Wavelab, Sony’s Sound Forge or Adobe Audition.
Coming in part 2: E-learning authoring tools
First published in Inside Learning Technologies, January 2012