All posts by Thomas Mansfield

Creating an authoring tool for Higher Education

When King’s Online was established at the start of 2016, our central aim was to become a UK leader in postgraduate online learning. As our team was to be created basically from scratch, we required the latest technologies to help us meet our lofty ambitions within one of the fastest growing industries in the world.

We needed a modern eLearning authoring tool which offered easy collaboration between our team and which enabled remote-working. We wanted rapid templating features and for our courses to look great on any device; we wanted something which might scale from a team of ten to forty, and which might even be rolled out across an institution of higher learning with almost 5,000 academic staff.

And which authoring tool did we choose? Adapt.

If you look at the authoring tools available, you will notice that most providers market their products chiefly to the corporate sector, and Adapt is no exception here. The Adapt ‘Open Source Project’ was in fact established as a collaborative effort by some of the largest eLearning companies in the UK – companies whose primary business is to sell eLearning content to corporations which require learning solutions as part of their staff training.

The corporate learner and the student, however, are two very different beasts – and when an instructional designer is creating content for a corporate learner he or she will often take the following considerations regarding their learners on board:

  • They require motivation to learn.
    • Most corporate learners are more reluctant to ‘engage’. This is usually down to a combination of the subject matter being rather stale and the fact they are told they ‘must’ do it.
  • Completion needs to be monitored.
    • Indeed, it is often for legal reasons that, for example, compliance learning is a major aspect of corporate eLearning. A company needs to ensure all its staff finish a course to meet its legal obligations.
  • Courses need to be translated.
    • For a multinational corporation with offices around the globe, courses often must to be translated into several different languages to be fully effective.

Authoring tool providers have listened to the needs of their users and create features to address considerations such as these. Gamification features can be applied to their content, to ensure that learners stay more engaged; SCORM and xAPI allow each learner to be tracked for completion, so reports can be created for end of year auditing; multi-language support is now a standard feature in all authoring tools.

However, for students such those studying at King’s College London, features like these are much less relevant. Our students have ‘opted into’ study, to learn something which they have perhaps spent years studying before – they do not need to be coerced into learning like some corporate learners. While King’s lecturers might be curious regarding which of their students have engaged with their content, there is less of a need to ensure a student has completed a piece of learning – if they haven’t, after all, it will show up clearly in their final grades! Lastly, English proficiency is required for all King’s courses, so multi-language support isn’t needed here.

While criticisms have been levelled against Moodle, the largest open source LMS – that it is too focused on the needs of educational institutes, for example – when it comes to eLearning authoring tools the reverse seems to be true: The corporate world very much comes first.

For there are, of course, many student needs which are less relevant to corporate learners. King’s Online instructional designers, therefore, always keep the requirements of further education students in mind when creating suitable learning experiences for King’s students. And thanks to the open, plugin-based hierarchy of Adapt, King’s Online have been able to create new features to address these student-centric considerations:

  • Students want to annotate: They need to be able not only to ‘take in’ information, but also to draw and note down their own conclusions ‘on the page’ – extending their knowledge and understanding still further.
    • To enable students to annotate content in this way, we created the Print page and My Notes. Print converts an Adapt course into a printer-friendly PDF document, which students can print out and mark up as needed; My Notes causes a notepad to pop up, onto which students can copy text from the course directly. This text is accessible later on in the LMS, and links back to the place in the course the quote/note came from.
  • They want to discuss their ideas: It is important that students have avenues to discuss and share new ideas with their peers, so that they might gain a better, more rounded understanding of the subject.
    • To facilitate student discussion we’ve created the Social extension. This extension adds a Facebook-style commenting system into Adapt which allows for conversations in context, similar to that of a MOOC platform.

Additionally, we at King’s Online have re-imagined what course navigation can look like in Adapt by creating the Contents extension. This extension lists all the pages of the course in an accordion running along the side of the screen, which can be expanded to jump directly to any component in the course. As the student scrolls down the page, the component in view is also highlighted in the Contents, so he or she knows how much progress they have made. What is more, since content is no longer ‘mandatory’ in nature, the student always has freedom to explore the materials at his or her own pace.

We at King’s Online want our future developments to be driven by direct feedback from our students. We have therefore implemented Google Analytics tracking into our latest extensions so we can track how often our students use these new features. We are also going to run user group sessions with on-campus students: By testing our new plugins with these students, in-person, we can ensure that that which we have created is effective, and gather feedback on what additional features might be included in future courses.

Being part of an open source community has meant that we have benefited greatly from the core platform and plugins developed by other companies and organisations, and accordingly we are very keen to share our own work. Our team is already one of the most frequent publishers of Adapt plugins, and in the next few months we will make the new plugins listed above fully open source. We will also look to share the results of our Adapt course tests on on-campus students.

King’s Online are, in short, dedicated to working with the Adapt community to create the best learning platforms – both for the corporate learner and for the higher education student.


This blog post was the basis of a talk given by Simon Date, Web Developer at King’s Online, at the Conference on the 15th to 16th of February, 2018.