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The world of rapid e-learning more accessible with #Xerte joining #articulate – with thanks to @terrymc #uoltech #edtech

October 25, 2011

Are you after rapid e-learning tools that help you create accessible online resources? Then check out what happened last week when I started testing Xerte, as well as my thoughts on how Xerte fits in with another rapid e-learning favourite of mine: Articulate Studio.

What’s the best way to have a productive e-learning afternoon? As the regular participants to the European Articulate Conference would no doubt agree, the recipe is simple:

  • invite a bunch of cool people (in this case the University of Leeds Learning Technologists Network)
  • put a cool e-learning tool they’ve not had much experience with on the menu (Xerte – also see this JISC TechDis Xerte resource)
  • source an exciting and well-informed but also chilled-out and by-no-means-pushy presenter (@terrymc)
  • set a challenge (“Let’s push Xerte and see how it handles multimedia, as well as see whether it plays nicely with our VLE/LMS – Blackboard 9.1”)
  • provide cake (one chocolate and one carrot worked well as my own cheesecake was not really worth writing home about) and one pineapple (odd? it got great reviews, though, and made the session even more informal :))
Xerte is a cool rapid development tool. Lots of folks have written about it and it keeps growing. The following reflects my own experience of it, so if I get stuff wrong, please tell me and I’ll happily put my hand up and correct it. As I was playing with it, I was also thinking of another rapid e-learning tool that I like using and whose community I would invite over to my house for breakfast, lunch and dinner any time – Articulate. So let’s get cracking and I’ll keep things as short and snappy as I can. My observations about Xerte are in bullet form and my comparisons with the current version of Articulate Studio 09 are straight underneath, preceded by a ‘-‘. Hope that makes sense.

What is Xerte?

A web-based environment with a great set of content templates developed by some frightfully clever folks at the University of Nottingham.

Xerte Insert Media menu

Xerte Insert Media menu

Xerte’s main advantages:

  • accessible (Tab navigation works very well and the Drag-and-drop exercise template which you can drive only using the Tab and Space keyboard keys is very cool indeed; I haven’t run it through a screen reader personally but I have not read anything suggesting it would not behave nicely so far).
    – Articulate also does Tab navigation, but is less accessible (until Storyline comes out and HTML5 support is added to Studio, that is…).
  • lots of templates and the list is growing. From simply inserting content as text, images, and videos, to embedding YouTube, Twitter searches, and RSS feeds, you have loads of choice.
    – The Articulate community has lots of templates, too, but they are mainly PowerPoint (content layout) ones. Articulate Engage and Quizmaker have a contribution, but getting RSS feeds in and the like is currently a bit tricky as you need to embed the dynamic content into a separate webpage or SWF file and then import that into the Articulate resource.
  • online environment meaning you don’t need to worry about licenses, copying files across, etc.
    – as an Articulate user, you could get around this issue a little using Dropbox to share files, but you’d still need licenses to edit these files. No online editing option yet and editing off shared drives and memory sticks is not recommended – I personally lost several narrations this way… lucky I had back-ups…
  • plays well in Blackboard 9.1, although we didn’t get the SCORM to work first time… then again, as we had no quiz to track, there was little point persevering, so the .zip archive showing nicely in our VLE did it for us.
    – Articulate SCORM hasn’t been supported well in our Blackboard 9.1 and we’re trying various work-arounds. .zip archives were just fine.
  • the Drawing template is very cool (although I didn’t work out what the Interactive mode was, but then again, I didn’t get round to reading any documentation for this – I personally blame Apple for the attitude :). I tested it with a graphics tablet and it wasn’t bad accuracy at all.
    – nothing similar in Articulate – you’d have to use PowerPoint’s drawing tools which are cool, unless you want to use the Scribble tool which will drive you mad – anything else, even Paint is much better for that!

    Xerte Drawing template

    Xerte Drawing template

  • you can add FLV and SWF video to your resources (I tried .wmv, .mov, .avi, and .mpg but they weren’t supported). If you haven’t got the videos in the two required Flash formats, you can use free tools such as FormatFactory to convert your vids.
    – apart from those two, Articulate has native support for .mp4. Moreover, the Articulate Video Converter will do exactly what the name implies, while also allowing you to change the sound volume, crop the video (very cool!), insert watermarks, and chop off the ends.
  • the Audio Slideshow template is very cool – it allows you to have a piece of audio running in the background, while several “slides” can be cued in. I see this as a very cool tool for demo-ing synchronous language interpreting:
    • have the instructions always visible
    • have the source speech in the background
    • have individual blocks interpreted, and the sound louder than the source sound, which should be decreased, too, to avoid confusion while keeping the reference speech in the background
    • combine these individual blocks with additional images/text which discuss problems related to the individual meaning blocks
    • cue everything in (NB: watch out, as you can only set Synch Points which are integers – so 1 second and not 1.3; everything gets rounded up to the nearest integer… not ideal for teaching interpreting come to think about it, but here we are…)
    • in the published resource, the nested pages do not appear as subpages and it’s all a continuous flow of sound, text and images.
    • cool!

– an equivalent effect with Articulate could be obtained by having the main speech running as an audio track throughout the resource, and then individual PowerPoint slides having their own audio/video/images/text. You could get a lot more content in using PowerPoint animations and you could also synchronise to the exact time in the audio without worrying about integers…

Xerte Audio Slideshow

Xerte Audio Slideshow

  •  the Transcript Reader template is similar and makes life very easy if you want to sync text with audio (NB: don’t forget the integers, though…)
    – similar effect can be created with PowerPoint, yet if you’re not a confident PowerPoint user, you’ll find this Xerte template a great relief.
  • the Synched Video allows to cue in text and image while you’re watching a video, which is something that currently you can’t do with Articulate (but will be able to soon I hear through the grapevine…)
  • Multiple Perspectives is another clever little template which allows you to insert several videos and audio files with text and an image to show different points of view. Dead simple, useful, and good looking, too (something which overall seems to be the trade-off with Xerte: you get accessible resources, but the default skins are rather boxy and not very inviting … again, I blame Apple for this attitude on my part :). However, the good news is that you can customise the skins if you host Xerte on your own servers, so here’s an avenue for designers to top up their budgets a little…)
    – hyperlinked thumbnails and images in PPT can create that effect, too.
  • the Chemists among you will be very excited to hear there is a JMOL viewer built into Xerte. Yey! 🙂
    – not sure how to do that with Articulate unless you use a Web Object and insert an external webpage which has the JMOL object running smoothly
  • Embed Content is a template that’s meant to allow you to stick in anything else that doesn’t already have a dedicated template (such as YouTube videos, for instance). The good news is that it works. The bad news is that you may need to fiddle, as my embed URL worked, but my embed code didn’t and I couldn’t be bothered to fiddle (I blame it on Apple, you see…)
    – Articulate still needs to go through Web Objects for most of this to happen (except YouTube videos and a small number of other services I believe)

    Xerte Embed Content - in this case

    Xerte Embed Content - in this case

  • if you’re feeling lazy, Xerte also has a Charts template, where you type in your values, choose the colour for a series of values, and you get a chart. Simples! (just don’t expect anything fancy in terms of layout, shades, 3D and the like…)
    – the PowerPoint charts are likely to look much better and you don’t have to type in your Excel data again, which is a bonus.
  • the Hotspot was easy to set up (shame the Interactive Diagram template didn’t want to work…)
    – a capable, though less accessible hotspot is possible in Quizmaker, too; to be honest, you can also generate the same effect in PowerPoint, too – up to you.
  • overall, I think the Interactivity templates are worth mentioning as they provide simple, but effective breaks from linear content
    – Quizmaker has 20 question types, but I felt the Xerte ones were easier to set up. Quizmaker, nonetheless, is much better at supporting, combining, and sync-ing multimedia. Branching is also possible from Quizmaker, as it is from Articulate presenter, too, and I couldn’t see anything similar in Xerte.

    Xerte Interactivity templates

    Xerte Interactivity templates

  • a significant compartment of the Xerte box of tricks lives in the Misc and menus, though, with various feeds to be embedded – some trickier than others (don’t say I didn’t warn you about the Twitter feed, although that may be somewhere in the documentation – by now you should know that I blame Apple… 🙂 )
    – Articulate is not as competent yet, unless you go via the Web Object, in which case you’re sorted.

    Xerte Misc templates

    Xerte Misc templates

My issues with Xerte:

  • linear structure of the resulting resource (I find it hard to see how one could devise an educational scenario and allow students to explore) – I couldn’t see straight away a method for creating a tree structure in the resource Table of Contents menu
    – the Articulate Slide Properties all you to go mad with branching, names, tree structures, automatic or user control of resource progress and more.

    Xerte table of contents

    Xerte table of contents

  • my Windows keyboard settings didn’t change in the Xerte editing area, too – for instance, when I changed the keyboard to French, in my Chrome Xerte window it stayed in English, so I had to use the Xerte Character Pad (at the time of writing supporting French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish), which was not ideal… Not sure if this was Chrome being inflexible…
    – PowerPoint, Articulate Quizmaker and Engage will let you type in your chosen language
  • the Bullets template didn’t actually give me any bullets – just text
  • sound/narration import is limited to .mp3 (no wav or wma) – not a deal-breaker for me, but useful to flag up
    – wav is supported in Articulate alongside .mp3. In addition, a powerful audio editor is always on hand to allow you to brush up your narration until you get it perfect. This is also very helpful when updating your resources, because you don’t need to re-record everything again, but only the bits that are new.
  • image resizing is poor, although, if you set the Image size to  “full screen”, you get a magnifying glass to view the pixelated bits
    NB: choosing the “actual size” image settings will only get you into a pickle with high-res images as I could only see the top right corner of mine and no scrolling was available…
    – images in PowerPoint can be edited and modified quite significantly (cropped, re-coloured, stylised). You can change the Articulate publish settings to achieve quite crisp images in the Flash wrapper. Even better in the upcoming HTML5-supporting versions.

    Image inserted with "full screen" setting

    Image inserted with "full screen" setting

  • in fact, I have found that images in general are a bit tricky in Xerte unless you’ve resized them yourself beforehand:
    • leave them on “auto” and you can’t really work out what they’re about anymore, particularly in the case of software screenshots
    • set them to “full screen” and they will cover text that is supposed to appear next to/above/below them
  • audio sync-ing with text and images which is possible in some of the templates (see the Highlights section above) can only be done up to the nearest integer – so no chance of text being highlighted at 2.3 seconds into your narration – you’ll have to live with 2 seconds and so slightly out of sync…
    – not an issue in Articulate if you’re happy to use animations in PowerPoint.
  • the Morph Image is also quite interesting because you can fool people into thinking they’re zooming into a live image … now what do I think of this? Personally, I would much rather use a high-res image and an online service similar to or GigaPan and embed the result into a webpage through the Embed Content template, although it worked with the embed URL but not the Embed Code for my Zoom-it example… (see above)
    – you can use the Web Object tool in Articulate to embed such resources. For some you may have to set up separate html files, others (e.g. YouTube) will come in directly.


I think this post is probably the longest I’ve ever done, so I’ll try and keep this short.. ha! (and I don’t blame Apple for this, btw.) So how do I feel about Xerte and how does it sit next to Articulate?

As @terrymc put it, too, they’re complementary, and one shouldn’t necessarily replace the other. Here’s what I reckon:

  • I love my scenario-based learning resources and building something like that in Xerte would make me throw too many things around in frustration that I can’t combine elements that the templates do not cater for (for instance, a video and an embed object or an RSS feed…) I am aware I can build my own templates if I want, but I really don’t want to do that (I just blame Apple for that). I’m happy to put a video and an External Object in my Articulate resource and be done with it.
  • On the other hand, it’s really nice to see so many templates and I feel that if one of my lecturers is short of time and resources, is not a confident PowerPoint user, and needs to get a mixture and static and interactive content out there fast, Xerte will be a good choice.
  • Talking accessibility, Xerte is currently much better than Articulate (although you have tabbed and arrowkey navigation in the Articulate files, too). However, I have also seen the future of Articulate and it’s called Storyline – a tool so fine that designers will snap it up as soon as it comes out: HTML5, lots of interactive content, and very cool features which I am not allowed to talk about… yet :).
  • Talking looks, Xerte is way behind at the moment but some designed skins may push it forward quite a bit.
  • Talking internationalisation, Articulate will do pretty much whatever you ask of it (it will take language keyboard changes comfortably as far as I know). Currently Xerte is limited to on-screen language keyboards. On the other hand, Xerte’s XML content publishing format means that it is currently easier to localise (exactly how much easier will be the topic of a future blog post). But Articulate… nope, I can’t say any more 🙂

Xerte is free and Articulate isn’t. However, Xerte is just starting up and very keen to see how people can use its numerous templates, while Articulate has the biggest and best (imho) community of instructional designers – who, incidentally, have basically saved PowerPoint for e-learning from a slow and sad demise, put quite a few bells on it through Articulate Studio, and showed the world things that folks didn’t think were possible before. Just wait until you see Storyline, though… 😉

Xerte is an online authoring tool and Articulate isn’t. Now that’s inconvenient and I’m the first to say that, but I am also looking at the bunch of functionalities I have in Studio (powerful audio editing, ok video editing) and wonder how feasible it would be to port all that online … (I know Apple’s taught us to get stroppy if things are not simple, but I also know that if I were on a desert island with an Apple brain I’d be stuck there. Not necessarily waiting and redesigning my raft until it’s perfect, but rather because I couldn’t get very far until an update would send me back…) Cheap shots, I know… I do apologise… 🙂 I still don’t agree that we should expect simple technology without having a clue what made it so simple. If something breaks, you bet I’m gonna try and fix it – I don’t want to buy more of a breakable thing… Anyway…

Therefore the deal to me is this: in the case of Xerte, you are starting with your current knowledge of e-learning, the templates that the super clever folks in Nottingham have built for you, and also joining a growing community of Open Education Resources (OER) creators. In the case of Articulate, you pay for a very cool (and very soon way cooler) application, and you join a community of established industry and education instructional designers whose contributions can make you a top designer, too, in a short while.

Of course, there is nothing really stopping you from using Xerte but getting your instructional design fixes from the Articulate community… apart from your conscience after a little while, that is 😉 If you are truly a professional, you will have one. If not, then … then I guess you are part of the reason why the Occupy Wall Street movement started… (deep sigh)

Anyway, I’m signing off now and I’ll be happy to read your reactions. Best thing to do now, if you haven’t already, is to get an account with Xerte and a demo version of Articulate Studio (and Storyline when that comes out soon).

  1. Hi Dragos, a good summary. I can’t comment on Captivate, having not used it, but a few points on Xerte are worth picking up on, so here’s my take.
    1) Accessibility in Xerte is a significant benefit for wide range of users and is created automatically by the system so even staff without accessibility awareness end up creating accessible resources. This is also a benefit institutionally because it takes you a long way towards meeting meeting legislative obligations.
    2) Xerte Online Toolkits – the collection of templates – makes it easy for people with limited IT skills to do clever things. On the other hand, developers can download the desktop version of Xerte and do much wilder things.
    3) Xerte doesn’t have to be linear – one of the first options in creating an object is to decide whether navigation is linear, menu based or a combination. It also automatically populates a table of contents as you create slides so there are a range of options inbuilt. Branching isn’t supported ‘in-object’ but this limitation is easily overcome by making shorter more granular objects that link one to another. (This also allows effective reuse of the same info in different courses).
    4) Xerte is ideal for collaborative development. A Xerte object can also be “gifted” to another colleague which not only gives them access to the finished LO but also gives access to all the component assets and the facility to repurpose them for local needs. Students can also subscribe to your Xerte folders via RSS allowing continuous updating.
    5) Internationalisation in Xerte is well under way. Dutch and Norwegian versions of Xerte already exist. A modularisation programme is being developed to make it easier for developers to tweak existing templates or add new ones. This has great potential for subject specific teaching (and also for disability specific resources).
    6) Being free and open source Xerte has found lots of traction in areas with limited resources to spend – eg adult community learning and work based learning.

    That’s not to say that if you can afford to buy a commercial system you shouldn’t but I would suggest that commercial systems should be no less accessible than Xerte Toolkits. And for developers who want to push some boundaries, the Xerte community has some great people onboard who are always keen to have some creative sparks help develop new template ideas.

  2. That’s interesting information
    You may be interested on what I found to be the best articulate skins for the best price on the web, I think they also offer custom articulate widgets , and do custom articulate skin development at amazingly honest prices with custom E Learning, Learning management system.

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