A Guide to Free E-Learning Tools

Inside Learning Technologies Magazine, December 2007

Jane Hart, from the Centre of Learning and Performance Technologies talks to us about the pros and cons of choosing and using free tools, and suggests 10 free tools that can be used to create e-learning solutions quickly and easily.

It is well known in the industry that you promote the use of free e-learning tools. Can you tell us more about this?

Over the years I have encouraged the use of free tools as an alternative to expensive commercial software, and have often been asked to recommend free tools to both individuals, e.g. academics and trainers, who wanted to produce their own materials as well as L&D departments with limited budgets.

Because of the increasing interest in free tools, I began to compile a list of tools that could be used for different e-learning activities, and recently expanded this to include commercial tools.  It is now known as the Directory of Learning Tools – and available to access for free at my website.  It currently contains over 1,800 tools ranging from “traditional” course and content development tools through E-Learning 2.0 collaboration and sharing tools as well as tools for personal learning.  And over 1,200 of the tools listed are free!

Although I originally intended this as a resource for experienced e-learning professionals trying to decide the most appropriate tool to acquire, I realised that for anybody new to the e-learning world, the Directory might prove rather overwhelming.  So this was one of the reasons why I started my “Top Ten Tools” activity in the summer, to try and identify the tools that learning professionals found useful and would recommend to others. From over 400 tools mentioned by over 100 people from both academia and corporate training who contributed to the activity, I created a list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning.  75% of the tools within that list are free, which just goes to show how ubiquitous they are now and how they are considered viable alternatives to commercial software.

What does “free” actually mean?

Free tools generally fall into two categories: freeware and open source software.

Freeware is software that is offered free of charge.  It often has an EUL (End User Licence) associated with it and each license will be particular to the software. Like most commercial software, you also won’t be able to re-sell it although you might be able to redistribute it.

Open source software tightens up the sometimes quite loose freeware arrangements.  This is software that is made available as source code under a license which allows users to copy, use and modify it provided that they agree to offer the source to others. There are a number of open source licences, e.g. the GNU Public License.

Many tools are offered in completely free versions, whereas others are made available as liteware, which are free, “cut-down” versions of commercial software.  In these cases, the lite versions usually do not provide the full functionality of the full-price software, or perhaps only support a small number of users or the creation of limited pieces of content.  Additionally some free tools are actually only trialware – in other words the software expires within a period of time or else watermarks the content until the full software is purchased, so it really can’t be used for anything long-term.

So how can you get hold of free tools – and what do you need to consider?

Free tools might be available either to downloador else be online services.

Downloadable software will need to be installed on computers or configured and customised on servers, which in most cases is usually relatively simple but in some instances (for server-based software) might be quite complex, so where there is no IT support in-house, this could be an issue.  It’s also important, as with anything that you download from the Internet, that you check that the software is virus- or spyware- free – so good Internet protection software is vital.

An online tool will provide you with a web-based environment that is ready to use – although it might need some initial customisation or set up.  It is a very useful solution where there is little IT support available within an organisation. In fact, it seems that online services are also being used by some to by-pass IT departments who constrain their ability to install software on their own machines.  But using online tools does mean that personal and other data will be held outside the organisation, so this could potentially be a problem

How do free e-learning tools compare with commercial tools?

When you buy commercial software, you get a very high level of customer service.  For instance, you will probably get most if not all of the following:

  • someone to talk you through the functionality of the software, provide online or onsite demonstrations, answer all your question and set up trial implementations on your own computers, if required
  • customisation and configuration services, where required, to meet your specific needs – although this is undoubtedly at extra cost, it may well be that without it you won’t be able to go too far on your own with the software
  • onsite or online user training (again generally at extra cost) but once again may be essential to ensure your users get up to speed as quickly as possible.
  • a customer support service, which might be offered by email, by phone, via live chat or screen sharing/remote assistance, through webinars and forums, but it will certainly be valuable to keep your users productive.

The “extras” you get with freeware or open source tool providers in terms of customer service will vary quite considerably.   So these are all factors you need to think about with free tools; you will need to consider whether you will be able to get started and keep going without them!

It’s been said that DIY e-learning is dangerous, as there is more to just using free e-learning tools. What do you say to that?

DIY e-learning doesn’t just involve using free tools – there are a lot of commercial tools available that allow people to get involved with creating e-learning in-house.  But, in my experience, people aren’t using these tools, in the main, because they want to create sophisticated interactive, multimedia online courses – I do think most realise that to do that requires significant skill and experience both in the design of the content and the development of the materials.  The reason they want to do it themselves is to create simpler solutions much more quickly and cost-effectively. Outsourcing content development can take time and cost quite a bit – and in many cases organisations need more immediate or less costly answers to their problems.

In fact with the increased interest in informal learning and performance support, solutions like the creation of job aids or narrated presentations don’t require a high level of instructional design, but rather a logical approach to presenting the information.  It also has to be said that e-learning tools are not just tools for the generation of content by subject matter experts, they are also tools to support user-generated, collaborative content for the sharing of information and knowledge within the organisation. But in both cases DIY e-learning definitely works best where individuals have the time, interest and motivation to use the tools effectively as well as the desire to share their knowledge with others.

So, I believe DIY e-learning does have a very important part to play within any organisation.  Where complex formal learning solutions are deemed to be required, then either these can be outsourced or the relevant design or development skills can be acquired – or even bought in.   In fact, this is the way I work with many of my clients who want to create solutions internally themselves.  They call upon me for advice or to provide the skills they are lacking – when they need them. In this way they retain control of their projects and can spend their often limited budgets in the most advantageous and effective way.

So, finally, can you recommend some examples of free e-learning tools that can be used to create simple
e-learning solutions quickly and easily?

Here are 10 of my personal favourite tools that can be used to create and deliver informal learning or performance support solutions, or that support information and knowledge sharing in the organisation.

  1. OpenOffice – – This is an open source Office suite to download and is a great alternative to MS Office. It contains word processing, presentation, spreadsheet and database software and runs on both Macs and PCs.  Two particular features that I like about it are (i) you can convert word processed documents into PDFs within it, and (ii) you can convert OO presentations into Flash-based versions, which provides a much more effective way of distributing them.  So a very useful tool to create job aids or presentations.
  2. Slideshare – – This is a free service to host presentations (created with PowerPoint, OpenOffice Impress or Keynote).  It also supports slidecasting, which means you can synchronise an audio file with a set of slides.  It’s also a great source of presentations that might be of use to your own organisation. Your people can either go to Slideshare to view a presentation or they can be embedded in your own blog, web or wiki page.
  3. YouTube – – This is a free online video streaming service. You’ll need a device to create your video, e.g. a camcorder, digital camera or webcam. You then copy your video to your computer and upload it to YouTube, where, if you prefer, you can make it “private” only to be viewed by those you select. Then, like Slideshare, people can either view your videos directly in YouTube or you can embed them in your web, blog or wiki page.
  4. Wink – This is a free program to create a presentation or tutorial on
    how to use software.  You can capture screenshots, add explanations and buttons, and even record your own voice to provide a narration.  The output can either be in Flash format for the Web, EXE for distribution to PCs, or PDF for printable manuals.
  5. Audacity – This is an open source cross-platform sound editor and recorder to download.  You can record live audio for podcasts or convert audio into digital formats.  A very useful little tool now that podcasting has become so popular.
  6. WordPress – This is free blogging software.  It is available both as a online service or as open source software to download or install on internal servers.  If you opt for the online service, users can set up either public or private blogs where they can share information about their activities for others in the organisation, e.g. R&D might want to share information about products under development.  L&D might use them to keep employees up to date with activities of interest.  A superb tool for information sharing.
  7. Nvu – This is a free web authoring system for PCs or Macs and is comparable to  programs like Dreamweaver and FrontPage. It can be used for creating basic web pages as well as managing a complete web site.  You can also easily embed   the different resources created with the other tools within it to
    make it a useful e-learning portal.
  8. PbWiki – This is online wiki solution.  Wikis are useful for users to create content collaboratively, e.g. a user manual. It works just like a word processor and you can add attachments like PowerPoint files, Word docs, PDF files, YouTube videos, and so on.
  9. Yugma – This is a free web conferencing tool.  The “lite” version allows up to 10 users to collaborate online.  It is very simple to set up and you can even embed it in your website. A great way to bring people together online.
  10. Ning – This is a free online service to create, customise and share your very own social network. Your network can be either public or private, so you can get people within and without your organisation connecting with one another. A very innovative way of supporting collaboration within the organisation.