Latest ToolBook Disappoints

Imparting knowledge has become big business. With training costs soaring, it's no wonder that managers are seriously considering Web-based training as an alternative to classroom training. Asymetrix Learning Systems is targeting this exploding market with its release of ToolBook II Instructor 7.1, a Microsoft Windows-based scripting environment that the company has recast as a graphical authoring tool with Web deployment capabilities.

ToolBook carries forward the product's long-standing tradition of rich features, powerful scripting, and effortless Windows distribution; however, it competes more directly with Microsoft Visual Basic than with Web-based training tools such as WBT Systems TopClass or Macromedia Authorware.

ToolBook creates Windows courseware, and it will even package an entire course into a single Windows .exe file for deployment to a LAN, CD-ROM, or the Web.

You never pay royalties for ToolBook courses even if you sell them. I love this approach -- it is the one thing that might move me to use ToolBook over other comparable courseware tools that impose royalties on course distribution.

Most of ToolBook is written in OpenScript, Asymetrix's proprietary scripting language. OpenScript is an interpreted language, which causes the ToolBook interface to be slow, even on a powerful PC such as the 500-MHz Pentium III desktop I used for testing. ToolBook also takes a performance hit for being (at least in part) a 16-bit Windows program running on a 32-bit platform. That's a millstone ToolBook should shed as it moves to Windows 2000.

ToolBook's graphical user interface provides templates and canned scripts that give users a fair amount of drag-and-drop functionality. I was able to construct a series of pages with multiple-choice questions in just a few minutes, using background templates and supplied radio buttons. However, the GUI has a limited number of capabilities, beyond which you need to use OpenScript.

ToolBook does not provide a facility for interacting with an instructor during a test, such as chat features or file-transfer capabilities. This makes ToolBook a tough sell in distance-learning environments. Basic test scoring is automatic, but ToolBook does nothing with the results. An optional product, ToolBook II Librarian, will help manage results.

What hurts ToolBook even more is its weak Web courseware support, and, as a result, I would recommend running a ToolBook course on Windows as opposed to via the Web. If you accept the defaults, it will generate a surprisingly accurate Web representation of a ToolBook course for any Netscape or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.x or later browser. If you need courseware for 3.x browsers, however, you'll have to settle for reduced functionality.

To make its Web export feature work, Asymetrix bundled a lot of proprietary functionality into a set of Java classes that the browser must load. This creates potential compatibility problems with the many versions of Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Java Virtual Machines in existence.

The real showstopper is that ToolBook makes it virtually impossible to integrate other Web content with a Web-based ToolBook course. The generated content files are encoded with the intent to make them difficult to modify, and all the concealed Java code makes matters worse. You might wind up with three different versions of your Web course for three different browsers; therefore, any post-export changes you make would have to be made in three places.

If you've used ToolBook II Instructor before and liked it, the latest version may prove to be a worthwhile upgrade. Because of its lack of Web-content integration, I'd write off its reputed Web features and continue to deliver content only to Windows clients.

Tom Yager is a senior enterprise services Architect at WebLink Wireless, in Dallas. Reach him at tyager@maxx.net.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

ToolBook II Instructor 7.1

Summary: This authoring tool lets you create and deliver (royalty-free) computer-based training to users via LAN, CD-ROM, or the Web. Web-based content runs in a Java-capable browser; you can trade fewer features for broader browser support.

Business Case: Given the rising costs and unpredictable quality of outside training, home-brew courseware is a strong alternative. ToolBook is a strong choice for Microsoft Windows-only delivery, but if your target is the Web you should look elsewhere.

Pros:

+ Well-stocked library of templates and objects+ Helpful guides and wizards+ Royalty-free distributionCons:

- Sluggish interface

- Interface objects look dated

- No integration with Web content and toolsCost: $2,495Platform(s): Microsoft Windows 95/98; Windows NT 4.0Asymetrix Learning Systems Inc.; Bellevue, Wash. (425) 462-0501 www.click2learn.com

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