Utility Spotlight: Create Your Own Online Courses

Take control of your internal training programs, and develop your own custom courseware with the Microsoft Learning Content Development System.

Lance Whitney

Is training part of your overall responsibilities as an IT manager? Are you charged with helping new employees learn business-critical applications or master basic computer usage? If you have to handle staff training as a regular part of your duties, or if you’re involved with any internal or external Web-based learning initiatives, you may be interested in a free Microsoft tool that can help you create online courses.

The Learning Content Development System (LCDS) helps you build e-learning courses with interactive tests, demos, assessments and animations. You can deploy those courses to your users, students, and even fellow IT colleagues to teach and test them on your chosen subject matter.

You won’t need any special programming or design skills to use the LCDS. You build your interactive content by creating and customizing different modules using the tool’s pre-designed templates and your own videos, audio clips and other multimedia files.

Design Your Own

You’ll find the LCDS at the Microsoft Learning site, where you sign in with your Windows Live ID. The LCDS is available in seven languages besides English. Choose your language and download the appropriate EXE file. After installing the LCDS, launch it from its shortcut on the desktop or under the Microsoft Learning folder in the Start Menu Programs folder.

After opening, the tool displays the LCDS Author screen. To design your first course, click on the New button and give your project a name. The work screen is divided into three panes. The left pane shows you the course structure with the table of contents, lessons and topics. The middle pane displays the different types of content templates. The right pane shows you the actual page based on your current template.

You break down your course into a series of individual modules, or lessons, each containing additional pages. To build each page, choose the appropriate template and create your content. For example, your introduction might include text as well as a video or animation that explains the course. Subsequent lessons can contain other types of content, such as tables, audio and animations. You can wrap up each lesson with a quiz using one of the  built-in interactive test templates, like a True/False test or an Essay question.

Each template is organized into six different categories:

  • Interact provides four templates that let you build interactive content to ask a series of questions, with each answer branching out into a different path to determine the nature of the next question.
  • Watch offers templates for animations and other demonstrations.
  • Play throws in a bit of fun with some interactive games.
  • Read lets you create content with text, tables and pictures—as well as interactive quizzes.
  • Try provides hands-on simulations in which the user can move around the screen of the actual software program being taught.
  • Classroom combines text, pictures, tables and other elements in one comprehensive format.

You can delete and move various modules, lessons and topics as you define the structure of your course. As you build your course, you can also preview it at anytime so you can see the course as your users would. If you need a helping hand, you can also download several sample courses (such as the SQL Server 2005 course shown in Figure 1) from Microsoft to see how they’re constructed.

Figure 1 A SQL Server 2005 course designed with the Microsoft Learning Content Development System.

To add video, audio and other multimedia elements, browse to and select the files that you’ve already created or captured. You’ll have to format audio files as MP3s. Your animations can be in Shockwave Flash (SWF), XML or Windows Media Video (WMV) format. Demonstration and animation files can be SWF or WMV. You have to store graphics as JPG or PNG files.

Class in Session

After you’ve finished developing your course, the LCDS gives you a few options for creating a distribution package. If you plan to host your course on a Learning Management System, you can create it as a SCORM package, which is a standard for e-learning content. Otherwise, you can copy the course files onto a CD or Web site.

You’ll find the files for each course stored in the C:\ProgramData\Microsoft Learning\LCDS\courses folder. Copy the contents of the folder for your specific course to your destination. From there, your students can open the course by double-clicking the wrapper.html file stored in the root of the course folder. The course will then open in the default browser.

To create courses, the LCDS requires Windows XP SP 2 or later, Internet Explorer 7 or later, the Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 or later, Microsoft Core XML Services (MSXML) 6.0, Windows Installer 3.1, and a multimedia player such as Adobe Flash Player 8 or Microsoft Silverlight 1.0. Your students can view the courses in either Internet Explorer or Firefox.

Released this past July, the latest 2.5 version of LCDS offers a few enhancements over prior versions, including Firefox compatibility, Silverlight 4.0 compatibility, Silverlight 4 Media Player for animations that include closed captioning, and enhanced keyboard use for some of the templates.

Lance Whitney

Lance Whitneyis a writer, IT consultant and software trainer. He’s spent countless hours tweaking Windows workstations and servers. Originally a journalist, he took a blind leap into the IT world in the early ’90s.