Somewhat loosely defined and ambiguous, the term e-learning is applied to a whole mess of applications used to aid the delivery of education or training by electronic means, typically at a distance. More specifically it’s applied to applications used to author and deliver course content, as with Adobe’s Captivate, which can be used to create software demonstrations, interactive simulations, quizzes and other electronic learning materials.

What is it and who is it for?

Originally a simple tool to capture and replay on-screen recordings, Captivate started life as Flashcam before being renamed RoboDemo and branded as an e-learning product. At one time owned by Macromedia it was subsequently renamed Captivate when acquired by Adobe in 2004, since when it has gone through a number of updates, culminating in the latest Captivate 5 product, released in July 2010.

Unlike earlier versions, Captivate 5 is a total re-write of the underlying code, the most obvious change being a completely new GUI with the same look and feel as other fifth generation Adobe Creative Suite (CS5) products. More than that, capturing screen activity is no longer all that Captivate is about. It’s still a core feature, but it can also be used to generate all kinds of e-learning materials using a variety of tools. For example, to create and play presentations, just like Microsoft PowerPoint with which the Adobe product can be closely integrated.

The audience for Captivate is very broad. From software companies wanting to develop interactive product demos, through marketing and PR organisations, to school, colleges and universities looking to create in-house electronic courseware. As well as software demos and simulations Captivate can be used for video screencasts, podcasts and to convert PowerPoint presentation to Adobe Flash format.

Pricing & setup

Available for both Windows and, now also, Apple Mac platforms, the latest Captivate 5 release can be bought direct from Adobe or through resellers. As a standalone package the recommended price is £556 (ex. VAT) with an upgrade available for existing users for £238 (ex. VAT). Alternatively it can be bought as part of Adobe’s eLearning Suite 2 (£1,509 ex. VAT), a bundle of applications which, as well as Captivate, includes Adobe Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Acrobat Pro plus Adobe Flash Professional, Presenter (Windows-only) and Soundbooth.

Discounts are available both for bona fide educational establishments and individual students. Plus there’s support for a number of foreign languages, including French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The software is very easy to install. In our tests it took just 20 minutes to download and setup, and it requires little in the way of hardware resources. On a PC the pre-requisites are a 1GHz processor or faster, 1GB of RAM (2GB or more is recommended) and 3GB of free disk space. Any version of Windows can be employed. We used Windows 7 but the minimum is XP with Service Pack 2. On a Mac a multi-core processor and 2GB of memory are recommended, running OS X 10.5.7 or later.

Does it do it well?

Support for Apple Mac is a great innovation with few, if any, comparable e-learning tools for the Mac platform. The new interface is a welcome improvement too, enabling users to work simultaneously on multiple projects and switch between them as and when needed. Dockable panels and customisable workspaces are the order of the day here and, because it has the same look and feel as other CS products, the new GUI should lessen the learning curve for users of Dreamweaver, Photoshop and other Adobe products.

New video tutorials have also been added together with pre-built widgets plus lots of new backgrounds, buttons and other sample objects for use in Captivate presentations. Talking of which, the Adobe developers have at long last added a master slide option, akin to that in PowerPoint and other presentation programs. As such it’s now possible to apply common background content across slides and make global changes quickly and easily. Likewise, it’s possible to tag content with object styles and make changes to all tagged objects in a presentation at once, simply by editing the style definitions.

As with previous versions, the Flash (SWF) files created using Captivate can also be converted to AVI and uploaded to video hosting sites. New animation effects have also been added along with the ability to combine effects to create much richer animations. Plus it’s now possible to import effects from Adobe Flash Professional and host Captivate e-learning projects on where they can be shared online both with collaborators and learners to create a basic e-learning management system.

Where does it disappoint?

Unlike most rival products Captivate records on-screen activity as a series of static slides, making for simpler editing while at the same time minimising overheads, such as bandwidth, both when capturing and re-playing presentations. On the downside, however, Captivate can struggle when it comes to complex screen activity, plus the way in which animations are applied and worked with is far from intuitive.

Imported video can be an issue too. Until this release Captivate didn’t allow imported video to be incorporated, but with Captivate 5 it can be imported in a variety of formats (AVI, MOV, FLV and MPEG), then distributed across slides and synchronised using a new Edit Video Timing tool. Unfortunately imported audio can’t be handled this way which could be an issue for a lot of users.

The core screen capture tools worked well in our tests, but we did have a few problems getting the product to do what we wanted at times. We also encountered a couple of bugs and performance wasn’t exactly sparkling either. Lastly, we’d like to see some ready-made templates included with the package as with no samples to work with Captivate can be a daunting program for beginners to learn. A handful of templates are available for downloading from the Adobe website, but they’re all for previous versions and far from inspiring.

Would we recommend it?

There aren’t many other products like Captivate on the market. For general presentations PowerPoint has a lot more to offer and for users looking to create software demos, alternatives such as TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio are both simpler and cheaper. As an all-in-one e-learning tool, however, Captivate 5 is hard to beat, plus it’s from Adobe and works well alongside other Creative Suite products which, for many, is a recommendation in itself. [7]