Simple scenarios are cost-effective ways to enhance e-learning transfer.
Weve all heard the story by now that storytelling enhances learning--that sharing relevant examples helps both the expert and the novice forge connections with the content to ensure effective knowledge transfer. We've heard that flight simulators save lives, that practice makes perfect, and that we should show rather than tell.
And yet, scenarios and simulations in e-learning can feel intimidating. They take time and money. And fancy 3-D worlds with blue-haired avatars or full-length videos with high-end Hollywood budgets to afford actors, sets, and lighting and camera crews. Scenarios can be all that, but they also can be something simpler.
Why it works
Humans are primed for stories. A recent study at Northeastern University in Boston explored the effect of gossip on our attention spans. Subjects were exposed to stories about different characters and situations--some "negative." Study participants then were shown images (one in each eye). It turns out that the images that generated the most brainwave activity and interest were linked to the negative storiesthose gossipy tales of warning. Biologically, our mental antennae tune into these warning talesto teach us which predators to stay away from, which partners to avoid as mates, and so on. When done right, stories give you a great hook to reconnect with the content (the steps, the process, and the point). When done poorly, then all you remember is the story.
During an initial design workshop with a client, I like to ask these questions to get at the right story angle to use:
- What mistakes do people typically make?
- What stories do you tell?
- What questions do people ask you? Where are their gaps in understanding?
Capture this extra juicy stuff. Thats where your primordial ooze for this course lies--it is the key to making this content come alive.
Now that youve got your story ideas, how can you make them a part of your e-learning program without completely blowing the budget and timeline, and by using the tools and skills you already have?
Lets look at three approaches to creating scenarios in your e-learning. I'll explore along a scenario spectrum as I go from simple to more complex.
1. Tell the story and ask some questions. Keep your story short and sharp, and make it relevant to the content. Don't add too many flourishes or details. Make sure its something your learners will believe and identify with. If they can take what theyve learned in this e-learning program and actually transfer it to their day job, then we've got a winner.
For example, in a program on behavior in the workplace, I told the story of Screaming Ruth, a manager that might have crossed the line. Ruths frustration with an inept employee climbs until one day she loses it in front of other staff. Amelia, who witnessed the event, reports Ruth to HR. A few days later, Ruth threatens the group, saying shell find out who the traitor was.
I told the short story through a series of seven filmstrip cells, each with short text clips. This particular program was created in Adobe Flash, but could easily be done in another e-learning authoring tool.
Afterward, I asked the participant a series of questions to help him go a little deeper: Did Amelia do the right thing by contacting HR? Ruth's behavior was inappropriate, but why? The possible responses pick up on that gray zone and those common mistakes that people make.
2. Ask questions throughout the scenario. The second approach is "fake branching," in which you create a linear scenario, but instead of playing the entire story you stop the action at crucial points and ask for the learners input about what should happen next.
A competency-based interviewing program was designed for a facilities management service company as a blended learning experience. The e-learning component served as the prework for a role-playing day in the classroom. The goal was for learners to have some exposure to the interviewing process and a bit of practice going into the live session.
In the scenario, they see (and hear) Sarah interviewing Thomas for a key position within her group. Using still photos and audio, simple image transitions simulated the feeling of a live conversation. The speakers image appears in full color, while the listeners was in black and white. This is a simple effect you could do in PowerPoint.
At key points, the conversation stops and the learner decides what Sarah should do next by answering a multiple-choice question.
Customized feedback for each potential response helps address common mistakes and misperceptions. The scenario continues in the same linear path following the learner's response; quality feedback for the responses and plausible choices are crucial. It only works if learners have to stop and consider the actions because theres no obvious right or wrong way to go. Youll need to work closely with your subject matter expert to make sure the choices are all realistic.
3. Use questions for branching. Real branching fits the bill when you need a more realistic simulation of consequences; you blur reality a bit by allowing the learner to go down a path to see where it leads.
From a development perspective, this type of program makes some people nervous because of costs related to programming and time. But it also may be the right design path, especially when experiencing the consequences are a crucial part of the learning.
Remember, we learn from our mistakes, so let the learners make the mistakes here and see what happens. And then let them try it again another way.
As you design a branching program, first set out the "perfect route" by going through the entire scenario the "right" way (if there is one right way). Then do some critical error analysis to find those natural points where learners diverge from the path.
Rapid e-learning tools, such as Articulate, now support branching questions, so dont feel like this approach is out of reach from a technical perspective. Be sure you really need full branching for your scenario. Is learning whats down all of those paths important for the learner to experience, or could you simply explain the consequences (see fake branching, above) and get the point across?
Scenarios are great for illustrating how those soft, mushy skills look in the real world. Complex branching can be excellent to illustrate difficult problem-solving situationsshowing how someone else made the decision and what the consequences were of a bad decision. Keep the above guidelines in mind, and your scenarios will be more focused, relevant, and effective.