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Scenarios in eLearning design

by David Cameron

Instructional designer insights into how to identify and gather the best content to create and use winning eLearning scenarios. Our modern Compliance training courses use this type of approach. Improve learner engagement and enhance your elearning course with scenario based learning using key decision points in challenging situations.

How to gather the right content for eLearning scenarios

A writer-friend once gave me the extraordinary gift of the 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary from 1933 – the version,which, he assured me, was the ‘best evah’. (Ah, well, no, he did not speak at all like that.) He gave it along with a caution not to read it in the garden using a magnifying glass, as the sun’s magnified beams might set the page alight. He also added ‘No more excuses, Cameron’ – meaning that, armed with a complete OED, any writing failure was now entirely my own: the fault of the workman rather than his tools.

His generous plan had a flaw. Dictionaries have all the right words, but not necessarily in the right order. The right order is that of human speech. Mouths are the rightful owners of the living breath we call ‘words’.


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Understanding scenarios

As every child knows, say or look at a word over and over and it takes on a life of its own. It floats free of the meaning we ascribe to it. I had this experience recently with the word ‘scenario’, which had been passing my lips a bit too repetitively in work.


A typical eLearning scenario used in our eLearning content



I’d be explaining to clients how their content would be made vivid by the use of ‘real-life scenarios’ (what might scenarios of unreal life be like?) or branching scenarios. Scenario, scenario, scenario… The word started to interest me.  No surprise that it’s of Italian origin. What stopped me in my tracks was this online claim: that the meaning of scenario as an ‘imagined situation’ dated back only to 1960, ‘in reference to hypothetical nuclear wars’.

This sounded so unlikely that I did a bit more digging, but it seems that the claim is sound: ‘Herman Kahn was working for the RAND Corporation on applying game theory to strategic planning for the potential of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries with their potential to involve nuclear warfare… He took the term scenario from the dramatic arts, and so he is considered one of the inventors of scenario planning.’ Seen in that unearthly light, the word is supercharged with meaning.


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Client objections to eLearning scenarios

The value of true-to-life scenarios in digital learning – in learning of any kind – seems self-evident. Yet clients frequently object to their proposed use. Is there merit in the objection? There can be, but only if scenarios are included in an unthinking way – for the poor reason that they are the kind of ingredient which the eLearning recipe book insists on.

Consider a company which embarks on a behaviour change programme for its employees. Whole sets of values and standards relating to workplace practices and behaviours are written up as if on tablets of stone – strictly not to be paraphrased. But ask for specific examples of these practices or behaviours and minds go blank. You have to wonder if the standards/values were devised in the absence of any observation of the practices/behaviours they are meant to relate to.


"The detail provides a touch of the real, an authentic context for the learning. A direct line to employees is the answer here – they possess the gold you are digging for. "


One plausible objection to the use of scenarios is that none can be sufficiently representative of the near-infinite number of work situations encountered by members of the various job families in an organisation. I counter this by pointing out that what is representative isn’t the specific detail of the scenario but the behaviour that this detail illustrates – for instance, collaborating with others to face a challenge and find a solution. The detail provides a touch of the real, an authentic context for the learning. The devil is in the detail, and it can be a devil of a job getting from a client the detail you need to flesh out a learning point. A direct line to employees is the answer here – they possess the gold you are digging for.


Unexpected stories and their relationship to eLearning scenarios


I enjoy watching music documentaries, but it has to be admitted that the arc of these stories is fairly repetitive. Naively ambitious young folk form a band; after an unpromising start, the band meets with spectacular success; drug-addled band members fail to cope with success; band splits, acrimoniously and expensively; failed solo careers behind them, band members reunite (minus at least one casualty, often the drummer), go back on the road, do a documentary.

So it was, more or less, for the British pop group Squeeze, whose memorable songs I’d largely ignored in the band’s 80s’ heyday. But I found myself spellbound by the story of their rise and fall and partial rise again, as told in a recent BBC documentary.  At its core is the extraordinary relationship of its songwriting duo, Difford and Tilbrook. Like Lennon and McCartney’s, theirs is a story of character difference and mutual dependence – to the extent that, when the wife of one died, the other wrote the words that expressed his heartbreak.


Digging for gold and eLearning scenarios

And perhaps this is the point. Life is so rich that its detail tells a different story than you'd expect. If you go digging for workplace stories, don’t be dismayed if the gems that turn up are unexpected ones. Which is an argument for, not against, the use of scenarios. Recently I quizzed a learner on how she had used her expertise to arrive at a technical solution. It turned out that the technical solution was the easy bit – the real challenge lay in communicating the value of the solution so that others would adopt it. Technology is geared towards change, but empathy and persuasion are needed to overcome resistance to change. This was the real story, and the learning point.

Going back to the word itself: I prefer the original association with music, a scenario being ‘a sketch of the scenes and main points of an opera libretto’. Pay attention less to the words that it utters than to the music of an organisation – the effects it is trying to achieve, how these influence the way it structures itself, and how skillfully its various elements combine to achieve those effects. That’s the key to understanding its workings.

Now set fire to your dictionary.

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If you want scenarios and other digital learning techniques to boost the quality of training and create more engaging learning experiences in your organisation, explore our Content development services and how we create Compliance training courses.

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