How not to develop scenario-based eLearning

My first foray into eLearning was creating animated explainer videos to support a leadership development program. From there, I immediately launched into converting facilitator-led training into a blended course. I replaced most of the content with interactive videos, and closed the training with facilitator-led session. This course trained new call center representatives about managing their schedule, using the phone system, and more.

When I started the new hire training project, I knew I needed to learn more about designing and developing eLearning. At that point, I was an experienced technical writer. Many of the concepts used in technical writing transfer to instructional design, but there are some differences. So I started reading Mayer’s Multimedia Learning, Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn, and every eLearning website and blog I could find. I spent hours on blogs including The Learning Guild, eLearning Brothers, and Experiencing eLearning.

As I researched, I found so much information about scenarios. I just knew that was the best way to develop eLearning. So, I created 10 or so characters that appeared throughout the various modules. Then I worked with subject matter experts to draft interactions depicting common performance issues, and used them to guide new employees through the situations. I was proud of my work. But, did I really design and develop scenario-based eLearning?

What is scenario-based learning?

It turns out scenario-based learning is more than just scripting workplace scenarios for a video. Ruth Colvin Clark outlined some parameters in her 2013 book Scenario-based e-Learning.

They include:

  • The learner is an actor – not an observer
  • Employees learn by reviewing the consequences of their actions
  • The learning experience is guided, and includes other instructional resources, including tutorials and model answers
  • Scenario-based e-Learning accelerates expertise by providing scenarios that may not come up often or may not be safe to practice in the real world

In an interview with Connie Malamed, Clark explained that her research for this book began after she noticed some instructional designers taking a new approach. She saw some eLearning starting “with some kind of a situation or problem, and then the whole course was about how you actually resolve the problem.”

When is scenario-based learning beneficial?

Through her research, Clark determined six situations when scenario-based eLearning can be most effective:

  1. Learning tasks that are rarely done
  2. Advancing critical thinking skills
  3. Completing compliance-mandated training
  4. Enabling practice to gain expertise
  5. Compressing time to allow practice of tasks that may normally take days, weeks or months
  6. Providing a safe space to learn tasks that may be dangerous in practice

If we go back to my example of training related to employees managing their schedules and the company’s phone system, we can start to see that there were some aspects of the training that lent themselves to scenario-based learning more than others. Things like learning how to use the phone system and how to log into the schedule are things that employees need to know how to do to complete a scenario, but shouldn’t necessarily be one of the scenario’s learning outcomes. On the other hand, determining how to set the phone system when faced with unusual tasks is something that might benefit from scenario-based learning.

Did I achieve scenario-based eLearning?

Well, no. Not really. One misstep was ending the modules with the scenarios, instead of beginning with them. Clark considers this more of a directive design because the learners are not the actors. Instead, they are observing and reflecting on someone else’s actions.

Restructuring the modules so they started with accurate, realistic scenarios would be one way to create scenario-based learning. After hearing how Clark describes this instructional method, what else do you think could be done to revise the course? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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