Scenarios Are Mini Dramas…Not a Glorified Q and A.

Contrary to many articles published lately, scenarios are not written questions with a supposition or proposition followed by questions. They are micro dramas that bring learners onto the screen and compel interaction. Once in, learner needs to work his way out.

One my mantras I have consistency followed is that elearning is an analogue to a television drama. Using this core belief, the components that make up a show can be modified to enhance, if not totally structure an online course experience. Too often, I visit learning that is frankly weak even if it has all the requisite objectives, structure, and guiding scaffold, e.g. ADDIE by example. Whether in Captivate, Articulate, or a full-blown Flash/HTML course too many learning experiences are dry to the mind, dull to the eye and dead to the ear. If this indicative of a general lack of imagination on the part of learning designers, ID’s or constraints place by clients it matters not. The results are courses that are outwardly pushed at learners rather than trying to entice learners and pull them in to the story.

In many examples of courseware, scenarios are one component of a learning experience. While there are many interpretations of the word, there are very few differences in how, as a learning technique, it has been applied. So let me tell you what I think a scenario isn’t:

  • Not a series of questions with multiple answers that try to engender thinking
  • Not a brief explanation of a situation and then questions that demonstrate the learner will know what to do
  • Not a grouping of pictures that ask the learner to choose which is the right answer, whether process, action or straight knowledge

A scenario is part of a longer story enriching the experience for learners by placing them inside the course as a full participant. It would be similar to jumping into a movie while it’s being shown and working your way out again by uttering a magic word. Only in the case of learning, it would mean meeting a challenge as a role player and by actions, words, and deeds, demonstrating competence in order to move ahead in the course. When used at its full strength, which I’ll explain next, it is almost in the realm of gamification; the hot thing in learning now.

The Elements of a Real Scenario
Let’s begin where we always should and that’s with the outcomes we are seeking; not just for the course, but for each scenario. It’s imperative to establish very specific outcomes and their key performance indicators (KPIs) in the design brief. The latter are necessary for evaluating variables like degree of success, number of attempts, quality of corrections and other metrics that will determine whether the actor can go on to the next scene or stay on for take 21.

Based on these outcomes we can now get creative by spinning a situation or state of being into which the learner will be placed. We will need a setting and/or space and the other actors in this little drama.

By example, we might start like this:

  1. Establishing a locale, setting or space
    Providing a visualization of a realistic environment is essential. This is the stage where the action takes place. In fact, consider more than one virtual space; activities amongst actors, like in a film rely on multiple sets to help tell and sell the story. Place your emphasis on detail. If you watch ‘Mad Men’ you’ll know the efforts Matthew Weiner goes to establish a real feel for the era by inhabiting a set that goes to the smallest detail; a stapler, pencils, clothes hooks…nothing is too small so the place rings true. You may not need to be that fanatic, but it’s a point to remember. Whether you use static images or illustrations, Flash or movies strive for reality.
  2. The actors in this drama must be typical so they can be instantly recognized as a ‘type’. No need to take this to extremes—not every CFO wears neither a three-piece suit nor every creative thick nerd glasses. But try to stick to type. And this goes for their speaking (VO or audio) which should use appropriate technical or professional speak…with some exceptions. When selling learning for example, resist putting abbreviations in a person’s mouth before it’s made clear. For instance, say ‘instructor led training’ before saying ILT.
  3. The action is moved by dialogue but it starts a problem that needs to be addressed. The best prologues have a sense of urgency and can be spoken by one or more persons. And be specific about stage directions as well. If you don’t know how to direct a camera or the proper terms than learn them. You are, remember writing a drama, and even if the budget won’t allow complete customization the many details can be established in less costly ways.
    • (CFO, Stephen, in his office speaking to his marketing manager) (CU – close up on his face)
      “Bob, we need to get our numbers up to meet projections and our sale people are not closing. I’ve spoke to Rona and she is meeting with her account execs today. What do you think about bringing in some training, live, virtual, or online? We have less than 60 days to turn this around.”
      (MS – medium shot where we see Bob gesturing towards Stephen)
      I agree we can’t let this slide. I’m actually sitting in on the meeting and I’ll drive the conversation in that direction. Frankly, I don’t know if our people are saying the right things about our products or their not selling right. But I’ll get back to you ASAP.

4. Making it real often depends on the media and budget. Another consideration is real estate; how many screens can be appropriated without intruding on time constraints.Here is the hierarchy of scenario media by cost:

  • Low Cost:
    Stock images with voice over. To make this work look for stock images that feature the same people in multiple poses. Moreover, make sure you use a variety of voices as well. All too often, a scenario becomes a simple narration of a scene. If the content would benefit from a narrator, ensure that voice is different from all the others. Also, you can drop actors into different backgrounds (settings, like above) using Photoshop to create a transparent background. Having a good ID with top-notch skills makes this a quick operation. Now you can place actors in the best possible office, or warehouse or field site and approximate reality. Lastly use special effects by moving people across the screen; even if it looks phony, it works
  • Medium Cost. Using an illustrator allows you to design any setting and any look for your actors. While pricier your work can begin to establish a branded look and feel and with voice over’s adding the final touch you can create a unique scenario
  • High Cost. There are stock video places where you might find enough content to tell a real story. However, this technique works best when combined with either of the other forms. Multiple media heightens interest and it compels learners to stay focused on the action.
  • Custom video. Clearly the most expensive but usually the most effective form of scenario building. Actually, you’d be making a small movie only interrupted by questions or other actions. You would design stops in the action and perhaps bring in a narrator, on screen, to describe the action to come or review what has just taken place. The learner relates to the narrator and welcomes him as a guide.
  • Multimedia. Mixing forms of media is very effective. Illustration that fades into actual images of the actors is very powerful, just as static images can turn into live action video. Any numbers of combinations are possible; just remember the objectives set forth in the design brief are the target—with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium in not the message.

5. The basic rules of instructional design should include how to use images in scenarios. There are infinite options about how to place objects and people on the screen. Too often scenarios look like home movies with all the action taking place at the same distance from the screen. Everything is in the middle distance. How boring. Add vitality and interest by pushing faces right into the screen dominating the entire frame while other people or the background appears tiny behind the giant face. On the other hand, start a voice speaking before the person enters the picture; and bring an actor from way back into the foreground while talking to someone who is already in the picture. I can’t possibly go in to all the options but I’m sure you get the idea. Variety with a purpose should by your focus.

Bringing In the Learner
While scenarios are interesting and often entertaining, they are not passive. The best results are obtained through interactive elements. Most often, this works by stopping the action until the learner causes it to start again that results from their completion of specific actions.

Here’s a sample of actions:

  1. Selecting a physical action for the virtual you; go to this office; enter the shipping center, load the truck, inspect the device and ensure it is functioning
  2. Choosing the appropriate phrase, selling point, technical language or procedure
  3. Answering direct questions; correcting an erroneous response
  4. Participating in a discussion and offering a suggestion that brings consensus
  5. Completing a form or using an application correctly
  6. Following the next step in process

Scenarios are essentially rehearsals for real events and offer the practice needed to begin forming good habits. It follows that if the responses are correct, the scenario can move ahead. If wrong, the scenario can branch into a remedial loop where the concept(s) are explained using other examples or rationale. NOTE: If there are multiple correct responses, a scenario can have branches that extend the scenario along different paths too, like a game model.

Finally, the scenario continues until the objectives have been met. Managers depend on the structure of the scenario to know competence has been achieved when either multiple correct responses during the scenario have been achieved, or there is a final, summative problem the learner correctly completes. It is imperative learners take away the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to be more effective in the workplace.

Too many volumes and guides teaching instructional design relegate scenarios to just another technique to be trotted out in a few circumstances. In actuality, the more dynamic and exciting the scenarios, and the more kinds offered, the more television-like the courseware becomes. And because this is two-way, participatory television it has all the components of good story telling with the participation of the learner as a primary actor. We know when learners interact in multiple ways their immediate understanding is high and the application of what was learned is used successfully on the job. That leads to performance improvement…and that is the ultimate goal of any learning system.

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6 thoughts on “Scenarios Are Mini Dramas…Not a Glorified Q and A.

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