10 ways to design challenging SCENARIOS
For many things in life we learn by doing, yet this is often missing in online and offline learning. Some even think is it not possible. It is of course possible, in many ways. The entire flight simulation market had been around for decades and clearly delivers high-end performance skills. Soft skills can be taught, and many other domains, even abstract knowledge, benefit from placing the learner in a real context and asking them to DO something, make decisions, choose a tool, ask a question, apply a formula. Learning through scenarios is a well-developed technique. Yet it is not easy to design.
1. Always consider scenarios
Note that scenarios are not just about soft skills. They can also be used in practical, vocational, even in the application of knowledge (let’s says language, science or maths skills). Scenario learning places the learner in a real-life situation and asks them to either successfully learn how to deal with that situation, apply previously learnt knowledge to that situation, even wake them up to the very real issue they may face. So consider scenarios for almost every course you design. It prepares learners well for the variety of thing that may be thrown at them, in either an exam, the workplace or in their own life. Scenario learning isn’t limited, so use your imagination to apply it to whatever you want to teach.
2. 80/20 rule
Where do you start? You may come up with dozens of scenarios that are relevant to your learning design. Don’t worry. Sit down, rank them in terms of importance and cream off the ones at the top. By ‘importance’, I mean importance to the organization or goal. It may be the top five things that are losing the business money in sales or the top five misconceptions students have in applying measurement in a vocational setting. It may be the top five problems they have in setting up an experiment. Whatever the problem, you can be sure that 80% of your problems can be solved by 20% of your planned scenarios.
How do you identify this 20%. Do some research. Ask the experts, especially your chosen subject matter experts. Do this through structured interviews, where they list, rank and select the best scenarios, against objectives. Your sales department may have the data. Let me give you a simple example in education – learning your times-tables. Most children have no problem with their 2 times table or ten times table. They have problems in the middle with their six, seven and eight times tables. So focus you scenario training on the dark red area. You get the idea,
3. Small is beautiful
Scenarios need not be huge, long-winded affairs, some simple soft skills, customer care, interviewing and other apply your knowledge skills can be taught using relatively short scenarios, that focus on one behavioural point. Chunking down performance into manageable scenarios, that teach one thing at a time, is often wise.
4. Keep it real
This does not necessarily mean blowing your budget on hyper-real graphics. It’s not the physical fidelity that matters most but the psychological fidelity of the design – the integrity of the design. The dialogue should sound real, the context seem real, the decision making real, the feedback real. This is about real decisions in the real world, not recalling theory. Feedback really matters here. In the real world, get things wrong and you learn by the consequences. Don’t be scared to present the real, even catastrophic, consequences of wrong decisions but don’t punish the learner. The joy of scenario training is to be able to do it again and again until you get it right. For my money this is exactly where gamification comes in – not the Pavlovian world of points & prizes but levels, try again until you succeed, design.
This is where you need to think hard about exactly what you want the learner to do. It’s easy to default back to knowledge-based questions than to stimulate interest, deep thought and reflection through action – this is where challenge matters. Not too difficult, not too hard. Part of the challenge issue is to surprise them. In real life surprises are those occasions where we need to solve a problem or deal with a tricky situation. Push the learner, don’t just go through the motions.
6. Use cuts
I’ve seen this often in simulations and scenarios, designers feel the need to do the whole thing, even take the learner to the other room by moving through a 3D environment, out of the door and along the corridor. Do what they do in the movies – CUT! You can move forward, even backward, in time through cuts.
7. Media mix
Tricky but essential. Start at the bottom of the ladder and work up. Media rich is not necessarily mind rich. There’s nothing wrong with simple photographs and text. You can do a lot in simple media and focus on the learning not the asset production. Note that I’m not a great fan of cartoons or stylized graphics at this level, as they often seem quite unreal, even condescending. The next rung is to consider audio. But beware, you have to get this right and it’s harder to record good audio than you think. It’s also harder to change and update. Want to use video? Fine but it will take longer than you think and without specialist skills, is likely to turn out like a bad episode of The Office. Seriously ask yourself ‘Why?’ if anyone suggests 3D environments and animation – it will eat your budget up faster than a sinkhole. Be adventurous by all means but make sure that your adventure is adequately funded and that you have the skills and timescale to make it real and maintain quality.
8. Use a simple tool
There are high-end tools for scenario planning and the great scripting v storyboarding debate. My own view is - use Word. We all know how to use it, as do subject matter experts, and you can include flowcharts using smartart within the word processed document. Sure, there’s flowchart software and other design tools out there, but I like to keep this simple. A useful technique is to use post-it notes on a board – makes the process visible when dealing with SMEs and colleagues.
Scenario learning is not easy to get right first time. Writing and designing scenarios is really the art of rewrites and redesigns. One easy way to move iteratively toward success is to act them out from paper. Literally read the options out to some real learners, branch by giving them another card and play out the scenarios. Get the learners to voice what they are thinking and record or take notes. Or, if you have the expertise and resources, do this online using a simple tool, where you can branch.
Now that they’ve been through your scenarios, you are faced with that age old problem – the transfer of what they have learned to the real world. I like scenario learning that gives advice on how to take what you’ve learned with you, either recommendations for application and practice but certainly not taking and reflection/
Scenario learning lifts online learning out of the predictable knowledge paradigm, challenges learners, makes them think and allows them to apply what they’ve learned. Writing scenarios raises your game as a learning designer. So here’s a scenario – look at that course and try a thought experiment – can I insert a few scenarios?