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Branching scenarios: Getting to e-learning’s El Dorado

For many instructional designers, creating engaging courses for employees and making them retain the new knowledge and apply it in real business situations — thus contributing to their company's success — seems like going after El Dorado. It's a complex and challenging task and it's not guaranteed they'll reach it. But the gold city of El Dorado is only a myth, while the usefulness and effectiveness of online training have been proved countless times, with strong figures and outcomes.

The frustrating truth is that there is no one best way to reach e-learning's El Dorado. But there are definitely ways to do it. The key here is to choose the method that best suits the organization's needs.

Making the right choice: branching scenarios vs. mini scenarios

Including scenarios in your e-learning materials could be your recipe for success. Branching scenarios immerse your learners into the learning solution, making them experience real world challenges and deal with real life consequences of their choices, all without real life risks.

Before you make haste and check your LMS for every button that can assist you in designing your branching scenario, take a moment to consider:

Is a branching scenario the perfect solution for you?

Perhaps mini-scenarios could do the trick. These are usually best suited for straightforward learning situations, where one decision solves a certain issue. For an example of a mini-scenario, check out this blog post: Scenario-based learning: How it works.

Branching scenarios — a form of storytelling

Once you are certain that your scenario must go deeper into a rather complex learning situation, you have to put your novelist/writer hat on top of the instructional designer one. You need to (1) create your characters, (2) develop a plot, (3) come up with a story line, and (4) guide the learner to the desired denouement — the learning objective.

(1) Each learner will be the main character of your story, so a great part of the scenario's success is based on the strength of the character. Get to really know your audience and avoid common pitfalls when creating the characters, such as:

  • don't use teenagers in a scenario targeted at older professionals
  • don't use characters dressed in jeans and a t-shirt in a scenario targeted at the top management of a company
  • pay attention to the voice over artists (if video or audio is included) and avoid funny accents or voice inflections that might steal the show and cause learners to lose focus over the content.

(2) Shortly introduce each character and define their role in the story: What's their main challenge? This will make it clear to the learner which goal to follow.

(3) Then, identify the main issues that need to be covered and create a story line. At each point you should provide two to four options for learners to choose from and then create logical following scenes for each option (that's why you won't want more than four).

Decisions that they make at early scenes will influence how the story unfolds. Make more than one possible trail to the desired outcome and intertwine them in certain points. This way, you give learners the chance to recover from an early mistake or bad decision and continue their quest after the main goal.

(4) A bad decision followed by another bad decision, followed by another one will lead to failure.

A mixture of good and bad decisions can also lead to a poor outcome, but also gives the learner the possibility to get back on track and reach a good or acceptable outcome.

The good outcome shouldn't be too easy to get to, as users might consider everything to have a low learning value and be a waste of time. The secret is to find the right balance between tough choices and easy ones.

Are you craving for an example at this point? Well, the best one I've found online was Cathy Moore's "Connect with Haji Kamal". Go give it a spin! It has all the storytelling and challenge-choices-consequences ingredients in perfect balance :)

Why bother with branching scenarios in the first place?

Does all of the above seem complicated and difficult to achieve? This is because it probably is.

Creating branching scenarios is not something like shelling peas, but this doesn't have to be a deterrent from designing them. If you do your homework properly, get to really know your audience, maybe get an experienced professional to lend you a hand, and make a strong plan before adding the very first button to your learning scenario, you might be on the right route to e-learning's El Dorado.

Branching scenarios transform the learners from passive observers into active and involved participants. The unfolding of the narrative creates a memorable experience, thus helping them better retain the information. The consequences of their choices, especially the ones that led to failure, will stick to their minds and will determine them to make the right decisions when real life situations demand them.


Have something to share about branching scenarios? Did you create one (or more)? How was your experience? Let's chat about it in the comments section below!