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"scenarios" Posts

Reflections From DevLearn: Storytelling, Gamification, & Problem-Based Learning

Ken Hubbell’s session on storytelling, gamification, and problem-based learning started with several questions: What’s problem-based learning? What’s in it for the learner? Why is storytelling important?

On Problem-Based Learning…

Problem-based learning is a great framework for helping people learn to work together in teams or work with integrated parts. It’s a concept that’s been around a long time, involving:

  • A need to know
  • A driving question
  • Learner voice/choice
  • Inquiry and innovation
  • Feedback and revisions
  • Publicly presented products

In problem-based learning, the only thing you might achieve is what not to do. Sometimes the answer to a problem-based challenge is simply “I have no idea.” Failure might inform your next set of decisions.

On Gamification and Scenario-Based Learning…

Gamification means integrating gaming dynamics into your site or business in order to drive participation. For those who aren’t very familiar with the dynamics of gaming, Ken drew some connections to learning and training:

  • Goals and incentives = levels and points
  • Projects and tasks = missions or quests
  • Managers, team leads, or SMEs = experience facilitators

On Gamification at Work…

Just like problem-based learning, gamification has been around a long time.  “Just ask the Girl Scouts,” he says. Where gamification is paving new ground is as an integral part of business and learning. It’s been historically underused by businesses. “Hire a gamer and he can teach other people. They like to share,” Ken suggests.

How many of us have thought about including points and levels to entice people to participate in work-related challenges? How many of us actually earn points for roleplaying with colleagues to accomplish something at work together? These are classic ways of driving team-based participation.

On Gamification and the Classroom…

Ken showed us a fantastic example of how gamification is used in an elementary school classroom by teacher John Hunter. The game is called World Peace, a four-foot square game board with four levels and hundreds of game pieces. Players work together through the “lens of the economic, social, and environmental crises and the imminent threat of war,” with the goal of eliminating dangerous situations for each country and achieving global prosperity using as little military intervention as possible. (Check out the film trailer here.)

On the Connection Between Story and Instruction…

According to BF Skinner, many instructional arrangements seem contrived. You can adapt story-based learning and replay it in various contexts. The story is a snapshot. A narrative continuously grows and can be dynamic.

What changes a story into drama? Plot, character, thought, diction, music, and spectacle. People think of stories as having a beginning, middle, and an end. The end is a way to let people calm down. Many companies stay in the middle, Ken says, and people burn out as a result.

The main difference between books and problem-based learning simulations: The character can change her mind in a simulation. It begins when something happens, and it may not end at a specific time. Players don’t have to agree on the story as long as they agree on the journey or problem they’re solving. If you play with someone else, you can together solve difficult problems. Only when you fail enough can you figure out the mechanism to succeed.

On the Role of the Experience Facilitator…

In the experiential learning model, understanding the decision-making process of each individual is just as important as the decisions themselves. The role of the “Experience Facilitator” is to:

  • Lead/guide/referee.
  • Recount the entire adventure through storytelling.
  • Cultivate the best user experience by making sure the quietest person in the room participates just as much as the ones who are most vocal.
  • Make all equal participants in the story.

On Additional Reading and Inspiration…

Ken recommended a great site for free roleplaying resources. He also suggested further research by reading work by “the king of narrative-centered learning,” Dr. James Lester, a professor at NC State University.

Real-Life Branching: Navigating a Corn Ma(i)ze

Combining play with learning is something educators agree is important in childhood. Play also helps adults with learning, stress relief, and creative thinking.

We intentionally build in time for play at IdeaLearning Group. We play games, brainstorm together, and we also openly share ideas—no matter how wacky they seem at first—to discover creative, effective solutions for our clients.

In eLearning, “branching scenarios” let learners make choices, experience consequences, and ultimately get different results based on the choices they make. They’re sometimes compared to the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that many of us loved as kids. On a recent Team Day outing, we branched out in a corn maze at Sauvie Island.

The maze is very elaborate with a theme that changes every year. It includes a series of signs, numbered 1 through 10. At each juncture you have to decide whether to turn left or right. Obviously one wrong turn can result in fruitless frustration.

Before entering the maze, we stopped by the trivia station where we could choose from a dozen or so trivia cards, each with 10 questions. Every question aligns with a numbered station. Our team selected cards with four different themes: Halloween; the history of Portland; “Portlandia” the TV show; and stars/outer space. Our strategy was to cross-reference our answers at each station to ensure we were choosing the right direction.

Our real-life branching exercise emphasized many strategies that we intentionally include in our branching elearning scenarios:

Clearly articulate the goal.

Make sure the ultimate goal is something the learner wants, needs, and understands. Is it a hero adventure? What’s the reward at the end? Will the purpose of the journey be worth it all? At the corn maze, our goal was to make it out alive in a timely manner before the rain started so we could select our pumpkins afterwards.

Provide some indication of what they can expect.

Like in real life, people have roles when they’re engaged in any activity. We all have our unique approaches and strengths. Some people like to jump right in. But others want a general lay of the land first. Giving a time range is a good start, so that people know what’s expected from their commitment.

At one point Shannon exclaimed aloud, “This could take all afternoon!” before asking an attendant how long it would take. She was comforted to find out that 45 minutes was the norm. Determined to discover what was up next before arriving there, Jennie secretly read ahead on her trivia card. Amir, our visual expert, candidly snapped photos as we walked.

Build in prompts that help people make informed choices along the way.

The trick is to make the journey challenging but not overly frustrating. In elearning, the course navigation helps you get your bearings if you find yourself lost in the weeds. It’s important to make sure learners have helpful tools to use. (But we agreed not to rely on our iPhones, as tempting as it was.)

We could have gone into the maze without any prompts, but it would have taken all afternoon and resulted in a tantrum or two. (Shannon also thinks emergency exits would have been a nice addition.) The trivia cards helped keep us on track. And we learned lots of fun, interesting facts along the way. Did you know that the Portlandia statue is attached to a building in downtown Portland that’s considered “one of the most hated buildings in America”?

Other clever prompts built into the corn maze were illustrated riddle signs—like a  painting of a pig tied up to indicate “hog tied”—and music playing from atop a small bridge that you could climb for a somewhat aerial view.

Build in ways to recover if you make a mistake.

An effective branching activity lets you make mistakes, learn from them, and recover enough to get yourself back on track. Obviously a dead end in a corn maze is a good indication that you’ve made a wrong decision. At one point when we were off track, Shannon and Emily cleverly situated random corn husks and bark chips as Hansel-and-Gretel-style breadcrumbs to help us break out of the cycle. (It’s a good thing, too, because Jillian was starting to lose her cool when it was clear that we were going in circles.)

At the end of the maze, we realized that printed in teeny tiny letters at the bottom of each trivia card, upside down, were all the answers to the questions. It’s funny how none of us realized this until the very end. The opportunity to cheat was there all along, but we were either blind to it or just too focused on the journey itself.

How does your organization value “play”? Tell us your stories below.

The Vital Role of Scenarios in Learning

In the world of website development, they say content is king. In the world of training/education, you can provide truckloads of content, but it’s really context that rules.

Why Include Scenarios?

The most effective way to create context in an online course is with an immersive challenge, right at the beginning. Throw the learner right into the action! Don’t make her read a slideshow of linear screens in a prescribed order. (There’s no quicker way to extinguish the yearn-to-learn spirit than with boring content.) You have the learner’s attention right at the start. Don’t take that for granted.

In the most basic sense, a scenario is a story, usually involving characters who go through some sort of metamorphosis. We are all programmed to learn through stories. As Marsha Rossiter observes in her article “Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning,” “Stories enable us to engage with new knowledge, broader perspectives, and expanded possibilities because we encounter them in the familiar territory of human experience.” A scenario can be a paragraph, or it can be a whole world with 3D images and interactivity along with a plot, action, and complex characters.

scenarioblographic1b ILG

Structuring an Interactive Scenario

Scenarios in online courses usually have the following components:

  • Relevant storyline
  • Description or demonstration of the situation along with a role for the learner to play
  • Hook into the action
  • Opportunity to interact by answering questions, choosing a direction, or explore a landscape
  • Opportunity to make mistakes and even correct them in a “safe” (i.e., fictitious) environment

When preparing to write scenarios, one question I ask SMEs is, “How will this information help the learner on the job?” The answer can help form the arch of the story for the course. Cammy Bean offers a great list of additional questions to ask SMEs in her article, “Use Scenarios to Keep e-Learning Real.”

Scenarios don’t have to be complex to be effective. Take a look at this arresting example of a scenario involving a life-or-death situation. You don’t see a list of learning objectives here, followed by pages of narrated “how-to” content. Instead, you are on the scene right away as a character in the story. The decisions you make help the narrative unfold. After going through the scenario, you have the option to review additional information to reinforce what you’ve learned through your experience in the course.

When planning the structure, it’s helpful to create a flow chart for the scenario before writing the dialogue and interactive elements. Flow charts are great tools that writers can share with programmers and designers. They’re also very useful when communicating about the scenario with clients. Here’s an example of a fairly simple scenario flow:

If learners need practice thinking through complex decisions and recognizing consequences, check out Tom Kuhlmann’s “3 Cs” model: Challenge the learner by exposing him to a situation; provide choices to work through the challenge; and present realistic consequences with feedback to round out the learning experience.

Creating Characters that Matter

Characters can help bring an interactive scenario to life. Here are a few guidelines for creating good characters:

• Avoid “character clutter.” There’s no need to overpopulate the scenario. Even with a healthy budget and access to a high-quality sound studio, make sure every character has a clear role.

• Characters can be indirect participants. If the audience for the course includes people in leadership or mentoring roles, consider inviting the learner to help a character instead of taking on a direct character role. For example, the instructions might be, “In this activity, your job is to help the manager effectively interview a candidate. Listen to each conversation exchange, and then suggest ways that the manager can respond.”

• If the learner is a visible character in the scenario, provide different options for appearance. When I play a board game, I need to be the yellow token (or in Monopoly, the thimble) or I just don’t feel like “myself.” Remember that the idea is to make the characters and the story as relevant to the learner as possible. If the learner is expected to take on the role of a visible character in the course, don’t assume the learner wants to be the man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Provide other options. They don’t have to be fancy.

There’s a lot of inspired thinking out there on this topic. Check out the articles on that I’ve been curating on scenarios and learning.

Interactive eLearning


ValueOptions is the nation’s largest independent behavioral health care and wellness company, specializing in management for behavioral health, mental health, and chemical dependency. ValueOptions is committed to providing innovative and flexible services that improve health and healthy behaviors with clinically appropriate and cost-effective solutions.

ValueOptions engaged with IdeaLearning Group to develop an interactive and engaging eLearning experience focusing on cultural competency for clients, customers, employees, and family members. ValueOptions had some existing static content related to cultural competency on the company’s mental health and wellness website, Achieve Solutions, but the project owners felt the topic would be better served and understood by implementing an interactive tool that prompts learners to explore the full-scale complexities of cultural competency.

IdeaLearning Group’s online course includes a series of thought-provoking scenarios designed to grab the learners’ attention and prompt them to evaluate their own perceptions on various situations related to cultural competency. In the interactive eLearning scenarios, the individual observes a situation, selects a behavior, receives feedback on the behavior, and reflects on how the behavioral response could be interpreted by others. By completing the course and interacting with a diverse set of scenarios, the learner discovers that cultural competency is a complex concept involving ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, healthcare concerns, age, and sexual orientation—and ways in which those perceptions and behaviors affect others.

The Cultural Competency eLearning course is publically available on Achieve Solutions, which is a value-added resource accessible by approximately 25 million members. The most recent quarterly report indicates it is one of the top-accessed pieces of content. The ValueOptions Colorado leadership team requires all their employees to complete this course.

When asked about the process of working with IdeaLearning Group, the ValueOptions project sponsor commented about how easy the process was:

“We have worked with other consulting companies, but we had to do most of the writing internally. We wanted someone who could do scripting as well as the development. With IdeaLearning Group all we had to do was attend a few meetings and review drafted materials. We got all the credit, and IdeaLearning Group did all the hard work.”

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