How to write a branching elearning scenario – 1

So you’ve decided on a scenario as the best elearning experience you can offer this group of learners for this task. How do you go about planning the scenario?

Vintage photo of detective receiving instructions in a 1950s office.
They’re lost in a branching scenario. I need you to bring them out alive.

Designing Predicaments has its focus on the story element, not on branching stories and complexity. Follow it and you’ll have what Cathy Moore calls a mini-scenario, one decision. But what if you want to extend to multiple decisions and story paths?

The aim here is to cover all the learning points without getting lost in complexity. The learning points will be based on the errors people make in the workplace – decisions made with the best intentions that have less than the best consequences. You want to make the story complex enough to be believable, engaging and immersive, without getting mired in complexity. If the learner can’t see where this is leading or keeps going down dead-end alleys she’ll lose patience and give up; if the designer or developer is faced with a design that has a million paths all interconnected they not only lose sight of the aim, but also need more time to develop and test.

Two approaches to planning a scenario

There are two approaches you can adopt, which both get to the same place – but their initial output is different. You may find one or other suits your temperament or the working practices in your team. And as we’ll see at the end they’re not mutually exclusive.  In the first you focus on producing a working prototype and let the story grow organically until you have one. In the second, you map out the scenario as a flowchart without detail, but with a clear view of the structure. I’ll write about the first today and the second in a later post.

Method 1 – organic or ‘bottom up’

Here you start in a prototyping tool and build the working scenario as you go along. The tools I’ve used in this way are Quandary (I’ve written about this here) and Twine, which are both free. Or you could use an elearning tool like Storyline or Branchtrack  but if you do,  only put in the bare text, no graphics or design.

If you’re not the subject expert (SME), then this method needs you to work closely with the SME. The advantage is that it will engage the SME in the creative process, and let them feel an involvement and ownership in the final product that they may not get if they’re just asked to approve material you’ve written.

1. State the objectives

To start with you’ll need a statement of the learning objectives visible in the room somewhere. For a scenario we phrase them as

– Given [situation] the learner will decide to [best decision] because [principle behind best decision] with the result that [consequences of best decision]

You’ll probably have a few of these, and will be able to place them in the sequence in which they’re most likely to occur in the story.

2. Write the starting situation

Outline the starting situation, the characters and any tension ideas to introduce drama (see Designing Predicaments for suggestions).

3. Write the first ‘good’ choice and its consequence

Put down the best decision, then outline where that takes you – a link to the next situation.

4. Repeat as needed until you reach the best outcome for the story

For that situation, put down the best decision and where that takes you. Keep referring to the objectives to make sure you cover what you intended to cover. Where you stop depends on you, and the complexity of the story. It could be five ‘decision stops’ or ten.

If you use Quandary or Twine you’ll now have a working prototype with one choice in each situation. And if you write it well you’ll have a story with a happy ending.

5. Add the ‘less good’ choices and consequences

Now go back to decision 1 and add another choice, the most common error. Link that to the situation it’ll lead to – what happens if you do this? Then decide what happens from there. You’ll have to choose between these tactics:

  1. The Voice of God intervenes and says ‘OK you see what happens, why not try again?’ and skip back to the previous decision
  2. You offer a way to retrieve the situation, which will probably be a variation on the ‘good’ choice
  3. You take it further into another decision that branches away from the main story

What you decide will depend on the importance of the decision, how salvageable the situation is and your own appetite for complexity.

You will probably want to repeat this for another choice in situation 1, so you have at least three choices. You don’t always need three or four, and don’t add unrealistic choices just to fill a multiple choice template. If there are only two choices in real life, then that’s what you need.

Quandary and Twine screenshots (click for full size)

Quandary screenshot
Quandary prototype authoring screenshot
Quandary student view
Quandary student view
Twine screenshot
Twine prototype authoring screenshot
Twine student view
Twine student view

Living the story

The secret of this approach is that you and your SME are immediately living the story. ‘If she does this, can she put it right?’ ‘If the customer reacts this way, that would lead you to ask them some more questions…’ ‘I’ve seen this happen so many times, here’s what you do …’. You’re more likely to get an engaging, realistic scenario.

A working prototype

The main advantage of doing it this way is that you quickly get a working prototype, a minimum viable product. Without graphics or media, it’s quick and easy for you to present to sponsors and try out with learners. Both Quandary and Twine output a simple HTML working scenario with a tiny file size.

The risk – mission creep

The risk of this approach is that you’re being led by the story and, as you enthusiastically add screens, the complexity can build up faster than you realise. The story can run away with you, and you may end up forgetting some of the learning objectives. Twine gives you a visual overview of the complexity, but Quandary doesn’t.

In the next post I’ll look at the opposite approach – the top down plan.

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