How to design an eLearning scenario

scenario planner 02

Learning something new means doing a task or activity in a different way. It means making decisions in a different way. It’s not just knowing some facts. I’m sure for most of us there are things we ‘know’ but don’t actually put into action.

One of the challenges of eLearning is that most of our time online is spent reading and engaging with information, gaining knowledge that doesn’t always transfer into skills and action. Then when you sit down in front of a piece of eLearning software it feels like all you can do is present information. The key to building great eLearning is using the basic tools of multiple choice quizzes to build a powerful interactive experience. A multiple choice doesn’t have to be about remembering a fact, it can be used to simulate the choices in solving an authentic workplace problem.

eLearning designers and developers talk about scenarios as a solution to the problem of courses offering only information.


What is an eLearning scenario?

It is a story-based interaction (or series of interactions) that place the learner in a fictional situation where they have to make the same types of decisions they would in the workplace. A branching scenario is a bit more complex. These are like a choose-your-own-adventure book. A learner makes a choice and then they see how their decision changes the story. This guide focuses on an approach that could be used for linear and branching scenarios.  


The challenge of elearning scenarios

Subject matter experts often struggle with providing the content for scenarios. Why can building scenarios be difficult for some? Experts commonly develop sophisticated frameworks based on abstract models, but the problem is that scenarios are not abstract – they are based on authentic workplace problems. What (hopefully) happens during a scenario is that the learner is given an opportunity to practise and explore authentic workplace problems and build their own understanding of the model.


The process of designing eLearning scenarios

Digital learning projects typically start with a subject matter expert wanting to put pages or screens of ‘content’ online. Then, if an effective learning experience is to be built, this content needs to be reworked into scenarios. Two key questions to address are:

  1. What do people need to do?
  2. What are some real or fictional stories that could be used in the program?

Instead of a subject matter experts working on knowledge focused content before they start working an instructional designer, their time be better spent writing stories that could be used in program.


A planning tool for eLearning scenarios

At Sprout Labs we have been working on developing some planning tools to help our team design eLearning scenarios. This is also so the instructional designers and visual designers are working with a shared language around eLearning scenario design. For me, scenario design is a two-step process: one is the design of the overall approach and the other is the design of questions or branches. Most people want to dive into the design of the questions but what they really need to do is first pause and think about the approach and context. Often the context only needs to be thought about once, and decisions made about whether, for example, to use a metaphor or a map on which the learning experience might be based.


What eLearning can learn from stories in game design

Computer games are among the most sophisticated interactive experiences that exist at the moment. Gamification (score, levels and leaderboards) has already been extensively applied in eLearning, but there is a lot more that we can learn from stories in game design. A big reason people can play games for weeks on end is the ‘storyworld’ they offer.


A framework for designing stories in games



What design decisions does this lead to?

Where is the game located?

Many computer games are virtual places. The narrative comes from navigating and moving around in space, and scoring points to unlock the next level and reveal more of the story.

In learning design, thinking about what the learner’s workplace looks like can trigger ideas about the interface that go beyond merely being slides of information. The interface can become a ‘world’ the learner navigates through. It might be a map of the office or another familiar space.

Who will be part of the game?

The characters in the game should reflect the make-up of the workplace. Who are the main characters, minor characters, and what is their relationship?

Using realistic characters engaged in typical workplace activities can help to bolster your eLearning story, and this should be reflected in the design.

What rules control the game?

Games are complex interactive worlds driven by a series of rules, e.g scoring and player health systems.

Most digital learning programs are not so complex that they need to be based on rules. In the framework below, rules have been replaced with decisions.


Clint Smith, one of our instructional designers, recently expanded these questions into a full eLearning scenario planning tool. The answers to the questions guide the instructional designer in the choice of graphics, expressions and text.


Part 1 – Establish an authentic work context – where and who

When designing a scenario, generally you only need to think about this once.


Context analysis questions

How your answer can affect the eLearning scenario

Where is the scenario located?

And when is it happening? 

What time of day is it, what is the time of year?

Your answer to this informs the visual design of your scenario, e.g. backgrounds and other illustrations. Just like in games, the scenario’s location might lead to navigation elements such as maps.

Who is involved?

What are they feeling?

What is the relationship between the people involved?

This helps us to develop the characters you’ll use in your scenario. Scenarios are more engaging if they are emotive and have some conflict. As you think about how your characters feel and what the relationships between them are, decisions about possible points of conflict can be made, which helps to construct the learning points. 


Part 2 – Prompt the decision

When your designing a scenario a elearning scenario you might need to do this process multiple times.


Performance analysis questions

How your answer can affect the eLearning scenario

What is happening? This is the core of your scenario. Your answers will help you design your multiple choice questions or the prompt in your branching scenario. You usually need to provide a bit of context or a background story to help the learner make their choice.

Another way to think about this is as the ‘spark’ for the options.

What are the action options? These become your multiple choice options or choices in a branching scenario.
What is the preferred option? This leads to the decision about which choice is correct.
Why is it preferred? Feedback is an important part of learning. As well as saying ‘yes, that is correct’, a brief discussion on why the choice is correct increases learning retention.

Feedback can be a useful medium for adding extra teaching points.

What are the consequences of each action? Action leads to feedback on the choice made. Often, the consequences of making a bad decision will be the same for every choice – it’s OK to repeat the feedback. The learner will only see the feedback for the choices they make.

With branching scenarios, the consequences lead to the next choice.

What are the barriers to correct performance? Your answers to this question can trigger different thinking about what the options might be or what needs to be included in the content that supports the scenarios (we plan to explore this more in another blog post).

It’s also a powerful question that focuses the choices on what the real challenges in the workplace are.


We are currently working on a visual planning tool for designing eLearning scenarios. Sign up to our newsletter to be notified when it’s ready.