Using eLearning Scenarios as Bookends

several books held up by "A" and "Z" bookends
This post explains how to use scenarios as bookends at the beginning and end of a traditional eLearning lesson to provide context.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Introduction

Recently, I replied to someone’s question on Twitter with a short list of some of the ways I’ve used characters in eLearning. For this week’s post, I want to expand on one of them. It’s a technique I haven’t seen anyone else talking about: using scenarios as “bookends.”

As you know, bookends are placed before and after a row of books on a shelf to support them. When I use scenarios as bookends, I place them at the beginning and end of a traditional eLearning lesson to provide context—or support—for the information. In this post, I’ll walk you through a couple of examples of when I’ve used this technique and why. Unfortunately, I can’t share files from the actual courses because I created them when I was working for other companies. But I’m working on a short demo for next week’s post so you can see the technique in action.

I have to give a shout out to my friend, long-time coworker, and brilliant brainstorming buddy, Monique Horvath, for her part in the original idea. Monique, you make me a better instructional designer, and I love you for that and so many more reasons.

Example 1: Changing Behavior Through True Stories with Emotional Impact

Years ago, I created a course for emergency managers about planning for the needs of children in disasters. The problem the client was trying to solve was that many communities were not including children’s unique needs in their emergency plans.

The reason for this gap was two-fold:

  • Emergency management professionals have a great deal on their plates—often serving in the role as a volunteer in addition to their full-time job.
  • Planning specifically for children’s needs was not mandated by law. So, it hadn’t risen to the top of many emergency managers’ already-overflowing list of priorities.

Monique and I met to brainstorm how to approach the course design. Knowing we couldn’t lighten emergency managers’ loads, we considered what we could do in the design to help move this task to the front burner.

The answer we came up with was stories. We needed to tug at our learners’ heartstrings with true stories of children affected by disasters.

Each lesson in the course followed this structure:

  1. Introduction: Part 1 of a story about a child affected by disaster, stopping on a cliffhanger
  2. Reflection: Open-ended question, such as asking the learner how they currently address the situation highlighted in the story
  3. Instruction: Traditional eLearning presentation, with additional case studies, checklists, and other resources to provide essential preparedness tools
  4. Conclusion: Part 2 of the story showing the successful resolution
  5. Reflection: Another open-ended question, such as asking what the learner will do differently to better address the situation highlighted in the story

Every story left the learner feeling good about their role and emphasized the importance of effective planning to address children’s needs.

I wish I had quantitative data about the course’s impact on emergency planning. But it received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Many emergency managers shared anecdotes about improvements they made in their planning after taking it. It also won some industry awards.

Example 2: Providing a Framework Through Relatable Situations

I used a similar technique a few years back when developing an eLearning course for new fire chiefs. In this case, the target audience was hungry for the information the course would provide but needed help understanding how to apply it in their day-to-day job duties.

Rather than using true stories, I developed fictitious scenarios focused on a new fire chief, “Hal.” Each lesson began with a video called “Checking In with the Chief,” which highlighted a challenge Hal was facing related to the topic of the lesson.

After the first part of the scenario, the remainder of the lesson presented information, tools, resources, and case studies to help the new chief with a particular aspect of the job. It also included audio interactions called “A Word from the Chief” that provided real-world advice from an experienced fire chief. Finally, the lesson concluded with the ending of the story, showing how Chief Hal successfully addressed the challenge he was facing (using the techniques taught in the lesson).

I developed the scenario videos in Camtasia with still photos, using a Ken Burns panning and zooming effect to create motion. For this project, I had the great fortune to be connected with a volunteer fire chief who agreed to model for some photos at his fire station to help me tell the stories. You could also use Storyline or eLearningArt characters.

You might be wondering why I didn’t use scenarios throughout the course, instead of only at the beginning and end of each lesson. In addition to some budget constraints, the course included some procedural content that I didn’t feel was well-suited for teaching solely through scenarios. The bookending technique combined the benefits of scenario-based learning with the ease and flexibility of traditional eLearning.

Summary

Stories are probably the most effective tool we have in our training toolbox.

I find that using stories to bookend a lesson helps to put the information in context, drive home its importance, and make a lasting impression on the learner. Catch me again next week when I’ll share an eLearning sample using the “bookend” technique.

What are some interesting ways you have used stories in your courses? Let me know in the comments.

If you’d like to learn more about using scenarios for learning, there’s no better place than Christy Tucker’s blog. And be sure to check out my other posts about stories and scenario-based learning:

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