Why scenarios are the future of e-learning

I hate to say it, after so many years of trying to reverse the trend, but it seems that far too many people (finance directors excepted) really dislike e-learning. First let me be clear, I am using a narrow definition of e-learning here. I’m referring to those interactive self-study materials which employees sit and complete on their own (if they can’t get someone else to do it for them). I’m not referring to virtual classrooms, online content such as web articles and videos, or any form of social media. Just those things that we used to call CBT – computer-based training – and which we’ve been trying to get right since about 1975.

People don’t dislike all e-learning. What annoys them is instructional e-learning, particularly that sort that aims to provide knowledge, normally in the form of a tutorial. Tutorials could and should be fun – interactive, challenging, engaging, thought-provoking – but I’m close to giving up on us realising those aims, at least on a routine basis. Particularly galling is that the standard is actually dropping as we increasingly force learners to wade through endless slides full of irrelevant abstractions and patronising interactions.

Instructional e-learning is not a great way to convey information. We have much simpler media at our disposal which just about everyone on the planet uses day-to-day without difficulty and without coercion – web pages (or PDFs if you like them pretty and printable) and videos. Given the fuss currently about HTML 5 and mobile learning, we can sometimes forget that these media already work just fine on any device going. Instructional e-learning tries to provide knowledge in one hit and this is rarely going to be a successful strategy. What most people need is information you can go back to when you need it – and no-one does that with e-learning.
If you in any way make your living from e-learning, then this may sound like a bleak situation, but there is hope. My experience over the past three years of awards judging has demonstrated to me that for everyone who hates instructional e-learning there is someone who loves doing scenarios.
Scenarios can be used in an instructional context, as a form of practice, but they are most productively used as a form of guided discovery. The learner is placed into a situation in which they have to make decisions. The scenario progresses on the basis of these decisions, for better or for worse. With any luck (and careful design) this process will provide the learner with insights which they can take forward and test in the real world. If they are realistic and challenging, they will emotionally engage the learner and increase the chances of lasting learning. This is laboratory learning in a safe environment – not as powerful as real-life decision making but a whole lot safer.
At their simplest, scenarios are just case studies with questions on which the learner can reflect. At their most sophisticated, they can be thought of as simulations. Whatever the terminology, they represent a useful resource in a whole range of situations, particularly in the context of a blend. Scenarios are the future of e-learning.
Guided discovery is a great strategy for selling the big ideas and influencing attitudes, but when you’re tasked with building knowledge or increasing skills then instruction can still be the best approach. So has e-learning got any role to play in the future of instruction? I think so, but not as the provider of information – as I’ve said before, there are much simpler content formats that do the job better. What e-learning can do is provide the means for practice – for drilling must-know information and for rehearsing skills (think language learning, solving quadratic equations, learning to type). Just don’t use it as a form of information dump. We’ve been trying it for 30 years and – as any learner will tell you – it simply doesn’t work.

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