The concept of eLearning Branching Scenarios and the more general idea of interactive learning are hot topics at the moment. Interactivity engages and challenges the learner, and branching is important, but a confusing term for many because:
a) it can mean a lot of different things
b) those things might not be all that clear to those not ‘in the know’.
For anyone interested in this kind of dynamic elearning, it is certainly well worth looking into.
When people talk about branching in elearning, this often means exercises in which the material can be completed in a variety of ways. Simple branching in an exercise might meant that several subsections can be undertaken in any order the user wishes. But this is more a question of order rather than a true branching scenario.
True branching you might say is where decisions are made throughout an exercise, which dictate what the user sees and interacts with. So one person completing an exercise may likely have a different experience to the other.
A good analogy for this sort of branching is one of those books Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks that were very popular in the 80s, where you make decisions (often yes/no) and then are instructed to turn to a page to continue keep reading – so the story can vary based on what you think and decide.
So you can see how branching can apply to story / scenario based elearning. And there is a problem. Anyone who has picked up one of those books will remember they are quite large, yet the actual story you get to read can be quite short!
Because the decisions dictate a doubling or more of the required content every time a decision is required, a few decisions need a whole load of content. And it’s quite often disappointing the small number of decisions you actually make in a gamebook relative to its weight!
The Scenario Approach
If we start to talk now about actual elearning exercises – the approach above to a topic could be expensive and risk people not seeing content they need to see. And a lot of the permutations might be rather ridiculous. So often a scenario approach is used.
So where we have a crucial story to involve the user in, we map out the key pathways into scenarios and present them as individual exercises.
This can be a useful approach because similar parts between the different scenarios can (if the platform allows it) be actually shared (a process we call ‘chunking’). This reduces build costs and maintenance overhead for the elearning. This might not appear on the surface a very sexy advantage for this approach, but it can save a lot of resource.
But this approach is not real branching, it’s just a nod to it. Real elearning branching scenarios would mean exercises which take completely different paths based on user interactions in real time, with potentially a lot of decision points.
This can give a highly realistic environment in simulations and virtual learning environments. But how can this be done without the build costs escalating to unrealistic levels?
From now on I will consider the situation for system simulation based elearning.
An environment that enables branching in elearning simulation exercises is the sand-box. This is where a copy of the actual system(s) are present in the elearning package allowing people to use the ‘real thing’.
The problems of this free play approach are now the opposite of more traditional linear approaches – we now need a leash on the user. How do we control them to learn the best practices, and how do we ‘set’ the system to situations which we want for the elearning experience?
The problems here are cost (there is no SCORM-like standard for sandboxes, a lot of programming will be needed for each and every system) and cost again (you will probably need a sandbox and hence a license for every user).
In practice, we have never really taken this approach seriously, and the only people who can efficiently produce them are the system software vendors themselves. They could, but they generally provide test systems – which are offered up as a training solution. As most people will tell you who have tried to train with a test system, it doesn’t work as it lacks control (which is vital). What is needed is the ability to create scenarios for the test system which could be rolled out and tracked just like any other elearning. It’s 2018 and we are still waiting to see anything like this!
So the sandbox approach to achieving branching in eLearning appears to be overkill. What other approaches could you take?
We have often bumped up against this conflict of requirements alluded to above. Trainers want the tight control you get in standard elearning exercises AND the ability to ‘freeplay’ – ie branch.
When the requirements are talked about more in depth the contradiction here is often, however, lessened.
Trainers generally want less restrictions based on the experience level of the user, so as not to frustrate them with minutiae if they are for example system savvy people (even if they don’t know the systems they are being trained around). They more often than not still want control over the big branches.
Branching within a Simulation
An intelligent way forward could be to use the scenario approach detailed above, and to accommodate branching for simpler steps within a simulation.
For example, most systems require a degree of data entry, and sometimes the order of entry isn’t relevant and the order the information is received (for example from a customer) doesn’t reflect the order on the screen. In these situations we could allow the trainee to input the data in an order that made sense to them. We also might want the ability to turn this option on or off depending on the audience, trainer, material sensitivity etc, which will all vary.
This sort of branching ability addresses a lot of trainer concerns. It keeps control, increases the content flexibility and adds realism for what is very little extra build cost – and this is the key point.
We need to be coming up with ways to enrich the user experience that are commercially practical. A pragmatic approach to branching based around scenarios that share content, and flexibility to branch at the micro level is, we think, affordable and a step in the right direction.