January 8, 2018

Story-Based or Scenario-Driven?

Having a shared terminology is important as we use words to describe our reality, communicate ideas and achieve understanding. However, since many people step into the field of Learning and Development by following very different paths, not everyone in this sector uses a stable common language. Even the word "e-learning" can conjure up different images in the minds of different audiences. Add to this the need to communicate with non-L&D stakeholders who aren't highly interested in the semantics and the constant noise produced by marketing-oriented publications touting "story-driven action-packed gamified microlearning scenario-based videos" and you have a full picture of our messy reality.

The issue that I see particularly often is with the use of words "story", "scenario" and "case study". Recently I had to go review the offers from e-learning providers who, naturally, boasted of developing "practical scenario-based modules", which upon a closer inspection turned out to be the dreaded infodumps in disguise. While I do not aspire to lay the foundation for the new universal terminology, in this blog post I would like to reflect on these misused terms, and take a look at what they mean and how can we tell them apart.


Let's start with the easy one. We all know what a story is - a narrative with protagonists and antagonists, beginning, climax, etc. They can be told in different ways and employ different techniques to raise the audience's interest. However, the stories have a definite structure that is independent of the audience's actions, thoughts and desires. The story follows its predefined path from start to end.

Stories can be educational, enlightening, and inspiring, but when it comes to training in the sense of improvement of performance and skills, stories are not enough. For example, I can tell you a story about how I designed a training. While you might get some ideas from it, if you're not an experienced instructional designer, this story will not really teach you how to become one and it will not have lasting impression on your performance. In essence, a story can serve as a frame within which a training is structured, but we still need to use activities, practice and feedback to achieve the training goals.

Case Study

Firstly, to add more complexity to the subject, a case study as a learning method can be confused with a case study as a research method. Secondly, I often see novice instructional designers who entered the field as SMEs writing stories and then christening them "case studies". For example, the novice designer may write a story about a patient who was misdiagnosed in a hospital, what happened as a result and what should have been done instead. This is not a case study in the slightest.

A case study presents the learner with the realistic challenge or question and contains supporting case materials, documents and data to be analysed -  the actual content will depend on the instructional purpose. It can and usually is based on a story, whether real or realistically imagined, but the story is used to provide context and realism for the task. The solutions are sought by learners and later discussed with a mentor or in a group setting. Case studies are best used for challenges that don't have very specific solutions and where analytical thinking, argumentation and evaluation of different perspectives is important. For instance, using a previous example of the patient - a case study would be giving learners the patient's history and then asking them to come up with the diagnosis and justify it with the evidence from the case materials.


A scenario is often the most elusive concept to describe (especially since it can be very synonymous with a story), so in this case I will borrow the definition from Ruth C. Clark (2013, p. 5):

"Scenario-based e-learning is a pre-planned inductive learning environment designed to accelerate expertise in which the learner assumes the role of an actor responding to a work-realistic assignment or challenge, which in turn responds to reflect the learner's choices."

As we can see from the definition, what makes scenario different from a case study or a story are these factors:
  • Learner has an active role
  • Learner solves a realistic work challenge
  • The environment responds to the learner's actions 
In contrast, the story/parable does not include the learner as an actor, as they are simply observing the events that unfold. The case study, while asking the learner to work on a realistic task, does not allow them to see the results of their proposed solutions. The results can be hypothesized or imagined, but never really experienced. A scenario, however, presents the learners with choices, challenges and realistic consequences or responses. 

I would note here that in my experience, scenarios are very often associated, sometimes almost exclusively, with "branching" and "dialogues". However, "branching" is a purely technical term that usually makes sense when scenario is developed in a slide-based (or screen-based) software and dialogues are just one example of a work-related challenge. Alternative scenarios could be making a perfect cup of coffee or carrying out a medical procedure. 

Now What?

Having said all that, I have to admit that for people like me, who appreciate the power of radical clarity, it is often natural to engage in petty discussions about whether a "true" scenario should be branching or not, or whether a short video is a micro-, nano- or ɰ-learning. Such discussions, particularly on social media where argumentation should be tastefully omitted for the sake of brevity and witticism, are very enjoyable but, as many pleasant things in life, rather unhealthy. The practical purpose of terminology is not to rigidly label every concept in our reality (or die trying), but to facilitate common understanding and the ability to look beyond attractive labels and see the true nature of "scenario-driven interactive experiences", as not all of these are created equal. 


Clark, Ruth Colvin (2013) Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, Pfeiffer

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