Elearning example: Branching scenario

You’re a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. Can you help a young lieutenant overcome cultural differences and make a good impression on a Pashtun leader?

That’s the challenge behind “Connect with Haji Kamal,” a decision-making scenario that my cool client Kinection and I developed for the US Army. The online scenario is the homework part of a lesson plan that includes in-class discussion about how to build rapport across cultures. It’s part of a much larger effort in the Army to strengthen soldiers’ cross-cultural and peacekeeping skills.

Turn on your speakers and give it a spin, and then come back here if you’re interested in the design decisions behind the activity.

Connect with Haji Kamal

The goals

The activity is designed to be completed as homework before a culture class, and it includes a facilitator guide with debrief questions. Our goals were to model specific rapport-building behaviors and inspire class discussion.

To follow the “good” paths, you need to see things from Haji Kamal’s point of view, show respect and patience, and otherwise apply cross-cultural skills that will be discussed in class. You end up on less successful branches by making more ethnocentric choices.

The flowchartComplex branching

Our original content was a short description of a real-life discussion between a soldier and Pashtun leader. We added enough twists to end up with 12 paths through the material, using a flowchart to keep track of everything.

The paths cross at several points, so usually one bad choice doesn’t doom you to a bad ending.

The debating squad leaders

The debate between two characters has its roots in classroom scenarios that we developed. During tests of those scenarios, we found that requiring participants to defend each option got them more deeply involved. The debate also simulates the kind of thinking that soldiers need to do in the field to challenge their cultural assumptions.

For this scenario, the debate also replicates real life — often a sergeant asks squad leaders for their ideas and then advises the lieutenant. To make the player think independently, we also included an undebated option.

To make sure the story and arguments were believable, we ran a classroom debate version of the scenario with a group from our target audience. We collected their arguments for each option and then wrote the script for the online version.

Minimal media

In focus groups about their training preferences, soldiers made clear that they prefer video. However, that wasn’t in our budget or timeline, so we went with the soldiers’ second best, graphic novel illustration. The images are comic-ified photos.

We used audio for the debating squad leaders because their arguments were core to the game. The lieutenant and Haji Kamal are limited to silent dialog bubbles mainly to avoid the challenge of providing audio for Haji Kamal, who in real life wouldn’t speak English. Our audience members are sticklers for authenticity, so the best solution would have been to have the Haji speak in Pashto and display his dialog bubble in English, but that would add a distracting layer of complexity.

We kept animation to a minimum for the same reason — we wanted players to focus on the ideas and story.

Experimental surprises

At two decision points, we tried different twists:

  • Rogue lieutenant: At one point on a mediocre path, the LT ignores what you recommend (no matter what it is) and says his own line. Unfortunately, it’s not a good line. You have to do damage control to get back on a decent path — just like in real life.
  • Defend your choice: At another point, the LT asks you why he should say what you’ve recommended. Pick a good defense, and you go down a good path. A weak defense sends you down a mediocre path. This adds a layer of complexity to the branching that could get seriously challenging for the designers and developers, but it could also be used to make players think more deeply about their choices and defend them in ways that are most persuasive to someone from the lieutenant’s background.

Learner feedback

The game and its accompanying facilitator guide were tested by soldiers in a culture class at Fort Huachuca NCOA. It looks like the activity met our goal of inspiring discussion: 70% of the players said that they were looking forward to discussing the game in class the next day, and instructors reported that the activity “prompted the majority of the discussion” and encouraged soldiers to share their own experiences.

The activity will be part of a larger toolkit for military educators. The toolkit includes more decision-making scenarios in several formats, all of them designed to help soldiers practice specific cross-cultural capabilities.

Design time required

A scenario of this length and complexity takes me about 20-40 hours to plot and write. That’s the time I need after the goals have been identified, we know what the learners need to do in the real world, we understand the mistakes they commonly make, and the SME has provided at least the germ of a realistic story. It doesn’t include project management time, audience testing, audio and graphics sourcing, Flash development, QA, etc., and it assumes that reviewers don’t make major changes.

That’s a lot more time than it would take to throw together a slideshow on “Key Concepts in Rapport Building: Afghanistan,” but we like to think the resulting activity is more memorable and more likely to change behavior.

In an ideal world, instructional designers could spend our limited time on immersive activities that have a big potential impact, and all those Flashified information dumps could instead be cheap PDFs or intranet pages.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Cathy. An excellent case study and I liked the ‘surprise elements’ you threw in. What do you estimate for total development time for this?
    cheers
    chris

  2. Dan says:

    I really like what you’ve done here. I think my favorite part of this approach is the alternate viewpoints/devils advocate dialog that takes place in trying to stimulate the learner to think about what should be done in the situation. I have been involved with designing eLearning that has similar qualities and utilizes a similar constructivist approach. I often find myself wondering (usually somewhere around hour 30 of branching scenario writing) – will this approach really result in the audience being able to better _________?

    Most often, it seems that by itself something with as lofty a goal as altering the way a person would actually treat/talk to another person requires additional learning experiences that utilize other Bloom’s taxonomy strategies (preferably with strategic spacing of learning events). The fact that learners will be coming back together to discuss what they thought/learned is where I think your approach makes so much sense. But if this were on its own without group discussion and other hands on activities, I think that it would be much harder – maybe even impossible to bring about any kind of real behavior change.

    Your flow diagram is very cool. I tend to make mine too complicated, but I think your more simple approach is a great way to see all paths so that branching can be properly balanced and you can ensure that the story doesn’t end up going nowhere.

    Nice work

  3. Alan Wayman says:

    I have often thought of good ways to do a good social simulation on a small budget. This is a great example. Thanks!

  4. Cathy Moore says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Chris, I’m not sure about the development time. I’ll see if I can find out.

    Dan, thanks for your feedback. I agree that offering just the scenario on its own likely wouldn’t do much to change behavior.

    To me it’s crucial that a story like this have a deep discussion, preferably face to face, that’s guided by challenging questions that are designed to get the learners to identify the main takeaways themselves. Ideally, an activity like this would be part of a much larger lesson plan, which in the case of this activity is a culture class for soldiers.

    In the corporate world, if this were, say, a scenario on how to have a difficult conversation with a team member, we’d want to create a lot of other material to help learners identify and connect the concepts, apply them to their jobs, discuss them, etc. I don’t think just the scenario (or a slideshow!) would do enough.

  5. Cathy Moore says:

    I’d be curious to see whether people think the graphic novel style would work in corporate materials. For example, Kinection has a similar style with a different approach to color here. The audience for that project was police officers.

    What do you think? Would this style be accepted in corporate materials, like sales training or compliance courses?

  6. Dan says:

    Cathy,

    This style could absolutely work in a corporate setting. Of course its all up to the client and your subtle but effective suggestions of the effectiveness of this style at conveying story. I think this illustrative approach, utilizing effective graphic novel framing, is so engaging and effective at telling the story. In my experience it takes a special open-minded forward thinking client to latch onto something like this. POST is one of those clients. Many clients require that learning experiences echo all brand standards and can get quite specific with colors and layout in a way that can be quite stifling.

    I also wanted to comment on something else you did with the branching scenario above. I loved the opening screen and the way that it so effectively related the purpose of this learning experience WITHOUT listing a single bulleted objective.

    ‘Based on real events’ – nice movie/storytelling touch

    ’12 paths through the game with 2 ways to win’ – that’s an excellent challenge. And there was no need to say anything like – in this module you will learn, blah, blah, blah.

    I also really liked the bit about how your lieutenant is young and about to screw up :)

  7. Sergey says:

    Cathy,
    this is a jaw-dropping course. Not because I haven’t seen comic-ised tutorials before (I have) but because you chose instructional complexity over media complexity, which is increasingly rare way to do elearning I’m afraid.

    Thanks a lot!

  8. Tracy says:

    Nice work Cathy!

    I think the style would work with corporate – I’ll (try to) do something similar with a Real Estate Audience and see!

  9. John Zurovchak says:

    Cathy,

    Thank you for sharing this example of a branching scenario. I thinks its extremely important for designers to share their ideas with each other. We often design in somewhat of a vacuum. In my opinion, this is a fantastic course due to the complexity of the cultural choices that you built into the scenario. The debate between the subordinates is excellent and mirrors real life – again making this a powerful learning tool. I really felt challenged to make the right decision. All of the responses from the subordinates were well argued. There were no straw man arguments that would have diluted the overall scenario. I do think the graphic novel works in the corporate environment. If a particular client or business has aversions to this style, you could easily switch to a photo based approach that would accomplish the same underlying goals, but with a more acceptable visual approach.

    Thanks again for sharing this excellent example!

    JZ

  10. Richard Gorvin says:

    Hi Cathy

    I really liked this and felt it achieved its aim in an innovative, enjoyable and educational manner. I think it’s suited to the audience – army personnel (predominately male, presumably). I have used comic book formats before, but have met some resistance – mainly from the trainers/facilitators who would lead subsequent workshops (they felt it might be interpreted as being a ‘non-serious’ treatment of a serious issue – in my case that was dealing with redundancy). Can I ask, what sort of reaction have you had from the people facilitating this course?

    Also has there been any difference in acceptance between genders? (I ask as the project I worked on seemed to be appreciated more by males – they seemed to share a more positive nostalgia around comics and the whole art form).

    The branching/decision tree technique works extremely well (branching is something I have also used in video and this can become quite time-consuming and costly in the writing and video-editing) so your solution works well in terms of limiting the costs of any client amendments requested post initial build and development.

    Finally I think anyone who enjoyed this example should consider getting hold of Joe Sacco’s graphic novel / comic ‘Palestine’ – an account of a westerner’s visit to the troubled region of Israel and Palestine.

  11. Cathy Moore says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Richard, as far as I know, there were very few or no women in the test audience for this module, and in general there are few women in the roles that this activity addresses.

    I wonder if a more manga-like style would be more appealing to people who find the graphic novel look too edgy. Dan Pink seemed to have used it successfully in Johnny Bunko–though to me the book had a male perspective. The illustration style used in the book could be viewed as not serious enough for some topics.

    John, I agree that too often we design in a vacuum. If you don’t know about them already, you might check out Janet Clarey’s new Instructional Design by Example blog and the stuff at Elearning Examples.com.

    Tracy, let us know how the course goes!

    Sergey and Dan, thanks for your kind words. We were lucky that our audience wants a “cut to the chase” approach that lets them learn by doing.

  12. Cathy Moore says:

    Here’s more on the design & development time: my client estimates that the whole thing took about 340 hours. That includes (at least!) travel time and a site visit by two people to get feedback from testers, plotting, writing, prototyping, sourcing and modifying images, Flash development, writing the facilitator guide, finding and recording narrators, project management, QA, and the development of a survey to collect more feedback.

  13. Jérôme says:

    Cathy,

    Congratulation for this very smart use of comics ! I didn’t expect up to now the powerful impact of interactive comics.

    Thanks !

  14. Volker says:

    Hi Cathy,

    great usage of Captivate! Congratulations!

    I am just preparing some samples for mobile usage but didn´t thought about this comic-style.. if only I had your sources & resources :-)

    Cheers from Germany,
    Volker

    • Torsten says:

      Volker,

      I think Cathy did an excellent job.
      If you are looking for such resources there are tons of these resouces in Germany too.

  15. Sani says:

    Hi Cathy

    I think it is brilliant! It actually encourages one to go back and redo it again and again to figure out the ‘plot’. Not often you get students to do that!

    Which software can be used to build the branching scenario once you have plotted it out and have the graphics ready?

    I really enjoy reading your blogs. Thanks for the advice you so willingly share.

    Regards,
    Sani

  16. Cathy Moore says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    Volker and Sani, the scenario was developed in Flash.

    It could also be done in PowerPoint or Keynote and converted to Flash using a tool like Articulate, since there are no variables involved–the user just clicks on links that take them to different branches.

    When we use PowerPoint for scenarios like this one, we write the slide numbers in the flowchart to keep track of them.

    Instead of PowerPoint, a non-slide-based tool like SmartBuilder would probably make it easier to handle the branching, because it shows the branching in the developer’s window and, if I understand it correctly, you wouldn’t need a separate scene for every minor variation in Haji Kamal’s reactions.

  17. Hi Cathy. Thanks for sharing this. I was blown away when I first saw this and tweeted as much that very day. Since then I have run several people through the example to get their impression (male and female, corporate and otherwise) and every one had rave reviews. Each person was left thinking about it, like when you watch a good movie and for a while after it’s on your mind. That is what happened so I can see how effective this is for prompting discussion.

    Nobody commented directly on the graphic style. I think that’s because the intelligence of the exercise dominated. My thought is that if you were to swap the comic look out for photos then you lose a bit of realism (I know! that sounds odd) and potentially create a more threatening environment of for the learner. In this example, if I’m looking at images of real people the learning might take a back seat to a perception of confrontation. Conversely if I am looking at cartoon characters/clip art I lose the realism that the photo-retouched comic effect conveys.

    All in all, I so thoroughly enjoyed this that I will be adapting a portion of the modules I build (case study sections) to this kind of style…I’m all about immersive results so 340 hours to me is worth it!

    Cheers,
    Stephanie

  18. Cathy Moore says:

    Stephanie, thanks for your feedback. It’s great to hear that a wider population outside the Army liked it.

    Your points about the graphic style make a lot of sense. The total realism of photos can make a potentially intense experience too intense. I also sometimes feel that photos don’t leave enough to the imagination and can make us more like passive consumers than participants.

    I’m glad to hear that you’ll be trying the approach on case studies. If your client lets the material be shown publicly, please link to it and let us know how people responded!

  19. Julie says:

    Cathy. I was blown away by this branching scenario! I totally loved the learning product and found myself going through it several times to find the “right” path. I have never gone through an e-learning product more than once like that. In many e-learning courses, I find narration very annoying. But in this case, I was immersed in the activity and found myself really listening to what each character had to say.

    I brought this to the attention of my colleagues and am happy to report that they were as excited as I was. Today, a group of us is getting together to begin discussing where we could incorporate branching scenarios of this type into our 10 week recruit training program.

    By the way, all of us (both women and men) loved the simple interface with the comic look and feel. I feel that photos often have a way of making an e-learning product look dated very fast…

    Thanks!

    Julie

  20. Cathy Moore says:

    Julie, thanks for your kind words and your feedback about the interface. It’s good to hear that both women and men liked the graphic style, and I agree that photos can look dated pretty quickly. If you can, let us know if you end up using branching scenarios in your recruit training and how the learners liked them.

  21. Beth Kagel says:

    Brilliant as always Cathy. Kamil Walas posted this project on Twitter. I think I might “borrow” this example as well.

    Love the graphic novel concept. Did anyone ask you if this project is “app ready” for smart phones?

  22. Cathy Moore says:

    Beth, to my knowledge no one has asked if it works on phones. The learners have computers or computer access, and the materials are on the secure internal system used by the base.

  23. Hi Cathy. As promised, here is a link to a sample course I built for an American retailer. I wanted to try your branching scenario concept against a common business soft skill like employee motivation. Though the script and VO is placeholder only and the topic not nearly as exciting as Haja Kamal, I think this kind of approach holds endless possibilities for interesting corporate training. The reception to this sample was overwhelmingly positive from the client!

    http://tinyurl.com/27cdyon

    Cheers, Stephanie

  24. Nick says:

    Hi Cathy, Hi all! Love this stuff – it actually forces the instructional design to be rigorous, and this is rarer these days. I also really dig the application of the finished product – that is, it forms part of a larger multi-dimensional learning suite. Sure, you could get this info over using a powerpoint (and rapid dev tool) but would you get people talking about it? I bet that 99 percent of people tried this more than once. Well done. Love it.

  25. richard says:

    Brilliant, went through it several times and totally engrossed.

  26. Fascinatingly wonderful lesson, Cathy. I’m getting into developing eLearning lessons for my leadership consulting practice. I’ve run across SmartBuilder as a swf development tool. I’m wondering what development tool was used to build the swf for Haji Kamal?

    • Cathy Moore says:

      Bob, thanks for your question. SmartBuilder would be able to build the Haji Kamal scenario. The graphic designer on the Haji Kamal project used custom Flash because that’s what she was used to.

  27. Jen Perkins says:

    What an extraordinary e-learning scenario, Cathy! It grabbed me from the very beginning and kept my mind working to figure out the best decisions. Great work!

  28. brilliant — it blew my mind so completely that I have just completed my first, very small experiment that I’ll improve and include in my elearning product. What a difference from the dry text that I’m used to — and without any fancy-looking bells and whistles. However, a simple one was not easy to put together, and it felt as if my mind was being stretched to its limit… phew!

  29. Dave Fontela says:

    Thank you very much for sharing. I remember running into this tutorial a while back and kicked myself for not bookmarking. Totally excited that I found it again. Thanks for also sharing the build because I appreciate the tutorial that much more. The debate between the squad leaders was brilliantly done!

    • Cathy Moore says:

      Thanks, Dave. We based the debates on what we heard actual soldiers say when they debated options during test runs of the material and on what they said when we interviewed them about their cross-cultural experiences. It would have been much harder (or likely impossible) to write realistic, challenging debate options without such extensive access to learners.

  30. elizabeth says:

    Hey Cathy,

    I just wanted to say thanks for putting the scenario and the behind-the-scenes stuff online. My supervisor and I found the scenario and then wanted to try a similar project. So I’m following your steps, loosely, and hoping to come up with a successful project. So far the review have been good.

    Thanks again.

  31. Peter says:

    Interesting. I spent the last year hired by a defense contractor to film and record simulations with Afghan and Iraqi players (actors) with the US military (National Guard). We had simulations, simulated villages and a simulations based on experience in country. I can’t get into specifics because of security clearances but your ideas sound very familiar.

  32. Damian says:

    Cathy – love this course and think it could certainly work in corp environment. In my comp we’re just about to get a rapid authoring tool and I’m thinking of putting an example of learning together using this idea – to help learners make liability decisions for motor accidents – so the user has to make decisions based on what evidence is collected, and this can be marked against case law, if any. This could help the learners with critical thinking without constant referral.
    Thanks a lot for your sharing – a great resource!

  33. Julie says:

    I really enjoyed this scenario and found myself going over it again to ensure I had the best outcome. I feel that this type of eLearning would really benefit our organisation and it will definitely be something I will pursue in the future. thanks for sharing this with us.

  34. Janet D. says:

    Hi Cathy. Just wanted to alert you to a broken link. Your link to the police office project in one of your above comments is broken. However, I was able to manually navigate to the projects page at kinection.com, and could click on Write with Conviction.

  35. Leanne says:

    Excellent Branching Scenario. The minimalist approach to graphics is perfect for this scenario. It allows the participants to concentrate on the dialogue and decision making skills rather than the graphics. Well done. I am working on a branching scenario for a corporate soft skills training and I feel I have “permission” to concentrate on the scenario and the learning outcomes rather than dazzle everyone with unnecessary graphics. Thank you for sharing!!!

  36. Buisson says:

    Cathy, very interseting. Wich software did you use to do the interactive elearning Connect with Haji Kamal ?
    Thanks for your answer. Eric

  37. saran says:

    Sounds good. Thanks for posting the article. It really nice and i feel great. Congrats Cathy.!!

Trackbacks

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  5. […] Cathy Moore does a great eLearning module (just using Powerpoint) on cultural awareness in Afghanistan. […]

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  23. […] lot of you are familiar with the Haji Kamal scenario, in which you help an inexperienced Army officer make a good impression on an Afghan leader. You […]