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Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - interactive elearning

In an earlier post we looked at how to build branched scenarios for interactive elearning courses. Branched scenarios are great for simulating the types of real-world decisions a learner needs to make on the job.

As noted in the earlier post, it’s not always easy to create a branched scenario if you’re not the content expert. The main reason is that decision-making scenarios depend on a nuanced understanding of the subject matter so that you can guide the learner through the activity.

The Critical Path

Most elearning courses have a critical path. Essentially it’s a completely correct path. With a linear elearning course it’s easy to stay on the critical path because all the learner does is move from one screen to the next.

Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - simple critical path elearning scenario

Branching allows you to take the learner off of the critical path as she makes decisions. This adds complexity to the learning experience. Usually what happens is that branches resolve on different paths. Sometimes there are multiple alternative correct paths. Sometimes the path just ends and forces the learner to restart or go to some sort of remedial instruction.

This is all really good if you have the time and resources to build the interactive situation. But what if you don’t?

Stay on the Critical Path

A simple way to create a branched decision-making scenario is to always force the learner back to the critical path. Imagine it like a road trip. You need to drive from New York to Washington DC to pick up your Aunt Betsy and you’re on a tight schedule. The first thing you do is map out the path that will make you successful. That’s the critical path.

Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - trip to pick up Aunt Betsy

Suppose while driving you see a sign advertising Miles the Monster, the world’s largest concrete monster. Surely Aunt Betsy can wait and off you go. Mistake! You’re now off the critical path and wasting precious time. Your family calls, tells you Aunt Betsy is waiting and they get you back on the critical path.

Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - deviate from critical path


Single Critical Path

Using a single critical path is a simple way to build a branched scenario. Build out you decision-making challenges. The 3C model is a good model to use. But instead of continuing on a separate path, which is more difficult to manage, find a way to bring the learner back to the critical path.

Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - single critical path scenario

This helps keep the construction of the scenario simple and manageable. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the scenario itself has to be simple. For example, you can alter the flow and pacing of the branches. But eventually moving forward in the scenario requires getting back on the critical path.

Multi-tiered Interactive Branches

Articulate Rapid E-Learning Blog - multitiered critical path scenario

The goal is to keep the scenario moving forward by keeping to the critical path. But that doesn’t mean you have to immediately bring the person back to the path after the first deviation from it. You can allow them to drift away a few levels as they make decisions. But ultimately you want them to come back to the critical path.

Reconcile Feedback

The key in getting them back to the critical path is providing the feedback to reconcile decisions they made that took them off of the path in the first place. If you want to keep it simple, let them make a wrong decision, provide immediate feedback, and then put them back on the path.

But when we make decisions in real life, we don’t always get immediate feedback. Another option is to hold the feedback through a few decisions and then provide some consolidated feedback. Delaying the feedback lets the learner work through the consequences of the decisions made.

There’s really no right or wrong way to build interactive branched scenarios. Ultimately it depends on the content and context of the interaction. And then of course your resources are a key consideration. If you have time and resources, a complex branched interaction can be a great way to create an interactive and engaging learning experience.

However, if you are pressed for time and have limited access to subject matter experts, then a simplified scenario that always reverts back to the critical path is great way to go.

What are some of the challenges you face when crafting interactive scenarios? What advice do you have for those new to all of this? Please share your thoughts by clicking on the comments link.

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16 responses to “A Simple Approach to Interactive E-Learning”

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Very good expression. So- let’s take it a step or two further: what if one does not have to get the participant back to only one critical path? Say that life goes on and they are on more of a self directed path. I know- the purpose of this learning/elearning is a particular set of understandings or competencies. But real life is complicated. We could benefit in our training structure to recognize multiple pathways to success. Chaining the multi-tiered interactive branches is way more complicatred too, of course, but if our training structure is going to be a permanent product or at least durable, we can make the extra investment, no?

@Kevin: in the previous post, I addressed that a bit. It’s all a matter of the resources available and how complex you intend the training to be.

I stumbled on this site while looking for data on what techniques are actually effective when employing technology for teaching, i.e, e-learning.

I’m a veteran of techology, in fact a software developer of some 20 years and I’ve seen it all. I’m also a victom of “elearning”, so I’m comming in to this with a clearly defined bias.

Simple and direct, I think the vast majority of electronic learning techniques are garbage. I myself rarely learn anything from “web-based” training. In fact, I cringe when I’m forced to take these meaningless, “push content” courses that my own company “requires”.

Yet, we all do it right? It’s not like we have a choice because dollars run the world and quality is a third or forth consideration.

The quality of education suffers and not just in the professional corporate world because Universities and colleges are also guilty of “pushing” web-based crap out into their programs. If I were a college student these days, I would most certainly feel cheated by this. I know for a fact they aren’t getting their money’s worth by taking web-based-psy-101 as opposed to a leader-led course where they are forced to interact with human beings.

My point is that web-based learning is contrary to the way people actually need to learn material and I don’t think it works, at least the way in which the technology delivers it currently.

So why is that? Why do I feel cheated and angry each time I’m forced to take one of these courses?

1) I’m old enough to know that there was another way. One where mentorship and interaction from a master (a teacher) was the accepted form.
2) I believe that human beings learn by visual and audiable means and that reinforcement (over time) is essential to solidiifying the material.
3) I believe that human beings learn the most from watching and hearing people attempting to grasp the same material — but doing do incorrectly. In other words, by witnessing “mistakes”, and seeing those mistakes corrected in real time, by a master authority (master,teacher,instructor), using spoken common-language (every-day terms, every-day common scenarios.
4) Computer screens are painfully inadaquate for the presentation of written or visual material. I’ll explain, because this point is a fundamantal observation of mine. Remember back when you were cramming for that really heard final exam? You were pooling all of your resources and focusing very hard. Were you focusing all of yoru attention on a small 14 x 7″ piece of paper (the size of my computer window right now)? No. You were, if you were trying to “relate” all of the information related to a complex notion, idea or concept, scanning your eyes over a table-top full of open books, written notes, pictures, calculations and any other training materials you had available. My (obvious and overlooked) point is that eye movement over “different” content, different shapes, textures, fonts, different written examples of the same thing, created by different authors — all came together to enable you to relate the information and actually store it in your mind.
Learning is an active physical process that requires physical changes in the brain.
The physical changes are induced by variation in the way information (the same information) is presented visually and audiably (if possible).
In fact I’d argue that true learning “never” or rarely is accomplished by blind-sighting your vision on a small 7×14″ screen or piece of paper where one and only one thing can be focued on at a time.
Quite simply, single shot computer screens worth of information are no better than opening up the page of a book. In fact the entire dialect of web-based gargabe out there is “page” oriented. Everyhting is served out a “page” at a time. Pages are a fundamental unit of (interface programming) information, but this has “nothing” to do with the reality of how people actually learn.
We don’t learn a “page” at a time. In terms of “pages” we learn by relating many pages at a time and the wider the number of pages (the larger the view), the more relational processing in your head, thus the greater your opportunity to actually “learn”, as oposed to what’s accomplished now by short term retention – enough to get you to the next quiz page and done.

Ok, so why am I taking the time to blast elearning? Primarily because I’m looking for innovation. My belief is that what we roll out as web-based courses right now is useless (given what I wrote above), but my question is, does it have to be so? Why can’t we change the entire learning paradigm to the way people learn, as opposed to simply what software is out there now, or to the point whatever Microsoft or some other vendor has decided to give us. Spreadsheet, powerpoint, flash, blah, blah, blah …. They are all components, but I think the way they are used today constrains true learning. I do believe that within technology there is the promise of what it “might” deliver. That is the exciting part.

Perhaps the current technology is entirely inadaquate for the task I want to accomplish. That is quite possible. That fact is certainly not going to stop people from selling a product to companies. One that promises to do what I’d argue it can’t. This is why I think innovation is required now.

Before that can happen, someone has to agree that the current methodology is wrong. It seems so fundamentally wrong to me, so obviously flawed that I’d like someone else to validate what I suspect above and either agree with me or shoot it down in some way.

One challenge is that it requires understanding of the content well and also the time. Interactive scenarios are more interesting for learners and best used for case studies or application based learning.

Thank you for the informative and useful topic.

In case there are developed examples of multi-tier interactive courses please do share.

A single critical path scenario are good for both sides: designer can concentrate on a main part of the course and the learner is not confused with navigation what often happens when he has to many choices.

[…] do quite good stuff with simple tools like Powerpoint and photos or free clip-art), then check out A Simple Approach to Interactive E-Learning and/or Elearning example: Branching scenario. Get your learners making decisions instead of just […]

In response to Ray:

You are not alone in your frustration and this blog’s author understands – really, read some of his other material. He certainly does not advocate elearning as the only method. He recognises that corporate force-feeding is inappropriate most of the time. As a regular follower, I know that he has a simple mission – to improve the quality of elearning if that is the method of choice.

Your point regarding variety of texture and material is very important and I think the computer screen should complement other items on the desk and not be the sole method of transmission. I’m sure that Tom will agree that, when appropriate, an elearning course can provide a downloadable document, or direct the student to other material to conduct research, before responding to the course and progressing to the next part of it.

These are the consequences of the branched scenario model. I do not think that Tom suggests that everything has to be computer based. The computer does, however, provide a method of tracking student progression in a way that many mentors or teachers fail to achieve in the classroom.

Stay connected, Ray, I hope that you’ll find that there are others like you who want to improve instruction in whatever guise it takes.

Nice post, and good observations about the critical path. Very much in line with our approach and experience at kenHub. Ray makes some valid comments however, and I tend to agree that web-based training or many e-learning platforms became a cheap substitute for real training for students or in a corporate environment. However, in our experience with learning anatomy in particular, web-based platforms can be much more effective if they keep the user challenged, engaged, and if they follow a (critical) path, which is very much like an online game.

With subjects like Anatomy, there isn’t so much understanding involved as much as memorization, repetition and being able to get feedback. As such, an online platform that not only provides the information, but constantly engages the user is far superior than most other learning methods. No teacher is able to know *exactly* what’s the student’s weakest or strongest points and present the optimal questions to them. An online platform can do exactly that. Fit the questions to the student and keep them engaged.

[…] Decision-making. Offer opportunities for real-world decision-making and feedback. […]

I am just in the process of looking at branching. While I have a well defined critical path the issue is what is the value of branching? I feel that if it is relevant and increases engagement rather than acting as a distraction then it can be justified. Decision making using branching is particularly valuable in my view if it is coupled with feedback. All in all the process of branching provides the author with an extra tool with which to move paralell to the critical learning path.