Scenario & Simulation eLearning: An Instructional Designer's Best Friend

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March 21, 2023
7 minutes
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What Are eLearning Simulations and Scenarios?

eLearning scenarios and simulations are the closest we can come to replicate trial-and-error experiential learning in the digital world. The words "scenario" and "simulation" are often used interchangeably in this context, but you can think of them as two concepts on a spectrum.  

Scenario-based learning revolves around evaluating circumstances and making decisions. You can present a scenario without any simulation elements by laying out a description – think of scenario-based interview questions or old-school text-only games like Zork.

The focus of simulation-based learning is skills practice and immersive sensory elements. For digital learning simulations, supportive visuals are the bare minimum, but different applications may also call for audio input, physical controls, haptics, body tracking, voice recognition, and even motion simulation. The more sensory-rich the eLearning, the more appropriate it is to use "simulation" instead of "scenario."  

However, most training involves low stakes and communication-based soft skills, whether those are face-to-face, audio-only, or text chat. For sales, customer service, and similar jobs, you can effectively simulate the job with visuals and/or audio.  

Simulated conversations are basically dressed up scenarios. That's why "simulation" and "scenario" are used so interchangeably.  

Wait, Doesn't eLearning Simulation Mean…?

There's another wrinkle to using "simulation" in an eLearning context, because it's routinely used to describe two very different (but conceptually related) digital learning techniques.

When it's used as a synonym for scenario, "eLearning simulation" means a digital recreation of a conversation or real-life procedure. But it also gets used as the name for an interactive cousin to the screencast.

The fundamental concepts of the two are actually similar. Both "simulations" let students practice their job skills safely in a sandbox environment.  

However, the technology you use to generate a software simulation is very different than what you use to build any other kind. For software simulations, you need a specialized tool that can capture your clicks, text entries, menu selection, and keyboard press and then automatically rebuild them in an interactive format like our Capture tool.  

Typically, each software step is either right or wrong, so there's usually no need to create branching responses to a user's choices. However, the software you are simulating may enable multiple paths. If that is the case, make sure your software simulation tool enables authors and learners to account for the possibility, the way Capture now can.  

For the most part, we're focusing on the non-software type of simulation in this article, but you can learn more about Capture's advantages and unique features through our dominKnow Community articles.  

Why is Scenario- or Simulation-Based Learning So Effective?

Adult learning is all about applicable knowledge, and scenario-based learning connects the knowledge directly to the application. Scenarios aid in retention by providing useful context for new information and making its importance readily apparent.  

Scenario-based learning also encourages decision making, problem solving, and critical thinking, which turns a passive learning experience into an active and engaging one.

Simulation-based learning can allow the learner to practice skills in a realistic environment, whether it's through computer software or a digital simulation of ringing up a customer at a cash register. The ability to run through tasks in a simulated environment gives them the benefit of helpful real-time feedback without the need to take up a trainer or supervisor's time.

Options for Building Digital Learning Scenarios and Simulations

You have a few options when choosing software for building eLearning scenarios and simulations.  

Robust General Authoring Tools  

Before the proliferation of specialized branching scenario tools, your only choice for building a digital learning simulation was to choose an authoring tool with complex creative capabilities and then add elbow grease.

This is still the way to go in many cases. Some applications aren't common enough to fit the mold of a wizard-style scenario authoring tool. In other cases, you may be shooting for a unique look and feel that just can't be pulled off within the confines of a widget.

Not all general authoring tools are up to the task. You need a tool with strong visual design capabilities, support for structural complexity, and sophisticated design controls (and it helps if they don't require programming knowledge).

Popular examples include Articulate's Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and dominKnow | ONE. Of those three, only dominKnow | ONE is capable of the complexity and flexibility you need for authoring responsive simulations. The others will box you into using shrink-to-fit design, because their responsive capabilities (if any) have serious limitations.  

dominKnow | ONE also offers the advantage of being cloud-based, OS-neutral, and rich in collaborative features. Those capabilities remove many of the natural barriers presented by desktop-bound tools like Storyline and Captivate.

In addition to a general authoring tool with the chops for DIY simulations, you'll want to plan all the decision points and their results beforehand. The non-linear nature of a scenario makes it hard to keep track of the page sequence in one’s head.  

Specialized Branching Scenario Authoring Tools

If you want to author eLearning scenarios faster (or with less technical skill), there are specialized authoring tools that do some of the heavy lifting for you. For example, you don't need a separate planning tool because most specialized scenario tools allow you to navigate the content pages via a built-in branching map.

Branchtrack is a popular example of this software, but there are a lot of alternatives on the market.  

In most cases, these tools focus on conversational scenarios – you can choose a context-appropriate background and a conversational partner whose body language and facial expression can change from slide to slide. Interactions will play out via speech bubbles, sometimes supplemented with audio.  

If your scenario fits in an existing mold, you can save a lot of time and effort by using a scenario builder.

The problem with specialized tools is that you're limited to creating the scenario. If you want to include an eLearning simulation within a larger course, you have to embed your specialized tool's content into a broader project in a general tool. It's a common stopgap if you use an authoring tool without its own native branching widget, like Storyline.  

There are downsides to juggling multiple tools. You have to manage multiple logins, licenses, and windows, and technical problems arise when you embed one tool's content in another. Even if there aren't outright glitches, integrating the content seamlessly – so your learners can't tell the difference – will take work. Updates or edits take also extra steps.

Wouldn't it be better if the specialized ability to create a branching scenario was just a part of your favorite authoring tool? Luckily, that does exist – it's just not as common as you'd like it to be.

General Authoring Tools with Branching Scenario Builders

There are three major authoring tools on the market with a built-in scenario-authoring widget. There's dominKnow | ONE, Articulate Rise, and iSpring.  

The features related to conversational scenario vary a bit, but the bigger problem is significant differences in general authoring capability.  In fact, as with the tools for DIY simulation authoring, dominKnow | ONE is the only option that can produce robust responsive content.

iSpring is a tool that helps supercharge PowerPoint for more sophisticated eLearning. It has some impressive features, but all projects will be shrink-to-fit on a mobile screen.  

Rise, Storyline's responsive authoring younger sibling, is almost the exact opposite. It produces content that adapts to screen size, but there are serious limitations to the depth and breadth of its authoring power. Advanced users will feel seriously limited.  

On top of the problems with its general authoring power, Rise's conversational scenario widget has several key limitations compared to iSpring and dominKnow | ONE. There's no visual branching map, you can't upload audio clips or custom characters and settings, and your text is character limited.

How to Choose the Best Software for Building Interactive Scenarios and Simulations

Choosing the right authoring tool for the job is the key, but the "right authoring tool" for you will depend on your goals and needs.

However, dominKnow | ONE is versatile and feature-rich for all types of simulations.  

It has two equally robust authoring modes – responsive and traditional/fixed-pixel. Both authoring modes support:

  • The WYSIWYG development of conversational simulations
  • Easy generation of interactive software simulations

Our conversational scenario builder is full of useful features, including options to:

  • Choose from versatile stock characters and backgrounds
  • Upload your own characters and backgrounds
  • Add audio clips to bring the conversation to life
  • Say as much as you need, unhampered by character limits
  • Reference a visual branching map as you build
  • Track learners' choices with automatically generated xAPI statements
  • Turn your scenario into a scored assessment

Ready to try it out? Get a free 14-day trial or ask our experts for a demo!

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