We love to write eLearning content that leverages story-telling and scenarios as much as possible.
Scenarios don’t work in all situations, but when they do, they help engage learners in ways standard monologue presentations never will.
Each of the last couple years we’ve spoken at a local conference, the Chicago eLearning Showcase, and presented various angles regarding how to create good scenarios. One of those angles, which I’d like to highlight here, is the logistical hurdle of writing and organizing your content (i.e. the script).
For anyone that’s tried to write a branching script, and presented that script to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), has likely encountered challenges. Keeping the content organized from a writing standpoint is a challenge to the author, but reviewing the drafts of that content is typically a challenge for the reviewers as well.
Many of us have our go-to tools for writing storyboards, but each of the usual suspects have shortcomings when it comes to managing and reviewing branched content. Let’s start by looking at the main issues with some of the common storyboarding tools, and then we’ll look at an alternative.
The Usual Suspects
Over the years, many of you have probably used a variety of tools to storyboard courses. Several of these work well for the average mostly linear course, but how do you handle branching?
Once you introduce multiple paths, you invite two additional challenges: Managing your content flow and ensuring SMEs are able to follow the various branches you create.
Now, when I say branched content, I don’t mean click-and-reveals or other “review these three sections in any order you want” type of branching. Those are basic and pretty easy to follow in any tool.
However, when you have truly branching scenarios, the content branches can resemble a rat’s nest. So, let’s look at some of the more common storyboarding tools to examine the issues.
Storyboards using MS Word
MS Word (and equivalents) has been used successfully to storyboard for a long time. However, that success can break down once you introduce branching.
Typical Word storyboards are presented within a table structure. This can be difficult for you as an author to follow a path all the way through a scenario, especially if later situations are influenced by earlier decisions.
Another challenge for the author in this format is if you need to add new slides (rows in your table) to the middle somewhere. Since your “Go To” statements are based off of row numbers, it requires re-numbering to keep everything aligned. This can be a maintenance nightmare, especially if your script is fluid at all.
The final challenge in this format is for the reviewers. Just as it was hard for the author to follow and manage the paths, it can be difficult for SMEs to follow these paths as well. To stop at the end of each row to scroll through the document searching for row 7.2 definitely breaks the flow of whatever they were reading.
For standard everyday storyboarding, PowerPoint is our most common storyboarding tool.
The blend of a stage for mock-up visuals and a notes area for narration and programming instructions provides for an efficient storyboard format. However, this is plagued by some of the same issues we experienced using Word.
In the same way, PowerPoint does not handle the branches well. For all the same reasons, it is hard to manage paths and it can be a challenge for reviewers to follow the flow.
On top of that, PowerPoint is not very receptive to being marked up. It is often a common practice to use Track Changes in Word so that others can see, and accept/reject proposed revisions.
Unfortunately, PowerPoint does not have this capability. You can add comments, but cannot mark changes for review without using some native formatting, like bold, or italics for new comments. This can lead to some lengthy clean up separating the formatting for revision purposes versus the words that are supposed to be formatted in your final script.
Visio for Storyboarding
As we saw with both Word and PowerPoint, handling the branches was the biggest issue. To address this, some turn to Visio, which is natively a flowcharting tool.
As you might expect, this provides some distinct advantages in terms of managing and following your flow. However, this doesn’t come without a cost.
First, Visio is not an everyday tool that comes with the base MS Office, so many people don’t have it.This isn’t just an issue for the author, but more so for the reviewer. If reviewers don’t own Visio, they rely on the author to create PDF documents for them to read. It should be obvious that those don’t provide much opportunity for editing. And even if the reviewers do have Visio, like PowerPoint, Visio has limited ability to mark up the flowchart.
Furthermore, because Visio is intended to be a flowcharting tool, there isn’t much room for writing narrative. By the time you make the boxes in the chart large enough to hold narration, you won’t fit too many of them on a page, making that PDF you send to the reviewer quite large.
But There is a Way
Alas, all is not lost when trying to storyboard branched scenarios.
There’s a bit of an old school tool that is actually meant to create online, interactive, story-based games. Sound anything like a branched eLearning scenario to you? The tool is called Twine, and best of all, it’s FREE.
Twine’s interface uses Post-it-like containers called passages. These can be linked together like a flowchart, with the arrows showing the connection between each of your passages. So, how does this differ from something like Visio?
First of all, there is plenty of room to write.
Double-clicking any passage opens up an editor window where you have plenty of room to add your narration. Twine also makes it very easy to create new passages and determine where they point to, so managing the content as an author is quick and easy.
But where Twine really shines as a storyboarding tool is how SMEs can use it to review your storyboard. Twine provides two export options that solve all the issues from the other tools regarding reviewers following the flow and being able to edit. The first step is to publish the storyboard, or what Twine calls “Build Story…”
This creates an interactive HTML file that the reviewer can open in any web browser. The beauty of this is that it’s interactive, so the user can click through the story branches without the need to hunt for line or page references like what’s needed in Word or PowerPoint.
These links are easily created by the author at the time of writing, and the linkages remain even if you add new slides, very similar to many flowcharting tools.
So following the flow is one thing, but the next step completes the review circle, by exporting a version to Word for the reviewer to mark up. In Twine this is called a Proofing Copy and exports your entire file to a Word document.
Armed with the interactive HTML file and the fully editable Word version, the reviewer can easily follow along in the published version of your storyboard, and can mark up the Word version, using track changes or any other method they prefer.
This combination allows SMEs to easily flow down one branch at a time in the interactive version, and check off or make revisions in the Word version. While it does require them to deal with two documents, we’ve found that the process is much more seamless than the alternative, and is by far the best option for reviewing complex branching.
In a follow up article, I’ll dive into using Twine and demonstrate how easy it is to perform everything mentioned in this article, and more.
Until then, it’s up to you to decide if and when Twine might be right for you. Is it the key for all storyboards? Definitely not. The more linear your course, the better the usual suspects fit the bill. But once you start managing multiple branches and various pathways through your course, it may be time to check out alternatives, and Twine just might be the answer you’re looking for.