People quite like scenarios

Using Scenarios in learning and development 

Picture the scene: it’s a day-long practitioner workshop, and the main themes of the day have been introduced by a couple of senior managers with a series of PowerPoint slides. They sketch out the background and the policy context, and perhaps list the main challenges that are there to be faced. Then it’s time for a change of rhythm, and the next presenter sets up the move to small group discussions, with a brief outline of a couple of case studies, or scenarios. The workshop disaggregates into a series of small groups, where the participants pick over the scenarios and use them as a launch pad for getting into the meat and the detail of what the managers were proposing, and the analysis underpinning it. Participants retail relevant experiences, and bounce between these and the scenarios. Then the workshop reconvenes in plenary session, and short feedback from each of the small group discussions is given. A commitment is offered to ‘write all this up’, and the workshop proceeds to its next agenda item…

People tend to like scenarios and case studies in this sort of context. Also, their contribution to learning and training generally is well-known. Case studies and scenarios help people ‘get into’ or ‘unpack’ – and as a result relate-to better and understand – issues, questions, and concepts that might otherwise appear too abstract. A scenario helps make a construct ‘concrete’ and ‘real’. You can bring your own experience to bear. Perhaps the scenario helps you make – or re-make – sense of your own experience, while the traffic is two-way too, as your own experience can enrich the scenario by further developing or validating it.

Though scenarios may be used to support individual reflection, they are also often used as the springboard for small group discussions: let’s stick with this one for now. Thinking about the little vignette above, can this be critiqued at all?

What if you

§         Wanted all aspects of the scenario considered carefully, rather than just those that workshop participants found congenial to discuss?

§         Wanted to keep track of how individuals reacted rather than just those who spoke up?

§         Wanted to re-run the process with other groups at different times, as part of some overall process where the deliberations of one group built upon another?

§         Were concerned that the attenders might not be wholly representative of the broader population you were trying to communicate with?

On reflection, it’s possible for scenario-based discussions to be enjoyable and fruitful in terms of a general feeling of engagement, without really leading anywhere. Like with a (proverbial) Chinese takeaway, you can enjoy the experience of eating yet be hungry again in half-an-hour.

Can and should one do more? 

In light of the example critique above, can one do more than use a series of various scripts for open and one-off discussions, and if so, how might this development help?

What might we want to do with scenario material by way of developing a useful resource?

Might it be good to be able to

§         Take a scenario, change it, and upload the new material as an additional resource?

§         Access a scenario from wherever you may be?

§         Inter-act with the scenario in some way? – and perhaps record the products of that inter-action?

§         Use the scenario in combination with other information resources?

Let’s look at a few examples of scenario resources, to begin to dig into the topic a bit. (NB. there may well be questions to consider around barriers to access to some of the technologies used in these examples, within corporate intranets)

Some examples:

§         Why do we need confidentiality?

This is a Re-usable Learning Object (RLO) created at UCeL. It includes some case background, sets up a context (the case conference), offers some dilemmas for the learner to consider, etc. It is a quite complex object: involving a number of sub-topics; animation on the screen; interaction with the material; a voice over, amongst other elements. It looks as though it would be quite difficult to amend, re-use or develop the material. The learning or insight that is envisaged seems quite tightly focused.

§         ‘Mairi’s Life’

This learning object was created via work on the Integrated Assessment Framework, and the approach to the data is derived from activity within the IAF project, that took scenario data from a number of public sources, and stitched these together in a variety of permutations to create a number of children’s timelines. One of these (‘Amrit’) was used as the basis for a workshop small group exercise on assessment, care planning, and information-sharing. The presentation of Mairi’s timeline is enabled by some open source code created within the SIMILE project at MIT.

The content of the timeline is significant. It is simply data – a flat XML file (see the available example for the Kennedy assassination timeline). One can ‘move about’ within the timeline, and by clicking on any of the events/episodes in it get a little more information. Wherever further information is available, one can access it via a hyperlink. No particular form of interaction is predicated, except for one event (‘Worrying about Weight and Self-image’) as the material is intended to be open and the focus is diffuse as a result.

§         Mary’s difficult decision

This is one of a series of Generative Learning Objects’ (GLOs) created by the UCeL team again. A GLO is defined as ‘any learning object that can be customised, adapted, edited or recombined for specific teaching and learning purposes’. This one, on ‘Ethical Decision-making’ involves a brief scenario, various ‘actors’ who are sources of insight into the decision at issue. Interactivity includes navigation amongst the group of actors, a number of opportunities to record a yes/no decision, the ability to make notes on your rationale at that point, etc. The emphasis is on the decision-making process and the learning that can be gained from that, so accordingly the background, context etc. is somewhat spartan.

§         ‘Sharon Donelly’

(NB. this is a password-protected resource)

This resource has been collated by the Learning Exchange (LX) workstream within the Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education (SIESWE). It consists of five short video clips representing various points in the progress of a child protection case (allegation, planning for permanent care, etc.) filmed from the point of view of different participants. The material is ‘rich case’ (video, sound) and relatively open in focus, not involving any particular structured interaction or assumptions about the specific learning that might be involved.

What might be done? 

§         Create a ‘scenario bank’?

When I released the publication version of ‘Mairi’s Life’, the positive response to this included the request for more examples like this – children lead all sorts of different sorts of life, and you can’t realistically subsume this variety within one scenario (in this case a timeline). So some sort of catalogue, where people could add their own scenarios, or perhaps take one from the catalogue, develop it or change it, and then upload the new version as an addition to the stock, would be useful.

§         Develop the use of GLOs?

The (GLOs) that are being developed by UCeL are an example of this sort of catalogue facility. If you try out the use of one of the scenarios supported by the GLO containing an exercise in ‘Ethical Decision-making’ – perhaps ‘Mary’s difficult decision’, you may be able to get the idea? The scenario, where 19-year old Mary is pregnant and wondering whether she should get an abortion, and it is possible to query the views of important people in her life, and practitioners involved in her care, can be used by any number of learners, either individually or in discussion. The Ethical decision-making framework available here is just that – a framework. You can see that a variety of decisions have already been constructed and uploaded. The facility is there for the use of the framework as a container for a great variety of other scenarios so long as they conform to the basic structure involved in decision-making this way. UCeL are actively interested in developing further frameworks that could be populated with a wide variety of materials.

§         Develop linkages?

Things begin to get intriguing when you consider the potential for linking these sorts of resources. For example in Mairi’s Life, one can peek at an episode called ‘Worrying about Weight and Self-image’ (Mairi is 16) and click a link in the summary description that is available, which takes you through to the details of that episode and its assessment. You can step around those details in your own preferred order and use these as a springboard for considering a wide variety of issues. Equally, a hyperlink from any of the summaries could connect with a scenario involving decision-making, using the GLO framework. Alternatively, it could connect with a more generic discussion space or notes that could be built up incrementally. Another timeline using the same (open source) technology – Kennedy’s assassination – offers this (click on any of the events, and follow the [‘Discuss’] link in the relevant summary, to see this opportunity). Yet again, one could envisage a link to the multi-media material on the Sharon Donelly case as an example of a scenario offering a bridge into a quite ‘immersive’ learning experience.

These sorts of possible initiatives need to take place within some form of overall framework, so that we can maximise the opportunity to re-use and link material. A framework should enable us to tease apart the components of any given development. Here is an initial stab[1] at such a framework:


Presentation Inter-action Potential context for use



Point & click



Decision tree

Input text



Film clips

Move along predetermined path








Things to make a start with? 

Here are some initial suggestions to get things moving:



Parse, review & otherwise process the ad hoc volumes of scenarios & case studies collated for the Transformational Technologies team;

§         Candidate scenarios weeded through, organised etc.

§         Further insights & progress on design aspects.

Investigate the available opportunities to create a web-enabled library of timelines. This to include:

§         dialogue with the LX team about their experiences in creating Mairi’s Life

§         considering the potential opportunities offered by Exhibit and Babel frameworks and tools available within the SIMILE project


Worked up experience prepared for potential re-use

Potential for DiY considered, maybe early progress in view, for sharing with broader community of interest

Have a go at populating the Ethical decision-making GLO with some further scenarios. This to include tackling this task in collaboration with interested parties as well as in test-bed isolation.

Assessment of feasibility & benefit of this approach. Examples available for broader community of interest

Open a dialogue with the UCeL project team on the question of some joint effort on the development of further GLO frameworks

Work plan for following through with this activity

Etc. – we can surely think of more….


[1] There will surely be bound to be better versions of this sort of thing that have been developed within the e-learning development community


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