High-Context Storyline Course Example

Nov 16, 2018

Hello Heroes,

I work as part of a tiny two-person safety training team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. We are wrapping up work on a hazardous waste course for scientists who work at the Lab's Molecular Foundry, and I want to share this course with the community. The course is not quite finalized yet, so its current location may be temporary, but at least for now, you can view the course here: MFD User Hazardous Waste Training.

Could it be better? Sure, in lots of ways. But what I like about it--in spite of its flaws--is that it focuses on two of the most important aspects of a good online course: context and practice. I've been working hard to move past e-learning-as-information-delivery. Instead, to the degree possible, we are trying to simulate the relevant aspects of the researcher's job in order to give him or her the chance to learn by doing. I'm hoping it inspires other course designers to try this approach.


33 Replies
David Jones

Great work Ray. I echo Allison in that it is nice to see a full course being shared. I would do the same if it was allowed by work policies. 

Spent a few minutes on the course and I loved the interactivity element. I always try and rack my brain when it comes to interactivity and sometimes come up stumped but you've done a great job here. Keep up the good work.

Ray Cole

Hi Amy,

It's a little hard to say how long it took to create because I'm usually working on more than one project at a time. On the calendar, it took about 4-5 months, with about 6-8 weeks of intense focus, and the rest of the time a bit less intense as the basic structure was in place but in need of smaller tweaks and polish (replacing photos, adjusting text, fixing bugs, etc.). Also in that time we developed some interactions that we ultimately removed from the course.

Ray Cole

I see a couple of comments along the lines of "I looked at the first few minutes." Thank you for looking! If you only have a few minutes to devote to it, though, you might get a better sense of the instructional design approach we're aiming for by skipping directly to Module 2 (use the Menu link in the upper right).

When you start at the beginning, there is the inevitable few minutes of "What you will learn"/"How long it will take"/intro material. So the course doesn't get to the high-context or highly interactive material until you get past those opening few minutes.

In general, this is something we struggle with. There's a certain amount of "telling" that's required in order to give the learner enough information to successfully complete the activities. Yet, we don't want to front-load the course with a lot of "telling"; we want to get the learner "doing" as quickly as possible. It's hard to do, though, or perhaps we just haven't found the right way to do it yet. I'm curious what others do to address this problem.



David Jones

I get what you mean in terms of the 'telling', as it's something that is on my mind when developing a course too. However, one way you have to think about is it is entirely necessary. 

Think of it this way, if you went to Ikea and bought some furniture, they have to 'tell' you how to put it together with instructions. If you purchase a new blender for your kitchen, you read the instruction manual on how to operate it. That's all it is, in the end, is just instructions on how the course works. You're not telling them the overall information, just how to navigate it.

Ray Cole

Hi David,

I alluded to this but wasn't as clear as I should've been in my previous post. There are two different kinds of up-front "telling": there's the explanation for how to use the course controls, and there's the telling of important facts and principles that a learner must know in order to succeed at a learning activity.

An argument can be made that explaining how to use the course is necessary, and I used to agree with this argument without question. But I am starting to wonder.

The other kind of telling seems more problematic because it can significantly bog the course down in a lot of boring infodumping before the learner has a chance to get engaged in any interactivity or interesting challenges. It's this latter kind of telling that I am mostly struggling to find a way to avoid.

At this year's ATD conference, I saw Ethan Edwards demo some e-learning where there was almost no explanation of any kind. The interface for the interactions had to be very, very carefully designed so that a learner could discover the rules by trial and error if necessary, without even the benefit of Correct/Incorrect feedback boxes. Instead, if an action was incorrect, the object would just move back to its starting point, or shake, or otherwise indicate visually that the learner had made an incorrect action. This is a very intriguing approach because it preserves an element of mystery that I think can motivate a learner to actually want to explore the material more deeply, to satisfy his or her own curiosity, which is aroused by such a minimal interface.

But designing a course this way is still a little beyond my skill level. I am very interested to know if anyone has other strategies for avoiding up-front telling, though. Maybe there's a method that's a little easier to implement. If so, I would like to learn about it!



Holly MacDonald

Ray - thanks for sharing the course - I think you've done a great job to simulate the real life tasks. I think we are often critical of our own work, and I thought your guided method was helpful for someone who is not familiar with the tasks. But, if you are looking for ways to push the challenge to the forefront, you could check out Cathy Moore http://blog.cathy-moore.com/.  She's got a great way of framing things. There's also a method that Ethan Edwards uses called CCAF https://learn.alleninteractions.com/instructional-interactivity - they might give you some ideas to play with.


Ray Cole

Hi Holly, the CCAFs are a great way to think about designing meaningful learning interactions. They definitely informed the design of this course, as I am a big fan of Michael Allen's books and the work his company produces. I'm somewhat familiar with Cathy Moore's work, but not as much as I probably should be, so thanks for reminding me. I need to check out her blog more often.

Most of the thought leaders in our industry are urging us to

  • Put information into context (the first "C" in "CCAF")
  • Move beyond the bottom two levels of Bloom's taxonomy (the "Remembering" and "Understanding" levels where so much e-learning seems to be stuck) and instead aim for the "Applying" level or higher
  • Get the learner actively practicing (i.e., "Applying") rather than passively reading/listening/watching.

I fully agree with those prescriptions, but implementing courses this way is really hard. I am still learning how despite having been working in this industry for a long time. That means I need to practice thoughtfully in order to get better at it. So in some sense, this course is part of my intentional practice. 

One reason (there are many) that a lot of e-learning is stuck in the mode of infodumping followed by fact-based multiple choice questions is that this is the main style that most people have experienced with e-learning, and we tend to build and expect what we've seen in the past. We need a wider availability of model courses that show a better way in order to let people know the alternatives to infodump course designs. So that's part of what I'm trying to do by sharing this attempt, warts-and-all.

Anyway, thanks for taking a look and for your recommendations.

Ray Cole

Anusha, thanks for taking the whole course. That is the best way to see what we are attempting to do with respect to keeping information in context and creating meaningful, realistic work-related challenges to help jump-start learner practice. If it gives you ideas, or inspiration to try a similar approach, then my mission was accomplished. :-)

Holly MacDonald

Ray, I think it's great that you shared as part of your intentional practice. I tend to view our work as a craft too. I really liked your 2 step quiz in module 3. Yes/no and then why. 

I think you could easily flip a course like yours. What's the consequence of them not following procedure? Use that as the spring board and re-imagine the forms and processes as clues to learn about the same information. You could build in hints and reference along the way using pieces from your existing course. 

  • There's been an explosion and an investigation has to happen (form has wrong information on it or is not filled out completely, no blue tape on the top of a container and someone overfills and tries to clean it up, etc)
  • During an audit someone has uncovered sloppy work
  • An injury occurs and we need to get to the bottom of it
  • Supervisor finds an error and has to figure out who hasn't followed procedure
  • Someone's experiment is ruined due to contamination and they complain

Someone told me that there were several games in the demofest webinar the other day - you can probably do some fun searching here: https://www.elearningguild.com/content/?mode=filter&source=demofest_archive 

Also I liked that you used video in your course and saw this example recently that resonated with me: https://de.ryerson.ca/games/nursing/mental-health/game.html#/chart - you could emulate this a little bit instead of having two characters in the frame. 


Ray Cole

Hi Holly, I think you are spot-on about consequences. The course in its current form doesn't emphasize consequences and most feedback falls into the judgment or explanation categories instead. Focusing more on consequences would improve the realism and impact of the exercises in the course. One problem we face is that the consequences are often very minor--if you don't fill out the label properly, a staff member has to come find you to correct the information. Not too exciting. But your point is still right: realistic consequences make the learning more memorable.

The two-step thing: where we ask a learner to choose an action or answer a question and then follow up by asking the learner to justify that answer is something we've been using for a while. I generally like the approach, especially when the training has some underlying principles because then you can ask learners to justify their answers in terms of those principles (e.g., you identified this as a problem. Which principle does it violate?) This helps learners connect actions with the underlying principles.

I will take a look at the links you provided. Thanks so much!

Mary Sickles


This is great! I am a part of EH&S for a university where lab safety is a big issue. Your presentation gave me so many great ideas on how to make our lab safety training more engaging. I am new to Articulate, so I am still learning all that it can do, but I hope to be able to create something similar in the near future

Thanks for sharing!   -Mary


Ray Cole

Thanks for the kind words everyone. Paul--yes, putting you in the middle of the work environment is something we consciously tried to do. That's what I mean by "high-context." When we had to present information, we tried to do it always in the context of the job so learners could see how that information was relevant to their work.



Lynn Murphy

The course is great - I did the whole thing twice! And made notes of all the effective ways you created engagement. Thanks so much for sharing. You give a lot to think about regarding showing and not telling.

This is an interesting point about instructions. I know I tend to skip over them.

I am currently wondering in my rise course using flashcards if I have to say something like.,,,

click here, tap here, tap here for feedback, tap here to flip for feedback?

Or use an arrow on the card? And if I do use some instructions - do I need to use every time?

Andy Houghton

Hi Ray

Here's my two cents.

There are a lot of different ways of doing things, but a lot of it comes down to what you are trying to achieve with the elearning - you've spent a lot of time on it, so you want it to be as effective as possible.

Have you thought about your objectives in terms of knowledge, skills, attitude and awareness? I find this a really helpful way of breaking things down so as to focus on the most important things for the learners. Here's a blog I wrote about objectives a while back. https://whatyouneedtoknow.co.uk/blog/2014/02/11/objectives-chasing-tail-next-big-thing/ 

I know objectives are dull, boring, tedious, incomplete and all the rest of it, but the clearer the picture you have of what you want to achieve, the easier it is, in my opinion, to build the learning around it.

This isn't about... by the end of the module you'll be able to... it's about why is this training important and what knowledge, skills, attitudes and awareness should the participants come away with - it doesn't have to be all of them.

You mention below about the consequences not being severe, and it looks like you're training people who probably know quite a bit about what they're doing - so where are the challenges for them?

I'm not sure about discovering the rules by trial and error - personally I find this sort of approach really annoying when applied to elearning. There's a case for a 'discovery approach', but the technique only works, again in my opinion, when it's used for certain types of training - something like role plays. The point is - don't use a technique because someone says it's good - try it yourself as a real learner (not someone with a testing hat on) to see how you feel about it.

Best wishes



Rise 0

Thanks for sharing this course.
Interesting work. The telling or building up to interaction can be challenging and the learn by doing can be equally challenging but since it is e-learning the trial and error or learn from previous decisions methods are harmless as long as they have a time measurement with encouragements / corrective info or tips to handle the exercise to be able to pass it..

The company policies dont allow me to share courses in these types of forums unfortunately. Unless you are signed up as a customer or partner of various levels or given accounts (which we dont do). 

If you still want to take the time and explore courses on your own, successfully or not. (unsupported). As an example, the searches for courses in the LMS called MyLearning, could be for SafeMove 2 basics 2018 or Robotstudio® basics 2018.