Sensitive Issues

How do you handle modules that handle sensitive or hot button subjects?  When you are in a classroom, you can play off the audience's reactions and handle questions as they occur, but not as much in a module!  I want fun and interactive modules, but trying to balance that with a serious tone when dealing with life/death issues or hot button topics can be hard.  How do you handle it? 

13 Replies
Dave Neuweiler

Yeah, that's one of the limitations of e-learning. In a classroom setting (and it looks like you've done that), it's easy enough to take a difficult question and pass it off to another member of the group not only to engage that person, but to pull the entire group into the discussion. You just can't do that in an e-learning setting.

What might you try?

Set up the difficult question or issue, and then throw the discussion to one or more "charactor participants" who each will have a different take on the answer. You could display each participant's answer, and then ask the learner something like, "You've heard a few responses. Which one do you think is most appropriate?"

When the learner selects, you could provide branching to each one that gives either positive or negative feedback (of course always maintaining the self-esteem of the learner).

If something like that doesn't seem to work, consider that some topics just aren't appropriate to deliver via e-learning. In other words, if you have to "dumb down" the performance or learning objectives to fit the capabilities of the delivery medium, you may not be doing yourself (or the learners) any favors in trying to shoehorn the content into an inappropriate vessel.

Belen Casado

Hi Kate,

From my point of view, characters can lead to a lighter tone... and this is exactly what you may need in hot button topics.

2 years ago I built a course about legionnaire disease surveillance, and the main character was a roman legionnaire .

This was the client's idea, not mine. The legionnaire was specifically designed for the project and it had a resemblance with Asterix.

The client really loved "Oldus the legionnaire" to explain about this disease.

Hope this helps,


Black Buck

Hi Kate,

There are two questions I believe

1. How to respond according to learners response?

2. How to communicate exact sincerity of the topic?

My Opinion

1. I believe that it can be handle using branching scenarios, where leaner will have to select a option and the program will branch accordingly.

2. to convey exact sincerity you can use video of the scenarios, where learner can see the situations as in real life and can provide his opinion.

So if we mix both the ideas we can reach to a solution where a video can be used to present the situation and at the end of the clip learner can be asked to choose a option from give 3 or 4 options and according to learner's choice the program will branch out to next video.



Kate Hoelscher

I use narrations with photographic characters.  The person who I am thinking will do the narration is really good and has an empathetic sounding voice so should help.  Interesting Belen--I laughed out loud! 

I was planning on building scenarios using photographs--but I like the idea of video as well.  I'm learning toward a learner self-eval at the beginning so they can assess their own 'stuff', then lead to scenarios once they are on that thinking track.  I could use branching based on that self-assessment score as well so they truly get customized education........hmmm....  can you hear the wheels turning from there?  The hamsters are finally waking up  

Natalia Mueller

Hi Kate,

Have you ever seen the Broken Coworker course in the Articulate Showcase? While the topic itself may not be helpful to you, I really liked they way they built the scenarios using realistic options. The "right" answer was not always clear, and I was genuinely interested in what the potential consequence was for each choice. While I think this is important for ANY scenario, I especially appreciate it for more sensitive topics where overly simplified or cliche options/feedback can come across as uncaring instead of cautious. 

Morten Skoglund

In some cases I think it's important to provoke the audience and use feelings. If you have an emotional attachment to the course it will help you remember it. I remember two e-learning modules that really made an impression on me, and I still refer to them now and then. Here are the two examples.

The first one was a really simple questionaire.

The case is this: You have arrived at the scene of a car accident. What do yo do? In this scenario you are presented with some text detailing what you see. Then it asks you what you want to do. There are 4 choices and 1 is correct. If you choose the wrong one, it will have serious concequenses for the crash victims and other people at the scene.

The thing with the above questionaire is that you get immediately feedback, and you really see the concequenses of your actions. This simple module really made me wake up and concentrate.

The second is a e-learning course for youths taking the drivers license in Norway.

This e-learning module is very professional. It has 3D, high quality graphics. If you follow this link you can read about the project. In this course you get to know a group of youths around 18 who is taking the drivers license in Norway. But out in the course an accident happens to one of the young men. He dies in a tragic car accident because of errors he makes in the traffic. Since I had built up a relationship with these enthusiastic young boys and girls, I was moved emotionally when I saw all the RIP messages on the Facebook profile of the young man who died in this course. I have to admit that tears popped into my eyes. The message was clear. Traffic can kill you, and affect the lives of those around you.

I probably haven't given you the answers you are looking for, but I just wanted to share how we can use emotions to get a message through.

On the 1st of June I started working with e-learning at the University of Oslo, Faculty of Medicine. I know that I somewhere in the future we are going to make e-learning courses on sensitive and difficult subjects. Im looking forward to dealing with that.

Hope I made some sense

Bruce Graham

Yes - Morten, you made perfect sense!

You have also given 2 examples of how the emotional attachment of a sensitive subject is the way to get the content understood and remembered.

GREAT examples - and probably very powerful memories that will be able to guide you in some of the Faculty courses you know you will have to make in the future.


Daniel Brigham

Hi, Kate:

Yes, perhaps explore using the emotion as a tool. You might try building it up in small test section, and see how people react.  I mean, it's there anyway, might as well use it. Reminds me of a Seth Godin quote: "Communication is the transfer of emotion."

I also second another point made: you will need a first-rate narrator. Hopefully you have a few you can choose from. --Daniel