Good eLearning doesn’t simply create itself (though that would be great, wouldn’t it?). Just like every Beyoncé starts by singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror, every great eLearning begins as a storyboard.
The trouble lies in knowing where to start and what to include. But first, a definition: what is a storyboard in learning and development? Why do you even need one? And, if you've never created one, where do you learn how to storyboard?
WHAT IS A STORYBOARD?
A eLearning storyboard is a sequence of panels in which the instructional designer lays out the framework for the eLearning module (or other type of training). Instructional design principles guide the process, solidifying and organizing course content to engage the learner in the material (think dialogue and interactivity). Beyond written content, the instructional designer also considers how to intrigue the learner visually. What pictures, icons, charts, screenshots, or animations will best support the points being made?
Storyboards can be written using various tools: Word, PowerPoint, Storyline, and so on. Let’s take a look at a few of these storyboarding tools and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
A simple table using Microsoft Word is perhaps the most basic storyboard format. In the example below, we used a simple three-column approach, noting slide numbers, a description of visual and interactive content, and potential audio scripting to support the visuals.
This is a simple method of conveying a general idea of your vision for an eLearning module. Maybe too simple.
The problem with this format is that when the client reviews the storyboard, they have to apply their own assumptions and interpretations to the descriptions of visual content in the second column. This could result in:
- Disappointment with the outcome on the client side. Reviewers might have something different in mind. It’s not easy to accurately convey visual imagery in words.
- The reviewer focusing almost entirely on the audio content described in the right-hand column. Often, when they can’t envision the visuals and interactivity via the written description, they become fixated on the audio content, ignoring the visuals.
- Mismatching slide numbers. Keep in mind that when developing the first draft of an eLearning module, the slide numbers rarely, if ever, will correspond to the numbering used in the storyboard. This can cause confusion during module development. You need to storyboard slides to stay aligned with the published versions.
It's easier to display visual content in PowerPoint, with audio script and any notes on interactivity listed in the notes section beneath each slide. This format provides specific programming instructions, which is especially useful when the instructional designer is not going to be the developer of the eLearning module. Additionally, it's helpful for the client to be able to see the visuals the instructional designer imagines.
In the sample below, the instructional designer was developing a course that did not include an audio component. Hence, there were no script notes in the file. But notice the shapes and color used to give the client an idea of the vision for this course. (Click for larger view.)
The main disadvantage of PowerPoint and Word storyboarding is that all the content needs to be transferred or recreated in the tool being used for development. Some tools do offer PowerPoint conversion, though that option doesn’t always work perfectly, with clean-up sometimes required post conversion.
Creating a storyboard within Storyline provides the same advantages as PowerPoint in terms of visually displaying plans for the course. The added benefit is that strides toward development will have been made by the time the storyboard has been approved. Second, the client gets a much better feel for what they’re getting; expectations can be managed and adjustments can be made early in the development process. And third, as the client reviews audio content and interactive explanations in the text beneath the imagery, they have a frame of reference for what it looks like and how it will function.
This format looks much like the format of the notes pages in PowerPoint, with the slide image at the top of the screen, and any audio script and interactive notes beneath. Because reviewers rarely have access to Storyline, which requires a license, Storyline allows you to publish your storyboard as a Word document to share with clients.
There aren't any disadvantages here. In fact, storyboarding directly in the chosen development tool is an efficient and effective storyboarding method.
A Word of Caution
Not all storyboards are created equal. Often, SMEs will provide content in a PowerPoint deck or Word document resembling a storyboard format. While using an existing PowerPoint may provide a basis for your storyboard, it should never act as a storyboard as it stands.
Consider these potential pitfalls:
Generally, PowerPoint presentations created by SMEs are a means of conveying information, not necessarily teaching information. A PowerPoint presentation is at best an indifferent means of communication, highly dependent on the skill of the presenter, the mood and interest of the listener, the temperature of the room, and so on.
A successful eLearning module must be more than that. It requires instructional design. It requires a clear vision of what the learner should do with the information being provided, and it requires the learner remain actively engaged in the process of consuming that learning. Is the structure of the PowerPoint the best means of promoting learning, and not just getting a message out? Consider how the learner will recall and retain the information, and what activities will encourage this to happen.
Below is an example of how a PowerPoint slide might be converted into a more interactive eLearning activity.
This PowerPoint slide acts as a kind of "information dump."
- There is way too much verbiage on the screen.
- The learner has no way to control or interact with this content.
This screen should definitely not be converted into an eLearning slide as it stands.
Applying some interactivity to engage the learner makes this content more manageable for the learner to consume.
- Ideas are conveyed more visually, with audio support
- Material is “chunked” so that the learner can process the steps of the procedure more quickly and simply
- We avoid the visual assault of the screen full of text and images.
HOW TO CREATE A STORYBOARD
1. Before You Begin
Before creating a storyboard, think about how to “hook” the learner, to get them to take this ride with you. Ask yourself:
- What’s in it for the learner? Adult learners are more motivated to learn something if they see that it’s directly applicable to their needs on the job. So, think about your audience. What would make their job easier? What would make them more successful?
- What do you want your learners to DO after taking your eLearning module? There’s a tendency to use eLearning to convey a lot of information, provide a quick knowledge check at the end, and call it a success. But without follow-up, retention rates are pretty low. Instead, consider what you want your learners to do with the information you’re providing. Then, “hang” the necessary information on to the tasks to be performed.
- How can you engage the learner? This might mean taking a specific visual approach, applying a story to guide the content development, implementing a game, or creating an avatar. Is the use of humor appropriate to your organization? Are they open to fun? In short, how can you make the material more memorable?
2. Begin to Write
The level of detail included in the storyboard is dependent on your own work processes and any agreements with your customer. Some companies try to build a complete storyboard, meaning the course content is 100 percent defined, the final images are selected, the script is agreed upon, and the interactivity is fully defined. Other companies and customers use the storyboard as a springboard; their ideas firm up and take shape during course development.
In any case, at this stage of production you will attempt to design the course.
First, define the learning objectives for the course. These don’t necessarily have to be written explicitly in the storyboard, but they are extremely important for guiding the course development. You should know what you want the learners to be able to DO after they complete this course.
Next, organize the content in a logical way. Break it up into manageable chunks so that you don’t overwhelm the learner with too much information at one time. Use of branching (allowing the user to select each topic they want to learn about from a “home page”), section break slides, and activities (games, Q&A) are all common methods of breaking up didactic content.
3. Place Content Into Chosen Storyboard Format
After deciding which content to include in the module, place each information chunk onto it's own slide (or corresponding row when using Word).
At the same time, start designing. Choose photos and images, think about interesting and interactive ways to present the content and keep the learner actively engaged. Be sure to include programming notes for the developer (such as adding a specific icon or interactivity).
Finally, draft the script or narration and include this within the notes for the appropriate slide.
4. Some Practical Design
Here are a few tips that will help make your storyboards a little bit better.
- Break up long narrative passages across multiple screens. Ideally a learner would never watch the same slide for more than 15-20 seconds. Have you ever watched a single screen while the narration continued for 60 seconds or more? How engaged were you after the first 15 or 20 seconds? Breaking up lengthy audio content often requires you to add a lot more imagery or interactivity to a course, but it will keep the learner more engaged for a longer period.
- Don’t display text on the screen that differs significantly from what the voiceover is saying. The human brain’s executive function allows us to achieve a desired goal by ignoring distractions. When confronted with two separate pieces of information simultaneously, the frontal lobe will tell the brain to prioritize one type of information over the other, say visual information over auditory, and the learner will effectively “block” the secondary stimulus. If you’re concerned that the voiceover is repeating the words on the screen, consider replacing the words on screen with images, or at least a couple of keywords.
- Write conversationally. Narration for eLearning is a different kind of writing than formal business content. Even if you are writing a module on a serious topic, it will sound very strange to the ear if you write in the same way you would write it for someone to read.
- Always use contractions; that’s how humans speak, even in formal situations.
- Use transitional words like “and,” “but,” and “so” to reinforce logical links between thoughts and ideas.
- Avoid using the phrase “There are…” at the beginning of a sentence. Aside from the passivity of this construction, it’s also difficult for a narrator to pronounce smoothly.
5. Client Review
Once the storyboard is ready, send it for client review in whatever format you’re comfortable with. This could be with the track changes feature activated so that the client can make changes directly in the storyboard. Other times you might hold meetings with the key stakeholders to review the storyboards and incorporate their thoughts. This is largely based on the needs of the client.
Usually, plan for a single iteration of the storyboard, meaning that once the client has reviewed the storyboard and requested their changes, move directly into development of the alpha draft.
Occasionally a storyboard fails to hit the target, and the client requires a major rework of the material. If this happens, it’s usually best to set up time with the stakeholders to define in more detail what their vision and expectations are, and then make another attempt.
Keeping these thoughts in mind will help you produce more interesting and effective online eLearning content that is informed by adult learning principles.