Making branching online scenarios

Authored by Tom Buckley, Hannah Duke
Based on work by Andrea Maggs
Edited by:

What is a branching scenario?

Branching scenarios are a digital or real world narrative plotted to give users experiences mediated by decisions they make throughout the scenario. Each ‘play through’ of a scenario begins the same way. As users work through a scenario they will be presented with information and will need to make decisions based on that information. Depending on the specific decision a user makes they will be presented with the consequence of their ‘actions’ or ‘choices’. At the heart of this experience is a decision tree, a diagram much like a flow chart, that resembles a starting point with various different branches which represent different journeys through the scenario. Pictured below is the structure of a branching scenario currently used in healthcare education.

Branching scenarios are actually the basis for many past times. For example, you may have had a ‘choose your own adventure book’ as a child. These books were very popular and used the technology available at the time, namely books and paper, to give a bespoke / personalized narrative to the reader. They were used for various genres from fantasy to romance and decisions were mediated by turning to different pages to represent different choices(turn to page 63 for ‘Yes’ or page 89 for ‘No’).

Most computer games will use branching conversational trees to guide your experience. In some games conversational decisions you make will feed into an overarching presentation or narrative. These are known as role-playing games(RPGs). The most famous and successful of these games would be the Mass Effect trilogy. Within this game you were guided through the same narrative but given options in conversation be make virtuous (paragon) decisions or dishonerable (renegade) decisions. The way you experienced the game affected the decisions you were given and vice versa. It was a powerful and emotive experience for the end user. The ability influence a narrative gave players an immersive feel which encouraged many people to do multiple ‘play throughs’ to experience different decisions.

Even if you have never played a game or used an adventure book you may have consumed more traditional media with the same immersive feel. The most high profile recent use of a branching scenario for entertainment was an episode of Charlie Brookers series ‘Black Mirror’ entitled ‘Bandersnatch’. This was available through Netflix and used parts of the Netflix interface in novel ways(Pictured Below). In Bandersnatch, viewers make decisions for the main character, a young programmer who is adapting a fantasy book into a video game. These decisions had dark and comical affects on the journey of the main character. This was guided by the viewer via their remote control.

Bandersnatch options

Branching stories can be difficult to write. There is a skill to be able deal with the complexity of their authoring especially if they contain loops of recurring interactions. Yet even in the time of writing this article, during a pandemic, they are a form of creativity that endures. They are a conceptually simple way to present complex interactions asynchronously. They are a source of creativity for people and if the idea is interesting enough plot out write out in full you can make whatever technology you have to hand the site of this creativity. For example there has recently been an increase of using twitter as a host for these branching narratives:

So branching scenarios are still popular but so what? What is this doing in an article for an HE website? It is precisely the immersion, contextualisation, replayability and simplicity outlined above which makes branching scenarios an interesting tool for learning. In learning and teaching they are usually built around realistic scenarios. They are especially popular in private sector e-Learning focused on large scale learning and development. However, UWE has a particular history with branching e-Learning that is worth exploring.

Branching e-Learning at UWE

Branching scenarios are useful tools to increase student involvement, interaction and engagement in a learning activity. They can be independent activities which require the student’s attention or group activities which involve discussion and joint decision making. They can encourage problem-solving and critical thinking. Branching scenarios are designed to allow students to test their knowledge or theories by applying them in a practical and contextual way. Students can gain a practical insight into different real-life scenarios. This is helpful when students usually would be unable to experience the situation in real life or to ready them for a situation they will shortly embark on.

In healthcare there is a tradition of using branching scenarios or activities based on decision trees. When digitized these have come to be known as virtual patients. UWE has a history of engagement with simulation and in particular virtual patients in health education. UWE Bristol previously had its own virtual patient software called uChoose. UChoose has long been in obsolescence. The Faculty has moved on and tried various different approaches to making branching e-Learning. Some of the software packages were suitable for the task and others less so. A selection are pictured below.

uChoose
uChoose
Adapt Learning Pool
Adapt Learning Pool
Jennifer Coles Xerte Example
Xerte Example

If you would like to play a real learning object created as a branching scenario then below there are a selection from HAS.

Case Study: Integrating branching e-Learning and different modes of teaching

In HAS we have learnt that branching e-Learning resources can be useful for purely distance learning AND blended learning . Conceptualizing a branching story in a blended learning delivery can sometimes be tough. The question as to how you integrate and scaffold these interactions is something that is specific to each intervention but here is an example of how UWE approached this for one week of a ‘Communication Scenario’.

Seminar where scenario 1 is used in lesson trigger for facilitated conversation.

  • Scenario 1 Task 1 – Each student should write down privately how their gut reaction tells them to respond to the abrupt member of staff.
  • Scenario 1 Task 2 – Students to vote according to their gut reactions from earlier. This progresses the scenario.
  • Scenario 1 Task 3 – Reflective exercise on the behaviour of the member of staff
  • Home learning task 4 – Students are given the scenario to play all branches of and an exercise to complete for the next lesson.

Lecture on Communication

  • Reflective exercise on the behavior of the member of staff in light of Lecture materials

This is was particular scenario was written up and published. If you would like to find out more there is an academic poster available to peruse.

How to plan a branching scenario

As alluded to above, the hardest part of a branching scenario is the writing. It takes a lot of planning and can get confusing. From experience you want to separate the making / digitizing and planning. Although not every tool will be able to do exactly what you require you want the planning stage to be uninfluenced by technology.

Identity learning objectives or goals for students to achieve or experience.

Firstly, identify the learning objectives or/and goals you would like the students to achieve or experience within the scenario.

Next, start to plan your scenario ensuring it incorporates the learning objectives/goals. It needs to represents a real-life scenario that students would experience and test knowledge/ skills student have already developed. In this step, you may want to consider whether this will be done in a group or by an individual, how long it should be and how to keep students engaged.

Plan the scenario ensuring it incorporates learning objectives/ goals and represents real-life.

Then, using post its or a mind mapping piece of software you should plan the ideal route of the scenario, from start to finish. There will be a perfect path to take.

Plan the route of the scenario, including branching decisions and the different routes

Add different branching decisions and consider the different routes a student may take. In this step, you should consider a few things; How the decisions students make reflect real life tension and distractions? Will students receive feedback immediately?

Ensure that all ‘wrong’ or ‘ ‘alternative’ end states that are important to the learning objectives are present and there is a logical route to them. This might be guided by things other than the end state. For example, emotion might be important to the scenario. Has each pertinent emotion been given a path?

Conversation and decisions are hard to plot out with out digital or real world notation aids. There is nothing wrong with writing out the decision tree diagram at the start. Using a node structure like the one below will be essential in creating a working piece of e-Learning. The alternative is one full of dead ends or abrupt/unrealistic conversations.

Node Diagram 1

Decide whether it is applicable to add multi-media

Finally, you would need to decide whether it is appropriate to add multi-media such as images, videos audio, etc., and/or add questions/ MCQs to the scenario.

Marrying up a coding structure with this tree diagram is essential. You might know a node denotes a particular decision but some system force you to label each decision or page. Having a coding structure to recognize the say ‘A1 = having chosen salad’ will really save you time. More importantly it will save you a headache trying to work what interaction leads to where. This might not make much sense here but when you get authoring believe us when we say it will.

It is important to think about the type of media you could add to a branching scenario to ensure it is beneficial and relevant to the students learning. Using different forms of multi-media such as images, video, audio and animation throughout the scenario can be a useful way to increase engagement, enhance and deepen the learning process through a deeper understanding.   However, multi-media should only be used if it has a purpose and will assist in the students learning. Multi-media could become a distraction or take away from the learning objectives or goals of the scenario if it isn’t used appropriately.

How to make branching scenarios

There are different ways you can create branching scenarios. The following will discuss 4 different types of programs that you could create a branching scenario from.

Free Tools

PowerPoint PowerPoint is an easy way to make simple branching scenarios for free. You can do this by creating images, text or shapes and attach hyperlinks that go to different slides.  PowerPoint can easily be put into Blackboard. You would need to plan it out on paper first and it would not be suitable for long, complex scenarios as it could become confusing.

For support: talk to your nearest Learning Technologist.

Xerte Xerte is an online platform used by UWE Bristol which allows you to create complex scenarios. You can present images, text, video and documents within the scenario. It can easily be embedded into blackboard and accessible for students. However, it requires you to develop a new skill which would not be applicable in many other situations.

For support: https://www.xerte.org.uk/index.php/en/support-menu/support or talk to your local Learning Technologist.

Twine Twine is a free online program where you can easily create branching scenarios. In Twine you create different passages which link together by clicking on a word which will take them to the next page.  Twine is mainly text based, although you can add multimedia, the media would need to be stored elsewhere (such as dropbox). Twine publishes to HTML and can be embedded into black board.

Also, Twine saves to your browser history so they will be deleted if you delete your browsing history. You can save them to the archive link on Twine and they will be saved to your computer which you will need to import to keep working on it.

For support visit https://twinery.org/

Paid for tools

ISpring iSpring is a downloadable program that can easily create realistic complex branching scenarios. You can add text, images and it provides professional backgrounds and characters. You can present a counter on the screen which can give students instant feedback, the counter could represent happiness, health, money or other. It is interoperable on multiple devices but less accessible.

For support visit https://www.ispringsolutions.com/support

Adapt Leaning Pool / Articulate There are various other tools that will allow you to build branching scenarios. If you wish to explore other options please talk to your local Learning Technologist.

Leave a comment