Building e-learning is a team effort. How does a designer translate an instructional vision into terms the development team will understand and in such a way the final product comes out as intended?
The answer is the storyboard. A storyboard transports an e-learning project from design to development—from the designer's vision to the cold, cruel world of production. It is the key item the designer presents to the client for "sign off." It is the most important single thing that gets handed off to the development team. A storyboard is to e-learning what a blueprint is to architecture. The storyboard provides the details from the designer that the developers need to produce an e-learning application on time and within budget.
A Little Background
Much of the "process" in e-learning development comes to us from the film and video world, as well as from education and software engineering. This common history with media design and production creates confusion at times. There are some terms that are used in both worlds, but in different ways, and not all of the lessons learned in producing other media apply to e-learning.
In making movies, cartoons, and other visual media, a written script is the traditional way to specify the exact content. During preproduction, the storyboard is how writers and directors plan the sequence of camera shots and connect them to the script. The storyboard usually consists of a series of sketches and notes on paper, covering the key shots in sequence.
There are several common concerns that apply both to the multimedia world and to e-learning:
- A team produces the final product.
- The product involves visual elements and audio.
- Mistakes are expensive to fix.
- Creativity is important.
At the same time, there are some important differences between the products:
- Most multimedia and all video and film products are linear—one thing follows another in a fixed sequence; e-learning branches depending on learner responses, and it is possible each learner will experience a different path.
- Most multimedia and a lot of video and film is made for the purpose of creating awareness and interest and telling a story; e-learning aims to support particular business goals by helping people develop new skills and knowledge.
- Most multimedia and all film and video products are non-interactive; e-learning is defined by questions, interactivity, and practice.
In both cases, the storyboard is a focal point, a translation or transition from the language of problem definition to the language of problem solution, from creative vision to technical expertise. The storyboard provides a communication channel between the various disciplines contributing to the final product. This is significant in the case of e-learning because at least three distinct disciplines are involved: instructional design, graphic creation, and authoring.
The E-Learning Storyboard
Because storyboards are more useful than scripts for educational content, e-learning designers have adapted and refined the idea to suit their particular needs. Where a movie maker’s work results in a fixed sequence of images, e-learning usually involves branching and interactivity. So in e-learning, storyboards must connect not only content and images, but also programming instructions.
In its training strategy document, the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP) says, "Storyboards are the blueprints of an interactive courseware design and development process. They provide a combination of text and graphics or graphic descriptions that convey all the necessary information about the delivery of course content. Storyboards describe in detail all images, animations, movie segments, sound, text, and navigational paths. The more complete, detailed, and accurate they are, the fewer the assumptions, questions, delays, confusion, and errors that occur later, during the costly development phase. An accurate content outline, course design document, and style guide are essential to the success of the storyboard design." This document also contains a basic model for an e-learning storyboard, with examples, and it explains how the storyboard fits in the ODP's process.
An e-learning storyboard serves several functions. First, it documents the design completely. A storyboard provides an important reference in project management and quality assurance. It can help train new instructional designers in the organization's standards. Storyboards also make it possible to achieve a consistent "look and feel" across an organization's e-learning productions over time and as production staff members come and go. If you're having difficulty with any of these elements of production, you need a storyboard.
Storyboards are not always part of the design and development process, however. If your approach involves applying a rapid development or rapid prototyping model, you may not have time to storyboard because the emphasis is on getting prototypes developed as soon as possible and iterating the process. In almost any other situation, especially when using systematic instructional development processes, such as ADDIE (Analyze - Design - Develop - Implement - Evaluate) or structured delivery models, such as Dr. Jim Moshinskie's ROPES (Relate - Overview - Present - Exercise - Summarize), a storyboard should improve your process, facilitate production, and lower costs.
What Goes in a Storyboard?
To be most useful, a storyboard must address all of the details included in the individual Web pages or screens. The authoring tool you will be using, and the nature of the e-learning content itself, will determine many of these details. Table 1 summarizes the items that most often appear in storyboards, particularly those that support frame-based e-learning.
TABLE 1: Typical storyboard content
These items are representative of the types of detail frequently included on storyboards for frame-based e-learning.
Admin section: Identifying information and project management
Date: Storyboard creation or latest revision date
Storyboard Number: Unique number assigned to this screen or frame
Version: Version number; reflects number of subject matter expert (SME) review cycles
Revision: Revision number; reflects revisions between SME reviews
Writer: The designer or writer of this storyboard
Reviewer: The person assigned to review the storyboard
Review Date: The date the current storyboard was reviewed
Course Title, Number: Course title is the one that will appear on the course title screen. A unique number identifies the course to which this storyboard belongs.
Module Title, Number: Module title is the one that will appear on the module introduction screen. A unique number identifies the module within the course.
Lesson Title, Number: Lesson title is the one that will appear on the lesson introduction screen. A unique number identifies the lesson within the course.
Screen Title, Number: Screen title is the one that will appear on the screen itself. A unique number identifies the screen and its position within the lesson.
Display section: Instructional content seen or heard by the learner
Image: Graphic showing what the learner sees on the display
Script/Notes: Script for narration, notes for developer/programmer
Image Location: Where to find the image file
Logo/Branding: Notes concerning location and use of logo or branding
Font, bullets, text position: Notes concerning typographic treatment
Navigation section: Options and instructions given to the learner
Navigation Controls: Indicates which controls are available and which screen each links to
User Instructions: Specific instructions for the learner
Interactivity section: How the learner and the application communicate; logic
Rollovers: Location and text for any rollovers
Hot Spots: Location and result for any hot spots on image
Items and Logic: Response items, right/wrong/none, and result of selection
Number of Tries: How many tries does the learner get on the question
Feedback: Feedback for learner when maximum tries are exceeded, number of next screen
Storyboards originally were, and often still are, done with paper and pencil. For small e-learning projects that are not too complex, paper storyboards still may be sufficient. However, as the ODP example indicates, it is more usual to make them an online document.
Microsoft Word and Microsoft PowerPoint are probably the most commonly used tools for storyboarding. They have the advantage of being simple and familiar, and it is fairly easy to create reusable storyboard templates with either one. There are add-on products, such as Storyboarder Pro that are designed to facilitate development of storyboards in Word.
Curio is a relatively new, moderately priced, software application that may be a good choice for designers who use a Mac, rather than a Windows machine. It is a general-purpose organizing tool with a great deal of flexibility and is more complex to use than either Word or PowerPoint. Find it here. The trial version is good for 15 days, and you can request an extension of the trial to 60 days if you need it.
For Windows, other approaches mostly involve the use of XML-based software, such as InfoPath. While this will require that someone on the development team be able to work in XML to create templates, InfoPath is capable of supporting much of the development process, including subject matter expert input and review, storyboarding, and content development.
It is also possible to use HTML to develop storyboards. This has the advantage of potentially speeding up the production of the e-learning product. Anyone moderately skilled in HTML and Web development should be able to do this.
What if these won't work for you? There are other software tools specifically designed to produce storyboards, although these are almost always intended for video or multimedia projects. Springboard is one such tool, for example (http://springboard.s...). MockupScreens (http://mockupscreens...) is another that some instructional designers have found useful. You may be able to find others you can adapt to your needs. If available, use the "trial version" of the tool first before you buy it.
After the storyboard is completed, and before turnover to the development or production team, spell check and proofread everything. Verify that the style and usage guidelines for your organization have been followed, especially for capitalization, punctuation, headings, and layout.
Everyone wants to find a fast, reliable, and cheap path for the critical transitions in the e-learning creation process. We'd all like to be the Steven Spielberg of the e-learning world (and Spielberg does storyboards, even though he says he can only draw stick figures). We all want to avoid the extra work and scope creep that happens when "the plan" in the client's mind is not the same as "the plan" in the designer's mind, and neither matches the plan the development team is following. Building a storyboard may be the best way to have it all.
Bill Brandon has designed, developed, delivered, and managed instruction since 1968. He completed his first e-learning project in 1985. Brandon has co-authored or edited 21 books on technical topics since 1995, and has produced dozens of published articles on e-learning. He has been the editor of Learning Solutions, the e-Zine of The eLearning Guild, since 2002, and manages The Guild's LinkedIn Group.