Improve Training Content with eLearning Storyboards

Creating a storyboard is an important step in structuring your eLearning content and ensuring that  you address learning objectives.

What is a storyboard?

Storyboards originated with animated film, at Walt Disney Studios, where they’ve been in use since the 1930s.

In the world of traditional eLearning, a storyboard is a simple drawing that provides a black-and-gray, visual representation of your course. It includes course content, flow, interactivity, and instructions for design elements. If there’s narration, the storyboard will capture the script as well. The storyboard should show where and how you will assess learning, with questions or feedback throughout the course (formative feedback) or at the end of each module (summative feedback).

A storyboard can be a fairly rough outline; it does not need to have finished graphics, animations, or design elements. It needs to describe these and other elements of the eventual eLearning product well enough that stakeholders can see the flow, know what content is covered, and get an idea of how the finished product will look.

When to create your storyboard

Just like Disney animators planning a film, when designing an eLearning course, the first steps are to define your learning objectives and clearly determine the desired outcomes of the course — specific behavior changes or knowledge the learner should acquire. You’ll also need to know some things about your audience — how much prior knowledge they have, the mastery or competence level they need to achieve, the devices they will be using to access the eLearning, and when and where they are likely to do training.

Before creating your storyboard, you will also need to determine the format or formats of your finished product: Are you creating an eLearning module, video, microlearning units, an infographic? Each can be storyboarded, but the storyboards will be quite different!

You might also want to decide on the authoring tools that you will use, as these will impact the complexity and technical features you will be able to include in your course.

Getting started

Three work colleagues stand behind a window, looking at a series of colourful sticky notes they've attached to the window.

Once you know the basics of what your eLearning will teach, in what format, and to which learners, you can get started.

The storyboarding process will help you figure out a logical flow for your content and identify any gaps.

You can create a storyboard panel for each screen of an eLearning module. Create separate storyboards for each microlesson or topic in a multipart microlearning course, with perhaps a master storyboard showing the topics and modules that make up the comprehensive course.

Storyboarding can be tricky for non-linear content. For some types of nonlinear content, like microlearning, mini-storyboards for each subtopic are helpful. The instructional designer (ID) might create a master storyboard that shows how each lesson or sub-topic fits into the overarching course, but learners could engage with each topic separately and in any order.

It’s possible to use a single storyboard for other types of nonlinear content, like branching scenarios. You’ll just need to include notes to reviewers and clear navigation instructions that show a main screen with several options, for example, then separate screens for each choice and the accompanying results and feedback. 

The basics

Similar to an animator’s storyboard for a film, your storyboard will include a panel or slide for each screen of content. It’s fine if you don’t have all of the images yet or still have questions for your subject matter expert (SME) — a rough sketch or sentence indicating which content goes there is sufficient to start the process. Your storyboard can help you figure out what you need and remind you to fill in those images or details.

  • For example, a panel might simply state “image of Topic A landing screen” — with a very rough sketch of what learners will see as they progress through the module. These panels also serve as a reminder or visual checklist for the designer creating the landing-screen images.
  • Another panel might represent each key content piece that you still need to get from your SME, for example. When the storyboard is ready, you can quickly pull all of those missing pieces into a complete list of questions to prep for your interview with the SME (who will be impressed with your organization and efficiency!).

Be sure to note multimedia elements in the storyboard panels. An individual interactive exercise might require several panels — one for the question, for example, and one for each possible response with its accompanying feedback.

Keep the learners in mind

An animation storyboard shows how characters move through each scene and the flow of those scenes to create the film. An eLearning storyboard works the same way and shows the navigation and flow of eLearning content. Storyboards also include navigation elements, like menus and buttons.

Your storyboard can help you refine the design and content. You don’t want to overload learners, and the storyboard can help you see:

  • Where you might have too much information on a screen and need to break it down further — a guideline is to focus on a single concept or idea per screen
  • Where too much knowledge is assumed, and you might need to add scaffolding — resources, a slide with a definition or explanation
  • Whether the course tries to do too much — some extraneous information might be better as additional resources or in a separate “advanced” module
  • Where accessibility elements, such as alt text, audio description, or keyboard-friendly navigation, are needed

Creating and reviewing the storyboard can help the ID identify missing pieces, improve the flow, and identify the need for content that might serve as scaffolding or additional resources, such as a glossary tab. 

Storyboarding tools

You don’t have to be a designer or have special technical skills. It’s easy to create simple storyboards using Word or PowerPoint, but you can also use online tools and templates. Many IDs go full analog: They sketch their initial storyboard using a pencil and paper!

Storyboarding fits easily into Agile and other iterative design approaches. You’re likely to create multiple versions of a storyboard — but making a dozen iterations of your storyboard might save you from mistakes that would require late-stage changes during the development of your eLearning module. Those pen-and-paper sketches or PowerPoints are a lot less costly to update!

And don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time. Disney takes years to make a feature film — and it all starts from the storyboard. Your projects won’t take years; all you have to do is get started!

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