I come out of a long background of TV and video production as a director and producer. One of the things I learned was the power of scripted dialogue for carrying a story and revealing a character’s attitudes, their self-image and the way they relate to others. Although TV, video and film rely heavily on the visual image, so much so that in some quarters it is regarded that the ideal film is one that has little dialogue – think of “Paris Texas” for instance, however, for dramatic intensity characters need to be in conflict of some sort and dialogue has yet to be displaced as the prime mover of drama.
Some time ago, when developing a series of courses on First Line Management the issue came up of how to handle the softskills component is such topics as Positive Workplace Relationships, Managing Conflict, Problem Solving and Team Building in an online course. The initial, and I might say obvious, response was to use video to create some dramatised scenarios that would illustrate the sorts of case study stories that these subject areas might generate. This idea had obvious merit as learners were more likely to engage with a TV-like storytelling convention than with boring old text. In terms of learning design we wanted learners to engage with the scenarios and to discuss and analyse the issues being revealed and to think about what the issues are, whether the interventions or actions of the characters were appropriate, useful or problematic and to then make observations and recommendations as to how the issues might otherwise be handled.
There were I suggested a couple of problems with this approach. Firstly video is not easy to do and get right. Many years of experience told me that even with an experienced and talented group of video makers and actors, it is a time-consuming and expensive business. It can be done more cheaply with a DYI approach, but the results are often sub-standard and in the field of video, cheaper usually means it takes a lot longer to do. The big problem with video are the many variables that have to be controlled and accounted for. Lighting takes time to do right and is critical for continuity and clean images. Audio is also critical, perhaps more so – it’s interesting to note that people will put up with poor visual quality if the audio is ok, but their tolerance for poor audio is much lower. Then there is the issues of locations, wardrobe and props all of which take time to assemble and with locations, in particular, you often have to work outside working hours to get access to decent office type environments, which is where most of these scenarios would be set.
Then there are the actors. Even with very experienced actors, getting them rehearsed, their movements, expressions and general performance qualities all serving the script and director’s vision all add time and complexity to the production. Logistically, even the simplest shoot involves a lot of coordination, preparation and attention to detail and then you have the whole post-production process to pull together, and post-production is where you usually find out that there’s a critical shot missing, dialogue in one shot doesn’t match in the complementary one and the audio has the buzz of an air conditioner cutting in and out. So you then have to re-shoot the scene or find some other, equally frustrating and time-consuming compromise.
Finally there is the issue of Internet bandwidth. The problem here of course is that till very recently video over the Internet was very bandwidth hungry and for those on a dial-up connection it could take an age to download and play a video file. Even with today’s much improved technology and the advent of You Tube and such like, it is still and issue for some, but it’s certainly improving very rapidly. That said, video is still a tricky option, especially when budgets are tight.
So what did we do. The one thing I knew and understood is that for dramatisations of near to real life interactions between characters the soundtrack carries most of the story in the dialogue. The answer was to use still shots and well produced audio tracks using voice actors. While the still pictures delivered the visual context and the cues as to the location, the characters’ physical appearance and dramatic signification the audio carried the majority of the emotional, plot and character information of the drama. All this was packaged in an HTML wrapper and delivered through the LMS.
These web-based dramatised scenarios are interactive learning objects consisting of audio, vision and text elements which were created for a variety of workplace-based eLearning courses. Accessed from an online Learning Management System, (LMS), the scenarios are displayed on the computer screen, with several photos showing the characters in the scene, with the dialogue written out on the side, as well as the audio coming through the speakers. (Fig.1).
The scenario is constructed of multiple scenes each of which contains several slides. The learner selects the version they want, text and photos only or the version with the audio, depending on their internet speed. (for examples see: http://www.tanz.ac.nz/projects_and_achievements/dramatised_scenarios.php)
This provides a range of options for the learner in which they can read, listen and look at visual content all at the same time, which caters effectively to different learning styles and technical constraints.
The audio is the vital ingredient that really brings this tool to life, as a learner is able to hear the drama building in the characters’ voices as the situation develops and interactions rise in intensity. The power in the audio comes from careful scripting and the work of the professional voice actors who are able to deliver the real emotional content of the drama. While there is a cost to using professional voice actors, their professionalism and the speed with which the audio tracks can be laid down, with minimal rehearsal, makes this an economic option. Unlike most video scenarios, these scenarios also provide personal background details, using text, images and audio, those not only fleshes out the characters, but also provide a broader and more detailed context in which the scenario is taking place.
The photos primarily set the physical context for the scene and give the learner some of the visual cues that only pictures can provide. Production of the photos offers far more flexibility than video as the actors in the photographs do not have lines or speak. Further, there is no requirement to have trained actors in the photos as most people can be coached to provide a simulation of a role with little fuss or bother. Using totally different people for the audio and the pictures affords even greater flexibility as it reduces the problems of conflicts in availability and other logistics. In fact the scenarios have been created with a wide range of non-professional performers including work colleagues, partners, neighbours, friends and friends of friends. This flexibility extends to being able to use the same photos, but with a different script, to tell a totally different yet utterly believable story.
With digital cameras, acceptable pictures can be obtained in all sorts of circumstances and even without the need for a professional photographer, although using a skilled photographer does produce consistently pleasing results that are colour corrected, balanced and optimised for final use.
These scenarios have been used to tell the story of a wide range of issues including: a work group in a public service ministry who are under stress from interpersonal conflicts: the manager of a cleaning company who summarily dismissed two of her workers for questioning her treatment of a worker’s sick leave entitlement: case studies designed to support vocational tutors and trainers who are required to handle issues of literacy, numeracy and ESOL (English for Speaker of Other Languages) in their teaching/training practice.
They are designed to engage workplace learners with the complexity and infinite variability of human relationships and the dynamics of social groups, whether in the workplace, on the sports field, in the classroom, in a training environment or at home.