July 20, 2018

Using scenarios to develop ‘soft’ skills

Image: © BottomLinePerformance.com, 2013

Image: © Bottom Line Performance.com, 2013

Boller, S. (2013) Best Practices for Using eLearning in Soft Skills Training Bottom Line Performance, July 13

I blogged recently about the link between online learning and a knowledge-based economy, and discussed particularly the need to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital, knowledge-based economy. These include the development of ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, leadership, management, and conflict resolution skills.

Bottom Line Performance is a leading U.S. corporate training consultancy that runs a blog that is often very useful generally for those using e-learning. The above article is an interview with Alicia Ostermeier, BLP’s Senior Learning Advisor, who provides some useful guidelines for teaching soft skills through e-learning/blended learning, and in particular through the use of scenarios.

I don’t normally promote commercial companies, but developing scenarios for soft skill development would require some skilled technical support and if you do not have someone with that experience in your organisation, you may want to contact BLP directly if you are interested in this approach.



A future vision for OER and online learning

For each chapter of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am developing imaginary but hopefully realistic scenarios. In this scenario, developed as a closing to my chapter on ‘Modes of Delivery and Open Education’, I look at how modularization could lead both a wider range of access to credit courses and more open use of learning materials.


Figure 10.1 The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Figure 10.1.F The Hart River, Yukon.
Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC


Research faculty in the Faculties of Land Management and Forestry at the (mythical) University of Western Canada developed over a number of years a range of ‘learning artefacts’, digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted to make these resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, who in this case are the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts. What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that lead to the development of the artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, word seemed to get out about these OER. The research faculty began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.

The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the department. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.

By this time, instructors had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students.

A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency. The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the two Faculties whose staff were teaching the program.From these funds, the departments would hire additional tenured faculty to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the Faculties would pay 25 per cent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads.

This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partnerships in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the Faculties made two major decisions:

  • another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in land and water systems. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular, and provide a recognised qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting
  • drawing on the large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean of one of the faculties at an international conference on sustainability:

  • the online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students across the two faculties
  • the master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees
  • there were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program
  • the degree completion rate was 64 per cent
  • six new tenured faculty has been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research faculty
  • several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 per cent were from outside Canada
  • over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries
  • there were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world, attracting more students and revenue to the university
  • the university was now internationally recognised as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work, much of which was developed as open access materials from the start, at the University of British Columbia:

Over to you

1. Does this strike you as a realistic scenario?

2. How useful are scenarios like this for thinking about the future? Could you use similar kinds of scenarios in your program planning or for faculty development, for instance?

3, If you have used scenarios for online learning in similar ways, would you be willing to share one?

4. Most of the elements of this scenario already exist at UBC. What I have done though is bring things together from different parts of the university into an integrated single scenario. What could be done within institutions to make this cross-disciplinary transfer of ideas and strategies easier to achieve? (It should be noted that UBC already has a Flexible Learning initiative, including a strategy team within the Provost’s office, which should help with this.)


Just one more post to wrap up the chapter on Modes of Delivery and Open Education: the key takeaways from this chapter.



Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No. 2: Corporate Learning ( #oeb11 )


I realise that there’s only one thing more ‘dead’ than yesterday’s newspaper and that’s yesterday’s conference, so I apologise for the gap of two days between the end of the Online Educa Berlin conference and this report, but it’s a long way from Berlin to Vancouver, and like many other things in life, jet lag and travel fatigue get worse as you get older. Anyway, enough excuses. (For my first post on the conference, see Posts from a foreign land: Online Educa 2011, No.2)

There was a whole strand of sessions at the conference focused on online learning in the business sector. One of my main goals was to see what the public post-secondary education sector can learn from the use of  online learning in the corporate training sector. I managed to get to four of the 14 sessions in Business Educa (including the two plenaries for the Business strand), but I also wanted to attend some other sessions that were highly relevant from outside the Business Educa strand, so I had to make some compromises. Here’s what I picked up from the Business sessions. I will focus here on straight reporting, and I won’t report on every speaker, just those that were of specific interest to me (hey, it’s my blog). Nevertheless apologies to those that I have omitted.

Plenary session: Preparing for the Future

The topic of the session was: “What will learning and development look like in the future and how do we prepare for success in these new worlds?” Good questions, and so relevant to the public sector as well.

Laura Overton, Towards Maturity, UK.

Laura Overton reported on a benchmarking study of issues in corporate learning from leading companies across Europe. Here are the main points that I took from this presentation:

  • the use of learning technologies for corporate training and learning is broadening, both in the extent to which they are used, and in the range of tools being used
  • the focus is more on staff sharing knowledge and reaching out beyond departmental boundaries
  • part of this is a focus on identifying and disseminating new ways of doing things to respond to rapid change in the business environment
  • improving efficiency – but this was NOT the main priority (a significant change from several years ago)

In particular, European businesses face the following challenges:

  • uncertainty in the environment (this applies to the non-profit as well as profit sector) and the need to innovate
  • can the workforce change fast enough for companies to survive?

In other words, the focus is on learning to better prepare the organization for change.

Norman Kamikow, MediaTech Publishing, USA

MediaTech is a large US publishing house. Kamikow reported on another benchmarking study of Chief Learning Officers in ‘successful’ companies in the USA which focused on:

  • learning strategy
  • leadership commitment to training
  • learning execution
  • learning impact
  • business performance results

The main challenges identified by CLOs were:

  • understanding the business they were in
  • better integration of training with work activities
  • being agile enough to deliver new training quickly
  • scaling training across the organization
  • delivering training to virtual/global workforces
  • using business intelligence to identify training needs and identifying appropriate metrics to measure success in training.

Main strategies for meeting these challenges

  • improved governance/management of learning across the organization
  • hybrid roles: trainers embedded within the organization
  • long term goals for learning combined with short-term capabilities to deliver

Willem Manders and Hans de Zwart, Shell Petroleum, Netherlands

Learning Scenarios: ‘A scenario is basically a story that describes a possible future. Building and using scenarios can help people explore what the future might look like. Decision makers can use scenarios to think about critical risks and opportunities in the future and to explore ways in which these might unfold. Scenarios are a vehicle to highlight the critical uncertainties ahead that might affect learning.’

I was particularly interested in this presentation, as I have been using scenario building to help faculty to ‘imagine’ the future and how they could use new technologies for teaching. Manders and de Zwart described their process, which requires ‘evidence-based brainstorming’ about the future, using four key concepts:

  • an analysis of the external and internal factors that influence the environment of corporate learning
  • identifying the underlying forces driving change
  • use a broad set of key drivers to build mini scenarios
  • combine and consolidate the mini scenarios.

They have created an excellent web site on learning scenarios.

Altogether this was an excellent session, although the attempt to build a conversation in a ballroom with over 100 participants was a brave failure.

Building performance at the heart of the workplace

This session was about how to enhance directly learner productivity and performance. Richard Straub, the chair, introduced the session by pointing out that the economic recession has forced companies to find new ways to provide corporate learning.

Lance Dublin, Dublin Consulting, USA

Yet another benchmarking study of corporate training strategies in leading multinationals. Dublin’s main point was the need to collapse the time of training – in the new environment, time, not money, is the key factor, because of the need to respond to rapid change. This means delivering learning at the point of need, before, during and after the ‘event’, combining training, salespeople and customers. To do that requires the following:

  • ‘off-the-shelf’ tools (no LMS) and be agnostic in the choice of tools: whatever does the job best
  • continuous learning
  • respect workers’ time: just in time and just enough
  • using social networking for the multiplier effect and leverage in-company knowledge
  • build learning environments, not learning events (no courses)
  • a focus on job performance, not measurement of learning

Boyd Glover, Dixons retail, UK

Boyd Glover’s session was entitled: Can learning be fun? Fusing formal and informal learning to build performance in the workplace. The presentation was certainly fun, and, just as significantly, discussed the issue of what is best done through formal learning and what is best done through informal learning. He divided learning as follows:

  • formal: first time learning; wanting more
  • informal learning: trying to remember earlier learning; dealing with change; dealing with things that go wrong in the workplace.

The company has made its learning material available to employees at any time, from anywhere. The big struggle was to get the training (delivered mainly through an LMS and short videos) outside the company’s IT firewall. Once that was done, 20% of the staff were using informal learning in their own time, without any requirement or company incentives.

This was another excellent session, with good presentations and solid content.

Crossing boundaries and cultures

Presentations in this session aimed at demonstrating practical ways to overcome the challenges of diverse languages and cultures in successfully implementing learning across cultural borders.

David Mallon, Bersin and Associates, USA

This session was entitled: ‘Corporate Learning Goes Borderless’. It was yet another study based on benchmarking successful multinationals and their training practices. I picked up the following from this session:

  • build capabilities, i.e. teach how to learn, rather than competency, because the environment changes too quickly and the contexts in different countries are so different
  • build learning environments, rather than courses
  • decentralize the learning, to bring it closer to the local work context
  • use learning technologies for speed and reach
  • use these methods to instill the company’s organizational culture across all world locations.

Virpi Slotte, AAC Global, Finland

This was a fascinating presentation about teaching children in 40 different countries about Internet safety, through the use of online digital stories. This meant delivering similar messages in 40 different languages. The stories were in cartoon form (drawings and simple animation), with no spoken narration, but balloon bubbles for written speech. Not only was the language changed for each country, but also images and context to represent cultural diversity (for instance, a Chinese village was used for the Chinese version, whereas an Austrian village was used for the German version). The project was sponsored by Microsoft, which enabled the development of different versions of the materials, but Microsoft had no direct editorial influence on the project. There was no information on the learning effectiveness of the project.

This session provided starkly different approaches to crossing cultural boundaries. This is an area where there are many challenges and much more research is needed on the effects of the globalization of learning.


Altogether these were very interesting sessions. There are of course major differences between the corporate sector and the public sector, but my impression is that there is much to learn from the corporate sector about online learning. I need to reflect more on this, but in the meantime, here are some preliminary conclusions from these sessions:

  • benchmarking of practice from ‘successful’ organizations was heavily used in these sessions; however, how well does that work when many of these successful organizations themselves are under threat from new competitors who by definition are not yet considered successful but are competing because they do things differently?
  • change management is becoming a central focus of corporate learning
  • innovation and new ways of doing things are becoming more important than doing the same things even better, with implications for training methods and choice of technology
  • building learning environments that deliver training at the time and place where it is needed is more important that formal courses away from the work context
  • the corporate sectors focuses more on measuring performance resulting from learning than measuring learning itself.

I am very grateful to the excellent presenters in these sessions.

I will do one more post on this conference, which will cover the sessions I went to from the public sector, and some brief comments on the exhibition.


Developing vision for teaching with technology

In this blog, I will suggest a methodology for encouraging more innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning.

The problem (as I see it)

In our study of 11 institutions in our book, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘ we concluded:

‘Probably the most serious problem we have identified is the general lack of imagination about the possibilities of technology for meeting the needs of today’s students. We need to move away from the dominant paradigm of the fixed time-and-place classroom (Andrea del Sarto’s ‘silver-grey, placid and perfect art’ in the chapter’s opening quotation) as the default model for university and college teaching, and think of all the other ways we could organize and manage teaching. In particular, we need to think very concretely about what teaching and learning could and should look like in the future. Our reach should exceed our grasp, driven by our assessment of the needs of students in the twenty-first century, and not by the existing institutional requirements that they must fit into.’ (p.218)

We also found that while there were often cases of individual instructors being innovative in their use of technology, this rarely failed to spread beyond that individual’s teaching. In other words our institutions were not supporting ‘bottom-up’ innovation in teaching.

One solution

Well, there isn’t one solution. Different subject areas and different students will have different needs. The goal then should be to establish an ongoing mechanism for encouraging, developing and supporting new ideas about how to teach with technology. The aim is to develop many different ways of teaching with technology, implement them, then evaluate them, in such a way that successful innovations then spread throughout the academic areas where they are most appropriate.

Scenarios as a means to develop visions for the future

We argue in our book that the key locus for developing vision is at the program level: a bachelor’s or master’s program,  a certificate program, etc. The design or plan for a program should be driven by a clear vision about how that program can best be delivered and to which target groups. In particular, the vision should clearly specify not only what students will learn, but how they will learn, and how they will be assessed. The design or plan should also indicate how individual student differences can be handled, and how students will interact not only with the instructor but also with other students and the external world, for the purposes of learning within the program.

Scenarios are a way of identifying and clarifying such goals. The purpose of scenarios is to develop a way of identifying future possible academic goals and outcomes that are facilitated by or made possible through the use of technology. We give some examples of possible scenarios in the book, but the value of scenarios is immensely increased when they draw on the imagination of all faculty, instructors and relevant support staff within a program. The process of sitting down and discussing possibilities is as important as the outcome in terms of actual scenarios. It is essentially an educational and knowledge-sharing process.

I set out below one methodology I have used to develop scenarios as part of program planning. There are other ways to get faculty to think creatively about teaching and learning, but I have used this method in several institutions and found it to work well under the right conditions. The best time to do this is at the start of the planning of a new program, or after a program review. The organization of the process should ideally be the responsibility of the VP Academic/Provost’s Office, working closely with the Deans.

The process for developing a vision for mentoring, teaching and learning

  1. Establish small working groups of between 9-12 people, e.g. six to eight instructors, two learning technology/IT staff, and a student representative, within each academic program
  2. Working groups are organized around common areas of interest (e.g. first year students, topic areas, or ‘streams’ within a program) reflecting overall opportunities and challenges.
  3. The dean or head of department should prepare a general comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis beforehand (probably developed for the strategic and/or academic plan) which is made available to each group. In addition though, each group should spend 60-90 minutes brainstorming strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their particular area.
  4. 3-4 short presentations (10-15 minutes) of innovative teaching with technology to program faculty and support staff by carefully selected presenters from outside the area (from other similar departments either within or from outside the institution). These presentations should provide examples of successful initiatives that are relevant to the group (i.e. related to the academic areas likely to be covered by the program). Ideally a series of these presentations would be presented to the groups over a period of time before scenario building.
  5. An intensive, one day workshop to build the scenario (including free lunch).
  6. Each group has a chair and reporter.
  7. Each group brainstorms to reach consensus without compromise.
  8. Each group completes a scenario by the end of  the workshop.
  9. Within one week, chair and reporter from each group meet to develop integrated scenarios for the whole program. This group has the task of providing a coherent, intellectually consistent set of scenarios for the program as a whole.
  10. Scenarios go to the whole program team for endorsement and possible amendment by vote
  11. Once endorsed, the scenarios drive the design, development and implementation of the program.

Criteria for successful scenario building

The following are guidelines to building successful scenarios and visions for the future

  1. A comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis is done beforehand, with common agreement from all participants on opportunities and challenges.
  2. Scenarios should be developed that give stakeholders what they really want or would like – no compromises
  3. Must be creative and ambitious – a significant step forward from the current situation
  4. The scenarios must be written in concrete terms, describing where and how learners are studying and what tools they are using
  5. All key stakeholders are involved
  6. Start from where you are and build on strengths
  7. Scenarios if implemented would remove or deal with generally accepted weaknesses or shortcomings in the institution
  8. First steps towards implementing the vision can begin immediately
  9. 75%-100% achievable within a five year time frame
  10. There is a planning process that focuses on implementation of the vision
  11. Cost is NOT a consideration until the implementation stage (but see (9)).

Integrating scenarios into planning and operational processes

As well as helping develop specific programs, such scenario building is also immensely useful for budget and technology planning. Such scenarios when completed indicate clear directions and goals for the use of technology across the institution.

For this to happen though there needs to be in place an integrated planning process that links strategic, academic, technology and budget planning together. Budget considerations may cause program plans to be modified or delay the implementation of some elements of the scenarios. However, institutional planners can make decisions for priority funding based on the most innovative or dynamic scenarios and program plans, the ones that seem to best meet the institution’s and departmental goals and priorities. Scenarios provide concrete examples of what a program will do, and allows decision-makers to go beyond abstract terms to concrete realities.


This is not an easy exercise. Faculty are not used to thinking beyond the constraints of the current context in which they work (essential for creative scenario development). In universities, it requires patience and numerous examples to move faculty from abstract concepts to hard concrete examples. Many faculty have been badly burned in the past when trying to innovate on an individual basis, so there is often a deep cynicism about such ‘blue sky’ thinking and particularly the institution’s capacity to support innovative ideas about teaching and learning. Institutional leadership and support for the process is absolutely critical, as is the input of learning technology and IT support staff.

However, I believe it is essential to step back from the here and now, to move beyond adding the odd new tool to an LMS, to think about the needs of a very heterogeneous student body, the possibilities that technology allow, and the present and future needs of our students. My experience is that the best research professors are often, once the initial skepticism has been removed, and they are properly introduced to the possibilities of technology, the most imaginative about how their subject could be taught with technology, but they need a motivation and a catalyst for such thinking. Scenarios can provide such a catalyst, so long as they are an integrated part of institutional program planning and implementation, and the process is fully supported by institutional leaders.


For a video that resulted from scenario building, see:

Learning Technologies @ UBC, 2005 (8 mins)
A vision for teaching and learning with technology in higher education
1 meg/sec
56 kbs/sec

Note that this video was made in 2000, and was used to support a report that resulted in a number of strategic directions for the use of learning technologies at UBC.

Book: Managing Technology in Higher Education now available

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Co.

Now out! The book is available in cloth or e-book from Jossey-Bass, at US$45 a copy (but see below), or from most booksellers.

More information about the book, including summaries of chapters, scenarios from the book, and opportunities to discuss some of the issues, can be found at http://batesand sangra.ca If you order through http://batesand sangra.ca you should get a 20% discount.

The book argues that most universities are too conservative in their goals for technology, that it is difficult to justify the current investment in technology in terms of improved learning outcomes, and suggests a raft of strategies to enable institutions to get a better bang for their buck.

Every VP Academic/Education should have a copy at their bedside!