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  • Rikki Lee

The Magic of Case Studies

From time to time, we’ve all been amazed by professional magicians. We’ve often thought to ourselves, “How do they do that?” Maybe we’ve even studied a few card tricks ourselves to show our friends—with some measure of success—but we’ve realized that our talents were best spent elsewhere. (Wait, what do you mean the 8 of Hearts wasn’t your card?)

But the process of learning is also magical, and many of us are wizards in the instructional design of online courses. We usually astound our audience with the help of ID tools, regularly performing feats of interaction, animation and gamification as learners sit “captivated” slide after slide.

Another way to mesmerize learners is through the ability to tell a compelling story that holds the learner spellbound, such as using a real-life case study from a particular industry. Learners pick up the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities as they make their way through the narrative. Many case studies—such as for aviation, healthcare, transportation and other medium- to high-risk industries—are often cautionary tales of performance gone wrong: a ground crew member who knowingly omits a safety practice, a surgeon who mistakenly removes a healthy kidney, or a mechanic who neglects to inspect a bus with faulty tires.

The more serious the consequences of a person’s actions in the case study, the more emotionally compelling a story you can weave with your narrative. As a result, the lessons revealed in the course will resonate in each learner’s consciousness for many years. By introducing fictitious people, locations and events to illustrate how a real mistake was made or how a real accident occurred, you can move learners beyond the rote memorization of facts and into the reality of potential but unwanted outcomes with a poignant impact. And by helping learners internalize these events and their repercussions, you can help them improve safety on the job and in the lives of others. Bringing a true story to life can change minds and habits, and that’s magical.

Tricks of the trade

So, let’s say you have a course using a real-life medical case study. Here are a few “tricks” to help you perform instructional design magic:

1. Read the room: Knowing who the audience is and how they will respond is important for any performer. It can spell the difference at the end between a standing ovation in a packed theater and some scattered applause in a near-empty one. Reading the room is equally important for an ID magician: Know who your learners are and how difficult it will be to reach them with your design approach.

Some learners may not accept discovering important information—a few details at a time—through a ticking-clock narrative, no matter how gripping it is. They’d rather be told exactly what to do and what not to do in a bulleted list that they can memorize. You wouldn’t completely dismiss these learners, but you would state in the course introduction how the case study directly relates to their experience. Then it’s up to your ID legerdemain in telling the story to win over reluctant learners, in much the same way that a magician must convince their most hardened skeptics to enjoy the illusion.

2. Prep and set up: Magic requires that you prepare and set up, such as obtaining the right props, aiming the lights in a certain direction and equipping the stage for the performance. For your course, preparation means collecting all the information and other elements that you need in advance to spin a case study as a story.

For example, this might include redacted documents, a timeline of the events, aliases for the people involved, and so on. Your ID magic will use these elements to reveal certain facts at a certain time, to ask questions to determine what learners already know, and to "set the stage" for the final outcome.

3. Use your patter: A magician uses “patter” or a monologue throughout the trick (“Now, here comes the hard part…” or “Watch this…”) to keep the audience grounded in reality and engaged in what’s happening, as well as to misdirect them when necessary. Your “patter” in ID magic consists of the words you'll use in the storyboard script. For example, you might start out with, “On a Thursday afternoon in August, Betty visited the emergency room at Mountain Gulch Hospital, complaining of nonstop hiccups. She was accompanied by her husband, Chad.” (Be sure to Google your fictitious location and business names to make sure they don't exist exactly as written in real life.)

Maybe Chad wasn’t in the original case study, but you added his character to make the story more realistic in ways that an ER doctor would see every day. You might also be supplying misdirection as to who the patient really is, because the ER doctor saw that Chad was showing signs of lupus, and she didn't talk to him about it. (A pertinent lesson in this case study might be: “Keep aware of the situation around you.”)

4. Don’t shatter the illusion: When a magician foolishly reveals the real secret of a trick to take the audience into their confidence, they shatter the illusion and lose the magic. An instructional designer can also reduce the effectiveness of a case study’s narrative by displaying on-screen images that don’t match the story (such as an X-ray of the abdomen instead of the lungs) or by providing inconsistent on-screen text or script (such as Chad being identified later as Betty’s brother, not as her husband).

If you don’t pay close attention to the details, a learner may become less invested in the outcome of the case study and be less inclined to learn from the course. You’ll shatter the illusion and lose the magic. This might require that you manipulate a stock image with photo editing software to fit the scenario better, or redact contradictory information in a document (such as specific dates and times).

If planning, performance and execution are successful, a magic trick works perfectly and the audience remains enthralled; they’ll talk about the act with friends for years. And as a result of your story, learners will gain a greater appreciation of the importance of their work and will feel more motivated for years to practice the lessons they’ve learned. Although no one will know who was responsible for building the course, you can still take a bow.

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