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Speaking Your Mind: Using elements of narrative storytelling in eLearning

By Chris Jennings / April 2014

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Now that you've got stakeholder buy-in and have assembled your development team, it's time to create the course content. But writing curriculum for an online course is markedly different than a live classroom. For one, online learning is inherently alienating. The social dynamics and energy of the classroom are absent. Instead, there's typically just a lone student clicking through page after page of content on a screen. Pretty bleak, right? To overcome this sense of isolated instruction, course writers and instructional designers can humanize online courses by employing some familiar conventions of narrative storytelling.

In fact, the word "narrative" comes from the Latin verb narrare ("to tell"), which is derived from the adjective gnarus, meaning "knowing" or "skilled." This makes sense, since, in many ways, narrative stories are built on similar foundations as learning content. Like effective courses, the best stories invest readers, incentivizing them to progress through (like a good book you don't want to end). Stories set up a problem that gets resolved over time by filling in gaps of information. The best stories show, rather than tell. They resonate emotionally with readers, offering a sense of urgency, relief, accomplishment. Because of their inherent similarities, narrative stories can be great for situated learning by using real-world simulations that students can act out or practice in context.

First, you'll need to know your audience in order to effectively address them. What kinds of stories and examples will they relate to? What are their emotional triggers such as time constraints, daily challenges, built-in reward systems? What are their particular needs, day-to-day pain points, their skill level, their cultural context? Once you've identified the characteristics of your learners, you can begin crafting a story that engages them.

Make Your Story Relevant

For our DFA (DoubleClick for Advertisers) Fundamentals course, we created a storyline that put users in the role of a new-hire at an ad agency and tasked them with creating a "DinoWorld Theme Park" ad campaign for clients using DFA software. To make the scenario feel relevant, we included mock emails from an "account manager" that communicated specific campaign objectives in each lesson and small incentives like kudos from "managers" and "clients." We even teased at potential "job promotions" after the completion of tasks that brought in new "revenue" for the "business." The course content included regular client communications back to the student with campaign emergencies like the wrong ad creative appearing online. This would require students to learn a new DFA feature in order to fix the problem, similar to real life. We also included playful elements like a DinoWorld website, as well as interactive rich media ads that could make dinosaurs dance.

These were elements that our users could relate to day to day, while advancing our learning goals of understanding the software. Keep in mind, creating this sense of job task immersion didn't require any complicated new technology or extra budget. It simply needed a little creativity to align a meaningful story to our learning goals and audience. Our data suggests this approach helped students understand and engage with the course content. An internal study at Google showed users in the first three months spent 28 minutes per session in the course and consumed 19 pages per visit. We also tracked a low 10 percent bounce rate and 78 percent return rate—fantastic engagement metrics for a subject as esoteric as ad serving.

You could refine your course content even further by personalizing the relationship between the student and the story. For DFA Fundamentals, we used a dynamic Python variable that picked up the user name and email from the course registration and included it throughout the course, thus making our mock emails look as if they were addressed to each student. If you have a diverse audience, you could even align particular content with pre-designated user characteristics such as job role or skill level. You could do this by providing different course entry paths, through branching scenarios, or a more sophisticated, data-driven approach that dynamically displays chunks of content tagged to individual roles, increasing the relevance of the storyline.

Use an Appealing Voice

Striking the right balance of tone and style in an online course is incredibly important. The right tone can mean the difference between a course that invites users to be immersed in the subject matter and one that alienates them by seeming ill suited to the content (or just plain silly). Think of trying to explain a new subject to your best friend's mother. Explain as simply as possible, but be respectful and don't pander. Be clear, but not overly formal. Sound like a human being, not a training manual. Avoid clichés and trite phrasing such as business-speak. Your course voice should be simple, informative, and helpful, but also have a spark of personality. It's okay to be humorous and entertaining, but be careful—not everyone will share your sense of humor and bad jokes could easily backfire, alienating rather than engaging your audience. Wouldn't it be great if taking a course felt more like reading an extended article on a topic that interested them?

It's important to be mindful of the way that you deliver your story, as well. Living in an increasingly video culture, we sometimes get so dependent on instructional video, that we forget some of the benefits of simple text. Text is easy to create and deliver, it's easy to update, easy for students to search, and easy for them to go back and re-read. Text is the simplest kind of user interface, since it's such an intuitive, established way of communicating information. But too much text can be problematic, particularly online. It's easy to lose cognitive focus in this age of competing screens and devices. Assume your users have short attention spans and format your writing accordingly. Keep your paragraphs small—it should take no more than about 10 seconds to read each paragraph and do not include more than two paragraphs to a page. If you have lots of content that would best be delivered textually, see if you can vary the format using bullet points, tables, callouts, interspersed images—anything to mix-up the organization.

Our DFA Fundamentals course needed to convey a lot of information, so we employed several different strategies to avoid making the content so monolithic. We formatted introductions and exits to each lesson as emails, breaking up the text into a familiar format, but also integrating it into our storyline. Because it came from a character in the course, the content became somewhat entertaining, instead of seeming like extra information. In order to emphasize particular points, we created thought-bubble callouts that appeared alongside our content with characters' faces which, again, reinforced the story, but also highlighted important content we wanted students to remember and kept them cognitively alert. We also created interactive infographics that gave the user corresponding visuals with text and invited them to click and mouse over various areas to receive deeper levels of information.

Don't Drive to Distraction

You should also consider how your text might distract learners. Use a sans-serif font that's easier to read online and won't tire out their eyes quite so fast. Also, don't be tempted by gratuitous hyperlinking. You shouldn't overwhelm them with hyperlinks without making it clear what benefit they'll get from clicking them. Also, don't tempt students with links early in a paragraph of content that you'd actually rather they finish reading. While it's useful to link to supplemental information, consider how they could lose focus at a time when you want them concentrating on a particular point.

Also, be mindful of varying skill levels. If some users are more advanced, consider burying basic definitions and concepts in hyperlinked mouseover definitions so users who already know those definitions can easily ignore them. Consider hiding content under drop-down reveal links (sometimes called "zippies"). This allows users to be more self-directed in their learning and discover artifacts of knowledge, while retaining their cognitive focus.

You should use an economy of language when writing online course content. Use common sense and pick the simplest elaboration possible; don't over-explain. Go through and strip out every single word you don't absolutely need to reach your learner. Write like Hemingway. Keep your instruction clear, but make the learner work a little bit to make the needed connections. Don't spoon-feed them rote knowledge for memorization, since you'll just overwhelm them with content. Instead, make them engage with the text in order to reflect and make the deeper connections needed to truly understand it. Reinforce without being repetitive. Remember, users are there to feel informed, not be reminded of what they don't know.

The Devil's in the Details

Correct punctuation and grammar will imbue your course with expertise and professionalism. It's okay to be colloquial when appropriate, but it should be obvious why you're relaxing grammatical standards. Hire an editor to read through the content to catch all the subtle peccadilloes that cumulatively could instill doubt in the narrator's proficiency. Keep the voice consistent, particularly if cycling through different modalities such as video, infographics, text, etc. It should all feel like it's coming from the same knowledgeable voice. This can be particularly difficult if using several writers to create course content and may require a single author to go back through and maintain a consistent, narrative feel.

Writers sometimes get lazy when forced to make up proper nouns for their story. A mock business like "Cheapo Air" doesn't sound nearly as authentic as "Aerostar Airlines," (or something similarly plausible). Good names can add further legitimacy to your storyline and contribute to your learners' level of immersion.

The more your story feels forced or contrived, the less effective (and possibly even annoying) it will be. Don't forget, online courses don't have to be composed of rote, formal text to achieve the illustrious status of "learning." In order to teach well, sometimes you just have to tell a good story.

These opinions expressed herein are solely the author's and in no way represent the opinions of Google.

About the Author

Chris Jennings has more than 10 years experience in educational technology and instructional design, having previously worked at The University of Texas System and New York University. He is currently an instructional designer at Google where he has led the DoubleClick Training Team in building a cross-product, online certification program for advertisers that has increased attendance from live classroom training 200 percent year over year with comparable satisfaction rates.

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  • Fri, 12 Dec 2014
    Post by Mattia

    When the article will be again available? Thanks a lot, Mattia