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Storytelling at a distance

By Lisa Neal / May 2001

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Storytelling is one of the most effective techniques for conveying information in a compelling and memorable way. The use of stories is more fun for presenters and students than unidimensional exposition. Stories build tension and suspense in anticipation of a resolution, making them entertaining and engaging modes of explication. Good storytelling is an art in the classroom; but, at a distance, storytelling becomes problematic. Currently, neither synchronous nor asynchronous distance-learning technologies capture the wealth of visual cues and expressiveness found in face-to-face classroom experiences. In particular, some of the issues with asynchronous technologies are the lack of spontaneity and the tendency to sanitize stories when capturing them as text, audio, or video. Nevertheless, there are strategies that overcome these delivery technologies' constraints and enable stories' power to be appropriated for successful e-learning solutions. These strategies also encourage students to tell their own stories, thus deepening their educational experience.

1. Introduction

With its long and rich history (Wetzel, 2000), storytelling is "the original form of teaching" (Pederson, 1995). People tell and listen to stories because stories bring the vibrancy of lived experience to interpersonal dialogue. Teachers, religious leaders, politicians, comedians, and journalists routinely embed stories in their talks and writing to illustrate points and capture their audience's attention. The attention given storytellers in these roles suggests that listening to well-told stories is an activity that people find intrinsically satisfying.

Stories and storytelling emerged early to create the rich preliterate oral tradition, in which cultures preserved their memories and taught virtue through tales that recounted adventure, battles, romance, and heroism. Storytelling remains an important mode through which individuals and cultures communicate who they are, what they value and fear, and what they know. Stories have made their way into corporate knowledge management and branding. Now, as e-learning's sophistication advances, curriculum developers and e-learning teachers are exploring online, or digital, storytelling, as a comparatively unexploited strategy for embodying and delivering content. Storytelling is especially effective for conveying informal information because of stories' capacities for subtlety, their attention-arresting nature, and their ability to convey layers of meaning. These factors all contribute to learners' tendency to remember and further ponder stories' meaning. Despite stories' pedagogical appeal, there remain unresolved issues concerning how to select, structure, and deliver technologically mediated stories to distance learners. In this paper, I suggest that an important distinction must be made between stories and storytelling and that thinking through several foundational questions must precede the delivery of successful e-learning. These questions include: Why are stories pedagogically valuable in a distance-learning course? How can curriculum developers and teachers ensure that their online stories clarify and reinforce specific ideas rather than distract from those ideas? How should humor be appropriated in online storytelling? Finally, I argue that much more xtensive attention must be focused on how to craft, capture, and deliver stories in the divergent synchronous and asynchronous learning models.

2. Stories and E-Learning

Stories are important cognitive events of particular pedagogical value because they encapsulate into one rhetorical package four of the crucial elements of human communication: information, knowledge, context, and emotion (Norman, 1993). "Educational media, such as lectures, books, TV programmes, are all narrative in form, and for good reason. Narrative provides a macro-structure, which creates global coherence, contributes to local coherence and aids recall through its network of causal links and sign posting... Narrative is fundamentally linked to cognition and so is particularly relevant to the design of multimedia for learning" (Laurillard et al., 2000). Digital storytelling appropriates the e-learning medium to involve readers in narrative structures that reveal context, highlight reasons to care about a topic, expose cause-and-effect relationships, explicate values and motivations, and demonstrate interdependencies.

The narrative arc is the framework that drives the story in digital storytelling. The arc's structure of question, tension, and closure demands and focuses learners' attention, provokes curiosity, beckons involvement and inquiry, and sustains engagement. Thus, stories are more compelling and memorable than alternative ways of conveying information in the classroom. While presenters report that stories help pace their classes, they also speak of the enjoyment they experience from storytelling. Well-told stories make for enjoyable, comfortable, and familiar listening and learning, due to their prevalence in most people's lives from a young age. "The familiarity of the narrative form acts as something of a comforter when a new student is faced with the double impact of being new to study and new to the technology" (Weller 2000).

The subtlety and efficiency with which stories convey information allows presenters to imbed in them many content points on multiple levels. For instance, a story about a design issue may incorporate subsidiary lessons about client interaction. Students are likely to better receive, process, and retain the subtle client-interaction material when they receive it as part of a larger story than they would were the same material presented obliquely as a disembodied object lesson. One of the main reasons for this is that stories give students access to agents who bear witness to abstract concepts or specific, valuable information. This embodiment by a human agent of concepts and information helps close the distance between learner and content, a distance that is often difficult to bridge through cerebration alone.

Clearly, there is a pedagogically significant cause-and-effect relationship between narrative and cognition. Consider, for example, this brief story that I have used in an e-learning course to open interface-design discussions:

Not long ago, flying into an unfamiliar airport on a business trip, I rented a car. It was a model I'd never driven before, but I usually don't have any trouble adjusting to different cars. Driving out of the rental-car company's parking lot, the gate attendant wanted a copy of my rental contract, and I had to roll down the window to hand over the document. But I couldn't find the crank or the switch anyplace on the inside of the door, or even on the dashboard. Finally, in desperation, I opened the door. The attendant told me that the automatic window controls were on the gear panel between the seats. Since I normally drive a stick shift, this was not where I expected to find any controls, although, once I did, I was very impressed by my ability to open all four windows in the car, not just mine.

Since the story is in the first-person, there is an agent with whom the learner can identify. This single move to the first person closes a substantial distance between the learner and the material. There is also some tension: There's an unfamiliar airport, a strange car, and a destination where work will take place. People have been in that situation, so they know the accompanying feelings of anxiety, fatigue, and frustration. Further, there is the agent's inability to solve a simple problem, which gives rise to self-deprecating humor. Then, there are resolution and closure. The elements that comprise a story embody the concept in a more memorable way than the explicit statement of the abstract concept: users carry their expectations and prior knowledge with them as they move among platforms, in this case, among different automobiles. Those expectations must be taken into account, otherwise consumers are likely to resist newly introduced products or will require user training, which is impractical for the everyday technologies embedded in consumer items. In the case of cars, training or reading the owner's documentation is assumed to be unnecessary for experienced drivers who purchase, borrow, or rent a car, especially for routine tasks such as opening a window.

Equally important is stories' plasticity-the ease with which they are personalized and molded by presenters' personalities. This personalization tends to help close the gap between teachers and students. The personalization possible with stories helps equalize and demystify the teacher/learner relationship by eliciting students' understanding, empathy, and their capacity to relate to teachers more casually and meaningfully. For instance, when training new e-learning instructors or facilitators, I sometimes tell them this story:

When teaching in a classroom, it is generally easy to make a student aware that you are uncomfortable with their behavior by looking at them, moving close to them, or even taking them aside during a break. In one of the first distance-learning classes I taught, most sessions used synchronous technologies, and one of the weekly sessions relied on room-based videoconferencing. In the first videoconferencing session for this class, one of the students (I'll call him Bill) at a particular site sat at the camera controls. Every time someone at his site spoke, Bill spent the entire time they were talking zooming in on them, adjusting to the left, the right, up and down, until he had the person's face shown exactly as he wanted it. This was distracting; in fact, the continual camera adjustments made it impossible to focus on what the speaker said. I agonized over how to get Bill to stop. Since I was at a different site and had no phone or computer access to him, I had no private way to ask Bill to stop, and I didn't want to publicly humiliate him by making the request in front of the class. Finally, the class ended with no resolution.
However, after a little thought, I called up one of the other students at Bill's location and asked him to sit at the controls during our next videoconference. He hesitated, saying that Bill enjoyed the camera work; but he also let me know that everyone in the room was annoyed with Bill's incessant adjustments, although no one felt comfortable asking him to stop. Rather, class members thought the responsibility fell to me. I responded by bypassing the problem: I simply set a new official class policy that different students would have turns attending to the camera controls.
My videoconferencing training dealt only with functionality-I knew how to deal with technology failures and dropped lines-but I did not know how to deal with disruptive students. This situation made me realize the dilemmas that could occur in teaching at a distance and the need for creative solutions to unanticipated situations. I try to convey this with humor and drama, but also express that, despite having only a workaround solution, I survived my first distance-teaching crisis.

Stories' plasticity helps learners experience concepts, and understanding and empathy can encourage students to create and share their own stories, an effective way of establishing a dialogue (Laurillard, 1993). The mere use of storytelling in a learning context sends the message that stories are acceptable ways for learners to communicate with instructors and peers. The combination of creative, narrative, and analytical modes of thinking significantly enhances students' learning experiences and boosts inter-student interactions that nurture peer-to-peer learning.

Teachers can query students with such constructions as, "What would you have done?" or "Have you encountered similar circumstances?" When students easily identify with a story, their participation is likely to be high. While participation in an asynchronous discussion may remove some of the stress associated with "speaking up" in class and offers the convenience of "anytime, anyplace," a teacher or moderator often struggles to achieve the desired amount and type of student responses. The use of stories to foster dialogue is especially productive early in a class when it is important to establish an ethos of sharing and openness. Higher participation generally leads to students' greater commitment to their class and can lessen their sense of isolation, which, in turn, increases retention.

3. Moving Out of the Classroom

In the classroom, there is an art to selecting and telling stories well. Bran Ferren says "a human knows how to read an audience and understands what it shares in terms of common knowledge and assumptions. People in conversation communicate not just with words but with an agreeing nod, the skeptical eyebrow, and the impatient glance at the watch" (Stober, 1997).

Clearly, there is a performative dimension to storytelling that is not present when an individual engages exclusively with text; the story is acted, in a sense; it is not merely read or recited, it is performed. A result is a subtle, but crucial, distinction between stories and storytelling. Given these differences between stories and storytelling, online storytelling is enhanced through technologies, such as video and sound, that capture storytelling's performative dimension. The type, quality, and richness of the learning, as well as the interactions that can be facilitated, should drive the design, selection, and use of distance learning technologies. Depending on budgets and available hardware and software, e-learning delivery may be constrained in technical terms, but the value of non-textual, performative cues for forging emotional bonds between learners and the content cannot be overstressed. Bran Ferren correctly states: "Emotional resolution is more important than screen resolution."

A digitally delivered story must be well-structured so that its point isn't obliterated, and it must be relevant to the topic and setting. Although these dicta seem obvious, it is important to recall that a keen sense of discipline is essential when preparing online stories. Temptations continuously beckon to include stories that have non-pedagogic appeal-narratives that perhaps reveal what storytellers endured but that do not advance conceptual understanding [1].

At a distance, the incorporation of stories can involve selecting, capturing, securing, distributing, retrieving, maintaining, and using stories. In addition to these challenges, there is another that is common to face-to-face settings but is amplified at a distance: The extent to which stories are true, exaggerated, embellished, or fabricated. De minimis elaboration upon a story is inconsequential, but amendments that may cue learners that the story is specious or otherwise suspect should be avoided. Establishing trust and rapport are central to the integrity of all teaching, but trust is harder to build at a distance, where it is easier to misconstrue people's statements (Friedman et al., 1999). E-learning must already contend with the widespread insecurity that is associated with Web-based interactivity. A poll released in March 2001 [2] by Ipsos-Reid Corp. (conducted for EDS Canada) showed that forty-nine per cent of the Canadians questioned said the possibility of Internet crime markedly reduces their interest in transacting business online. Therefore, any rhetorical device, such as exaggeration, hyperbole, and even excessive irony, that may erode learners' trust should be given the most careful thought.

Clearly, it is important to educate, and not offend, students, but that balance is more easily struck in the classroom. Face-to-face venues allow for the extensive use of semantically significant cues delivered through gestures and other body language, as well as for the immediate feedback loop necessary to gauge and adjust to students' reactions. These non-verbal signals are simply not present at a distance. A result is that presenters must evaluate their stories and their delivery to compensate for the comparatively cue-limited constraints of their distance-learning medium.

The challenge is to do this without sacrificing stories' pedagogical value: Use the first person; keep the language rich, unexpected, conversational, and even quirky; use a casual tone; consider the knowledge and culture of the "audience;" and carefully listen to performances of all types-think about what you like in a performance and what techniques do and do not hold your attention. A good measure of a well-captured textual story is to read it aloud, and a good measure of an audio or video story is to play it back—does it sound close to the way your story sounds when you tell it in person? [3] Ira Glass, whose This American Life on National Public Radio (NPR) airs weekly in the United States, says that it is not unusual for him to spend three hours editing a five-second sound segment [4].

4. Synchronous and Asynchronous E-Learning

In synchronous e-learning, information is conveyed verbally, much as it is in the classroom. Despite the technology's mediation, synchronicity still permits spontaneity. Without visual cues, though, presenters tend to sanitize stories in order to avoid offending students through inappropriate deployments of language, cultural references, or humor. While it is imperative that stories not offend, too much sanitizing can result in stories that are less rich, and, consequently, less helpful to students. Thus, one important strategy for using stories in synchronous e-learning situations is to heighten their narrative arcs and deepen stories' language and their scope of references. Ghost stories offer a good model for this kind of arc heightening and linguistic/semantic deepening. Ghost stories have a long tradition and work without any gestures, body language, or visual response. Even though many e-learning classes' stories lack ghost stories' entertainment value-because they lack ghost stories' steep narrative arc, their high level of suspense, their life-and-death stakes, and their general dramatic intensity-there are strategies to compensate.

Another good strategy to increase the appeal of stories delivered orally in synchronous learning settings is poetry read aloud by poets themselves or by people sensitive to the richness of spoken language. The Web boasts numerous sites that feature sound files of serious poetry read by poets and actors. Listening to these recordings, presenters can analyze "how voice frames expectation, how spoken verse improvises on text." Sound files give students "the opportunity to close [their] eyes and really listen" (Ludwig, 2000). The important point is that variables, such as voice timbre, inflection, and timing, can compensate for medium-imposed constraints and underlying content that may be less entertaining than ghost stories or mysteries. Hard work must nevertheless be devoted to crafting stories that approach the level of engagement offered by literary fiction, poetry, or documentaries.

In asynchronous e-learning, stories are typically captured as text, audio, or video and consumed by learners at their convenience. Creating them is harder because the audience does not experience the stories as they are performed. The stories are indeed performed, but missing is a group of students that reacts and inspires storytellers, freeing them to pull different stories from their repertoire and tell them in different, often improvisatory, ways according to the demands of the moment. Stories captured using text, audio, or video are also easily distributed, but the act of capture, while diminishing concerns about unwittingly offending students, often yields less rich and interesting stories. They are also static. An exception is digital hypertexts, which can be highly dynamic and interactive, and offer a yet-untapped storytelling mode that remains too rarely used in e-learning. A related technique is to illustrate digital stories with pictures or photographs (Mitchell, 1994); illustration holds the potential to enhance the graphical dimension of students' experience, yet it may erode their imaginative processes, much like a novel's movie version can taint one's recollection of the novel.

The challenges of creating stories for asynchronous delivery models can be overcome. For example, stories can be performed before a "live" or synchronous audience and made available to subsequent asynchronous audiences, who can replay both the story and the other audiences' reactions.

Enriching the media used to deliver asynchronous stories is also an option: Upgrade the video technology, add sound, and provide a feedback channel that allows asynchronous learners to respond to the storyteller.

These learners can also be invited to tell their own stories in response to those told by the teacher, facilitating a sharing that would not be possible in a synchronous setting where linearity and deference to peers would require more restrained and moderate responses.

5. Directions for Further Research

This paper attempts an overview of storytelling's role in effective e-learning, which remains a vast subject where intriguing problems call for extensive investigation, experimentation, and study. For example, what are the essential structures of stories that work well in e-learning settings? What must e-learning teachers know about the performative dimensions of their stories -the elements of voice inflection, voice timbre, and timing-and how can teachers be assisted to select, enhance, and recount stories in synchronous and asynchronous classes? How can humor be incorporated into e-learning-delivered stories without risking learners' misreadings? What e-learning strategies are best for encouraging dialogue, discussion, and student-generated stories? Are there reliable ways to measure the pedagogical effectiveness of e-learning storytelling? Lastly, how can practitioners ensure that technologies' unique qualities are identified and exploited such that they enable that which could not otherwise be done? (Laurillard, 1993) This line of inquiry demands yet more rigorous speculation about the potential of new technologies and media combinations to more effectively deliver digital stories.

6. Conclusions

Stories advance e-learning in many respects: They set a tone in a class, build rapport, and convey information on multiple levels. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, "The things that cannot be theoretically expressed, one must tell a story about." Stories can be effective classroom tools, but they present intriguing challenges to presenters who would deploy them at a distance. There are many subtle issues concerning how to make distantly told and received stories effective, and there are delicate balancing acts that must be negotiated: richness and interest must be preserved while avoiding offense; stories' communicative potential must be maximized while compensating for the constraints that the delivery medium imposes on non-verbal cues and feedback loops; and storytelling's improvisatory nature should ideally be preserved even while capturing stories in distributable text, audio, or video for asynchronous e-learning.


I am indebted to Jeff Green for his insightful discussions on this topic and his editing. I also want to thank the participants at the September 2000 meeting of Lowell CHI for their inspiring ideas and feedback when I first presented these ideas, and John Thomas and Beth Adelson for sharing their thoughts about corporate storytelling.


Friedman, B., Grudin, J., Nass, C., Nissenbaum, H., Schlager, M., Shneiderman, B., and Thomas, J. C. (1999). Trust me, I'm accountable — Trust and accountability online. In Alton, M. W. and Williams, M. G., Eds. CHI 99 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Pittsburgh, PA. New York: ACM.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching - A framework for the effective use of Educational Technology, Routledge.

Laurillard, D., Stratfold, M., Luckin, R., Plowman, L. & Taylor, J. (2000). Affordances for Learning in a Non-Linear Narrative Medium. Journal of Interactive Media in Education.

Ludwig, J. (2000). An Online Course Teaches How to Enjoy — and Evaluate — Poems for Children, Chronicle of Higher Education, October 17, 2000.

Mitchell, William J. (1994). The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Norman, D. A. (1993). Things that make us smart - Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Pederson, E. M. (1995). Storytelling and the Art of Teaching, Forum, vol. 33 No 1.

Stober, D. (1997). Wanted: Storytellers to weave tales for the web, San Jose Mercury News, March 3, 1997.

Weller, M. (2000). The Use of Narrative to Provide a Cohesive Structure for a Web Based Computing Course. Journal of Interactive Media in Education.

Wetzel, M. (2000). Did You Hear the One About...? OnLine Learning Magazine, Nov. 2000.


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    Lisa Neal
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