Storytelling: A Key to E-Learning


In recent years, “gamification” has been a popular concept in e-learning. However, in this article, we’re going to focus on a different trend. Storytelling.

The importance of stories

Actually, it may be wrong to call it a “trend” because narrator art is as old as humanity itself. It’s also known that a good story can help us live our message and reach out to more people.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to get caught up in the facts when writing a course script. We concentrate on getting all the information we think the participants need to learn, formulate it in a more or less accessible way, and maybe insert a reality-based example or two to the target audience.

What we often miss is the value of a good story with a distinct dramaturgic curve. If we integrate our facts and our message into a story with clear characters – and with clear challenges – our participants can easily understand what we want to say. In addition, the courses are guaranteed to be more fun to produce because we can be creative and personal in another way.

The story arc of e-learning

The story arc of an online course is similar to the “classic” story arc but lets us follow the participants’ learning through the story. The following is a brief description based on anthology Keys to Storytelling by Trivantis.

To explain this a bit better, let’s use a supervisor’s training that Contento Wassum presented to the Swedish National Agency for Education as an example.

The training is aimed at those who take in apprentices in workplace-based learning (APL) and to those in schools who work with APL. Storytelling was a key to the training’s success, and the content clearly follows the story arc of e-learning.

It all begins with an introduction. Here the participants meet the story’s protagonist who presents himself and his background. It can either be a person who guides the participants through the education in the role of expert and mentor, or “one of them”; someone who collaborates with the participants to meet and handle an antagonist. In the introduction to the supervisor’s education, the participants became acquainted with Johnny who received a student from the transport program at his garage. He served as a guide throughout the training, and at the same time, as a mentor based on his personal experience. Johnny introduced himself, after which he and the participants met their antagonist together.

This antagonist, or obstacle, follows the introduction on the story arc. Now, participants get to know the challenge they face. It should be a situation that the participants face or will face in their everyday lives. This way, they can more easily anchor what they learn when it’s time for them to put their new skills into action. The obstacle of the supervisor’s training, for both the protagonist Johnny and the participants, was lack of experience of teaching an apprentice at work.

After the participants have been introduced to their challenge, the rising action of the story begins. The rising action adds minor events related to the major challenge. For Johnny and the participants in the supervisor’s training it was about preparing for the first day with the apprentice. They reflected on perspectives of what an apprentice is, expectations, benefits and challenges of receiving apprentices at the workplace, and such. At the same time, the participants got to learn what they need to sort out before the apprentice’s arrival.

They got to know the guidelines and plans by Johnny showing his documents and explaining his thoughts. When the apprentice, Inez – another protagonist in the story – was in place, Johnny shared what he thought and felt in different situations they ended up in during Inez’s workplace time. Along the way, further antagonists, or obstacles, appeared to bring the story forward. Thus, participants were gradually learning to respond to bigger and smaller challenges in the supervisor role. A part of it was communicating with Inez’s teacher Thomas; a third protagonist. Introducing more characters during the story enhances it further.

The rising action leads to the turning point of the story arc. The pieces start to fall into place: the participants have learned what they need to cross the obstacle. It doesn’t have to be too dramatic, but it should clearly mark the turn of the story. In the supervisor’s training, the turning point came during one of Thomas’s visits to Johnny where they discussed Inez’s progression so far.

After the turning point, the falling action phase of the story begins. Here the participants can continue to practice what they learned until the turning point but can also be presented with new information and exercises. However, it’s important to try to round off the story during the falling action phase and introduce information that follows the chronology. The falling action of the supervisor’s training summed up Johnny’s supervisor period for Inez’s time at the garage and allowed participants to practice elements that would be useful to them in real life.

The resolution of the story that follows the falling action phase on the arc marks its end. Now it’s time to tie things up and let the participants know “what happened next”. What was the outcome or conclusion of the story? Participants can also summarize what they take away from the training. Last time, the participants in the supervisor’s training encountered Johnny and Inez on the car test, where Inez got a job after her graduation. Johnny, in turn, summed up why he appreciated the supervisor and what the participants could look forward to when it became their turn to receive an apprentice.

The success factors

Why the supervisor’s training has been so highly appreciated can partly be explained by how facts and exercises were weaved into a personal, relatable story. The script followed the story arc of e-learning with an introduction, obstacles, a rise of action, a turning point, a fall of action and a resolution, making it easier for participants to learn what it means to be apprenticeship supervisors.

Both before and after the production of the supervisor’s training, Contento Wassum has used similar arrangements in its productions. When the participants feel that the content they encounter in the training is reminiscent of what it looks like in their everyday lives, a clearer understanding arises than if they only had to go through a variety of dry information without a clear context. If they also follow one or more sympathetic protagonists, there is an even greater interest in the course.

Of course, subject experts can deliver relevant facts, but they can also describe real situations that the recipients of the training can encounter in their everyday life. And don’t be afraid to be imaginative with your storytelling. A great story can be a lot of fun for participants, and even for scriptwriters and producers!

Do you have an example of a story you’ve used in your online course? Let’s us know by sharing a comment on either Facebook or LinkedIn!


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