Does Your E-Learning Course Need to Tell a Story?

Storytelling in e-learning is a great way to create memorable content. But should you use it for your course?

The other day, while researching different ways to create high-quality, memorable course content, I was surprised by the number of industry writers who recommended storytelling as an essential first step. My first inclination was to accept this at face value. After all, I can easily think of any number of applications in the context of online learning. But after looking more carefully, it seemed like this teaching method was being over-applied in a way that might actually hamper learner experience.

Storytelling is an excellent learning tool that can bring a course to life. But like any tool, it has to fit its purpose. Before you over-apply a teaching technique, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and think about whether it will be effective for learners. Here are a few places where I think storytelling is an especially good tool, and a few places where I think it is unnecessary.

3 places when you should use storytelling:

Stories are addictive. They can keep learners engaged and focused long after they might otherwise have given up. There are many good reasons to use stories in an online course, but  here are just a few.

1. You’re running scenario-based e-learning.

I love the idea of scenarios in online learning. They make a situation real and memorable, and help mentally prepare learners for potentially difficult situations. They can also help transition theoretical knowledge into practical context. They are especially good for training courses, when learners need coaching to help them respond correctly when on the job.

Some great applications includes sales and customer service training, emergency response training, and leadership training. Create a story where your learner has to diffuse a tense situation, and let them take center stage.

2. You are incorporating gamification.

Gamification doesn’t require a story, but it sure fits! In fact, gamified scenarios don’t even demand a particularly robust story. All they need is a character and an environment.

Think about Mario for a minute: there’s not actually a lot of narrative, beyond the recurring plotline of “the Princess has been captured by Bowser.” The gameplay mechanics are all about problem solving, timing, and coordination.

And yet, this basic scenario can be especially captivating for young audiences, who might avoid tedious, repetitive work outside the context of a game. In fact, when I first learned to type, it was using a computer program that turned otherwise dull typing drills into a game.

3. Your course content fits a narrative.

Some content is made to be told as a story. If you’re covering a work of literature, for instance, or a play, storytelling is a natural part of the educational process. You’re not limited to the details from your primary subject matter, either. Why not expand into the biography of the author, or bring in details from the time period?

Stories can offer powerful illustrations of difficult concepts. When a story helps bring your course to life, adding it in is almost always the right decision.

3 places when you should be careful when using storytelling:

I would hesitate to say that you should never use storytelling in these situations. However, when course matter relies on accuracy and specificity, adding a story to the mix can get in the way, even if it does make the lesson more interesting. The following aren’t prohibitions, but proceed with caution.

1. Your course deals with abstract or technical subjects.

Remember story problems in math class? I have no objection with these. In fact, they’re often a great way to take an abstract concept and help learners see how it applies to the real world. But it’s easy to make mistakes with this kind of storytelling that can quickly become ridiculous. (Again, remember story problems in math class?)

The more technical and abstract your problems become, the more careful you must be with the scenarios you provide. Again, stories work best when bringing a dry or technical subject into context. You can use them to illustrate a concept, but you will still need to cover the concept on its own..

2. Your course has an academic focus.

Storytelling as a learning tool can also run off course in academic situations because it conflicts with the objectivity of the course material. For example, history is full of stories. But it is the job of a careful historian to avoid projecting too much into the historical record.

If you’re creating a course for kids, it may be more accessible to cover the topic through a story. But if you’re creating a serious academic course for adults, you will probably need to tread more carefully.

3. The story doesn’t come naturally.

Finally, while storytelling can be powerful and engaging, it can also quickly turn into something trite or even condescending. This is true even in situations where a story might be a good learning tool. You still have to tell a story well for it to be an effective teaching aid.

So, if you like the idea but aren’t sure of the execution, don’t feel like you need to make it work. Find a different approach that feels more natural. You’ll probably enjoy designing your course more, and your learners will respond to that enthusiasm.

Storytelling is just one of many powerful ways to deliver course content.

There are many ways to design a learning environment, but not every tool is suited for every application. As engaging as storytelling may be, if it doesn’t fit the situation, there’s no reason to shoehorn it into your lessons. Instead, set it aside for a time in the future when it will work.

In the meantime, there are plenty of other tools to consider, from micro content to flipped classrooms. The key is to find a technique that matches your course content, works well for your learners, and is exciting for you to develop.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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