There is one major problem for online course developers: they are expected to entertain. We're not talking about developing high-quality educational content. Everyone understands they need to do that. We're talking about the learner's expectations for this content to be fun.
The demand for online learning is consistently on the rise. The 2018 Online Education Trends Report by Best Colleges shows that almost 40% of school administrators plan to increase the budgets for online learning over the next year. During 2018, 73% of schools decided to offer online learning programs. 79% of all students expressed an opinion that online learning is equal to or better than on-campus education.
Great responsibility comes along this increased demand.
Technology transformed the learning process. Instead of attending boring lectures, the students can now attend fun online courses that engage them with visuals. Engagement – that's what makes online education so cool.
But let's be clear: not all online courses excel in that aspect. It's easy for the students to get bored and abandon an online course if they don't find it interesting enough. So you have a great responsibility to catch and hold their attention.
That's where storytelling comes into the picture.
This is a classic technique of encouraging someone's imagination by revealing information through an interactive use of words and actions.
There are few aspects to that definition, so let's explain it in detail.
First of all, storytelling means to awaken someone's imagination. When you're trying to explain how planets move, for example, you want the listener to have a vivid presentation of that movement in their mind. Thanks to visual storytelling techniques, it's easy to achieve that impression in online courses.
Another aspect of the definition is the term interactive use of words and actions. What does interactive mean, exactly? The response of the listeners should influence the way the storyteller reveals the story. They have specific expectations, which the storyteller should sense by intuition. This is the most challenging aspect to implement in digital storytelling.
But we'll get there. The important thing is that when you infuse effective storytelling methods in your online courses, they will be more engaging and more successful, in general. This is the aspect that makes online learning less boring.
How to integrate storytelling in online courses
1. Develop characters
Really? Isn't that going a bit too far?
Characters will give character to your online course.
There's one particularly successful course based on this concept. It's called De-Mystifying Mindfulness, and it's provided by the University of Leiden through Coursera. The students are being guided by interesting characters that explain the concept of mindfulness: a scientist, a ninja, a monk, a hippie, and a zombie. The personalities of these characters are very familiar to the students, so they can relate the concept of mindfulness to their personal features. Everyone identifies with one or two of these characters, and as the course progresses, their perception of themselves may change.
Characters are great because they add a dash of humor, but also realism to course development. They keep the attention of the students. But it's important to stay relevant. When you want to introduce conversations between the characters, don't make digressions. Stay on topic all the time; otherwise you'll make the course boring.
2. Make the students part of this
Laura Casper, a writer for global assignment help agency, emphasizes the most important aspect of storytelling: "It's an exchange of emotions between the teller and the listener. Your students don't necessarily need stories. They don't want to be taken on a tour of the crucial key points, where the teaching process is performed in a one-way direction. You have to give them an opportunity to do something, so they will not only acquire knowledge, but demonstrate it, too."
If we take a look at De-Mystifying Mindfulness again, we'll realize that the course developers nailed this part of storytelling, too. After each brief video lectures, they are asked to share a story of their own. The course assignments ask them to share something about themselves, and explain how they identify themselves with the characters.
Online course assignments are often perceived as a burden. Students don't like them in "real" education, so they would like to avoid them when they are after full-on convenience.
When you ask for a boring assignment, you risk too much. Most of the students will rely on research paper experts to complete their projects. But when you make the course assignments part of the storytelling process, you'll engage the learners on a deeper level.
And if you want to make the story really interactive, you can leave out the ending. Develop the course without the outcome. If the theme allows it, you'll create the final lecture inspired by the assignments that the students share. If you're focused on social topics, such as education or poverty, you can ask them to come up with possible solutions. Then, the final lecture will wrap up the story with the solutions that the students thought of.
3. Develop the story in a proper way
Your characters are the moving force of the story. But they are not the only element of successful storytelling. There are few other things to consider:
- Introduction – In the first lesson, you'll introduce the characters. Tell the learners what each character is like, and how they are important for the concept you're covering. If, for example, you're teaching English literature, few notable writers from different eras can serve as your characters.
- A problem or a conflict. If you've ever read a story, you know it depends on this element. The more intriguing the conflict is, the more successful the story comes out. If we stick to the same example, you can show Shakespeare in a society that doesn't welcome his ideas. There's your conflict. Then, you'll lead the listeners towards the resolution.
- A plot/narrative. This is the movement throughout the different elements of the story. It's important, since it keeps the learners engaged and emotionally involved. If any of these elements are missed, the story will be incomplete, and your online course will lose its factor of attraction somewhere along the way.
4. Visualize the story
The best thing about online course development is that you're not dependent on words only. You're not creating a course where you just talk to the listeners and explain things through classic lectures. We're far beyond that point at the current state of education.
Visuals are a must! You can draw the attention of your learners to the key aspects of the concepts by sharing high-quality visual presentations. You'll create cool graphics for the characters, and you'll put them in different situations.
The visuals can come in the form of comic cartoons, elaborate graphics, photographs, or even animated videos. Just make them creative and realistic, in accordance with the course you teach.
Speaking of the visual aspect, you can also experiment with fonts and layouts for your online course. When you share textual content, you may mimic a magazine editorial or a format that was typical for the era you cover in your lessons. Use fonts and designs with a clear purpose, so you'll capture the theme of your course in the most authentic manner possible.
A book review service may help with the formatting. You'll just prepare the text and you'll ask the editors to present it in the format adequate for your course.
5. Keep the focus on the educational element
Stories are cool. But let's face it: when you're focused on providing educational content, you cannot turn the story into the central aspect of the course. Remember: above anything else, the students are supposed to learn. You're trying to grab and hold their attention through storytelling, but the story should serve one purpose only: teaching.
Instead of turning the story into the star of your show, use it as a tool that helps you share a lesson. Keep it very realistic and related to the topic. Do not distract the learner from the subject matter in any moment. The story should be clear and engaging, but not over-exaggerated.
In addition, it's important to keep the stories short. If you share one-hour lectures based on stories, you'll make it difficult for the learners to fit the course in their weekly schedule. If you cover too many points through the story, you'll lead them to a cognitive overload and they won't be willing to listen to the next lecture.
Never overwhelm your learners with too many characters, plot points, conflicting situations, and lesson highlights. Keep their interest by offering short, snappy lectures powered by storytelling.
Stories make people feel
Do you know why traditional education is boring? It doesn't awaken any emotions. When students read a history lesson, they don't feel anything. They just force themselves to memorize the dates and the order of events. They don't even think about all those victims from a war. The lecture shows them as a number.
In online education, we strive to overcome that flaw of traditional lecturing. We want our students to feel something about the things they learn. Storytelling is an effective tool that supports that goal.
This is a guest post by Tiffany Harper. Tiffany is a talented writer from New York, an extremely active woman, and a real leader. She began her career very early as a journalist in the publishing house and later proceeded as writer and editor. Now she works as the subject matter specialist with Edu Birdie reviews, mostly in business and eLearning technologies. Please do not hesitate to contact her on Twitter.