Engaging online learners through story-telling techniques

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Simon Fitzpatrick, a Learning Designer in EDE*, explains how it is equally important to focus on student engagement in online spaces as it is in face-to-face teaching…

Recent adventures in helping academic colleagues design new MOOCs reminded me of some of the assumptions we all make when creating new online material. During my career, I have worked in all sorts of places ‘doing’ eLearning, including prisons, schools, colleges, the NHS, private and public sector companies and the military. Everyone talks about ‘learner engagement’, but it’s still an area where I think people struggle… and there are still courses that kick off with ‘About this course’ pillaged from a course spec somewhere, and then a list of learning objectives. Who are these for and does anyone read them? (Rhetorical question…but hopefully you get my drift.)

So, what does make an online course engaging?

Needless to say, there are numerous acronyms that point the way. I quite like AIDA:

  • Awareness
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

…in other words, make learners aware of what to expect: what is the journey that they’re about to start and pique their interest? What’s in the course that attracts them and sounds interesting? Hopefully, this will produce enough motivation to get them involved and make a start and ‘do’ something. However, this is clearly the start of the process. The challenge is to maintain this process ensuring high levels of engagement throughout the course.

So, a nice acronym, but I still worry that this remains a bit ‘surface’; there’s not enough in here to help me develop a course that leaps off the page. I fully appreciate that subject matter doesn’t always lend itself to an Apple/1984 -style course launch but I do think we can do more.

I worked for Jisc Netskills down in Newcastle for a few years, and one of the things that we dabbled with was learning design. We were quite taken with ideas of ‘entry channels’ – a concept developed by commercial website designers and using various techniques to draw people into their site and build up the interest/need that ultimately leads to hard sales. It’s possible to map this approach into any website but a really good example of an application to a learning solution is the Broken Co-worker, an eLearning course that aims to address issues of harassment in the workplace. It’s a great example of innovative e-learning but, leaving the visuals aside, it also features a neat storyline:

  1. A trailer-style introduction
  2. A simple image to start the story
  3. Minimal but intuitive navigation
  4. Another image that ‘backfills’ the story
  5. ..a series of images that add to the problem that is developing..
  6. A pause, in which the learner (who is hopefully keen to find out what happens next) is given further information (objective) and clear instruction as to what to do next…i.e. choice..
  7. The story continues to develop and the problem is clearly articulated
  8. There are two follow ups:
    1. A hint
    2. A choice

This is a neat example of drawing users in through a simple story-telling process that reveals the ‘real’ objective of the story when the user is already engaged and then delivering the material through an action-consequence model – i.e. ‘choosing’ a route through material and dealing with follow up material as a result of choices – probably better known as a ‘learning scenario’. However, the issue of engaging the learner through the creation of a trail or story before the serious stuff starts is appealing and could be applied to a broad range of subject matter, with or without learning scenarios.

Finally, it is also worth reminding ourselves that no-one thanks us for designing drab screen-based materials. We’re not all graphic designers but there are techniques and simple approaches to making on-screen materials easier on the eye, including:

    • Reduce visual clutter
    • Increase white space
    • Clear organisation and hierarchy
    • Focus including graphic figures, animation, infographics
    • Calls-to-action (web-speak for clicking buttons) – try and build in opportunities for ‘doing’ – even if it’s a link to an external URL
    • Accessibility and usability – all users will benefit from an accessible and useable site

*Educational Design & Engagement (EDE) supports University teaching and learning by providing a central hub for developing awareness, support for staff and students and leadership for e-learning service improvements. We are part of the Directorate of Learning, Teaching and Web. Follow @uoe_online @uoe_ltw and subscribe to EDE team blog

Simon Fitzpatrick

Simon is a learning designer based in Information Services. Following a very average History degree, he spent a couple of years working in Formula 1 rolling tyres, then became a windsurfing instructor, then a tractor driver, then a teacher. Several years (~25) were then spent in HE (Leicester, Newcastle and various others) supporting academics. He’s interested in learning first, then technology second – to paraphrase Robert Fripp – “…technology is never an end in itself, only a means to an end…” When left to his own devices, he messes about with old boats and play bass in a dad band.

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