october 12


from SpongeBob to online education: the power of character-driven narratives

What does SpongeBob Squarepants have to do with online course development?

In 2013 I was hired by CreativeLive to work with authors, thought leaders, and subject matter experts to turn their expertise into 2-3 day live online workshops. Some were superstars at creating engaging lessons that delivered on learning outcomes, while others had no experience in crafting their content into this type of learning environment. Whether I was developing a workshop on food photography, marketing, or meditation, two things quickly became very clear.

  1. I needed to create a development framework that would work no matter the topic or instructor experience level
  2. Developing online workshops was fairly similar to the process of developing television series

In my pre-online education professional life, I worked in Hollywood; specifically I was a content development executive in kids television. My job was to develop television series to sell to networks across the world. To sell a concept into a series, it meant working with writers and illustrators to hone the concept into a ‘mini-bible.’ A mini-bible is a 5-7 pitch document that describes who the characters are, the world they live in, and at least four potential episodes or storylines. At that time, every kids television network was looking for the next   SpongeBob Squarepants, Nickelodeon’s smash hit. Why was a series about a kitchen sponge so successful? 

I managed to get my hands on Stephen Hillenburg’s original mini-bible and the answer was glaringly simple. In a few short pages he managed to present a character that every kid would want as their best friend.   SpongeBob was so brilliantly developed as a character that you could watch him tie his shoes and you’re guaranteed to laugh. In fact, put   SpongeBob in any situation and you will empathize with him and chuckle along the way. This is why Nikelodeon produced nearly 250 episodes of the show, and it still remains a benchmark of quality kids television. This understanding, that character drives the story, shaped my content development skills from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. 

If developing a kids show starts with developing the main character so that a child connects with them, then developing an online course starts with a complete understanding of the learner and how to deliver on their wants and needs. But what does the learner want to achieve and how are they going to achieve it? In my last post, I defined a Course Narrative as the overall journey that a learner is asked to take throughout a course. I explained that the course narrative consists of 5 elements (what I call the 5 Pillars of Content):

  1. The Learner – Who will benefit the most from taking the course?
  2. The Dilemma – What dilemma(s) does the course solve for the learner?
  3. The Promise – By the end of the course, what will the learner be able to achieve?
  4. The Instructor – Why is the instructor (and the organization offering the course) best positioned to teach the course?
  5. The Lessons – What key lessons or skills does the learner need in order to archive the promise?

In more traditional storytelling (or an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants) a narrative consists of these essential elements:

  1. Character(s) – The central figure with defining characteristics that distinguish them from other characters in the story 
  2. Setting – The context in which the events in the narrative take place
  3. Goal – The objective, desire, or aspiration that the character seeks to achieve
  4. Obstacles – Challenges, barriers, or difficulties that the character must overcome in pursuit of their goal
  5. Resolution – Offers closure to the character’s journey and reveals how they have changed or what the future holds

Look at how closely these elements match:

The Learner = Character

The Dilemma = Setting

The Promise = Goal / Resolution

The Instructor = Character 

The Lessons = Obstacles

As a course creator, it is your responsibility to engage the learner and convince them to take a journey. They commit because the course solves a dilemma and offers a promise that is personal to their goal. When developing an online course of any subject, from Generative AI to unconscious bias, the first step is to identify the 5 Pillars and the course narrative. 

When I realized the connection of kids television series development to course development back in 2013 it was a revelation. That revelation helped me create a framework which I’ve employed on every course I’ve developed (100+ courses) since 2013. And it’s also the first step of the development framework we use with all of our clients at Edios Media. 

As you develop your next course, remember that, just like the best stories, it all starts with character – the character of the learner, who looks to you for guidance, knowledge and ultimately transformation.  Craft your course’s narrative and let the learner’s journey begin. 

*Download this pdf that highlights the connection between The Five Pillars of Content and the essential elements of storytelling*

Coming up next: how to create a learner persona


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