august 13


2019


the 5 elements of storytelling essential to every online course

Storytelling is the oldest vehicle for the transmission of knowledge. Our early ancestors were compelled to educate and pass on their skills so that the next generation could thrive in their environment. Let’s blast ahead 20,000 years (give or take a millenia) when millions of people have access to tens of thousands of hours of education via platforms such as Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn and others. Our ability to reach learners has never been more powerful. But why does it feel like so much eLearning content is bland and even arduous to complete?  The Financial Times reported that a recent study at MIT found that online courses had an astronomical dropout rate of about 96% on average over five years.

It has been argued that completion rates are overrated and instead of asking whether a learner has completed a course we should measure other factors such as the function and design of the content. After developing and producing thousands of hours of eLearning and online courses, I believe that most content fails because there is no attempt to connect with learners in any deep, emotional manner.  

Every course requires the learner to take a journey.  The learner commits to a course because the content will solve a dilemma and deliver on a promise they seek, even when the lessons might become complex.  Yet most courses fail to incorporate the most fundamental aspects of storytelling in the development of the content, therefore failing to provide a personal roadmap for the journey they’ve asked the learner to take. 

I have witnessed two instructors teach very similar content. While one course has the learners stone-faced and disconnected, the other has the learners in tears. Why? 

As an Instructional Designer and Content Producer, I believe that a course on personal development (an inherently introspective topic) can have the same emotional response as a course that teaches computer programming or any digital skills.  The Observatory of Educational Innovation lists a series of benefits as it relates to the concept of storytelling as part of a curriculum in the EduTrends report, Storytelling.  These include the ability to link emotions and empathy, provide the adoption of diverse points of view, and encourage critical thinking with learners.  But how should you think about story in course development?

The first step is to understand and identify the different elements of storytelling.  Take the element of character as an example. Let’s talk about Oprah. Oprah, as a character, is relatable and warm. She is the type of woman that you want to be best friends with.  She shares her victories and her failures while inviting her viewers (who also are characters) to feel the emotions that she feels. She interviews different people (also characters) and shares her perspective on their experience. Of course, there is only one Oprah, but the point here is to understand the element of character.  Who are the characters in your course?  

Course creators must be intentional in the early stages of curriculum development by incorporating the most fundamental elements of storytelling into the fabric of their content.  I believe there are 5 fundamental aspects of storytelling:

  1. Setting

  2. Character

  3. Goal

  4. Obstacles

  5. Resolution

Each of these elements, when clearly identified, offer a roadmap for course developers.  At Edios Media, each time we kick off a new project, whether to create one video or a 6 course specialization with 500+ videos, the process begins in exactly the same way: by identifying these fundamental storytelling elements.

Over the course of several posts I will dive into each of these elements in detail and explain how to identify and incorporate them into the development of your eLearning courses. I’ll cover how to imagine the setting, how you can define the characters in a course, and how you support the learner by identifying obstacles and help them achieve their goal.  With a little intention to include narrative storytelling in your online course, you can connect with your learners in a powerful and personal way.

Michael Karsh, Co-founder & Executive Producer, Edios Media