Taking eLearners on a journey using narratives.
My background is in mental health and eLearning, so it’s no surprise that I’m interested in the psychology behind eLearning and why some programs are more effective than others. Over the years in both my training and mental health experience, I have come to realise the immense benefits of narrative therapy and thought I would share those with you today.
People love a good story. Stories are easy to remember, they create an emotional connection and are easy to share. Stories let people imagine that they are a character, going on their own journey. Remember the old ‘choose your own adventure’ books? I remember these from my primary school days. They were the most popular books in the library. Why? Because they ‘hooked’ us in. They put us as central characters in the story. We were invested. We were intrigued and curious to find out what the future held for us. We couldn’t put the books down. I would often read a whole book in one afternoon. That’s the type of commitment and excitement we want our eLearning to evoke. But how do we do that? Let’s take a look at how to capture the power of narratives in eLearning.
What is a narrative?
The word narrative has different meanings and understandings for different people. In narrative therapy for example, stories consist of events linked in sequence across time and according to a plot. As humans, we give meaning to experiences in the story that is our lives. This is why it works so well in eLearning, because it’s a familiar process to us. Narratives have specific traits such as; characters, plots, conflict, setting and points of view. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Remember in the ‘choose your own adventure’ books, you got to choose a character? Did you want to be the villain or the hero? Either way, they were both starring roles, right? A good engaging narrative will have both of these; however, we refer to them as protagonist and antagonists. In the world of work, they might look like this;
Antagonist/Villain. Jakeb is a Project Manager on a construction site. He has been advised by his boss that he must have the project finished by close of business Friday. This seems like an impossible mission for Jakeb. He puts his thinking hat on and decides that he will just make all the junior staff stay back and work overtime, every day this week, working 15 hour days, come rain, hail or sunshine. Understandably, the staff are not happy, however they want to keep their jobs so they do the work. During one of the 15 hour shifts, a staff member (fatigued & inexperienced) slips with the angle grinder and slices through a nerve in his hand. Anyway, the job ends up being completed on time, and Jakeb celebrates his success. The staff don’t think he was successful, in fact, he’s now lost the respect of many of the workers. Jakeb has also been asked to attend a meeting with the Human Resource department and Workplace Health & Safety to explain why the employees were working under those conditions. Did Jakeb get the job done? Yes, but he and the staff paid quite a high price.
Protagonist/Hero. Alex works for the same company as Jakeb. In fact, he holds the same position but works on another site. He hears about the looming deadline approaching and about Jakebs plan to work the staff in an unsafe manner. Alex, decides that it is not worth putting the safety of staff at risk, and decides to speak to Jakeb about his plan. Alex, proposes an alternative option. Alex has run the figures and established that if the all the staff work an additional three hours a day for the next week, they will be within the prescribed limit set by the Modern Award, their hours would be paid at time and a half instead of double time, the work would be distributed evenly among staff and junior staff would be adequately supervised. You can see that Alex has clearly thought about complying with all relevant legislations and regulations, is protecting his staff and also meeting the company’s deadline. Now who’s the hero?
Plot & Scene
You can see from the above story, that the plot and scene were set. You were aware of the location, the facts, the events and five essential components of the plot; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution.
Conflict. The conflict is any struggle between forces. It may be a struggle between two people, two groups, two companies, community vs government, natural disasters and citizens.
Point of view. This refers to the different perspectives in which the story is told. The story may be told from the first, second or third person. First person, is the narrator – a character in the story, using ‘me’ and ‘I’ statements. Second-person narrative uses the pronoun “you” and is used when the narrator speaks directly to the participant/reader, like I’m speaking to you now. Third-person narrative uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” and “they,” and it is used when the narrator describes someone else’s story, often from an experts perspective.
First person. One of the main advantages of the first person is the emotional connection, the story puts the participant in the characters shoes. A disadvantage is that the material is often not objective. It tends to present the first person’s perspective.
Second person. Most commonly used for instructional programs. The participant is the audience and they are being directed. Disadvantages are that you risk breaking the drama of the story and the lack of emotional connection.
Third person. Many psychological studies suggest that the third person provides a distant vantage point, diffusing emotionally charged situations, allowing people to gain an understanding and consider different perspectives, choices etc., without feeling overwhelmed. Using the third person is actually a therapeutic technique, supported by ever-growing body of research that demonstrates that viewing your life from an external perspective, will help you view yourself more compassionately and more constructively.
The third person has the potential to decrease the participants connection to the material, which, depending on your topic, could be a positive or negative outcome. You would need to weigh these up for your own eLearning project. Education programs for survivors of domestic violence for example, would be a good opportunity to use the third person, as the participants are able to distant themselves, and make the necessary decisions without becoming too emotional.
In summary, using narratives in eLearning is a great way to capture attention and connect emotionally with your audience. Narrative eLearning is an opportunity for participants to ‘choose their own’ adventure and provide solutions, answers and options to the questions presented in the program. It is a theory that is scientifically proven to work in mobilising people to make changes in their life, so why not let them re-write their story using your eLearning program?