E-Learning as a Narrative Technique: Yeah!

Between our two blogs, Maish R Nichani and I are having an intriguing conversation about e-learning. Yesterday in elearningpost he zeroed in on a concept that strikes a strong chord in me: e-learning as a narrative technique. See: It’s all about rich e-learning experiences.

Here are a few quick thoughts to follow up on some points that Nichani raised in that excellent article…

Nichani wrote: “Too much of e-learning is focused on the conditioning mindset – provide the cheese crumbs to the caged mouse and he will ‘learn’ to find his way to the exit. This is where the behaviourists have ruled for so long. …Treat learners as humans and they will love you for it; treat them as cogs in a wheel and, well, they’ll just click the Close button!”

And, after relating an e-learning anecdote that is well worth reading, he noted, “…If we were to design an e-learning episode …on hurricane clean-ups, how would we design it? Would we design based on tasks or information? Would we begin with a list of bullet-objectives? Here’s where I differentiate between designing an e-learning course and designing a rich e-learning experience, with all its real-life ambiguities. This is where the prospect of using e-learning as a narrative technique rocks.”

YEAH! You really zeroed in on a good one there, Maish!


According to dictionary.com, narrative means: “adj : consisting of or characterized by the telling of a story; n : a message that tells the particulars of an act or occurrence or course of events.”

In other words, narrative is the storytelling approach to communication. Narrative includes implicit or explicit characters, settings, events, a sense of flow, and (ideally) resolution. It has themes, characters, action, tension, repetition, and cadence. Narrative is a qualitatively and functionally different type of communication than exposition. (In this ongoing discussion, the exposition approach to e-learning content is what I refer to as an “information dump.”)

We humans are storytelling creatures. That’s how we evolved, linguistically. We respond to narrative on psychological, emotional, and physical levels. This makes it especially effective for teaching and learning of all kinds. If you want to treat e-learners as human beings, give them narrative. Save the exposition for backgrounders in your library.

The art of storytelling is integration. A good storyteller weaves ideas and details together in ways that amplify, harmonize, and create a greater whole. She integrates the audience by helping them feel connected to or involved in the story. It is a visceral experience, not an abstract one.

The important part of listening to a story is not memorizing the elements being related, but rather the grasping essence of the tale being narrated. Once the listener grasps the essence, the elements make more sense and become more memorable. Not the other way around. (At least, not if the storyteller is good.)

Effective e-learning can – and should – tell stories. Or at least be part of a narrative flow within the overall learning experience.

As I was discussing before, and continue to discuss elsewhere, I think e-learning is most effective for imparting skills or tasks, rather than delivering an expository information dump. Skills and tasks (including decisionmaking) involve action. Action is a key element of good storytelling.

…I’m not exactly sure how to make e-learning a stronger narrative experience. I’ll have to think that through more, and read a lot more, and take more online lessons and courses to get ideas. But in the meantime, I thought I’d toss this line of thought out there to see what others think.

Thanks, Maish.