It’s no secret that stories make eLearning content more engaging and help learners retain the information they are learning. Stories are so natural to us that we don’t even need to follow the plot to know what’s going on. Narrative theory tells us that stories are how we experience and make sense of the world. These narratives may be personal or span continents and ages, but the way in which we process the information and make sense of the events remains the same. This article will explain a little about the theoretical background to narrative theory in eLearning.
When you think of the life of a famous person throughout history, or the rise and fall of an empire, or a romantic relationship you have had, it’s easy to pick out elements of real life that relate directly to stories we are all familiar with.
A famous person is born, rises to prominence, makes an impact, and then either fades into nothingness or is accorded a place in history. A kingdom rises against its neighbor, expands and conquers, and then is destroyed. You meet a girl or a guy, you fall in love, things are great, and then the arguing starts and you break up – or you live happily ever after.
We know these stories even if we are not familiar with the individual examples or details. These are stories that have been told and retold for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We relate to stories we know and locate ourselves within them in order to give the world meaning.

A (Very) Concise Explanation Of Narrative Theory 

Mona Baker, Professor of Translation and Narrative Theory at the University of Manchester, says that “people’s behavior and understanding of the world are forged through their interpretation of the stories that unfold around them and how they see themselves embedded in these stories”.
These stories determine how we live our lives and constitute the experiences that form them. Most narrative theory experts agree on four different types of narratives:
  • Ontological narratives. Or “narratives of the self”; we use them to make sense of our own existence and to locate ourselves within society.
  • Public narratives. Circulated by groups, institutions, families, the media, and education.
  • Conceptual narratives. Elaborated by scholars and academics.
  • Metanarratives. Grand stories involving huge amounts of people across history, a more recent and relatable example being the War on Terror.
Narratives in turn are defined by four features. These are temporality, referring to the order in which events are placed to generate meaning (particularly important for creating learning plans and developing plots in eLearning courses), selective appropriation which sees certain actors prioritize and foreground certain specific events to build the story, often in their favor, causal emplotment which lends significance to particular events regardless of chronological order, and relationality which refers to the ability to understand the narrative in context.
If narratives help us understand, then they help us learn. What is true on the macro scale of understanding the world and making sense of ourselves in it, is also true on the micro scale of processing educational information and designing eLearning courses.

eLearning Looks For Engagement 

The biggest challenge facing everyone in the eLearning industry, especially in the corporate sector as training can be perceived by some as time which could otherwise be devoted to making money, is engagement.
Keeping students and learners interested in what they are doing is challenging, and it is becoming ever clearer that the old and tired methods of instructor-led, classroom based training are just not as effective as they once were; or perhaps never have been that effective. It is for this reason that methods such as gamification, social learning, and blended learning have become so popular over the last few years, as they break away from the mould and are supported by mounting evidence that these new methods really work.

Stories Must Be Relatable

In eLearning, as in fiction, the stories that make the most impact are the ones that we as an audience can relate to. Better yet are ones that we have experienced ourselves.
Within the context of designing an eLearning course, the characters and scenario may change, and even plot details, but the story arc will be one that has been used over and over again; usually some form of “characters are introduced, enter into conflict and find some form of resolution”.
In eLearning, characters and plot not only have to be recognizable to the user, but also relatable to the scenarios. For example, if you are teaching learners about compliance in a law firm, then it makes sense for the characters to be lawyers and the problem to be compliance related.

Building The Narrative That Suits You

While the types of narrative alluded to above are not hugely relevant for eLearning content, the narrative features certainly are critical as they determine everything, from the narrative is constructed to how it is understood.
Clearly it is up to the course authors what they want to include in their courses, how they construct them and how they are delivered, but with a basic understanding of stories in eLearning they can make their courses more effective, more enjoyable and above all more engaging.

3 Tips On Applying The Narrative Theory In eLearning 

  1. Time and place matter. Temporality means that the chronological order of events is important for understanding. When a learner takes a course and involves him or herself in a story, the sequence in which characters are introduced and the events that occur hold a huge amount of power over how the information is absorbed (and if it’s absorbed at all). Events and characters are understood not in isolation, but through their relationality to others in the narrative. To guarantee the biggest impact, which for the purposes of eLearning means engagement, it is important that events and activities be structured so that they make sense and stay with us. The best way to do this is to ensure that the sequence of events or activities exhibits both temporality and relationality, i.e. their sequence and the relationship between each other make sense to the learner. Learning plans are a relatively new introduction to eLearning and tie in almost perfectly with narrative theory, in the sense that they are a sequence of courses which have been placed in a certain chronological order to have both the most impact and take the learner towards a specific goal. Individually they would carry some weight, however together they constitute a narrative -created by the instructor or course designer- which will have a much greater effect on the learner through the simple fact of building a story in his or her mind.
  2. Prioritize what’s important. Sequencing and chronology are significant, and when used correctly can massively impact the learner’s engagement with the material. However the individual importance of the events, and why these particular events have been foregrounded, also play a key role. This may sound like I am going against why I have said four paragraphs above, and it doesn’t mean that order and relationality are any less important, just that the reasons why these have been chosen -the causal employment- and not others is key to understanding how the narrative itself is constituted.
  3. Make the training even more immersive. eLearning and advances in training delivery like gamification have added new levels of immersiveness. Authors can create stories and environments in which learners can interact with the material, adding another level of enjoyment and engagement to their courses. By understanding how best to employ a narrative and the best way to deliver it, course authors can leverage the emotions created the stories to make sure that the training is as engaging as it can be. By doing this it’s not just the learners who benefit, but the company too.