Once Upon a Time: Course Development as Digital Storytelling

Concurrent Session 3
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Brief Abstract

Storytelling is key to student engagement. What better way to design a course than as a storyboarded, engaging narrative? From exciting characters, to a rising plot, and multiple dialogues, this panel presents a case study in thinking about course development as storytelling.

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Sarah Bleakney PhD is an Instructional Designer for the Teaching & Learning Center at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business. She provides instructional design support to graduate and undergraduate faculty for online and blended courses. Her current research focuses on supporting active and engaged learning in blended and online learning environments.

Extended Abstract

What better way to design a course than as a storyboarded, engaging narrative? This panel presents a case study in thinking about course development as just that—digital storytelling. From exciting characters, to a rising plot and multiple dialogues, course development can provide the opportunity for students to not only learn more effectively, but also enjoy the experience. 

Storytelling is key to student engagement. Our approach to digital storytelling moves the traditional “class” narrative to the online environment where characters, plots, and dialogues are infinitely more diverse and available. In a face-to-face course, an instructor can easily offer and adapt to a “plot shift” by changing the lecture and assignments for the day. However, online environments require clear storytelling, curating, and storyboarding. We argue that digital storytelling is not only useful for online course development, but also vital to curating and delivering an online course.

The Story and Student Buy-in

When taking a class, students often want to know 1) who the characters are (i.e., instructor, TAs, team leaders, etc.), 2) where their villains lie (i.e., what the hardest concepts are), 3) how long the story is (i.e., time it takes to complete the course), and 4) how they can achieve a “happily ever after” ending to a class. Those are just a few of the questions that students can have as they begin each new book, or course, at the beginning of a semester. Storytelling is effective because it provides students with agency—they gain interest in the plot/characters, narrate their own endings, and feel a clear sense of progression (who doesn’t like to see all the pages they’ve read). With storytelling, students also benefit from the story structure, those logistical cues that clue you into where you are in the story. In addition, each part, section, or chapter has entertaining characters and (hopefully) an exciting plot where students can anchor their attention, see their progression, and “choose their own adventure.” By engaging in storytelling as a means or process of course development, we immediately prime students to be truly interested in learning how things turn out (i.e., they want to “finish the book”).

The Prologue

GEB3219 is a Writing & Speaking in Business course that is required for all online business majors at the University of Florida. The course has historically been offered each summer since 2005, and has generally been taken by students without much enthusiasm. Student enrollment is now roughly 225 students, with 12 sections capped at 13-20 students (depending on whether they meet a 4000- or 6000-word writing requirement). In 2017, we initiated a project to re-energize and re-organize this writing-and speaking-intensive course. We implemented the normal “fixes,” including incorporating new technologies, changing instructors, and swapping out assignments. After one summer of relatively tepid student response, we realized the most significant and positive changes would come from stepping back to develop the course as a narrative, or story, that would guide students through each chapter of learning objectives. The goal? We wanted to mirror the experience of classroom students, and more importantly, equip students for academic and professional success. We also hoped to inspire students to feel excited about learning.

The Cast of Characters

The cast of characters for this story of the redevelopment of GEB3219 include:

  • Protagonist: instructor with practically-minded goals who is willing to rethink the story of writing and speaking
  • Antagonist: students’ fear of writing and speaking, standardized curriculum in communication courses, university writing requirements, and LMS constraints
  • Supporting Roles: 12 communication coaches (adventurous, innovative, speedy graders, responsive), think-tank participants, and supporting characters
  • Publication Crew: video team and instructional designers

This presentation will include discussion of the ways in which this cast of characters transformed the story of GEB3219.

The Page-Turning Plot (The Story Arc)

Once we decided to frame GEB3219 as a story, we then had to define the components of its story arc. What would the plot be? What are the final outcomes? What do we want to achieve? And what will be the biggest conflicts or villains for students? We started with structure and resolution. We wanted students to complete the course with practical writing and speaking skills that they could take into any workplace or future career and actually use. How would they achieve that resolution? We would ask them to read a story that unfolds week by week and offer opportunities to develop useful skills and techniques.

The story arc provided the most practical development process for us to plot how students would develop those skills. We storyboarded each element of the story arc to determine, for example, how assignments considered as “rising action” differed from assignments that were part of the story’s “resolution.” The story arc for GEB3219 finalized into the followings parts:

  • Exposition: Syllabus, course site design, course expectations video, instructor and communication coach intro videos, start here page, and explanation of the value of and rationale for the course
  • Conflict: Fear of writing and speaking, busy student lives, nontraditional student population, word-count requirement, and high need for TA (or communication coach) support
  • Rising Action: Authentic videos, practical and engaging assignments, low-stakes “test” assignments worth few points, announcements to debrief or cue upcoming deliverables, and discussions
  • Comic Relief: Caption This! discussion posts and humorous videos for assignments students are nervous about
  • Climax: Excursion learning assignments that enable student to create their own narrative via a capstone-type assignment
  • Falling Action: Final presentation and exams
  • Resolution: Final self-assessment, final grade, and improved professional opportunities

This presentation will walk the audience through our story-inspired course development process, with examples and details provided for each component of GEB3219’s page-turning plot.

The Revision

This presentation will include exploration of our editing process for the story of GEB3219. The edits made between Summer 2017 and Summer 2018 include:

  • Developing a conversational syllabus as a way to convey authenticity and clear course expectations while creating student-instructor connection (making the instructor a real and compelling character who students will care about and who they feel cares about them)
  • Crafting realistic assignments in order to gain student buy-in and teach relevant, practical business skills
  • Creating community by incorporating personal details into video lectures, showcasing campus hotspots for university identity, and using creative, personalized discussion posts
  • Revamping the course site design to include thematic images that reinforce communication as a strategy that opens doors to future opportunities

The goal in these edits was to take a course that met all learning standards and objectives but offered little practical and personal experience to students, and transform it into a course that meets all objectives while also introducing innovation and engagement via storytelling. What is practical and personal—the story—can also become a rich, rigorous learning environment.

The Sequel

This presentation will also include lessons learned from the Summer 2018 semester that will be applied to The Sequel: Summer 2019. Future changes to the plot of GEB3219 that will be discussed during the presentation will include additional and revamped videos, as well as revised assignments.

Learning Objectives

The goal of this presentation is to prepare instructors and instructional designers to leverage storytelling to enable engaging learning experiences. Guided by the GEB3219 instructor and two communication coaches (who also served as instructional designers and think-tank participants), participants will:

  • Acquire several new techniques, including storyboarding and other elements of narrative development, for course design
  • Learn how to apply the elements of storytelling to their own course design strategies
  • Engage in conversations about incorporating the elements of storytelling in course design

To achieve these outcomes, presenters will include polls to gauge participant needs, interests, and concerns regarding the use of storytelling for course development. The presenters will also use real-life examples drawn from the course to prompt brainstorming and small-group discussion. This presentation seeks to equip participants with practical hands-on tools and strategies to leverage storytelling in future course design.