Leveraging Narrative in Online Course Design: Storytelling, Ethnography, and the Hero's Journey

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session Community College

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Brief Abstract

Situating online course design within a narrative framework serves as a powerful tool for creating an environment that supports experiential, student-centered learning. This presentation highlights how a structure that establishes a course as a “hero’s journey” can be leveraged to build an engaging, constructivist online learning environment.


Cathy Russell has over 10 years experience working in higher education. Upon receiving her Bachelor's degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and her Master's degree in Educational Technology from Texas A&M University, she began her career. She started as an Instructional Designer for Blinn College, Lonestar College, and Pima Community College before arriving at the University of Arizona. She has worked with multiple Learning Management Systems, including WebCT, Angel, Blackboard, and D2L. Cathy is also in her 9th year of teaching online as an Adjunct for Lonestar College. Being an online student and online instructor has provided Cathy with invaluable perspective to aid in course design. She is interested in researching methods in online course design that will create higher rates of student success and is passionate about making online courses that enhance learning and are interactive.
Angela Gunder serves as Director of Instructional Design and Curriculum Development for the Office of Digital Learning at The University of Arizona. Angela came into instructional design rather circuitously, helming large-scale site designs as webmaster for The City College of New York, the honors college at ASU, and Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).  Her over fifteen year career as a designer for higher education informs her instructional design practice, where she leverages her expertise in usability, visual communication, programming, and standards-based online learning. Angela holds a B.S. in Computer Science and Fine Art from Fordham University, and a M.Ed. in Education Technology from Arizona State University.  Prior to her position at UA, she was a member of NOVA’s instructional design team, supporting over 23,000 students in 550 unique courses.   Angela is an Associate Editor for the Teacher Education Board of MERLOT, and a Quality Matters certified peer reviewer and online facilitator.  Her research interests include technology for second language acquisition, open educational resources, and emerging technology to promote digital literacy. A voracious culinary nerd, Angela spends her free time composing, cooking and photographing original recipes for her food blog.
Dr. Jessica Knott is Assistant Vice President of Community Strategy, Experience, and Management. In this role, Jessica manages outreach activities and strategies, including environmental scanning, experience design, communications and planning, based on a deep understanding of our community and member interests. Prior to the OLC, Jessica led a team that supported faculty and academic staff in creating quality, caring and exemplary digital experiences at Michigan State University.

Extended Abstract

“People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immorality too. It goes from one generation to another.” — Studs Terkel

In 1949, writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the “monomyth” cycle in his seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, citing that many of our stories passed down throughout time follow a common narrative structure. Given what behavioral economists know about our systematic cognitive preference for quality stories where meaningful transformations take place, online course designers and instructors can intentionally situate learners as embarking on a journey that follows Joseph Campbell’s narrative framework. This framework includes leaving one’s ordinary world, answering a call to adventure, crossing the threshold, meeting mentors, confronting obstacles, facing down fears, enduring tests and trials, and walking the road to victory.

Effective learning design, particularly in the online environment, requires close attention to the relationship between the various stakeholders, the salient content and the intended learning outcomes. Structuring these variables within a framework serves as a powerful tool in creating an online environment that supports experiential, student-centered learning. As digital storytelling moves from an emerging to ubiquitous practice within education, design practices that utilize components of storytelling can serve as powerful tools to engage students, help them make connections to the material and to each other, and help them to retain and apply core content.

This presentation highlights how effective practices for constructivist online course design can be leveraged to support a narrative structure that establishes students as part of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in the role of “epic hero.” As more and more elements attributed to effective online course design are directly correlated to narrative structure, the presenters will define and discuss current and emerging approaches to creating learning environments that empower students with a sense of agency over the learning process as a “hero on a journey.”

Participants in this session will:

  • Define and contextualize a narrative framework within online course design for specific disciplines and applications.

  • Examine research and rationales for narrative approaches, such as the application of Daniel Kahneman’s  “peak-end rule” to strengthen online learners’ task persistence and completion rates.

  • View examples of narrative elements in online courses, to include a digital storytelling course where students journey through modules, achieving milestones and experiencing learning events that support the overarching student learning outcomes.

  • Explore the transformation of students from consumers to producers of digital stories as they write ethnographic field notes and conduct interviews with people from their everyday lives (i.e., everyday heroes).

  • Investigate approaches for creating tangible experiential gains in courses through earned badges and micro-credentialing, to include prosocial actions such as mentoring or supporting peers.

In line with Daniel Kahneman’s writings on memory and recency bias, the judgments we make share systematic cognitive biases toward good stories, with decent heroes, that end well. This presentation seeks to highlight ways in which this approach applies to good online courses as well, with learner-centered methods that highlight personalization and differentiation as hallmarks of the experience.  Materials and practices will be shared from the student, faculty, and instructional designer perspective, with two of the participants speaking to their partnership as faculty and ID on the development and facilitation of a course using Campbell’s monomyth as the design framework. This session will be structured as an open and interactive conversation, with participants asked to share their own experiences with leveraging elements of a narrative structure in their course design and teaching. Participants will take part in a live, crowd-sourcing of ideas on interdisciplinary applications of the narrative framework and ethnographic research methods, with the results shared out at the end of the session, as well as over social media.