I have always loved to read. Fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, biographies…you name it. What makes reading so fascinating is that you can get lost in the story (assuming it is well-written that is). You become a party to the story, even if you are just an observer. If the story is engaging, you feel yourself drawn into the tale and the characters. You become a participant in the story, with an influence on the decisions made or the outcomes that are produced. Good stories also have staying power. You may not be able to remember anything you heard in a workshop or seminar, but you can recite the plot line of your favorite movie, TV show or book with little or no effort. That’s part of the magic of storytelling.
The capacity to expand learning through stories was one of the factors that influenced my decision in college to pursue history education through museums, rather than through K-12 education. The way history is taught in schools (assuming it is taught at all anymore, which seems unlikely given that it’s not part of STEM nor is it covered on standardized tests) makes it dreadfully boring. Lists of names and dates, along with a dry, distant I’m-trying-not-to-have-an-opinion narrative method can bore even the most capable student. I personally don’t believe it when people tell me that they hate history, or that they find it boring. The popularity of movies and TV shows with historical and historical-ish themes renders that statement patently false. People don’t find history boring; they find the way it is taught and talked about boring. Unfortunately academic history is doing nothing to help this situation. But museums are where history can come to life. Using objects and story-telling to help people experience the history themselves, either through direct re-enactments or by placing themselves as central observers of the story not only makes it more interesting, it also helps convey information. I have found this to be true in my current position as well. Don’t just tell a loan officer how to add a loan. Give them the scenario of what they are trying to do, and then have them make those decisions and coach them through it. Retention is much higher than just going step by step and expecting them to memorize it all.
Last week I sat in on a great webinar sponsored by Allen Interactions and the Association for Talent Development. Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist gave a great presentation on 10 Powerful Principles for Creating Impactful E-Learning. I have attended Ethan’s webinars before and agree with him on many points, see the post on Objections to Objectives. One of the themes of this webinar was the use of scenario and story-based learning to help convey the information that you are trying to get across as a content creator. Ethan talked about the fallacy that delivering content is the first and only goal of creating e-learning and how the idea that you are just trying to cram as much information as you can into a course is only going to lead to one thing: Crap. Many of us who sit in on e-learning have experienced this; there is a reason it’s generally greeted with as much excitement as getting a tooth pulled. PowerPoint slides with bulleted lists of information thrown up on a screen, narration that either directly reads the information which results in
Ethan points out that you can make even the most technical and boring content in the world (think Compliance Training) interesting by stepping way from the content and focusing instead on why the content is being delivered in the first place. He gives the example of a training session Allen Interactions created to instruct ADA transport drivers on how to properly secure a wheelchair into their vans. They didn’t do it by listing the steps on a slide and quizzing the user on how to do it. They instead created a scenario where a passenger in a wheelchair is already in the van, and the learner has to use the tools available to secure him in. If the user guesses wrong, the course tells them so and gives them hints on the next step. Ethan also showed another demonstration that involved teaching school bus drivers proper safety techniques for railroad crossings by putting them into the driver’s seat of a bus and having them traverse different rail road crossings under different circumstances. If the user forgets to check both ways before crossing, for example, you hear the sound of a traffic crash and newspaper headlines bring up the story of a school bus driver and multiple school children killed as a result of a train/school bus collision.
Anyone in the e-learning field can recognize the concepts of gamification applied in these scenarios. Scenario or Story based narratives and gamification are both huge right now in the e-learning world. And for good reason; those who have studied the cognitive science behind storytelling and game play point out that knowledge retention is increased greatly by using either or both of these methods. By creating a story out of the content you are presenting and turning it into a game, you make e-learning much more interesting to the learner. After all, people play video games on a regular basis (even if it’s just Candy Crush on your cell phone) with next to no instruction on how to play the game before you begin. And yet you are engaged at a much higher level than through typical e-learning, content-heavy presentations. In the webinar Ethan admitted that the content retention that is achieved through these methods is not 100%. Learners won’t remember everything you told them. But they will have enough to go on that they know where to look for the additional information they need, which is far more than can be said for your bullet list PowerPoints-of-Death.
To be honest I wonder why this is just now coming into the collective consciousness of the e-learning community. It is true that the technology that is available is a limiting factor, and much of the technology that is used to create e-learning is still very expensive *cough Adobe Captivate cough*. But the idea of making learning interesting by turning it into a story and letting the learner immerse themselves in it is an old idea, and to me it seems like a no-brainer. Don’t create a list of reasons not to do something and then quiz the user on whether they remembered it. Give the reader a scenario and let them make the decision, then tell them whether they were correct or not. When you get learners engaged (please note that quizzes are NOT engagement), they are far more likely to remember the decisions that they made and the reasons they made them. This allows them to apply their skills in a real-life situation, where they are more likely to remember it better. Make the learning interesting, and even the most learning-averse person will remember it.