The value of narrative in online learning

We were always moving  towards providing more formal learning experiences via online media, but the lockdowns of 2020 gave online learning an almighty push. While blended learning opportunities, where students has the option of attending on-campus lectures as well as accessing learning resources online have existed for some time, the concept of entire courses being offered in an online mode is still relatively new in many disciplines.

I have been fortunate to have been involved in teaching purely online units for over five years, and have also been responsible for the content development and pedagogical design of a number of courses, across several discipline areas. Most recently, I have been involved in the writing and learning design of courses in a new Master of Business Administration degree. This experience has re-affirmed for me the centrality of narrative in the design of content for online learning.

We’ve all sat in lecture theatres and been bored to tears by dense material being delivered by a lecturer who is more interested in reading off their slides than acknowledging the humans sitting in front of them. We’ve also (hopefully!) sat fully engaged, listening to a master speaker as they have conveyed their own enthusiasm for their topic through an animated and impassioned delivery. The difference? Most probably narrative.

Skillful storytelling helps listeners understand the essence of complex concepts and ideas in meaningful and often personal ways (Suzuki et al. 2018).

Anyone who has read posts on this blog in the past will know that I am a believer in social learning. This means that I think learning happens best when we share the experience with others – when we debate, discuss, explain and defend our ideas and the new concepts we are trying to understand. When students are engaging in online learning, they are often being far from social. Although online course design can involve a wide range of collaborative and collegial learning experiences  using the constantly growing array of social platforms and tools, there is also the likelihood that they will engage with a great deal of the coursework isolated from their classmates. This brings me to the point made by the title of this post.

It is my assertion that the use of narrative in designing course content can go a small way in filling the lack of social connection felt by students learning in an asynchronous online setting. This is just a hunch; but there are several reasons why I believe that this may be so.

The first is that as humans our interest is sustained for longer when information presented in the form of narrative. From thousands of years of oral history, our capacity to remain engaged and retain information has deepened when we experience the tension and empathy that story can create. When we read content formulated with a narrative structure, we ‘hear’ the voice of the author, as they imbue their own style in a way that disconnected paragraphs of discrete information cannot.

The second reason is that when we read information formulated into a narrative, we are able to more easily draw connections between concepts. The signposting and structures alleviate some of the cognitive load and create space for synthesis and analysis. Once again the teacher becomes ‘present’ in the words and the content is transformed more easily from data to knowledge.

None of this is particularly surprising to educators who understand that it is pedagogically sound practice to build from the known to the unknown, and to make explicit connections for students engaging with complex concepts. However while this may come naturally when explaining content face to face with students, writing content that builds the story of the learning requires a different skillset – one that may not necessarily be currently taught in courses that were designed with the physical classroom in mind.

Narrative structure is characterised by a beginning, leading to a climax, before moving towards a resolution and conclusion. Online content formulated in the narrative structure uses this same pattern. It begins with an introductory paragraph that sets the baseline, defines the terminology and introduces what is to come. It presents a discussion of the concepts, rather than a series of discrete topics. It draws out connections, asks questions and signposts where ideas merge. It then concludes with a summary, a rounding out of what has been introduced and discussed, and a direction for future learning. While it may seem obvious and unnecessary to go beyond listing key points and readings, drawing content together in this way acknowledges the differences that come from learning without the physical presence of a teacher or lecturer.

As online learning becomes more common, and students increasingly engage with written course materials rather than a verbal lecture, it will become more important to ensure that the content they are learning from creates a sense of the teacher’s presence. Using narrative may be one small way that we can move from the ‘content dump’ to the meaningful communication of knowledge online.



Suzuki, W. A., Feliú-Mójer, M. I., Hasson, U., Yehuda, R., & Zarate, J. M. (2018). Dialogues: the science and power of storytelling. Journal of Neuroscience38(44), 9468-9470.

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