The Google Plus logo

Beyond the template: putting storytelling back into the heart of learning

What have Star Wars, the BBC and a seminal work of comparative mythology got to do with scenario-based learning? Steve Ash describes the genesis of DCF, LINE’s new solution to the problem of creating hi-end, immersive learning at scale.

Story-based learning is a proven and powerful way to transfer knowledge, skills and behaviours. Generation Y is not alone in preferring this type of immersive learning: it has wide appeal across all age groups. In the past, scenario-based online learning has been expensive and time consuming to create, and difficult to design and develop in a scalable manner. The LINE Dynamic Content Framework (DCF) addresses these challenges, offering an innovative and cost effective approach to scenario-based learning.

young professionals talking about storytelling

The power of storytelling

Stories are fundamental to civilisation. As such, they are at the root of our shared humanity. In the form of myth, legend and parable they predate the more organised narratives of history, and often seem more durable. Their longevity is confirmed every time we read in a magazine of some heroine’s ‘rags-to-riches’ fairytale success, or watch an adventure movie where a hero descends into some emblematic mythical underworld – be it Pandora, Gotham or West Baltimore. Ancient folk tales and even older gods are continuously being invoked, even in the most up-to-date emanations of popular culture.

Politicians’ speeches, too, are full of appeals to this bedrock of shared narrative; of encounters with mythic individuals (Mondeo man) or invocations of a past Golden Age to which we must attempt to return. So much so that more than any written convention, charter or constitution, a nation’s shared stories convey its core values and beliefs. Stories are who we are.

At the individual level, our own personal stories of where we come from and of what has happened to us shape our expectations and aspirations in a very powerful way. It seems that the human brain is ‘hard-wired’ in some way to process information and experience in the form of stories. Small wonder, if so, that stories and storytelling have always played such a large part in learning. Story-based learning has, in fact, been around for thousands of years.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that story-based learning has turned out to be such a powerful technique in online learning and communications. There is one quite major difference, however, in the way that story-based content has come to be used in the online, interactive world of today’s digital media.

The rise of the reader-driven narrative

To put it simply, control of the narrative, on a minute-by-minute level, has passed out of the hands of the author and into those of the story’s protagonist, whose decisions are now made by the individual ‘reader’. The influence of computer games has been critical here. In games such as Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed there is a back-story, a story setting and a story structure, in the sense of a set of goals, decisions and possible outcomes. But it is up to the individual gamer to drive the story. Similarly with scenario-based online learning packages, the author will set the context for learning and shape the experience over all, but it is up to the learner to dictate the pace and direction of their own experience on a micro level.

What’s special about story-based learning is the opportunity it gives the learner to fail safely, to reflect on that failure and then to practice skills until they get them right, just as they would in a game (and just as we often do in life, but without the collateral damage that often entails!). The story contains the context of a set of important values and behaviours that the ‘storyteller’ wishes to promote – only now the audience is telling its own stories. The reader has become the storyteller.

21st Century learning technologies allow us to tap into this basic human mindset and present learners with highly interactive and engaging environments which present realistic storylines containing opportunities for practice and reflection. This approach has proved itself to be highly effective. For subjects as diverse as Key Account Management, Cultural Awareness and compliance, scenario-based learning has helped to save business relationships, save lives and, most importantly, change behaviours. So it’s something of a paradox that quantities of online learning material are still being created which beat the learner into abject passivity through a series of ‘click on next’ screens, without so much as a nod to narrative.

In an age where attaining tangible results from learning activities is in the forefront of all our minds, this surely must be wrong.

Story-based learning scales up

To some extent there has been a move away from scenario-based e-learning in recent years. With use of technology-supported learning moving out of its pilot phase and into the mainstream, practitioners were faced with the problem of scaling up their production efforts. Increasing amounts of e-learning were being called for, but at the same time budgets were not growing – in fact budget savings were expected from the move online.

While scenario-based learning had been proved to be effective, it was widely perceived as expensive and time-consuming to produce. Rapid e-learning seemed the way ahead, but as far as anyone knew, there was no way of producing rich, scenario-based learning rapidly. It became consigned to the ‘premium’ bracket in many people’s minds, and its image suffered as a result.

As the economic climate has become ever more frigid, the need to be able to design and develop rich, immersive, scenario-based content at speed and at a price point competitive with other forms of e-learning has intensified. In every business sector and across a range of industry types, the message has been loud and consistent. Scenario-led e-learning works well, it engages learners and achieves tangible business results. But organisations need it to be developed more quickly, more cost effectively and more flexibly.

In the meantime, LINE had been working with clients, notably with the BBC, on a way of making story-led learning scalable, which it can now unveil to a wider public.

Enter the DCF, our Dynamic Content Framework … centre stage.
DCF, which is unique in the learning industry, works through the use of learning patterns. The best way of explaining what these are is to take a slight step back to our introduction and looking at how story structure works within interactive media.

From the Monomyth to the Matrix: story structure and interactive games

‘The trouble with telling a good story’, as comedian Sid Caesar once said, ‘is that it invariably reminds the other fellow of a dull one’. Clearly, not all stories are created equal. Over the ages, writers and storytellers have struggled to find the formula for what goes to make a really compelling, interesting story – and to avoid telling a dull one. One 20th Century writer and anthropologist at least thought he’d found the answer.

Joseph Campell (1904 – 1987), American mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, used his studies in comparative religion to discern the underlying structure shared by the most important and durable myths from around the world, a structure which he called the Monomyth. Here is a summary of the monomyth: ‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.’

Sounds familiar? Campbell’s thesis may have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because in influencing a generation of Baby Boomer film-makers, most notably George Lucas in his Star Wars blockbusters, Campbell’s monomyth, along with screenwriting gurus who followed after him, such as Robert Key, have set the basic plot model for almost every major entertainment film created since.

So familiar are the lines of this story structure that we no longer need to be told it – we can write it for ourselves. Users therefore have no difficulty, once parachuted into a game like Assassin’s Creed or World of Warcraft in driving the story for themselves. The underlying plot is familiar, its emotional resonances so well established in advance that they can be summoned up by a sort of shorthand, creating instant engagement.

So what’s the relevance of this to learning?

Well, a critical feature of experiential and story-led learning is the structure and the context that is created within which learning takes place. The experience has to be designed in such a way that it appears authentic to the learner – what they are asked to do as part of the learning process needs to be relevant to them. There should be an ‘emotional hook’ to immerse them in the content and the learner should have control of how they progress through the learning experience.

With all that we now know about brain science and learning design, it is possible now for us, just as Campbell did for fiction, to discern and codify the underlying patterns and structures that work for scenario-based learning.

Finding the pattern: the BBC experience

Back in the heady pre-credit-crunch days of 2006, the BBC generated impressive results with its ‘Editorial Policy Programme’, a scenario-based learning experience designed and developed by LINE. Not only did this exceed all of its anticipated objectives from a learning perspective, it also achieved that rarest of things; measurable behaviour and attitudinal change.

This multi-award winning programme set new standards for e-learning within the BBC. Although highly successful in bringing a dry subject alive however, it was also expensive, and took about a year to develop. One of the main reasons for this was that every screen in the two-hour-long programme had to be custom built.

Today few organisations (the BBC included) can afford either the time or the money to develop such unique bespoke programmes. When the BBC approached LINE in 2008 to design and develop a further story-led programme on a similarly dry subject therefore – understanding of the corporation’s legal obligations and commitments around integrity and impartiality – this time the design process had to be scalable.

LINE worked in partnership with the BBC’s legal and design teams to create challenging and context-specific scenarios using a series of learning patterns which could be replicated throughout the programme while still providing the look and feel of a truly bespoke piece of e-learning. Once again, both results and awards attached themselves to a BBC scenario-based learning programme. Within six months of launch, more than 11,000 people had taken ‘Legal Online’ – 20% more than the College of Journalism targeted for the learning – and the programme was awarded Online Solution of the Year at the World of Learning Conference and Exhibition. But a further result for LINE was the discovery of a new way of working with story-based learning.

The birth of DCF

The BBC experience sent LINE’s designers back to the archives in their search for the underlying structures that produce effective scenario-based learning experiences. As a company with an international reputation for the design and development of highly impactful, effective and award winning scenario-based learning programmes, LINE had a lot of experience to draw on for this research.

Just as Joseph Campbell compared various religions and myth-systems to come up with his synthesis, the LINE team looked through the best of what the company had done over the past ten years to establish common structural elements that repeat themselves.

The result was not as simple and irreducible as Campbell’s Monomyth however. A number of patterns emerged, not one. Having identified these however, together with a typology of scenarios, it was possible to configure them as ‘vanilla’ learning patterns in a manner which would make them flexible and interchangeable. In so doing the team found that it could provide a framework for the development of rich media content at a competitive price point and within a delivery timeframe that the market demanded.

Conclusion

It should be emphasised that DCF is not rapid design and development, which generally takes a template-driven approach. Learning patterns go beyond the template to provide the highly immersive, learner centred experience that is at the heart of all effective e-learning scenarios, and does it far more quickly than has been possible previously.

Now for the first time we can present story-led learning that generates real results for the organisations that deploy it – at speed, at scale and cost effectively. Done well, there are few other learning interventions that can reach a national or indeed international audience so quickly, effectively and consistently.

The above has been merely an overview of what we think is a very exciting development. Needless to say, there is a lot more detail ‘under the hood’. We look forward to talking to the market further about our DCF proposition, and showing individual organisations how they can benefit from it.

What stories do you want to tell? If you would like to see a demonstration of what DCF can do for your business why not get in touch today?

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on August 4th 2010.