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The Value of Stories in Online Courses

The value of stories in online courses lies in a story's ability to engage and connect learners.

Don’t underestimate the value of stories in online courses. They offer connection, active learning, and longer retention. In this post, I cover 4 ways to bring stories into your course.

Once upon a time is a phrase that engages readers and listeners alike. It has the power of a story.
Photo by Klim Sergeev on Unsplash

In a previous post, I wrote about how engagement tools are different in an online class vs a traditional classroom. This post will go a little deeper into one of the most valuable engagement tools an online creator can use.

Why Stories Matter

Once upon a time, there was a home crafter named Peg. Every day she created beautiful macramé patterns and posted pictures online. She had so much interest in her work and her method that people clamored for her to create an online course. They wanted to learn what she knew.

She wrote out everything she thought should go into the course. She wrote step-by-step clear instructions. She left out all the fluff. She had read that her students needed to hear her voice to connect to her, so she recorded herself reading her slide deck to her students. She read every single dry step.

When she launched her course, she had more purchases than she dreamed she would get. But a few days after her launch, she started getting requests for refunds. What was happening? She almost gave up then and there, but she thought to try one more thing. She asked the people who wanted refunds if she could talk to them for a few minutes on the phone.

When she asked why the course wasn’t as successful as she thought it would be, every answer was the same. It was boring. She was just reading the steps.

Peg gave that feedback a great deal of thought. She decided to re-do one project and tell the story of how she developed that particular pattern. She wove in stories of how she learned to tie particular knots. She video-recorded herself working through the project and spoke to the camera. She moved the students through the pattern, weaving story and jute along until the whole pattern was complete.

And her students loved it! Peg found that this way of teaching was much more relaxing than creating slide decks. She never looked back.

Online course creators can use story to move learners through the course in a natural, conversational way. Stories have the ability to pull the listener in and activate their brains as if they were doing the actions in the story.
Photo by Sarah Vombrack on Unsplash

Stories have been a part of humankind since our beginning. We tell stories to share moments, to teach lessons, and to contribute to the community. It’s natural to incorporate stories into our teaching and learning because of the value that stories bring in connection and engagement.

The true value of stories in online courses is in how you can build connection with students even if you’re not face-to-face.

There are several types of stories you can use when creating your online course. We’re going to talk about these in this post:

  • Story-based learning
  • Scenarios
  • Simulations
  • Case studies

Story-Based Learning – The Power of Once Upon a Time

Stories play a vital role in teaching and learning since before humans had written language.
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Story-based learning is framing your lesson within a story that moves from beginning to end. One easy way to create a story is to use the story spine.

You start with a character (A home crafter named Peg) and a situation (People were asking her to create an online course). Then something happens that changes things (She creates a boring course because she didn’t think people wanted fluff). The action has consequences (Students were asking for refunds). The climax comes next. (Peg talks to some students and redid her course to include storytelling). And finally, the resolution (Peg uses stories to frame all her courses).

A story can be a valuable tool to teach a piece of a lesson or it can frame an entire course. This is a good way to build a strong connection through all your material. If your course is about how to start a blog, you can create a character who wants to start a blog. The learner grows as the character learns and grows, lesson by lesson.

One of the most amazing benefits of story-based learning (at least to me) is how our brains behave during a story. Our brains light up as if we were actually doing the thing that is happening in the story. Be clear, our brains do NOT light up like that when we are listening to facts and figures.

This activity in the brain is a game-changer. You, as the course creator and chief storyteller, have the power to become permanent fixtures in your students’ brains. Stories stick with us much longer than any other type of learning. That makes stories incredibly valuable in an online course.

Scenario-Based Learning – Here’s the Situation

A scenario is an outline of a situation. It’s a story about a moment in time. It should have the general context of the situation, the where and what. The conditions for learner success, what’s expected of the learner. And all the technical bits the learner needs to be successful.

When you’re creating a course that is teaching someone how to act in different situations, you can create a scenario that they might come across and ask them to choose how they would handle the situation from a list of options. Or you can provide a scenario and give them a list of reflective questions to answer, then move into an explanation of how the scenario should be handled. The learner compares his or her own answers with yours and grows from your choice explanations.

Peg has finally decided to create an online course. She writes down everything she thinks she needs to say about a topic and comes up with a course outline. She has to decide how best to present the information to her students. One of the options she’s considering is text-based lessons with photographs so her students can move back and forth as needed. But she’s read about the importance of making connections. So she’s also considering a slide deck with a voiceover because she wants students to be able to hear her voice. A third option she’s thinking about is video-recording her hands making the knots as she’s teaching them with her voice narrating as she goes.

What decision would you make in Peg’s situation? Why would you make that decision?

You can use scenarios in many different ways. If you’re teaching about something physical the learners have to work on, you can have a scenario where something has gone wrong and they have to choose steps to correct it.

A scenario puts your learner in the middle of a real-life situation but there is no risk to anyone if they answer wrong. Wrong answers are opportunities for feedback and growth. This makes scenarios a valuable story type to include in your online course.

If you need help designing a scenario, check out A 5 Step-Plan to Creation Your Own Scenario-Based eLearning Course.

Simulations – Choose Your Own Adventure

Simulations should be situations that are as realistic as you can make them. They can stand alone or be part of an overall scenario.

A simulation gives the learner the opportunity to make choices and see the consequences of their choices. They can then make subsequent choices based on the new information.

You can think of a simulation as a choose-your-own-adventure. It takes a little setting up on the course creator’s end, but it’s a valuable story-learning activity.

A simulation requires planning. It's a series of branching choices that lead to different endings.
Planning a simple simulation

Case Studies – Learn By Example

Case studies are stories of real people or situations who went through what your learners are going through. A case study tells the steps along the way, the ups and downs, and the eventual outcome.

These are great options because they are real. If possible, include a link to the people, company, or website in the case study so learners can make that direct connection.

Learning from others' stories allows us to mentally experience potential failure with none of the risk.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Case studies don’t all have to have successful outcomes. Learners can learn from failure and it helps them not have to experience it themselves. The value is in the story.

As your students apply your course material to their own lives and businesses, consider doing a case study on them. You can use it in your course or in your marketing material. Other people’s stories make for compelling learning.

Stories, For the Win!

Stories are the lifeblood of our connections with each other. We need to harness that connection and ride it into the hearts and minds of our learners.

One of the most valuable aspects of using stories in learning is that stories link theory to practice. Yes, you may have to deliver some dry facts every once in a while. But once that dry work is done, bring those facts into a story to make sure the learner can see how they apply.

And since stories are easier to remember than facts, you have the added benefit of the student remembering what you taught them longer because you told them a story.

Are you interested in working with me to create or review your online course? Let me know.

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