Ever tried to create an engaging text-based online course? It’s harder than it sounds.
See, many text-based courses are loaded with client-mandated content that’s focused on the client, not the learner. Without creative storytelling, learners simply start the course and get run over by the content bus. Splat!
What course designers need is a storytelling template that incorporates the client’s content with additional narratives.
Why other narratives?
Narratives widen the lens of the story to show the learner’s perspective as well as behavioral outcomes learners can expect from applying the content. The trick is to present these additional narratives in a way that enhances the content, without diluting the message or distracting the learner.
Tall order? Yes. But the model is beautifully simple: look to this popular children’s book!
For many families, the Magic School Bus series holds a special place in the hearts of parents and children alike. These informational picture books follow an eccentric teacher, Ms. Frizzle, who takes her class on amazing field trips to impossible locations.
Every page of each story includes rich visual and verbal narratives. While the storylines are fun for children, they’re also a storytelling goldmine for course designers because they feature multiple narratives that round out the learning story.
Making magic with multiple narratives
When you pop the hood of the Magic School Bus books, you’ll see each page is powered by 3 narrative lines: a main narrative, a student narrative, and an alternate narrative.
- Main: This first-person narrative serves as the primary storyline and presents the core information around each story’s learning topic.
- Student: This narrative is presented from the student’s perspective in the form of chat clouds. It parallels the main narrative by presenting the students’ questions, complaints, observations, doubts, and even corny one-liners.
- Alternate: This narrative is presented as sidebars that provide additional information in the form of class assignments or activities created by the students. The outcomes from those actions can include items such as class projects, essays, lessons learned, and more.
Take a look at a typical page from the series:
So how does this storytelling model work for online courses?
The e-learning value of the Magic School Bus model is that it uses each of these narratives to address different perspectives to make the story more meaningful to learners.
You can use the mandatory information you already have—probably in its current form—as the main narrative. Then, you can fill in context with additional narratives showing learner’s perspectives and possible actions they can take to practice that information.
The basic formula is: Information + Perspectives + Actions = IPA. Simple, right?
Let’s look at an example
Here’s a slide from a text-based course on change management:
Let’s be honest: it’s pretty dry! Now, let’s recast this content with the IPA model:
The authoritative voice (information) is still present and prominently displayed in the top left corner.
But now, we’ve addressed some learner concerns (perspectives) about the change process by including a short dialog between two characters.
In addition, we included a job aid (actions) of the change management process.
Design templates, storyboards and style guides
We need to make sure learners can distinguish and appreciate the additional narratives you include. I find it helpful to use design mapping to identify the characteristics of each narrative so I can group them visually.
Let’s look at some possible style guides for each of the narratives based on their unique voice and characteristics.
The main narrative is the primary storyline—probably the current on-screen text you’re already using.
The key is to maintain the authoritative voice so learners know this is the main narrative.
- Characteristics: Formal, authoritative, teacher, instructor, expert.
- Purpose: To inform or instruct using the topic’s core information. This content can be presented as narration or read-only text.
Suggested style guide:
- Fonts: Authoritative, corporate.
- Content holders: Place in a prominent location like the top left corner of your slide. You can place this text above the slide or in its own container.
The learner narrative captures the perspective of your learners, students, or customers.
- Characteristics: Personal, conversational.
- Purpose: Use this narrative to answer learner FAQs, concerns, gossip, back channel conversations.
- Questions to answer: What are your learners thinking? What are they afraid, excited, or unclear about? This is where you can address FAQs and backchannel gossip.
Suggested style guide:
- Fonts: Comic fonts such as ActionMan, Laffayette Comic Pro, VTC Letterer Pro, Letter-O-Matic—and anything from Blambot.
- Content holders: Speech and thought bubbles.
- Characters: Illustrated or photographic characters work equally well. Another option is to anthropomorphize your products or services (think Pixar’s Cars) to let them drive the narrative by sharing benefits, asking questions, and addressing consumer concerns.
You have a lot of flexibility in the alternative narrative to focus on the outcome, activity, or assignments that best support your slide’s content.
- Examples: Assignments, job aids, checklists, case studies, self-assessments, non-graded quizzes.
- Purpose: Lesson takeaways, actions, how-tos, or outcomes to practice the content.
- Questions to answer: How can learners practice the information? How can I summarize the information in a job aid?
Suggested style guide:
- Fonts: Handwriting, typewriter, and script fonts work well.
- Content holders: Paper, email, notebook, instant messaging or smartphone screens will work well. You can also pull theme elements from the topic to use as content holders.
About the books
If you want to pick up one or more of the Magic School Bus books, be sure you get the original series by Joanna Cole. There were chapter books and TV shows produced, but you really want the original series:
- The Magic School Bus At the Waterworks
- The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth
- The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body
- The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System
- The Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor
- The Magic School Bus In the Time of the Dinosaurs
- The Magic School Bus Inside a Hurricane
- The Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive
- The Magic School Bus And the Electric Field Trip
- The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses
- The Magic School Bus And the Science Fair Expedition
- The Magic School Bus And the Climate Challenge
Jackie Van Nice says
This is such a nice approach. I’ve used the Information and Learner narratives a lot (without having defined them that way), but generally without the Action narrative. Great ideas and love their respective style guides!
Jose Colunga says
Thank, David. This is a great approach that I’ve used with limited success. Limited in that clients don’t seem to find the approach as a serious alternative to the traditional page turner full of facts, figures, mandates, etc. However, I think that’s starting to change with a younger audiences now starting to make up a larger portion of company census.