Bianca Pereira
A researcher and software developer at work, a feminist by ideal, and a dancer and singer by passion.

Using storytelling to engage learners

Learning is fun, but it is even more interesting when entertainment and learning get together to boost each other.

The next workshop in my series of reflections on the jTEL Summer School 2019 is on “Creating Storified Online Courses”. Despite never having created an online course myself, I hoped to use the knowledge from this workshop on my own presentations and workshops. Thankfully, the team I worked with chose a topic I love to talk about and teach (even if informally at the moment). So, as my Irish friends would say: “Happy Days!”

Storytelling is all about creativity.

The workshop started with a presentation by Christiane Hagedorn , from the Hasso Plattner Institute, on her experience in creating storified online courses. She introduced the proposal of having an optional story running together with a course on Object Oriented Programming in Java. In this story, there is a villain that needs to be stopped and the students need to code to support the activities of a character fighting against this villain. Each coding exercise relates to the story, but students can still skip the story altogether if they wish so and still be able to do the exercises. She also shared her experience in blending this online storytelling with activities in the real world, such as doing treasure hunting via Geocaching, an online website that provides story for real world treasure hunting.

After this short presentation, the class was divided into two groups. Each group should create a story to support a course of their choice. In our group, the topic was chosen due to Vilma Sukacke’s experience in teaching Research Methods and my, secret (no, not really), personal interest in the topic.

A small sample of my books on methods and methodologies.

First, as it is a learning course, we needed to decide what is the target audience and the learning goals. The target audience chosen was composed of undergraduate students (but could easily be PhD students) and the four of us chose the learning goals to be:

  • Be able to define the research problem
  • Be able to identify existing research methods
  • Be able to design an approach to tackle the research problem
  • Be able to apply the (research methods) theory in practice

The purpose of our story should be to support the student in achieving these learning goals in a (hopefully) fun way. So, following the guidance of our workshop facilitator we opted for a Harry Potter style story, with the student arriving at the first day to the “School of Researchers”.

Image from Harry Potter Movie.

At the first day in the School of Researchers, every student needs to attend an initiation ceremony (much like the induction event in our Universities or just like the Sorting Hat ceremony in Harry Potter) where each student will choose to which research topic they will dedicate their studies in the School. At that point, the student needs to give a name to their topic and a simple explanation on what the research topic is. Having chosen the topic, the student moves to the next day.

Image from Harry Potter Movie.

In the second day, the student wakes up at the sound of protests going on in front of the School and it seems the reason for that is the topic the student has chosen. Some people are against it and some people are supporting it. The student then needs to learn what people have been saying about the research topic. The student needs to talk with others and go to the library (looking for related literature) to identify what is been said about the topic and uncover what is the research problem causing all this confusion. When the student has finally managed to identify the topic, describe it and identify what others have talked about it, our first learning goal has been achieved – be able to define the research problem.

When the student has managed to calm down the confusion around the School by clarifying to everyone what is the real research problem and how it relates to what people have been saying, the classes finally start. The student is then introduced to three new teachers: Quantum, Qualis, and Mix (I invented these names today). Quantum teaches the Quantitative Methods class and has a very factual way of communicating with students, always talking through numbers and facts. The Qualis teacher is very different though. Qualis is responsible for the Qualitative Methods class and is always daydreaming and saying that we need to hear people’s expressions and opinions. Finally, there is Mix, the Mixed Methods teacher. Mix has a strong disturb of personality, sometimes acting pretty much like Quantum, sometimes being a lot like Qualis. To pass this stage of the story, students need to attend the classes and figure out at the corridors of the School of Researchers who is coming along and how to talk with them.

Unfortunately that was all we could do with the time we had available. Therefore, our third and fourth learning goals were not covered and our story remains incomplete.

Our team's notes

My main takeaway from this workshop was that we should always take a bit more time to see how we can convert our classes and workshops in something fun, remembering that the notion of fun will depend a lot on the audience. Many people do not really like games, but they would happily engage in a gamified context if it looks ‘serious’ and ‘business-like’ enough. What I still miss, and I have given it as a feedback in the workshop, are some basic elements that we could use to start generating storified courses. What should we be thinking about? What are the basic elements any storified course should have? I think I should go back to my Gamification and Storytelling books, time permitting, and check for a few clues there.

That was my experience in the Creating Storified Online Courses Workshop. Did you like our story? Would you like to implement it in your classroom? How do you think our student will survive and thrive in the School of Researchers? Looking forward to read your opinion and ideas in the comments section below.

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