Learner engagement

Image of Zombieville USA video game

Image Copyright 2011 mikamobile  
The graphic above is a screen capture from the mikamobile game Zombieville 2 for the iPad. I love this game because it’s multiplayer; it lets me connect with my kids back home. But that’s besides the point of today’s puzzling mix blog post: using story to engage learners.  
Last semester I completed an introductory storytelling course through the University of North Texas. The main takeaways from the course were:  

  • Everyone has been exposed to stories at some point in their lives, usually as children.  
  • A great storyteller hooks people right away by introducing the people in the story and what they are about or after.  

In Zombieville 2 there can be little doubt what the game is about. The splash page says it all: grim determined person, heavily armed, looking to deal payback to zombies, to send them back to whence they came. I was hooked right away.  
What’s this got to do with learner/student engagement? I don’t see many courses that grab its target population of learners’ (TPOP) attention as readily as games like Zombieville do. Wouldn’t it be great if they did: if there was no doubt, from a learner’s first contact with a course or one of its elements, what the course was about and how they would be different when they have completed it?  
So how does one engage learners? I think it by immersing them in their learning experience from the get-go: right away learners need to know, with little or no ambiguity, what they are going to learn and how they are going to know they have learned it. It’s easier to do in instructor-led courses: they usually come with anecdotes they can use to engage learners, to get them to identify and internalize what they’re going to be learning. It’s more difficult to do in web-based training (WBT) courses.  
WBTs I see usually begin with learning objectives. Here’s an example of a learning objective from a web-based project on performance management I’m producing now.  

After completing this course the learner will be able to:

  • Write three performance goals to use in their annual professional development plan.

From an instructional systems design (ISD) perspective it’s a good objective. It’s specific and measurable. It contains a verb and a condition for when it occurs. Some learning objectives include a standard indicating how the learner will know it has been successfully completed. If the student knows something about what they are going to be learning then the objectives by themselves may be enough to gain their engagement. If the learner needs something more because of their learning style then there’s a problem.  
In the WBTs I produce I like using stories — video trailers (if the budget allows for their creation) — brief vignettes or passages that give students an idea of what they’re getting into. One thing too: I like using stories that don’t always end well. Sometimes I use vignette’s that tell part of a story; these help learners see themselves in a course.  
Engagement begins by introducing the learner to what Kendall Haven calls a story’s CCS&G:  

  • Characters  
  • Conflicts  
  • Struggles  
  • Goals

We risk turning our learners into zombies if we fail to adequately engage them. Story helps instructional designers connect learners to their learning experience.  
** Colophon **  
This post was created on an iPad 2 using Blogsy, iAWriter and Dropbox.