8 A Story Approach to Creating Online College Courses

Liz Romero

This article was originally published in the January-February 2016 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 36-40.

The purpose of this article is to describe the implemen­tation of a story approach to create online courses in a college environment. The article describes the com­ponents of the approach and the implementation process to create a nursing and a language course. The implementation starts with the identification of the need and follows by creating a storyline, identifying inputs, outputs, and tools. Using this approach, the author and her team have created innovative online courses that emphasize learning the skills that are required in the marketplace.


The primary and first step in the instructional design process is determining what is going to be taught, or the goal of the instruction (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2004; Smith & Ragan, 2005). This step is further broken down into smaller components or tasks that represent the specific sets of knowledge and skills that students will acquire as a result of the instruction. According to Jonassen, Tessmer, and Hannum (1999), these tasks represent an inventory of all the components that may be included in a course. These authors point out that there are several methods commonly used for creating the tasks, which include the procedural, hierarchical, conceptual, and documentation methods. Additionally, the authors point out an often unused but potentially powerful and promising method-the story approach.

The story method focuses on representing the content of a particular curriculum in the form of a story. The story is linked to the curriculum in terms of knowledge and skills acquisition, and can also be linked in terms of themes (Romero, Orzechowski, & Rahatka, 2014). The compo­nents of the story, which are the sources of information needed to create the instruction, provide the factual, conceptual, and strategic knowledge students need to learn in a particular subject matter (Jonassen, Tessmer, & Hannum, 1999).

Stories are defined in Webster’s dictionary as “accounts of incidents or events.” Such accounts can be real or unre­al. Stories have been used for thousands of years, since people have an intrinsic ability to make sense of the world around them through stories (Jonassen, 2002). According to Widrich (2012), we all tend to enjoy stories, get engaged when we hear stories, and become even more engaged when we take part in the story. Taking part in a story means playing the role of the characters and par­ticipating in the sequence of events in order to influence them.

In an instructional situation, participating in the story means completing tasks and solving problems, which in turns requires the application of knowledge and skills. According to Schank (1982), problem-solving dynamics are stored in memory in the form of stories, and when people find a problem they have experienced earlier, they retrieve prior events and apply past solutions. Furthermore, when the problem is new, they adapt past solutions to the new situation. Therefore, the accumulation of stories is what creates expertise and problem-solving skills. Thus, the difference between novices and experts is the amount of past experiences accumulated and the ability to use those experiences to understand situations and solve problems (Jonassen, 2000). Consequently, knowing means telling stories (Schank, 1992).

The story method can transform a course into a story with a beginning, an ending, characters, and events that develop. It can provide students with the opportunity to be the center of the instructional events and the directors of their own learning (Romero & Glass, 2015). According to Schank (2002), a good course should always tell a story, and that story should allow students to play roles as close as possible to the roles they will play in real-life situations. Schank believes that when students participate in the story, they will remember the roles they played more than they will remember the facts and concepts covered in the course. According to Hung, Tan, Cheung, and Hu (2004), this is because the students utilize skills applied in solving problems, and students remember the problems they solved. Stories stimulate the development of thinking skills, such as compare and contrast, decompose the whole into pieces, and put the pieces back together.

Stories are effective for learning because they are grounded in a context, and according to the situated cognition perspective, learning should be situated in a context. Theorists in this field believe that learning and context cannot be separated, since this relationship is what allows learners to actually apply what they learn in real-life situations (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). When the instruction is embedded in a context, learners make sense of the tasks and what is required of them, which challenges them to tackle complex situations and solve problems (Ormrod, 2012). According to Ormrod, this is especially true when students work in groups and have the opportunity to distribute cognitive activities to process information and make sense of it with the collec­tive intelligence that the group brings to the situation.

Situated cognition has changed the focus of the instruc­tion, from one where students listen to the information that the professor communicates to one where students do what people in a field do (Driscoll, 2005). Thus, this per­spective emphasizes doing in a context where learners will apply knowledge as part of a culture (Lempke, 1997), which will allow the learner to transfer the application from one situation to others (Eggen & Kauchak, 2013). In a nutshell, learning takes place when students do what experts in the field do (Jonassen, 2011).

The story approach allows instructional designers to create courses where students learn by doing, which is aligned with the needs of teaching institutions, such as in colleges, which focus on teaching the skills that stu­dents need to become professionals in their fields. George Brown College in Canada, for example, devotes a great deal of effort to identify skills required in the marketplace, which is achieved by collecting data from employers in different areas of the economic sector. The academic areas use this information to update courses to reflect the current skills that are needed in the marketplace. To create some of the online and hybrid courses at George Brown College, we have implemented the story approach in collaboration with faculty members. The results have been engaging courses that promote critical-thinking skills and problem ­solving abilities. The purpose of this article is to describe the application of this approach to create a nursing and a language course. However, before doing that, we will describe the general model in which the story approach is embedded.

The General Approach to Create Online Courses

The general approach (see Figure 1) to create online courses consists of grouping instructional designers with faculty members, from different academic areas of the col­lege. An instructional designer is typically assigned to an academic area to work with a group of faculty members. The main objective of the instructional designer is to cre­ate the design of the courses, while faculty members focus on developing the courses with the collaboration, support, and guidance from the instructional designer. Under this scheme, we have developed numerous online courses, and it seems to be a good fit, since faculty gain the skills necessary to change, modify, and maintain their courses. In other words, once the instructional designer moves to another academic area, faculty are ready to be in control of their own courses.

The Story Approach

The implementation of the story approach (see Figure 2) for creating online course starts once the instructional designer is assigned to an academic area. The process begins with a one-on-one meeting between the instruc­tional designer and individual faculty members, who have been given the assignment to transform face-to-face courses into fully online or hybrid courses. The purpose of the first meeting is to determine the need for transforming a face-to-face course into a hybrid or fully online course. Some of the reasons we gathered were related to increas­ing opportunities for practicing knowledge and skills; to offering students more opportunities toparticipate and interact with content, classmates, and teacher; to present­ing content using different media to respond to the learn­ing styles of students; to increasing accessibility to allow students to access the course 24/7; and to learn at their own pace.

Next, we look for solutions based on identified needs. To look for a solution, the instructional designers and faculty members meet one-on-one and brainstorm ideas about the general direction of the course. Then, group meetings are held to talk about initial ideas. Every professor presents the idea for the course and asks for feedback from the larger group. In this session, a lot of ideas emerge, which are generally derived from the faculty’s previously attend­ed conferences, publications, past experiences, and imag­ination. When looking for solutions, we look at the need and the learning objectives. For example, if the need is to provide opportunities to practice knowledge and skills, we ask the question: how can we embed the learning objectives in a context, promoting engagement, focusing in doing more than in knowing, and providing some control to students?

After the group meeting, the instructional designer and individual faculty meet again to consider the ideas that emerged from the group. Thereafter, group meetings are set on a weekly basis, with the purpose of “showing and telling” the progress of each one of the courses. With more ideas in hand, each professor and instructional designer can begin creating a storyline, using an empty shell as the primary tool (see Figure 3). To start creating the story, we focus on the general elements of a story: the beginning, the characters, the plot or components, and the ending. After the components of the story have been created, each component is analyzed to identify the inputs provided by the instructor, the outputs that students need to create, and the tools needed to create the outputs. Faculty members and instructional designers spend considerable amounts of time at this stage, since there is more than one story considered; and, even once a story is agreed upon, there are changes in the components and characters. In the next sections, we will describe the process of creating two courses using this approach.

Application of the Approach to Create an Online Nursing Course

Lewis, Romero, and Lung (2014) created an online course that needed to increase opportunities to apply knowledge and skills in scenarios as close as possible to what a nurse would encounter in a clinical setting.

After several meetings with the faculty member, we decided that the story (see Figure 4) would start with a nurse who is working as staff in the medical surgical unit of a local hospital. The nurse would be assigned patients with different medical conditions and would need to plan for the care of the patients. The health conditions of the patients were related to the topics established in the cur­riculum of the course (systems of the human body). The story would continue when the nurse arrives at the unit and receives the handoff report about the assigned patient, which was completed by the nurse from the previous shift. This report provides information about behavior, vital signs, pain level, and level of comfort of the patient during the last eight hours. The report also contains some subjec­tive data regarding history of the health condition, habit, family situation, employment, and financial status. Additionally, objective data related to the health condition are provided, based on the observation of the patient. Last, some laboratory values are also provided.

Since the nurse needs to plan for the care of the patient, it would be necessary to assess the information provided, interpret the laboratory values, and determine what additional data might be needed. The nurse would also need to review the patients’ health history from the card-filing system to obtain additional information and the medical orders.

With information in hand, the nurse would complete a nursing assessment and select the nursing diagnosis that is a priority at this time and justify the selection. Based on the diagnosis, the nurse will then identify the appropriate nursing interventions and create an action plan to care for the patient.

After the nurse completes the plan to care for the patient, there will be opportunities to reflect about the situation, in relation to: What other data should have been collected to meet the patient’s needs? What else could have been done in this situation? What can be done differently in the future?

Once we had the storyline, we went further and created a matrix (see Figure 5) indicating, for each com­ponent of the story, the input that the faculty member would provide to students in order for them to create outputs, and the learning management system (LMS) tools that students will use to create and communicate outputs. For example, the input for each patient would be the hand-off report, the laboratory values, and health history. Using the information provided, students would generate outputs, such as assessment of the need for additional data, analysis of the laboratory values, nurs­ing assessment, nursing diagnosis, nursing intervention, action plan, and reflection about the entire situation. To create the outputs, students wou Id use tools such as wikis, discussion boards, biogs, and reflection journals.

Application for a Language Course

Another course created using the story approach was a hybrid language course developed by Glass and Romero (2014). It is a language course for beginners that needed to provide students more access to the content and opportunities for practice. The course needed to provide students opportunities to practice all four language skills: speaking, reading, writing, and listening. Therefore, the story started by giving students the role of journalists working for a promotional agency (see Figure 6). The agency would pair two journalists with the assignment of writing a promotional article about one of Toronto’s great neighborhoods. The pair of journalists would need to research many aspects of the selected neighborhood, including facilities, history, entertainment, and unique­ness, which provides practical opportunities to practice all four language skills.

A list of 20 neighborhoods would be provided to students. Each pair would need to sign up for a neigh­borhood in a group space that would be created for them in the LMS (see Figure 7). The group space would have several tools, such as a discussion board, e-mail, and a wiki to allow them to collaborate in the process of writing the promotional article. Once the neighborhood is chosen, students would create the first component of the article: the description of the neighborhood. To help students create the first components, we provide some guidelines about what to include in this component, which includes a general explanation of why the neigh­borhood was selected. In the next component of the story, students would provide further detail into the neighborhood and find information about facilities, traf­fic, transit options, safety, and average value of real estate. For this component, the journalists would need to visit the neighborhood in order to get updated information.

Next, the pair of journalists would find out about the history of the neighborhood. To do this, they will need to include a section on how the neighborhood started and what it looked like in the past. Once the journalists know the neighborhood better, they include how locals feel about living there. Therefore, they would need to inter­view residents. To conduct the interviews, they would need to plan what questions to include in the interview and also ask for consent to publish the information.

After the journalists meet a few residents in the neigh­borhood, they would need to investigate what people do for entertainment. Therefore, they would need to research entertainment options for people of different ages and tastes. They will also research what is lacking in terms of entertainment and write a letter to the City Councilor with recommendations. Since the purpose of the article is to promote the neighborhood, they would need to find out what is unique in the chosen neighbor­hood and explain why people should come and visit it. When every component of the article is put together, the journalists would need to edit the components and publish the final piece in the online magazine.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This article has focused on the application of a story approach to create online courses that promote problem-centered learning. Based on this approach, we described a set of instructional design guidelines to develop online courses that include: the creation of a storyline, inputs, outputs, and LMS tools. Even though it has been recognized that this approach is not often used, it has started to become more popular. This is evidenced in conferences and academic meetings where presenters refer to the story approach as a tool for planning online courses.

The examples provided in this article were meant to be prescriptive to guide instructional designers and faculty members in the implementation of the approach, hoping to motivate them to transform courses into stories that put students in the driver’s seat for solving problems in real-life contexts. However, we recognize that research needs to be conducted to determine the effectiveness of online courses created under this approach in the achievements of college students.


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Liz Romero is currently an instructional designer at George Brown College in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She earned her Ph.D. in Instructional Systems and Emergent Technologies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is interested in creating innovative e-learning experiences that provide students with the set of skills needed in their complex and changing professional fields.



A Story Approach to Creating Online College Courses Copyright © 2018 by Liz Romero. All Rights Reserved.

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