MindEdge LINK Symposium: Liz Breen on the power of story

At the 2017 MindEdge LINK Symposium, Emmy-nominated writer and advertising creative director, Liz Breen, graced the stage to offer her perspective on the importance of storytelling and narratives. Narrative, Liz described, can be used to pull an audience into the action. This funny, intelligent speech set our minds buzzing as to how we can better leverage narrative in course development. Please enjoy as much as we did!


Copyright © 2017 MindEdge, Inc.

The case for online narrative learning

Online narrative learning is a powerful tool to engage learners through case studies, stories, and simulations.
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As educator Marsha Rossiter (in “Narrative and Stories in Adult Teaching and Learning” in ERIC DIGEST) has noted: “Narrative is deeply appealing and richly satisfying to the human soul, with an allure that transcends cultures, centuries, ideologies, and academic disciplines.”
When properly designed and executed, narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts; it can also challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions—the sorts of more complex cognition that tests the ability of learners to apply what they have learned.
Narrative learning taps into the power of storytelling. Storytelling has deep evolutionary roots. Humans are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world.
We connect naturally with narrative structure and its sequential resolution of conflict. Some students may be more inclined to pay attention, make connections, and retain information presented in the form of a story. Stories, simulations, and case studies can make it clear to an adult learner just how the information they are being taught can be applied in real world circumstances.
Narrative can become a powerful learning tool in the classroom and beyond, bringing abstract concepts to life. Stories provide our minds with vivid pictures—ones that we are more likely to remember.
Narrative techniques are at the forefront of today’s innovation in adult learning—case studies, interactive scenarios, games, graphic nonfiction stories, and simulation. The narrative structure appeals to learners who, for example, can compare the arc of a brief business mini-case with what they have experienced in the workplace.
Instructional designer Chris Jennings (in “Speaking Your Mind: Using elements of narrative storytelling in eLearning” in eLearn Magazine) has argued: “The best stories show, rather than tell. They resonate emotionally with readers, offering a sense of urgency, relief, accomplishment. Because of their inherent similarities, narrative stories can be great for situated learning by using real-world simulations that students can act out or practice in context.”
Case studies, for example, are valuable because they encourage learners to apply their knowledge and actively engage in the learning process. Case studies are valuable for building problem-solving skills, can offer stimulating collaborative assignments, and can be particularly useful in illustrating how to apply and practice new concepts.
Designing narrative learning starts with an understanding of the basics of storytelling—of understanding the arc of a story and how to employ conflict and resolution to engage learners. Narrative learning can be a valuable and powerful addition to online courses and resources.


Copyright © 2014 MindEdge, Inc.

About the National Institute for Online Learning

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Last week MindEdge Online added two courses on online learning from the National Institute of Online Learning (NIOL). It was a milestone for the Institute, which seeks to improve the quality and effectiveness of online learning, especially for adult learners, by promoting best practices and innovation in the field.

We founded NIOL last year for several reasons. First, we thought that MindEdge Learning had knowledge and expertise of value that we believed would be helpful for those involved in online education. MindEdge has developed effective online courses and simulations used by hundreds of thousands of students in higher education and the private sector. The Institute seemed to be an appropriate vehicle in that transfer of learning.

Second, in working with partners and new entrants to the field, we encountered somewhat of a gap between theory and practice—some of those tasked with designing and creating online courses did not have prior grounding in learning theory or much exposure to the technology involved. We think the Institute can help in educating those who want a deeper background in online learning.

Third, we wanted a place where those interested in educating adults would be able to find resources. While the recent emphasis on MOOCs and undergraduate online education is promising, we thought that the challenges of designing and creating online courses and simulations for adults continues to deserve focused attention.

For those reasons, and others, we decided it was time for NIOL. What can you expect from the Institute in the near future? NIOL will be focused on training, education, consulting, and advocacy.

The Institute will offer additional courses focused on various aspects of online learning, including instructional design, course development, and key technologies. By the end of 2013, learners will have the opportunity to earn NIOL’s Online Learning Fundamentals Certificate, awarded for the successful completion of the Institute’s twelve introductory courses.

NIOL will also release occasional white papers focused on relevant learning topics (including narrative and adaptive learning) and will host webinars on best practices in course and simulation design and on technology issues.

The Institute will also be establishing an advisory board of academics, practitioners, educators, and others interested in online learning to help us keep NIOL abreast of the latest developments in the field.

You can learn more about the Institute at the NIOL website, or you can contact me directly at MindEdge Learning (info@mindedge.com) with any questions or suggestions.


Jefferson Flanders, an author and educator, is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders

Meeting the quality challenge in online learning

The question of whether online learning represents an effective way to educate and train has been answered. It’s clear that e-learning works for both institutions of higher learning and for corporations and other organizations by providing a convenient alternative, or supplement, to face-to-face learning.

Now the challenge has become one of quality. It’s time for a renewed focus on upgrading the quality level of online learning. Some schools and organizations relied on instructors and self-taught course designers for their initial online offerings to students. These do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions often failed to leverage the strengths of online for engagement, interactivity, and focused instruction.

Students have noticed. A report from Eduventures, a Boston-based research and consulting firm, has found that student interest in a virtual academic experience has plateaued, and that quality concerns are part of that leveling off of interest.

Eduventures reported that there has been “only a small bump over the last six years in the percentage of adult students who said online college is equal in quality to campus learning,” according to insidehighered.com.

The report also notes the growing competitiveness of the online education market with the arrival of massive open online courses (MOOCS) and new, innovative venture-backed entrants. Learners have many more options today—from both academic and non-academic players.

The quality challenge

We’re convinced that future success in online learning means developing courses and simulations that students will see as clearly better in quality than current offerings. That’s the quality challenge those of us creating online courses and simulations need to address.

Courses need to engage and encourage critical thinking (where we think narrative learning is key). They should make use of video, interactivity, and cloud-based tools, and empower instructors to coach and guide (rather than simply present). They should address different learning styles, and be accessible to all. Their content should flex to the new smartphone and mobile devices, and should incorporate external resources whenever appropriate.

When we design and develop online learning at MindEdge, we keep these factors in mind. We also recognize that a continuous improvement process is vital because the technology and platforms learners uses remains in a state of flux. For example, our new Online College Courses (OCC) have been designed to fit on the smaller screens of the next wave of smartphones and mobile devices, and elements (games, exercises) in these courses will automatically adapt to a more limited viewing canvas.

Raising the quality level of online learning isn’t a one-time effort. It means listening to learners, our academic and corporate partners, and focusing on what works and what enhancements we should make. The educator John W. Gardner once said: “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” We agree. So we’ll meet the challenge of quality by doing our best to make the ordinary, extraordinary.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders

Anchored instruction and narrative learning

When we develop self-paced online learning we try to look at how people actually learn in their work environment and model our pedagogical approach based on that reality.
A large amount of learning occurs just-in-time. Many of us wait until we actually need the skill or technique before we learn it and apply it to solving a specific problem. For example, a marketing analyst may not master Excel macros until he or she needs them for a particularly complex spreadsheet. Or a computer programmer may not take a formal course in a new programming language (such as jquery) but instead learn it piecemeal from books or online tutorials on an as-needed basis. This makes sense, after all: it often represents an efficient use of the most valuable resource we have—time.
When we emulate this pattern of learning it leads us naturally to embedding instruction in our narrative learning—what academics call anchored instruction.
How does this work in practice? When we develop an online learning resource we review the learning outcomes first and consider where specific skills or concepts can be integrated into the narrative environment. This is better illustrated through a real-life example.
Example: Anchored Instruction in a Simulation
When we developed a management simulation focused on sustainable management, we knew that we wanted learners to use some techniques for calculating return-on-investment (ROI) on competing projects that would improve sustainability.
In our “Taking the Helm at Coastal Industries Simulation” this meant anchored instruction in a decision point where Coastal Industries, a company that manufactures transformers, is considering three competing levels of energy conservation retrofits for its manufacturing plants. Learners are asked to figure out which of the three investments (Options A, B, and C) in retrofitting will yield the highest return-on-investment (ROI). To prepare the learners to conduct this analysis, we provide the background on ROI techniques and give an example of how ROI works.
screenshot of simulation
Then learners are given the raw data in the format they are likely to encounter it in the real-world. The next step is for learners to employ a prepared worksheet (using the web-based Zoho tool) and calculate the various ROIs.
screenshot of Zoho sheets
Then learners choose one of three options based on this analysis. The simulation then reveals the correct ROI calculations, allowing learners to check their work and understand why a given decision is optimal based on the ROI results.
So learners have been asked to:

  • learn what ROI means and how it is calculated;
  • apply this knowledge to a real-world problem and calculate ROI for three competing projects;
  • make a decision based on their analysis and immediately see whether they have calculated ROI correctly and, consequently, made the optimal choice.

What makes this more than a stand-alone problem set is that this decision-making process is part of an ongoing narrative. Learners can see that making the correct “just-in-time” decision about ROI (as they would in the workplace) influences their aggregate score in the simulation, reflecting its impact on the company. They also see how a series of decisions over time (compressed in the simulation) can move an organization in a given direction.
We’ve found anchored instruction in narrative learning to be a powerful way to show learners the importance of applying tools and techniques in a real-world setting. They are more likely to grasp the significance of a given analytical approach or skill if they can envision its use in context and see how it is integrated into actual business circumstances.


Copyright © 2012 MindEdge, Inc.
More information on MindEdge’s Taking the Helm at Coastal Industries Simulation.

Five online learning myths

Online learning is, I remind myself, new and relatively uncharted—especially when compared to the hundreds of years of experience we have in teaching by traditional methods.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this novel way of learning. The growth in high-speed Internet connections, and the evolution of new computing devices including tablets, will encourage innovation and experimentation in online learning.
Yet there is some accumulated knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work for learners. We try to pass along what we’ve learned from our experience with students and their interactions with our courses and simulations.
As part of that effort, here are five online learning myths we’ve encountered along the way, and, some reasons why it’s time to retire them.

  • Myth #1. While a nice complement in the learning mix, narrative learning is less effective than more direct methods of teaching. We’d argue that effective learning can begin with narrative learning techniques (case studies, interactive scenarios, games, animated cartoons, graphic nonfiction stories and simulations). Narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts and challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions. Story-telling will beat a dry, “just-the-facts” approach every time.
  • Myth #2. The longer the video, the better! The reality: research shows human attention spans typically top out at 15 minutes. So assuming that learners will give a 45-minute online video their rapt attention is a mistake. We recommend chopping longer video into more digestible chunks (with 15 minutes as the maximum length for a segment.)
  • Myth #3. Matching text with audio improves learner retention. Actually, it doesn’t. The research shows that learners don’t process well when they listen and read at the same time. That may come as a surprise to some who believe that presenting text with an audio voice-over reinforces learning. Apparently the brain isn’t designed to handle such a barrage of information, so it’s best not to employ this duplicative method of presentation.
  • Myth #4. Slide presentations easily convert to online learning. They often don’t. Here’s an irony: engaging slide presentations are harder to adapt to online learning. Why? Because a well-designed PowerPoint that conforms to the rule of six (no more than six bullet points with six words per line) relies on the presenter to fill in the details for the audience. Bullet points aren’t enough for online learning, however. Thus, having teaching notes or a presenter’s script in hand is vital for converting slide presentations for effective online use.
  • Myth #5. Asking learners to answer lots of questions is an unnecessary waste of their time. Research suggests just the opposite. Embedding numerous questions in a learning resource can improve retention and mastery. Some recent studies suggest that recall test-taking (what researchers call “retrieval practice”) works significantly better as a method of learning than repeated study or concept mapping.

These insights into what’s effective in online learning reflect what we’ve learned to date. Because online learning is an evolutionary field, we look to constantly revisit our assumptions about effective instructional design and the impact of changing practices on the Web. We also review learner feedback to see what techniques work in practice. Then we look to make whatever changes are called for to improve performance–ideally practicing what we preach.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders

In search of effective learning

This past year has seen accelerated growth in online learning in both institutions of higher learning and in corporate settings.
The folks at the Sloan Consortium report that nearly 30 percent of all college and university students are taking at least one course online. (Click to download a PDF of the Sloan findings: “Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010.”)
The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) notes that in 2009, 27.7 percent of all formal learning hours made available in corporate training were online, an increase from 23.1 percent in 2008. (Click to access ASTD’s “2010 State of the Industry Report.”)

We’ve seen the same sort of growth at MindEdge, with existing partners expanding their e-offerings and new clients eager to add our online learning to their training or educational mix.
We’ve discovered that educators and trainers face somewhat of a paradox. Learners have more ready access to courses, learning environments, and digital content than ever before, as ink on paper has been converted into bits and bytes and face-to-face instruction has moved to the Web. At the same time, however, students struggle with drinking from this technological firehose of information. They seek structure, relevance, and engagement when they learn. They want choices—not only formal and sequential education but also just-in-time (JIT) learning.
We’ve found that as we develop learning solutions, it’s crucial to employ technology as a tool, not as a substitute or crutch,
but as means of helping learners maximize comprehension, retention, and mastery of key skills. For example, MindEdge often turns to narrative learning, with coached simulations and case studies—which can require some sophisticated software running in the background—to allow students to learn through making decisions and seeing their consequences. The technology enables this learning model in an unobtrusive way that doesn’t overwhelm the learner. Putting technology in proper perspective also means keeping course navigation simple and intuitive and reducing the number of learning elements that a student encounters in any given assignment.
The future will bring more technological choices: more platforms, more ways to communicate, more ways to integrate learning, more information resources—and more potential for distraction and confusion for learners if these advances aren’t handled appropriately. The key is to focus at the start on learning objectives and desired outcomes and then find the best solution. For example, we wouldn’t advocate migrating text-based learning directly to mobile devices—instead, we’d suggest that some elements (skills drills or just-in-time snippets of information) could be delivered to a smart phone, and others need to remain in a more welcoming fuller screen environment.
As we look ahead to developing content, courses, and simulations for 2011, we know that we’ll be called on to integrate pedagogy (or more precisely, andragogy, since our focus is on adults) and technology. We’ll continue our search for the most effective ways to do that, and to empower learners.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders

The power of narrative learning

I lost count of the number of times my wife or I read aloud books like Big and Little or Goodnight Moon to our sons when they were pre-schoolers. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the wide-eyed enthusiasm the very young have for hearing the same story over and over again. Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around being read to by mother or father, and to this day I can remember the stories (and illustrations) from those books (The Golden Cockerel, The Story of King Arthur and his Knights, The Wind in the Willows, and many others).
There’s a reason for this (life-long) delight in stories. Storytelling has deep evolutionary roots. We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world. We connect naturally with narrative structure and its sequential resolution of conflict. Stories provide our minds with vivid pictures–ones that we are more likely to remember. (A fascinating new book by Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction) connects human evolution to the development of story telling, including fiction).
Narrative can become a powerful learning tool in the classroom and beyond, bringing abstract concepts to life. My favorite teachers relied on anecdotes, sayings, and stories when they presented new material.

We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world.

Narrative techniques are at the forefront of today’s innovation in adult learning — case studies, interactive scenarios, games, graphic nonfiction stories, and simulation. The narrative structure appeals to learners who, for example, can compare the arc of a brief business mini-case with what they have experienced in the workplace.
One guiding principle in developing narrative learning is that any scenarios or situations presented should be accurate and realistic. (Our experience at MindEdge: learners quickly tell you if they don’t find the narrative believable). To insure realism, rely on subject matter experts and/or practitioners during the instructional design process to validate the content.
Narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts; it can also challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions – the sorts of more complex cognition that tests the ability of learners to apply what they have learned.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders