Why Jane Austen would have been a brilliant instructional designer

The art of storytelling is so much part of good instructional design, that it makes a lot of sense to seek brilliant examples across media, even if they are over 2 centuries old.

When reflecting about better scenario writing for elearning, it suddenly struck me that I should look at my favourite author, Jane Austen, and learn from how she works a story.

A strong start is half the work

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. This famous introduction from Pride and Prejudice (P&P) tells you immediately what the book is all about and reveals the task at hand. All single men of some consequence need a wife by the end of the book.

Always start your course with a clear introduction of the goal of the course and give your learners a compelling reason to read on. Listing the learning objectives is definitely not the way to do this. You should be able to sum up the course in a mini-story, a short paragraph, or even a oneliner that conveys it all. If you struggle writing this piece of text, you may need more thinking around your course, or it may be a sign you are trying to cover too much content.

Here’s an example: instead of writing “In this course, you will learn how to prevent hospital infections. After completing this module, you will know how to…’; you can start by “Every year, hundreds of patients are infected in our hospital. A few simple actions every day can avoid this.”.

Dora The Explorer or Mrs Bennet to present the ‘task’?

The people populating your scenario-based learning should feel like they have a life and a personality. They need to reveal their task in small chunks, and good instructional design uses different techniques to accomplish that. Many scenario-based courses make me feel like I have landed in an episode of Dora The Explorer. ‘Meet Anna, she’s an employee at Company X. She needs to decide what to do with the pile of documents on her desk. Can you help her?”. It feels like I should shout “Ola Anna! Me, yes I can help!”, jumping up and down in front of my screen…

So how does Jane Austen help us do this better?

In P&P, the chapter 1 dialogue between Mr and Mrs Bennet is fun to read and draws you into the environment where the ‘conflict’ or ‘decision’ will happen. It reveals insights in both characters, informs about the background and the problem that needs to be solved.  The reader learns about the problem at hand (single daughters) and a technique that can help solve it – Mr Bennet needs to visit the rich new neighbour so his daughters can meet the young man according to society regulations at the time.

Enters decision time… Mrs Bennet seems to think that the visit is the only option, but it seems her husband does not agree. So at the end of chapter one, an elearning course would ask the learner – what does Mr Bennet need to do? Does he need to go and visit Mr Bingley to achieve the goal? Jane Austen gives us some extra information in a kind of ‘summary slide’ about the Bennet couple, their disposition and relationship.

Remember the Anna scenario we encountered in the document management course? Let’s rewrite that with Jane’s lesson in mind.
“Hi Anna”, says Ella. “you look a bit unhappy. Do you want to go get a coffee and tell me all about it?”. “I can’t, no time”, Anna sighs, staring at the pile of documents in front of her. “These need sorting. Now.”. Ella eyes the documents. “Do you know where they need to go?”, she asks, ” It can be done quickly, you know. You know what? Let’s give ourselves five minutes as a challenge. And then we can get coffee.”

You’ve met unhappy Anna, and decisive Ella. You’ve learned about the task at hand in a fun, engaging dialogue. Enters the decision exercise… timed sorting through documents, with a virtual coffee at the end maybe?

It’s feedback time, and the story goes on

Chapter 2 of P&P brings me to handling feedback. We learn that Mr Bennet has actually paid the visit to Mr Bingley – this was the right decision. The conversation reveals how this event happened and the fact that Mr Bennet did it because he cares about his daughters. Perfect feedback in a storytelling manner.

So how do we apply that?

Anna and Ella return from the coffee machine. “I feel so much better”, says Anna. “Who could have thought it was so simple. Red documents in the cupboard, blue documents in the bin. I’ll never let them pile up so high again”. “I’ll believe that when I see it”, says Ella laughing, “Maybe I just need to promise you coffee every day”. Nice closure, and a wink to the learner that we do not think they will now be perfect. We are confident however they now know how to handle the task when confronted with it.

Do you have a favourite author? Analyse why you love their books. How do they draw you in? How do they reveal the story? Get reading, and get writing.