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Title: Getting the Story Straight: the role of narrative in teaching and learning with interactive media
Author(s): Plowman, Lydia
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Editor(s): Gardenfors, Peter
Johansson, Petter
Citation: Plowman L (2005) Getting the Story Straight: the role of narrative in teaching and learning with interactive media. In: Gardenfors P & Johansson P (eds.) Cognition, Education and Communication Technology. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum (now Routledge of Taylor & Francis), pp. 55-76.
Keywords: interactive media
Issue Date: 2005
Abstract: An exploration of the role of narrative in teaching and learning with interactive media is central if we take as our starting point ‘how can the design of interactive learning environments be best tailored to human cognition?’ Narrative is not simply an aesthetic consideration when designing interactive media; it is also fundamental to the ways in which we make sense of texts of all kinds because it provides structure and coherence and is fundamentally linked to cognition and understanding. The focus of this chapter is on how the presence or absence of narrative and its different forms and functions facilitates or impedes learning, heeding the ways in which prior exposure to other narrative forms shapes our understanding but also examining how it works in a specifically interactive medium. ‘Getting the story straight’ usually relates to the process by which a person checks their understanding of a recounting of events by another, so that s/he, in turn, can retell the ‘story’ coherently. This process would usually be prompted by a complex sequence of events and suggests that there is more than one version of the story. It is a collaboration intended to create a consistent story and the phrase itself points to the primacy of narrative in creating understanding. For a learner using interactive media ‘getting the story straight’ refers to a reciprocal process in which the purpose is to ensure a degree of consistency between the communication of the educational content (narrative guidance) and the interactant’s construction of narrative. A central problem for those involved in the design of interactive media is how to balance authorial (or designer) interest in controlling the navigational path of users, so ensuring a clear storyline, against the freedom afforded by the medium for users to construct their own meanings and paths. Observations of students using a range of interactive media suggest that it is generally the structure rather than the content that is problematic for the meaning-making process. Narrative can provide a macro-structure that creates global coherence, contributes to local coherence and aids recall through its network of causal links and signposting. The structure provides a linear dynamic that can accommodate diversions and tangents and allows learners to maintain their plans and goals. It has both cognitive and affective impact, performing an essential organising function for the learner by shaping the creation of meaning. It helps us to think, remember, communicate, and make sense of ourselves and the world. More specifically, previous research suggests that texts which are unfamiliarly structured because they do not conform to mental models of narrative make excessive demands on our cognitive processes. Learners constantly adjust their understanding in accordance with their exposure to conventional narratives, making the construction of narrative a central cognitive goal. Because learners favour clearly structured and navigable texts, using interactive media generally produces cognitive costs in terms of narrative construction. The very nature of a medium that brings with it the benefits of interactivity also results in a fragmentation of the narrative structure normally present in linear media such as books. It allows, even encourages, the narrative to be suspended and altered and this can thwart or confuse the learner’s expectations, producing a multiplicity of pathways and disruption of the flow of the user's experience. In these cases, ‘getting the story straight’ is paramount for the learning process. We tested our hypotheses about the form and function of narrative by developing three versions of material which had the same content but different structures on a CD-ROM. The content used Darwin's experiences in the Galapagos Islands to teach the principles of natural selection and aimed to stimulate users to think about how wildlife arrived on the newly formed volcanic islands given they are so distant from the nearest land mass. This in turn stimulates thinking about how variation in the islands’ bird population has arisen and all learners are given the task of explaining the variation in the wildlife observed by Darwin and constructing their answer to this task using the on-line notepad. Each of the twelve groups of three students was randomly assigned to one version of the material and none of the students was aware of the different versions. It was not our intention to measure learning (as there are too many variables in a naturalistic environment) but to identify ways in which learning can be supported. The CD-ROM was a research tool to analyse the impact of the different versions on learners’ behaviour, including the ease with which they accomplished the task and how they recalled their learning. As a result, we were able to establish guidelines for the design of interactive learning environments. This approach emphasises the importance of structure but recognises that narrative cannot be studied in isolation from the dynamic processes of interaction if it is to be applied to interactive learning environments. Although the focus on the role of narrative in the learner's construction of meaning suggests an emphasis on the interaction between design and cognition, it is inappropriate to study this interaction in isolation from classroom culture and the broader learning context. I will outline the theory of narrative guidance and narrative construction that emerged from this study to describe the dynamic processes involved in producing meaning from presented content. The processes cycle between the guidance presented by software, peers and teacher (along with culturally imparted knowledge) and the activity of constructing new meanings and articulating them to self and others.
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