Using Stories to Create Real-Life Learning in Online Classes

Children learn language not by being given a list of words to memorize and practice, but by simply absorbing language from their environment by listening and using it in their daily lives. The total immersion method replicates this process by putting the learner into the world of language so that he or she can learn it by listening and doing.

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Children learn language not by being given a list of words to memorize and practice, but by simply absorbing language from their environment by listening and using it in their daily lives. The total immersion method replicates this process by putting the learner into the world of language so that he or she can learn it by listening and doing.

Yet according to Liz Romero and Maria Glass of George Brown College, much of language instruction is still done by rote memorization and practice (2016). So they provided students in an online English as a Second Language class with an experience closer to natural learning using avatars and student-developed stories.

Each student first created a persona in the form of an avatar using Voki (http://www.voki.com). Voki allows users to create an animated character by choosing characteristics such as hair color, face shape, and so on. Students were guided by questions to answer in developing their avatars:

The students then built a profile of their avatar on a personal blog by answering the questions. One began with “Hello! My Name is Avatoo. I am 378 years old . . .” This allowed students to apply their creativity while learning the language.

From here, the students were given a series of tasks for their avatar. First, they were told to find a friend by reading other students' profiles, deciding who would make a good friend, and introducing themselves to the other person via a letter.

Once they paired up, each group was given a wiki where they were to plan a trip together. Using question prompts, they had to explain on the wiki why they preferred one place over another. Once they decided on a trip location, they posted their trip plans on a blog for the rest of the class to see.  

Next, they went on the trip and were required to “send” a postcard of their trip to their teacher on their blog. Students were given a postcard template to use, complete with a location for inserting a photo. I wonder if this could be made even more fun by having students create their postcards with software such as Canva, which provides templates to make a host of different visuals, including postcards (https://www.canva.com/create/postcards).

They then “returned” from their trip and needed to post their thoughts on it, including what they liked about the place they visited. Once again, students were given guiding questions to answer in their posts.

After the trip, they were to apply for a job. Here, they needed to practice leaving a voicemail for an employer by creating an audio file with Vocaroo (http://www.vocaroo.com). Vocaroo is a simple cloud-based voice recording and hosting system that allows the user to record a message to the site and then send a link to someone else to play it. It has a variety of uses in teaching, including giving voice feedback to students and recording the audio for podcasts or video content.

The students were even given the task of getting sick and were told to pick an illness and post their symptoms to a “Feeling Sick” blog. They each read someone else's post and suggested remedies. After these failed, they were directed to call a doctor and leave a voice message describing their symptoms, again using Vocaroo.

Though this process, students were able to practice their English language skills through a variety of real-life tasks. The use of avatars created more motivation by allowing students to develop a unique persona. I can see myself creating an extraterrestrial bike racer who wants to meet up with similarly athletic creatures for an active vacation on the planet Criterium (a type of bike race).

Although this example applies to language learning, the underlying thinking can apply to a wide variety of fields. An online business class can have students develop entrepreneur avatars who pair up to launch a company. An art class can have students develop art critic avatars who visit a museum and report on their findings.

This activity reminds us that technology allows for a world of simulations that escape from the traditional “read, write, discuss” model of teaching.

Romero, L., & Glass, M. (2015). Learning by doing: Creating engaging online learning. Educational Technology, 55(2), 35–39.