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Teaching computers to tell learning stories: using critical narrative theory to frame design and evaluation strategies for online educational experiences.

 Through a critical analysis of Classroom Connect's Quest
 experiences from 1998-2002, this study provides a framework for
 using narrative theory to guide the design and evaluation of
 educational multimedia and online education. Narrative theory,
 derived from literary and media studies and influenced by
 cultural studies, offers numerous parallels to learning
 theories that circulate in educational technology scholarship
 while providing designers with sophisticated conceptual tools to
 create culturally relevant educational experiences. By using
 discourse analysis to analyze narrative structures including
 genre, story and plot, place and setting, time, character and
 characterization, point of view and focalization, complication,
 crisis, resolution and coda, this study meshes learning theories
 and systematic instructional design approaches with cultural
 theories of pedagogy that address the relationships between the
 intersections of race, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, and
 nation with learning.


Through a critical analysis of an online multimedia learning experience, this study provides a framework for using narrative theory to guide the design and evaluation of educational multimedia and online education. Narrative theory, derived from literary and media studies and influenced by cultural studies, offers numerous parallels to learning theories that circulate in educational technology scholarship while providing designers with more sophisticated conceptual tools to create culturally relevant educational experiences. In this study educational narratives are described as structured learning events that move through space, place, and time with the purpose of creating a change in knowledge among those experiencing the narrative. Narrative theories explain how individuals construct their knowledge through the culturally situated stories that they tell and in which they participate (Connelly & Clandenin, 1990). Narrative theories informed by cultural studies, what will be called "critical narrative theory," allow for the examination of educational multimedia narratives from critical cultural perspectives that are attentive to issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, region, geography, profession, education, nation, and ability (i.e., difference).

By adopting a critical perspective using narrative theory, this study makes the assumption that certain narrative structures (e.g., genres) in multimedia promote representations of narrative characters and storylines that are culturally relevant (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1995) and promote inclusive cultural plots by addressing narratives that circulate across diverse social narratives. Taking into account narrative structures in parallel with learning theories allows hypermedia designers to consider the cultural components of learning through narratives. The assumption in narrative theory that aspects of cultural diversity can be identified and understood by the stories that are told within, between, against, and across difference is an important aspect of approaches to educational technology that value equity (e.g., International Society for Technology in Education [ISTE] standard VI (1) --"Social, Ethical, and Human Issues" states that educators should, "apply technology resources to enable and empower learners with diverse backgrounds, characteristics, and abilities" and "identify and use technology resources that affirm diversity").

Because of the perceived capacity of the Internet to present learning experiences from anywhere at anytime, the notion of the "quest" in the form of web quests (Dodge, 1995; Dodge, 2002; March, 2002) and virtual field trips (Wilson, 2000) have become a popular part of the discourse in K-12 educational technology integration. In order to display a material example of narrative theories in context, this study undertakes a critical narrative analysis of a semiannual (1998-2002) online educational Quest experiences sponsored by Classroom Connect (2), including Maya Quest, Africa Quest, Galapagos Quest, Australia Quest, America Quest, Island Quest, Greece Quest, Columbus Quest, and Asia Quest. See Table 1 for a summary of each Quest. All of these quests will be referred to as the "Online Quests" or "Quests." These Online Quests were selected because narrative plays a central part in them--characters, plots, settings, timelines, crises, and resolutions are clearly identifiable.

All of the quests follow a similar structure. During the one to five weeks of a Quest, a team composed of a team leader, technologist, videographer, video editor, cultural interpreter, and other individuals with relevant expertise to the Quest travels across an area of the world, often on bicycles, trying to solve a historical mystery such as the fall of the Mayan civilization or following a historical route such as Marco Polo's travels. The team communicates regularly by way of laptop computers with satellite uplinks to the Internet with up to 100,000 K-12 students from around the world, although mostly from the United States). During the Quest, the team uploads digital photographs and videos that serve as archeological evidence with which students answer posed questions and make decisions about the route the team takes next. Scientists with expertise appropriate to the goals of the Quest are also in contact with students through email and threaded discussions. In addition to the historical problem the team and students studies, each Quest highlights environmental concerns of the region that they are in and the indigenous flora and fauna of that part of the world. Approximately 4,000 to 5,000 classrooms participated in each of the 10 Quests that took place between 1998 and 2002 (Grantham, 2002). Assuming an average class size of 20 students (U.S. Department of Education, 2000) approximately 80,000 to 100,000 students took part in each of the 10 Quests studied. Kindergarten--12th grade lessons aligned with U.S. state and national standards in social studies, science, math, reading, and language arts, among others, are provided for each Quest.


This analysis uses narrative theory derived from literary criticism, media theory, and cultural studies while drawing parallels between narrative structures and learning theories. Narrative theories can describe and theorize learning processes including the anticipation of events and information (e.g., expectations, suspense); addressing prior knowledge (e.g., cues, character, focalization); communicating information in authentic contexts (e.g., narrative settings, place, space); and showing the results of a change in knowledge (e.g., consequences of new knowledge through story resolution). Narrative theory offers fruitful unifying frameworks with which to examine the structure of electronic multimedia learning environments. While narratives have been used to guide the design of constructivist learning environments (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1992), little research has addressed how narrative theories coupled with cultural studies can inform the design of educational multimedia for culturally diverse learners. Cultural studies examines how power influences meaning making.

Using various methodologies including ethnography, discourse analysis, and textual analysis, cultural studies works to discover how power administers the inequitable access to social, cultural, and financial resources. In this study, power is defined as the ability to tell and shape an online learning story, and therefore affect the contexts of student learning. Asking who tells the learning story and who controls the various narrative elements including genre, plot, characters, setting, time, conflict, and resolution can identify power. It should be noted that the influence of power is not linear and that agency comes in many forms including the multiple ways that a student can interpret a learning story. The purpose of this framework is to help make the movement of power visible. As Foucault observed in his work (Foucault, 1972, 1973, 1981) even the most seemingly universal truths and narratives have histories produced by culture that can be made explicit. Once made explicit, these histories help trace the narrative exclusions that exist for under-represented groups defined through race, class, gender, geography, and ethnicity.

Scholarship in narrative theory, education, and cultural studies has stressed the importance of discourse in examining narrative structures (Bialostosky, 1989; Chatman, 1980). Discourse will be used to describe how language is used (e.g., written, verbal, visual, etc.) and shapes what is thinkable and learnable in a given context that in the case of this study is an online learning experience. Consistent with this scholarship, this study divides narrative into story (i.e., structural elements like plot, character, and place) and discourse (i.e., the contexts in which the story is "read"). The distinction between story and discourse allows for culturally specific interpretations and individual differences in learning contexts. A design framework that uses narrative theory avoids adopting an instrumentalist view that rigidly links a narrative structure with a specific interpretation or learning outcome.

It is important that educational multimedia designers, researchers, and evaluators don't ascribe particular essentializing characteristics to particular narrative structures by assigning static traits to specific groups, but instead engage in reflective questioning that interrogates who possesses the power to influence the learning narrative. Bakhtin's notion of dialogism (Bahktin, 1981) is an appropriate descriptor of the importance of the situatedness of the reader's narrative interpretation. Dialogism describes how an individual understands a narrative at a specific historical moment and physical space in response to the past and an expectation of a possible future.

Narrative theories as articulated by literary theorists (O'Neill, 1994; Richter, 1996) and adapted by media scholars (Bordwell & Thompson, 1997; Chatman, 1980; Fiske, 1987) help to theorize the learning processes that occur when culturally diverse individuals acquire new knowledge online and synthesize it with existing knowledge. They are particularly instructive in describing how different media-based narratives work in intertextual relationships to construct frameworks for meaning making. Narrative theories offer fruitful unifying frameworks with which to examine the structure of electronic learning environments especially in areas that are under-theorized in traditional learning theory, including the complex ways that narrative attends to the cultural construction of time, space, and memory. A convincing narrative possesses the capacity to create a strong sense of place and time: two components that are important to consider as the boundaries between real and virtual time and space become increasingly indistinguishable.

Narratives structure time as a sense-making mechanism that shapes particular aspects of the learner's expectations by creating suspense, surprise, and curiosity (Fiske, 1987). As they unfold over time, narratives ask the individual to fill in meaning spaces and make inferences and cue memory by recalling previous events. Bordwell and Thompson (1997) called narrative "a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space" (p. 90). Similarly, Bal (1997) used the term "fabula" to "describe a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors" (p. 5).

Propp (1928/1968), who showed the narrative structure of Russian fairy tales, has been influential in Narratology, the branch of narrative theory that focuses on defining narrative structure (Bal, 1997). As Dundes (1968) highlighted in the introduction to the "Morphology of the Folktale," Propp's narrative structures can be applied to narratives other than folktales including mass media that carry narratives such as film, television, and the Internet. From Propp we learned that many modern narratives share their structures with fairytales. While Propp examined narrative structures in terms of character actions, Labov (1972) built upon Propp's work to present an elegant basic structure for stories. According to Labov, a fully formed narrative undergoes six stages: (a) abstract (i.e., why the story is being told) (b) orientation (i.e., time, place, characters, and situation) (c) complicating actions (i.e., crisis, obstacles, etc.) (d) evaluation (i.e., moments when the narrative is suspended to analyze its progress) (e) resolution (i.e., when the problems are resolved), and (f) coda (i.e., statements to indicate the end of the story).

To fully develop the theoretical foundations of critical narrative theory it is important to discuss the evolution of Narratology in mass media. Media theories of narrative derived from film and television theorize modern narratives that engage multiple media and are more splintered and more fully theorize learning through the nonlinear connections of hypermedia in a postmodern context.

Film approaches to narrative structure offer extensive frameworks with which to describe narrative in new media. Bordwell and Thompson (1997) have written about the ways that narratives function in film. These structures, as discussed later, provide a helpful language with which to talk about the various components of media narratives, including the relationship between plot, character, sound, and images. Film theories of narrative, however, do not adequately address the more open-ended narratives that are experienced in everyday life.

Television theories of narrative, in contrast to film theories, depart from traditional realist narratives that try to construct a self-contained, internally consistent world. Realist narratives conclude with closure that possesses a clear ending, but, of course, this does not always occur in everyday life, where multiple overlapping narratives unfold in complex social networks that are infused with power and agency (de Certeau, 1988). Television, on the other hand, according to Fiske (1987), can invite the reader into "producerly" relations with the text (i.e., texts that encourage the reader to construct their own individual meaning through more ambiguous structures and cues). This is especially true in relation to the serial, which is the most common type of television narrative and the one typically used in the Quest online experiences. Television theories of narrative offer more fractured constructs of narrative, due to television's serialization and commercial interruptions. This fractured structure creates conceptual spaces for greater variation in interpretation by the reader.


Classroom Connect maintains an archive of Quest experiences that took place between 1998 and 2002. These archives include all the reports, activities, sounds, pictures, videos, lesson plans, quizzes, and puzzles presented to student participants during each Quest. To reveal the narrative structures of the Classroom Connect Online Quests, each of the archives was analyzed based on how that narrative is constructed by studying how it unfolds during the Quest experience. The objects of study included periodic team updates, profiles of local flora, fauna, and inhabitants, among other things. Table 2 lists the reoccurring components that were analyzed across the ten Quests.

Each Quest contained specific components unique to it (e.g., a "Bugs" section in the Amazon Quest). Each component of the Quest was analyzed and coded with one of the narrative structures listed in Table 3. These structures represent the major parts of most narratives.

After the initial coding a more indepth critical discourse analysis (Kress, 1991) of each of these components was conducted to determine how language was used to represent narratives structures. Discourse analysis looks for the ways that language creates frameworks for understanding, representing, and communicating human experiences. A critical discourse analysis (CDA) looks at both the structure and the social context of media and how power-inflected messages appear in each Quest. In other words, CDA makes opaque the ways that bias, dominance, and inequities, which might otherwise appear transparent, are reproduced in mediated texts (Fairclough, 1995) such as hypermediated online learning environments.


The following analysis borrows narrative structures derived from literary, film, and television narrative theories previously described and frames them with each structure's implications for learning and social and cultural equity. Each of the subsections of the analysis begins with a description of the narrative structure to be used, is followed by a discussion of how this structure is realized in the Online Quests, and concludes with an explanation of the implications of considering this structure for the design and evaluation of educational multimedia and online learning.


Genre categorizes a narrative based on elements including common plots, characters, subject matter, format and medium, setting and locations, and narrative pattern. Familiar mass media genres include Westerns, action-adventures, horror, science fiction, and romantic comedies in film; situation comedies, reality programming, music videos, cartoons, anchor-based news presentations in television; and portals (e.g.,, search engines (e.g.,, navigable information spaces (e.g.,, personal web pages, and discussion boards on the World Wide Web (WWW or Web). Kress (1988) noted that each genre creates a different possibility for readers to respond to a narrative by meeting the reader's expectation for that genre. These "reading positions" are constrained by the narrative structures of the genre into specific types of interpretation (e.g., the expectation for danger in an action-adventure film). Critical approaches to genre consider which genres are associated with a particular learning story. In other words, do the characters, settings, narrative patterns, subject matter, and plots create expectations with which the reader is familiar or with which the reader is too familiar, leading to uncritical acceptance of the learning story?

The Quest experiences can be categorized into various genres including travel and anthropological narratives where the (generally) European or American individual visits a "strange" land to encounter the exotic "other" (i.e., food, animals, culture, terrain, weather, people). Travel narratives are often marked by the triumph of the European hero over the hardships of travel through perseverance, optimism, and concern for the community (or in the case of the Quests, concern for the environment) while s/he simultaneously exhibits a strong sense of independence and individuality (Brown, 1993). In American colonial travel narratives, the protagonist gains a sense of control over the landscape, testing the traveler's resourcefulness and courage (Martin, 1994). The American travel narrative, in particular, marks a particular kind of narrative genre that is consistent throughout American history from early exploration and settling to eventual expansion.

The Quests are a virtual extension of this expansion--a way of mapping an American epistemology and ontology on the setting of each Quest. There are many ways to experience another culture including allowing those indigenous to an area to represent themselves through local genres. By selecting a travel narrative, the Quests teach a model of understanding difference in which the other is defined by exclusions and binary oppositions between the students learning online and the locations shown in the Quest. For example, the "Gross and Disgusting Sections" along with the "Kid Profiles" tend to exoticize and make facile comparisons between the individuals and cultures that the team encounters in the Quest and the lives of the students. In both sections, aspects of the location and people are defined by a construction of difference marked by binaries (i.e., "normal" vs. gross, typical vs. atypical) rather than more contextualized understandings where meaning is more fluid, situated and contingent.

Implications of genre for educational multimedia design and evaluation. Asking what genres are embedded into an educational multimedia narrative allows designers to integrate the larger social and cultural narratives of which a multimedia design is a part. By paying attention to the ways that genres work together to create meaning, researchers and designers are able to consider how multimedia exist in intertextual (Kristiva, 1980) relationships with other texts. Intertextuality describes how reading a text such as an online learning environment is contingent on the reader's experience and literacies viewing other related kinds of texts (i.e., genres). Viewing a video online is influenced by the reader's experience with television and film. Therefore in considering genre it is important to reference genres that are familiar to the reader while simultaneously avoiding the fixed meanings that are potentially embedded in the genre. Of particular significance in online learning is being aware of how travel and quest genres can easily follow expansion plots that exoticize the culture and appearance of the "other."

Story, Plot, and Subplot

In discussing film narratives, Bordwell and Thompson (1997) make a distinction between story and plot. According to them, story was the set of all events in a narrative; both those presented and those inferred. The world of the narrative is sometimes called the deigesis (Greek for recounted story). The plot goes beyond the story world and contains both the story and other nondiegetic components that exist outside the story such as music. Stories are understood through cues in the plot just as new knowledge is constructed by integrating external queues with internal structures. The plot/story distinction can be discerned in all aspects of narrative, causality, time, and space. For any pattern of plot development, the reader will create a set of expectations. For example, the plot may withhold or give information for the sake of curiosity or surprise. Or, a subplot, a unified set of actions coincident with but subordinate to the main plot, may be included in the story. As was previously stated, the story of the Quest Internet expedition is for students to "virtually" accompany a team as they travel through a particular region of the world in order to solve a mystery. The plot of the Quests includes the characters, crises, surprises, settings, places, and resolutions and how they are organized and linked to tell a story. The initial story is typically offered by one of the team members, most often the team leader. Subplots are usually centered on particular themes such as understanding regional plants and animals, communicating ecological issues, and recounting local myths. One important aspect of online hypermediated stories is the fact that while each Quest takes place over a linear span of time, the entire record of the story can be accessed in a nonlinear fashion. In this sense, any aspect of the story can be reexamined quickly at will. Because many of the sections of the Quest story are hyperlinked to each other through nonlinear connections, plots and story transitions are driven and initiated by the motivations of the reader coupled with guidance from the team and the local teacher.

Implications of story, plot, and subplot for educational multimedia design and evaluation. Analyzing story, plot, and subplot help hypermedia designers and evaluators understand what cues propel the narrative. Much like an enabling object in instructional design helps to advance larger learning goals, so can a subplot fill in missing elements of the main plot or create motivation. Looking at the plot separate from the story provides a heuristic for evaluating how nondeigesic elements such as music, sound effects, and animations distract from the plot by presenting plot structures that do not fit within the genre, characters, locations of the narrative; propel the plot by presenting the reader with the next episode while providing closure to the previous episode; motivate by creating curiosity about the next event; and contradict by presenting inconsistencies in the narrative structure. One can ask which links connect various aspects of the plot to tell the story and affect the audience.

Space, Place, and Setting

Space is the place or places in which the situations and events represented (i.e., setting, story, space) and the narrating instances (i.e., acts of recounting a series of situations and events) occur (Prince, 1987). Sometimes a narrative asks the reader to imagine places that are never shown (e.g., an historical event or location). In narrative structures one can distinguish between plot space, or all the visible locations in the narrative; story space, the location of all narrative action whether shown or not; and screen space, both that which is shown on the screen and that which is suggested off screen. Space can also be the basis for a plot pattern, for example by showing how the characters move through a space much like the team in the Quests moves through a region of the world. Related to space and place, the setting is the spatial (i.e., the geographical location, physical arrangements, scenery) and temporal (i.e., time and period in which the narrative takes place) circumstances in which the events of the narrative occur, as well as the social, cultural, political, economic, religious, emotional, and mental conditions of the characters.

The Quest experience takes place in various places including Central America, Africa, Greece, Australia, Africa, the continental United States, Asia, and the classrooms and homes throughout the world in which students engage with the Quest experiences. To the student, all of these places except for the physical space that s/he occupies are virtual spaces that exist only in electronically mediated forms through the text, sounds, photos, and videos that are posted online. Specifically, the Quests take place in deserts, rainforests, islands, towns, cities, and other places throughout the world that comprise the physical space occupied by the team, but only in virtual space for the students. Nature is a particular kind of space infused with specific meanings that may be framed as a place to be conquered, exploited, respected, saved, studied, explored, or visited. While the Quest team engages in a discourse of environmentalism and conservation, the underlying setting of the Quests reveal a Western, European separation between civilization consisting of home, the US, comfort, safety, ease of living, and nature that is wild, unpredictable, and dangerous.

One of the primary objectives of the online Quests is to bring these places to the students in their classrooms and homes. The final report of Africa Quest states, "You all became world citizens without leaving your classrooms." (3) This goal is a significant component of the discourses that pervade discussions of the Internet in education. These discourses champion the Internet as a medium that is able to "take" students to places that they would not otherwise be able to experience because of limited time and resources. A promotional web page for the Quests states, "Participate in real world discovery. Join our team without leaving your classroom." (4) In narrative terms, these claims stress the ability of the Internet to communicate story space, by not only being able to show that which is visible in the plot space but also to use various media to suggest that which is not visible, including the daily environment of those individuals that the team encounters during the Quest.

Implications of space, place, and setting for educational multimedia design and evaluation. When designing and guiding learners through space and place, it is important to think about how online learners generate, invest in, and occupy space and place. Streibel (1998) claimed that virtual space is generally not sufficient to create learning communities in which students are as invested and engaged as they would be in communities formed in physical space. His argument offered an important call for multimedia designers to create contexts for online students that allow them to invest in a particular learning space. Critical approaches to space help to avoid colonizing virtual spaces, places, and settings. As Ostwald (1993) observed, the burdens of the real world are not absolved within an electronically created space in which existing social and cultural norms are only reconfigured and therefore cannot be wholly interpreted as a new or neutral phenomena.

Because hypermedia learning, especially learning that occurs through online interactions, provides for the simulation of multiple virtual and real spaces, designers who want to be attentive to the critical representation of space must ask questions about whose space and place are being represented in narrative. Some of the questions to consider include: (a) How does the narrative give meaning to space, place, and setting? (b) Who defines the borders of space, place, and setting? (c) Who and what can cross the borders and under what conditions? (d) What rules govern who exists inside and outside a space, place, and setting? (e) Who is given (or assumes) the authority to invite others into a space, place, and setting? (f) What customs define how one behaves in a particular space, place or setting? (g) What is the relationship between the learner's physical space and virtual space? (h) How does the virtual space give meaning to and represent physical space?


Time is the period or periods during which the situations and events and their presentation occur in the narrative. Since narratives do not always start at the beginning of the story and follow a linear chronological order, the plot may present the events of the story out of chronological order. In constructing the story out of the plot, the reader tries to put events in chronological order and assign them duration and frequency.

Because the sequencing of events in time impacts the meaning of the narrative, by rearranging the order of events a narrative can create anticipation, interest, and surprise. "Temporal order" provides the leads and cues for the learner to think about causation. The episodes of a story are generally narrated successively, despite the temporal order of the narrated world. Temporal order becomes more difficult to control through the nonlinearity of hypertext where the reader can access episodes in any order thereby allowing the narrative to offer multiple possible pathways, and potentially multiple outcomes.

Sometimes the narrative must motivate manipulations of time by cause and effect. Events can be repeated, either from the same perspective or from different perspectives. "Temporal frequency" in narrative structure offers a close parallel to repetition in teaching. Repetition is often an important pedagogical strategy, especially when the repetition happens with variation (i.e., the same piece of information is presented in different manners or contexts).

Making a distinction between Western "clocktime" and "social time" (i.e., more socially and culturally situated concepts of time), Adam (1995) noted that western style education has worked to socialize, habituate, and train young people into a "clock time" approach to time that, in turn, has the effect of displacing the variety of times that comprise the multi-dimensionality of everyday life. The time of clocks and calendars, of schedules and deadlines, is only one aspect of social time. Individuals can imagine time in the past, the present and in multiple futures. Narrative theories of time address "social time" rather than only "clock time." Such an approach to time is much more appropriate to electronic learning environments that can be accessed at virtually any time of the day compared to the scheduled segments of the average class period.

Because of the nature of new media (especially media that can be accessed any time over the Internet) and the historical component of many of the Quests, time plays a significant factor in the Quest experiences. Time is conceived of as periods marked by the (weekly) episodes of the online experience, as well as each session of time that a student engages with one of the Quest experiences, either directly while using the web site or indirectly thinking about them while away from it. From the introduction to Greece Quest:
 We'll travel slowly enough to get a feeling for what it's like to
 live in these places today and in some cases what it was like to
 live here thousands of years ago. In the end, we'll turn to you to
 draw conclusions on the roots of our civilization. Can we, perhaps,
 rewrite history? Or at least shed new light on it? (5)

This quote is characteristic of the Quests that promise not only to allow online learners to experience different places but also to represent the past and to some extent recreate how the past is signified. Based on the close relationship between place and time, one cannot move through narrative space without also moving through time and vice a versa.

A particular quality of interacting with an online program or communicating with others online is that it is possible to initiate these interactions outside of school hours. Students can potentially access the Quests online anytime during the Quest. The implications of this degree of reader choice are in temporal ordering and temporal sequencing. Therefore, even though students may access the Quests in a structured way through the guidance of a teacher in class, when they review the Quests at home or in a library, they are free to create their own understanding of personal, historical, and social time.

The crucial connection to the idea of "social time" is with social and cultural foundations of the learner. In other words, a critical teaching of time requires that the learner think reflectively about how s/he remembers the past. This might involve thinking about history as a set of finite facts or as open to constant recreation from particular perspectives. Based on the themes presented by the Quest team, the Quests encourage the individual construction of time and the (re)creation of history within the discursive constraints of the Quest experiences as travel narrative, adventure, or fun.

Implications of time for educational multimedia design and evaluation. To begin thinking about time in relation to hypermedia learning, a critical question: "What is the relationship between the reader's experience of time and narrative's representation of time?" Because of its close relationship to memory and recall, time represents a central concept in learning. The ways that hypermedia represents time to learners, particularly in the ways that time is compressed (i.e., representing the passage of a long period in a small amount of clock time) and expanded (i.e., expressing a short period over a large amount of clock time) demand a particular level of reflection on the part of the designer to place the passage of time in relative context. Time that is represented through history may not be best represented as a singular linear progression of events, but instead as numerous intersecting, overlapping events that take on various meanings and multiple interpretations according to both the telling of history and the understanding of history.

An alternate perspective to the traditional "grand narratives" of historical recounting is the presentation of what Lyotard (1983) termed "petits recits," particularly how such "little narratives" participate in the consolidation and maintenance of the status quo. Understanding the temporal order and temporal frequency in narratives is also important when examining time. By looking at how the order of events can be arranged and rearranged in time can lead to motivating factors including surprise and clarity. Repetition, especially when it is coupled with variation, can help to reinforce complicated ideas.

Character and Characterization

Characters can be described as those actors (e.g., people, machines, animals, etc.) in a story that are associated with human qualities such as personality, motivation, and responsiveness to other characters or events in the narrative. When a character is tied to a genre, readers have expectations for how that character should act in particular interactions and situations. Characters can be major or minor depending on their textual prominence; they can be dynamic, if they undergo change; static, if they don't; and consistent when their actions and attributes do not result in contradictions, or inconsistent when a character's actions contradict predicted behaviors. Characters can be flat, predictable and endowed with few traits, or round and capable of surprising behavior that shows multiple levels of thought, emotion, and action. A foil is a character that serves as a complete contrast to another character, thereby setting the qualities of each in relief to each other. A narrative must find ways to make the characters interesting to the reader through attraction, surprise, identification, affiliation, repulsion, fear, or horror.

Characterization is the set of techniques resulting in the constitution of the character and can occur through description (direct characterization) and action (indirect characterization through deduction). Often characterizations are based on stereotypes, ideas people share about what various groups or categories of people are like. Stereotypes are metonyms and are used by authors to characterize people quickly. Stock characters are those that are recognized as particular types and are often associated with a particular narrative genre (e.g., the clever detective in a murder mystery).

The characters in the Quest experiences include students from the US, South America, Asia, and other world regions, their teachers, teachers continuing their own education, the Quest "team," the people they encounter along the way, including indigenous peoples and onsite anthropologists, the group of collaborating experts, and finally the historical figures such as Columbus and Darwin that anchor the progression of each Quest. Students act as both readers and characters in the online Quest because they both read the narrative progression and participate in and have some small degree of control over it as "online collaborators." By having some influence in the development of the plot, students can see themselves as characters possessing agency within the Quest.

The characters and characterization in the Quests are generally flat and static. No one (students or team members) appears to undergo any dramatic changes as a result of going through the Quest experience. The team members are enthusiastic about the adventure before and after the Quest. Not one team member become disillusioned with the experience enough to want to quit or become a dissenting voice about the goals of the Quest. The complications and crises faced by the team members usually come from the outside, generally in the form of difficulties with travel, and the team typically addressed this adversity with aplomb and courage.

Implications of character and characterization for educational multimedia design and evaluation. Through character and characterization, readers establish personal connections to the narrative and by extension, engage more with their learning. Compelling and socially and culturally diverse characters allow for the learner to make personal connections to the narrative while simultaneously avoiding fixing those characters into static and stereotypical figures whose only purpose is to propel the narrative. By understanding how the characters contribute to the learning narrative, designers can strike a balance between creating characters that complement the narrative's genre through anticipated behaviors but who are also able to engage in unexpected actions to create surprise and anticipation in order to build motivation.

Critical questions for designers to ask about characters and characterization include: (a) Can the learner be included as a character in the narrative? (b) Are characters simple and unchanging or do they evolve and change over time? (c) What does it mean for a character to change? (d) How can online learners as characters be constructed and developed to represent apprentices in learning? (e) Do characters reinforce stereotypes of race, class, ability, gender, ethnicity, ability, region, and profession? (f) What is the relationship between the language that a character uses and student perceptions of that character? (g) What is the relationship between the evolution of the characters and the development of the plot and story? Central to answering these questions is showing the relationship between the various narratives that make up the lives of students and the representation of the characters.

Point of View/Focalization

Whenever events are presented in a narrative they are presented from a particular perspective. Point of View (POV) or "focalization" describes the relationship between the agent in the narrative who sees, and that which is seen. Important in examining POV is noticing who tells the story, how much the storyteller knows about the plot and what happens in the minds of the other characters. Some narrative theorists (Bal, 1997) have found the concept of POV to be limiting as a way of explaining perspective because the focal position is not always derived from a character. Instead these theorists use the term "focalization," the term that is favored in this study.

Focalization or "focus of narration" addresses the position of narrative perception and is essential for the progress of the narration by determining the selection of the information to be conveyed to the reader (Bal, 1997). Narration is the plot's way of distributing the story information in order to move the characters through time, space, and episodes. The focal position is not always attached to a fictional character. "Zero focalization" describes an uncertain or distant focus of perception, which is often materialized through an authorial narrative with an omniscient "third person" narrator who possesses complete information about every aspect of the narrative. Through "internal focalization" the focus coincides with a character within the narrative. The insights derived from a character's thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are also called a "character focalizer." A character focalizer possesses selective omniscience with a limited field of perception. Multiple character focalizers may exist in a narrative. So called "external focalization" does not coincide with any fictional character and thus offers no insight into the thoughts and feelings of the characters; instead, an external or "objective" description is presented. Through "variable focalization" the focus alternates between internal and external focalization during the course of a narrative.

The online Quests are told mostly from the perspectives of the team members. Individual team members tell specific stories about particular flora and fauna, while the team leader typically provides the team update and the kid profile. These multiple character focalizers tend to be spoken from a personal perspective that captures the individual emotional reaction of the team member. Students are offered a vision of the Quest locale through the team members' experiences. Often what they see is mediated through the experts who give discipline-specific interpretations of the ruins, flora, fauna, terrain, and peoples encountered along the way. By the time the student receives the information, it is formed and structured for their consumption.

Implications of point of view/focalization for educational multimedia design and evaluation. Because focalization describes the perspective from which information is presented to the reader/learner, it represents a crucial characteristic of the perceived reliability of narrative information. As the computer screen increasingly becomes a window to experience, focalization is an important component for the designers of educational hypermedia who wish to promote critical reflection on online information (i.e., information literacy).

Some essential questions to ask when selecting the focalization of the narrative include: (a) Whose perspectives are highlighted in the narrative and whose are omitted? (b) What are the characters and the readers allowed to see? (c) Is the learner offered a different focalizer compared to the characters in the multimedia program or online experience? (d) To what extent can the student determine the point of focalization? (e) What forms of focalization are possible in an online learning narrative? (f) What learning goals and teaching strategies motivate the source of focalization? (g) What is the communicated and perceived reliability of the narrative focalizers?


Complications depict the introduction of oppositions, conflicts, and tensions into the narrative. As the plot proceeds, a narrow set of plot possibilities emerges based on the ways that characters respond to complications in the plot. The most common pattern of development in a plot in response to complications is a "change in knowledge" where a character learns something that facilitates the turning point of the plot.

Related to complication(s), the crisis (climax) marks the turning point of a narrative, the place in the narrative that forces the characters to make decisions that impact the final result of the narrative. The narrative generally ends by resolving the causal issues after experiencing a climax. The crisis suggests paths not taken by choice and paths that have been blocked and introduces uncertainty, thereby lifting the reader to a high degree of tension and suspense. Some narratives conclude with open endings that provide the opportunity to imagine what might have happened had the characters responded differently to the climax. A critical interpretation of a story's crisis/complication seeks to understand its relationship to crisis/complications that are meaningful and embedded within the social and cultural affiliations of the students. Crisis/complication present a compelling component to any narrative including the Quests.

Without the problems that befell the Quest teams, the students would have found it difficult to care about the team members. The complications in the Online Quests exist on two levels: those that are encountered by the team and those that are imposed on the students. The team must contend with the difficulties of traveling hundreds of miles on bicycles, including mechanical breakdowns and physical injuries. Students, on the other hand, must be provided with complications. This is accomplished through weekly problems that students are asked to solve in different curriculum areas including history (e.g., the weekly History Mystery), various physical sciences (e.g., the weekly "Science Stumper"), and language arts (e.g., "Write the Script"), all of which help to answer the complication posed by the goal of the quest (e.g., discover the fall of the Mayan civilization). In addition to these problems, each week presents several new "Mystery Photos" and "Mystery Sounds" that challenge students to identify animals, plants, artifacts, and other sights that the team has examined.

Implications of complication/crisis for educational multimedia design and evaluation. There is a close relationship between complication/crisis and one of the central components any effective learning experience, a good compelling question or problem. According to Merrill (2002), problem-centered instruction, as opposed to content-centered instruction, leads to active and engaged learning with the proper instructional guidance. Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson & Coulson (1992) note that a good problem challenges the learner to approach a thoughtful solution from different perspectives and with varied approaches. A problem is more likely to be engaging if it is ill-structured, (i.e., has multiple solutions, unclear goals, or incomplete information [Voss, 1988]) and is closely aligned with the social, cultural, and political conditions of the student's life.

Narrative theory is most helpful in presenting a framework for problems (i.e., crisis, complications) that are culturally relevant (i.e., authentic) to the lives of students. Questions about complication and crisis that come out of critical narrative theory include: (a) What information is provided to complicate the narrative? (b) How are students guided to make meaning from the complications? (c) What is the relationship (i.e., closely related, distant, etc.) between the narrative crisis and conflicts and the complications that are encountered in the lives of students? (d) What narrative paths are eliminated with the introduction of a complication or crisis? (e) How is crisis used to support the narrative (i.e., to propel the narrative, to create empathy for or dislike of characters)? (f) How do students understand the complexity of the crisis (i.e., too simple, too complex, developmentally appropriate, culturally relevant, educationally motivating)? (g) How does the crisis setup and transition to the ending and resolution of the narrative?

Resolution and Coda

The resolution of a narrative describes how the plot resolves after the climax. Some kind of new equilibrium is established between and within the characters. As Labov (1972) noted, the coda lets the reader know that the story is over and returns them back to their own time and place. The part of the narrative in which the mystery is solved or explained and loose ends are tied up is the "denouement" (i.e., "unknotting" in French). Some narratives end in closure when all questions raised by the narrative are answered, all themes are clarified, order returns to the characters and the setting of the story, while other narratives forsake closure in favor of questions, ambiguities, and contradictions. The ending of each Quest explicitly captures the resolution and coda of these narratives.

The Quests generally leave open some of the question(s) posed at the beginning and always focus on recounting the process and emotions of the journey. For example, the final report from Columbus Quest states, "We will never know for sure if we are right, but the excitement that we had trying to prove which theory was correct was awesome." (6) Each coda in the 10 Quests examined contained one or more of the following components: (a) a recalling/remembering/recap of the journey including a review of the lessons learned, (b) a statement about the remaining mysteries, (c) a summary of the hardships encountered by the team, (d) a retelling of the team's emotional state and feelings about the ending of the Quest, (e) a reiteration of the environmental concerns encountered by the team and still affecting the region, (f) a note about the contributions from some the participating classrooms, and (g) an announcement of the next Quest (a continuation of the serial structure of the Quests). In the end, students are returned to their own time and space by the team who congratulate the students for their contributions to the success of the Quest.

Implications of resolution and coda for educational multimedia design and evaluation. Resolution and coda are closely related to what Gagne (1985) called "Enhancing Retention and Transfer" and Merrill (2002) called "Integration." According to Merrill (2002) integration occurs when new knowledge or skill is integrated into the learner's everyday life. Central to this final phase of learning is setting the context for the learner to reflect on what s/he learned and the resolutions and solutions that s/he developed to solve the learning problems. Relating resolution and coda to the learning theories mentioned captures the notion of connecting the learning narrative to larger narratives in the lives of the reader.

Germane questions that relate to resolution and coda in learning narratives include: (a) What are the unresolved complications and crises in the students' lives? (b) What is the relationship between how the narrative resolves the crisis/complication and how students are able to resolve the complications in their own lives? (c) Are the resolution and narrative complex enough so that the learner is encouraged to reflect on the narrative? (d) How does the resolution and coda connect to the lives of the students? (e) How relevant is the narrative resolution to the initial problem/complication of the learning story?


Through an example, this section integrates the concepts and structures presented by a design framework that uses critical narrative analysis. Because the selection of narrative genre creates the foundation of a learning story and offers guidelines for characters, plot lines, focalization(s), constructions of space and time, complications, and resolutions, this example will draw upon a genre that would guide a more reflexive (i.e., reflective about online cultural representations) experience compared to those presented in the Quests. Native American narrative genres (e.g., legends, myths, folk tales) address many of the themes raised in the Online Quests including exploration, travel, hardship, and discovery, but offer a different approach to these themes.

A specific type of Native American narrative is the Coyote Story. While variations exist across Native American tribes, the Coyote is often a trickster character who creates crisis and complications by tricking and by being tricked while often pursuing selfish needs and desires that are frequently considered outside moral codes (Erdoes & Ortiz, 1984). Coyote exists in different forms in narrative genres across the world (e.g., jester, fool, and Loki in European traditions, Brer Rabbit in African American folklore, and the fox in Asian cultures). Coyote stories are used to illustrate cosmology, teach lessons to youth, convey history, and at times highlight tragedy. The Coyote (Hynes & Doty, 1993), who at times appears human and at others animal, has been described in various contexts as ambiguous, raunchy, scheming, heroic, stupid, humorous, deceitful, and wily (Bright, 1993).

Because the distinction between humans, plants, and animals is often blurred in Native American narratives such as the Coyote Stories, elements in nature are often constructed as complex characters rather than as objects of study and examination as in the Online Quests. This representation of space (i.e., space in nature) allows the reader to think about nature as a place in which there are tangible consequences as human and animal characters interact and a place that helps humans understand and shape their humanity rather than an object for their humanity to shape. Coyote provides unique kinds of focalization that challenge the reader to evaluate the veracity of the information coming from this character. Coyote tales often end with an ambiguous resolution; however, they create a space for the audience to reflect on the lessons learned by showing the consequences of Coyote's actions.

It is important to qualify the use of the example of a Native American narrative genre by noting that narrative genres from diverse cultures should not be superficially presented to students without historically and culturally situating them. Especially in cultures that have an expansionist and colonial history, it may be too easy for students to unreflectively map their own narrative genres onto new narratives that they encounter. Students should understand that narrative genres have histories, evolve over time, and pass along unique cultural information and values. Therefore, as online learners go beyond their physical borders and encounter multiple learning narratives in virtual spaces, interactions with new narratives can be framed historically as well as pedagogically. Juxtaposing familiar and unfamiliar genres can provide instructive moments to understand cultural difference as students construct curricular knowledge. While Coyote Stories are only one example, other narrative genres in African (e.g., Anansi the Spider tales [McDermott, 1972]), Latin (e.g., Magical Realism [Zamora & Faris, 1995]), and East Asian [e.g., Proverbs and Folktales (Ping-Chiu, Y. (1997)] cultures, among others throughout the world, can be used to ground the design of online learning stories.


Narrative theory offers numerous theoretical lenses (e.g., narrative structures, narrative/narrator relationships) through which to design and analyze online learning narratives. This study of the Classroom Connect Quest experiences provides an example for thinking about framing electronic learning environments with narrative theory. One of the primary material benefits of a multidisciplinary approach that uses critical narrative theory as the foundation for educational media design and analysis is the ability to mesh learning theories and systematic instructional design approaches with cultural theories of pedagogy that address the relationships between the intersections of race, class, gender, ethnicity, geography, profession, and nation with learning. Understanding the implications of the message(s) conveyed by the images and structures of web-based educational programs is becoming increasingly vital in educational environments where manifold social positions influence the learning process at multiple access points (e.g., real world vs. virtual). The stories that are told within these intersections directly relate to the reception contexts and interpretation of online learning narratives.

While narratology offers numerous productive categories and design components for thinking across learning outcomes, instructional strategies, and culture, it must be stressed that the purpose of this study is not to develop a closed and static design language, but instead to outline a framework for a descriptive and heuristic discourse that allows hypermedia designers and evaluators a framework to address learning in relation to culturally grounded stories of diverse learners. When using narrative theory to guide thethe design of hypermediated learning experiences, it is crucial to remember that narrative structures are not static. They evolve over time as social, cultural, historical, and technical factors (e.g., media convergence) emerge, morph, dissipate, and merge.
Table 1

Summary of Classroom Connect Quests (1998-2002)

Quest Goal

Maya Quest-Spring, 2001 Uncover the reason for the collapse of
 the ancient Maya civilization

Asia Quest - Fall, 1999 Determine if Marco Polo really traveled
 along the Great Silk Road

Galapagos Quest - Spring, 1999 Retrace the 1835 journey of Charles

America Quest - Spring, 2000 Discover the reason the Anasazi
 abandoned the Colorado Plateau

Africa Quest - Fall, 1998 Explore the mysteries of origin and
 extinction in Africa

Columbus Quest - Fall, 2002 Locate where Columbus first set foot in
 the New World

Amazon Quest - Fall, 2001 Explore the future of the Amazon River

Island Quest - Spring, 2000 Search for the source of human longevity
 in Okinawa and Yakushima Japan

Australia Quest - Fall, 2000 Investigate the mystery of Aboriginal

Greece Quest - Spring, 2002 Explore the foundations of Western

Table 2

Reoccurring Components of Quests

Quest Component Description

Team/Dan's Dilemma Moral and ethical predicaments that the team
 faces often center around how the team
 interacts with the local environment and

Team Update Regular reports of the team's progress

Christina's/Quest Critters A feature of an indigenous animal in the
 region of the Quest

Mystery Photo/Sound A picture or sound that students are asked
 to identify

Kid's Profile A short biography of a child from the region
 of the Quest

Quest Map Geographic map showing location of the

Gross and Disgusting Feature of something unpleasant the team
 encounters often focusing on food, injuries,

Set the course Students determine the team's destination
 for the next day through an online vote

Write the Script Students write the script for a video
 produced by the team that is related to the

Table 3

Narrative structures used for analysis

 Narrative Structures

Genre Time Complication

Story, Plot, Subplot Character & Crisis

Space, Place, and Setting Point of Resolution and Coda
 View / Focalization



(2.) Classroom Connect ( is a division of Harcourt, Inc.






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Author:Voithofer, Rick
Publication:Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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