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Only connect – why narrative is even more important when teaching remotely

While we find ourselves in an online world, Graham Holden reflects on how we can use use narrative to help students navigate their learning activities, see the path ahead and trust in us that we’ll reach the final destination together.

Recently I took a virtual walk through some pictures I took a few weeks ago on my last walk in the Peak District. A reminder of the beautiful area I live in and a glimmer of hope to a return to more normal times. I took a path, the one you can see in the picture below, as I made my way to Stanedge Pole.

Looking at this photo – the way the stones connected and led me towards my intended (but out of sight) goal – I was struck by the memory of a blog I wrote last year.

This was my first piece for Invisible Grail, and it was about how a narrative in learning and teaching helps guide students to understand how different learning activities connect together, creating a pathway for learning.

Now, as we pivot to teaching remotely, how do we make sure that our students can still see the path and understand the narrative?

Even though the way we are teaching is different, it’s critical to support students to see the purpose behind each activity and how they connect together. In turn, this will help create bridges from one interaction to another, and enable more effective engagement and learning.

Narrative is powerful. It promotes a shared understanding of purpose and direction”

Some might say that when we’ve so much to do to transform and adapt our teaching to the virtual world, this is a nice to have. But narrative is powerful. It promotes a shared understanding of purpose and direction, fostering a sense of connection with learning and encouraging engagement. Without it we risk our students feeling disconnected with what they are being asked to do. The outcome of not doing this might be intangible at first, but it will impact on student attainment and for some students, it may mean that they will leave their studies. Risks set out clearly in a compelling HEPI blog by Prof Sir Chris Husbands and Natalie Day at Sheffield Hallam University.

So what can we do to address this?

Steve Wheeler’s recent blog on overcoming feelings of loneliness and disconnect in distance education advises us that, ‘social presence is a deciding factor in whether students persist in their remote studies, or whether they give up’. By using this social presence – to explain to our students why we are asking them to do something, describing how it connects to previous and future activities, and engaging in dialogue about their learning from it – we establish a narrative, fostering connections and supporting student success. 

So to find our footing and translate a teaching and learning narrative to the virtual world, let’s start the conversation with students about where the path leads to, and work our way back from there.

By Graham Holden

Graham is a Client Relationship Director at Invisible Grail. An experienced leader and academic, Graham is passionate about higher education and how it transforms lives. With over thirty years of experience, Graham has led the design and delivery of transformational programmes that make a difference.

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