Dr. Andrea Backman, Chief Academic Officer and Provost, Strayer University
Do you ever wonder why you’re more interested in Trevor Noah’s explanation of historical events than your history professor’s lecture? The answer is pretty simple. Trevor Noah tells us a story. As social creatures, we crave stories. Stories help us make meaning out of information. They allow us to feel empathy for others. In short, stories make us human. And they are also the oldest form of learning.
Like all institutions of higher learning, Strayer University is faced with the age-old question: “how do we get our students to care?” This has always been a challenge in a traditional classroom. Today, it’s even harder in an online setting where distractions abound. We have to compete for our students’ attention with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook—to name only the most obvious distractions. In this kind of digital landscape, the badly lit video lecture just doesn’t cut it. It goes against human nature—and can make students dread returning to their virtual classrooms.
Then we got an idea. If Americans spend an average of ten hours a day consuming media— including plenty of hours binge-watching—why can’t we make great academic content that will grab our students’ attention?
What if we “Netflix’d” Strayer University course content and brought the power of storytelling into our online classes?
Enter Strayer Studios, an in-house production studio where Emmy Award-winning filmmakers and learning designers work together to create story-driven learning experience that keeps our students engaged. Rather than listening to a lecture recording or watching PowerPoint slides, students watch stories and learn from real people—including some celebrities—and see the academic concepts come to life in the real-world.
Our instructors have incorporated stories from people like Ron Finley into their classes. His story of urban gardening and access to fresh produce helped a sociology class explore the implications of inequality and community activism.
Actress, comedian, and author Kim Coles teaches students about personal essay writing through the lens of her own career. She honed her writing skills as a stand-up comedian and later went on the write her own book. Coles draws on her book writing experience to share helpful tips with our English classes—and her story has ultimately contributed to greater student engagement.
And soon, students will have the opportunity to learn from self-made entrepreneur, rapper, and actress Queen Latifah about the resilience, motivation, and confidence needed in any career.
Our experiment in “Netflix-ing” education is working, resulting in improved student outcomes. We saw a 6.3 percent increase in engagement through submitted coursework, a 10 percent decrease in dropped courses and student persistence to the next quarter increase by 5.5 percent.
In other words, more students are engaging with their coursework and are progressing toward completing their degrees—a huge win.
At a time when more students are enrolled in online-only coursework, we knew the high stakes for getting—and keeping—students engaged. One study of online students at another institution of higher education noted that the GPAs of students who took online courses lagged compared to those of their in-class-only peers. Closing this gap demand that we adapt and evolve. Strayer Studios is a step in the right direction.
Of course, our initiative is just one example of how storytelling can create more engaging—and effective—courses. Whether someone is hoping to shift careers, finish a bachelor’s degree, or earn an MBA, online learning can meet learners where they are. As educators, we need to adapt to the changing world to best engage our students. Compelling storytelling has the power to do that.
With the demand for, and promise of, online learning growing every day, we as educators and administrators have a responsibility to identify solutions that draw-in students, ignite their interests and help them succeed—both academically and professionally. Universities and colleges need to meet their student base half way, and combining the power of storytelling with cutting-edge technology is just one way to do that.
Plain and simple, better course content leads to better outcomes. Though online learning is new-age, we’re harnessing the enduring power of stories to make sure our students succeed.