Should I use a linear narrative structure for my online course?

6 min readFeb 20, 2021

Linear narrative structures are the most widely used and accepted online course format. When instructors use linear narratives, they deliver teaching content with a clear beginning, middle and end. Course linearity seems like a good choice for an instructor looking to create an online course — but what are the benefits and drawbacks?

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Have you ever gotten so engrossed in a movie that you lost track of time and even forget where you were? Researchers refer to this experience as narrative transportation. They describe it as a “detachment” from reality, as though one is being whisked away into a foreign land.

People who experience narrative transportation express a sense of psychological vulnerability. They become more amenable to persuasion. They are open to shifting beliefs on a particular issue to reflect the world in a story they have come across. As a result, narrative transportation can become a powerful tool for belief change.

Recently, Dr Anna-Lisa Cohen looked at narrative transportation with linear and non-linear narratives. In this study, she showed participants one of two versions of a short movie with the scenes either:

  • presented out of order; or
  • presented in order.

During the viewing, participants had a task to complete. The subjects who viewed the intact version of the film struggled to stay interested in the task at hand. In contrast, the subjects watching the scrambled version performed much better. This is because they stopped trying to figure out the movie’s story and focused on the task.

The results illustrate our innate preference for linear narratives. We even see our own lives as a series of actions, causes, and effects that together form an ongoing story.

Yet, within a learning context, things can be different. The audience might not only maintain an interest in a course because of its linear structure. As discussed previously, learners need transformation and view online courses as their shortcut.

Types of linear narrative structure

As discussed previously, most online courses follow the Student-Technology paradigm. We can build on this idea by introducing two course narrative structures:

  • Passive linear structures, wherein the delivery of course content is one-sided. The instructor delivers their teaching content in a seemingly unstoppable fashion. The learner cannot intervene during content delivery. The learner cannot shift their focus to minor details that look interesting to them. As a result, this experience can resemble a river in a flood that overwhelms the learner.
  • Interactive linear structures, wherein the delivery of the course content is two-sided. The learner can interact with the content and choose the narrative rhythm.

Passive linear structures

A passive linear narrative structure works best with courses packaged in an audio-visual format. In this format, the learner cannot alter how the instructor delivers the content. The only point of interaction on the learner’s side is to stop, rewind, or fast-forward the course.

This narrative style offers the most straightforward route of creating a course. But it is also the crudest implementation of the Student-Technology paradigm. On content delivery, it is very much in the mode of the traditional printed textbook. Packaging the content for the Internet age affords it a second glance by learners.

Learners on a course created with this narrative style are in a one-way relationship. This narrative style cannot accommodate various learning levels. Novice, intermediate, and advanced learners begin and proceed on the same path. Yet, more advanced learners might work through the materials a lot quicker.

An instructor using this narrative style must ensure their content inspires a response. Techniques such as narrative transportation can help them achieve this. They introduce scope for further discussion post-course completion. If implemented well, learners will discuss the course in offline and online settings. They will share their personal opinions and underline details that impressed them. But this will only happen if the instructor’s content sparks a passion for the subject.

So what can instructors do to evoke a response from learners when using this narrative style? Well, they need to consider the human ego when creating their course content. Learners, by instinct, want to be at the centre of the teaching experience. The instructor may not permit them to interact with the content while they deliver it. But the content must spark a follow-up conversation in an online and offline context.

Two authors who understood this mechanism very well were David Lynch and Mark Frost. Their show, Twin Peaks, kept viewers glued for two-and-a-half years. It’s dreamlike puzzle prompted viewers to interact amongst themselves and share countless theories. From this point of view, online courses are very different. But we still have to see online courses as vehicles for transformation. Learners must be able to find contact points between the content and themselves.

Interactive linear structures

An interactive linear structure allows a learner to pick the order in which they go through a course. If there are two parallel course paths active, the learner can decide which one to complete first.

But, as much as the learner feels free, the lesson is going exactly how the instructor meant it to. It feels as if the instructor has taken the course and split it into many pieces. Following this, the learner has the responsibility of putting everything together. It is not common to see learning materials like this, as instructors find them hard to put together. Each unit of course content must coexist without contradicting or hindering each other.

The game, Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, demonstrates this mechanism very well. The player experiences the game’s story through flashbacks. It is then up to them to decide which parts of the game they want to handle first. It is hard to create an online course like this. An instructor might have to entrust their completed work to a tester, to ensure that the course content is consistent.

Should I be using a linear narrative structure for my course?

Most platforms will compel an instructor to create a linear online course. Learners are comfortable with this format. They expect their learning experience to have a beginning, middle, and end. They expect their learning experience to progress in a “straight line”. To be successful, instructors must know how to create online courses with intention. This means producing content that can be powerful in capturing attention and influencing change.

There is often little scope to add interactivity to an online course. Course creation platforms offer “in-the-moment” decisions such as quizzes. Here, the only difference between one learning experience and another is strategy. The lesson starts in a straight narrative line — but then splits into a web that learners can tackle how they see fit.

In either case, we cannot understate the importance of narrative transportation. Non-narratives might reduce learner engagement with course content. But a well constructed and involving narrative can provide incentives for learners which drive positive results.


Cohen, A., Shavalian, E. and Rube, M., 2015. The Power of the Picture: How Narrative Film Captures Attention and Disrupts Goal Pursuit. PLOS ONE, 10(12), p.e0144493.

Niemand, A., 2018. Help the audience to enter the world of the story through narrative transportation. [online] Medium. Available at: [Accessed 1 January 2021].

Lu, A., Baranowski, T., Thompson, D. and Buday, R., 2012. Story Immersion of Videogames for Youth Health Promotion: A Review of Literature. Games for Health Journal, 1(3), pp.199–204.

Kim, C., 2010. Designing for Learning: Multiplayer Digital Game Learning Environments. UC Berkeley. Retrieved from

Sciutteri, M., 2018. Interactive Storytelling: Linear Storytelling. [online] Envato Tuts+. Available at:—cms-30273 [Accessed 1 January 2021].




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