Narrative, in the form of stories and narrations, is a natural mode of communication and expression, familiar to children from a very early age and frequently used also by adults. For this reason, it has often been informally employed, both in and outside school, to facilitate understanding and raise learners’ interest, therefore supporting learning in both its cognitive and motivational aspects. For a long time, however, narrative was not an object of interest for the educational research. Its first systematic analyses were worked out within humanities studies, characterizing it in several different ways. Some of such definitions already highlight characteristics that appear crucial for its use in education. Ricoeur (1981), for instance, describes it as a sequence of events connected with each other by cause-effect relations supporting the construction of a meaningful totality out of a set of scattered events.
The expression NLE was created over a decade ago within the field of artificial intelligence (AI) to indicate interactive environments basing their learning potential on the use of stories. It is not surprising that the concept of NLE first arose in the AI field since this has a long-time tradition as concerns attention to narrative, from early attempts to make computers understand and generate stories in natural language up to the more recent interest to interactive storytelling environments, where the users can actively contribute to the creation of computer-generated stories (Mateas & Senger, 1999).
Due to the increasingly widespread interest for narrative, the concept of NLE has successively widened its boundaries to include learning environments of other kinds, originated from research in education-related fields, such as multimedia and instructional design. Multimedia studies gave rise to editors oriented to the construction of stories, as well as to hypermedia environments where a meaningful background story guides the content fruition. Studies in instructional design, on the other hand, influenced the realization of environments including some relevant narrative activity carried out with the use of general-purpose technological tools. The result of such variety of approaches is that currently a very diverse set of learning environments can go under the name of NLEs. Though differing as concerns appearance and mode of use, all of them share the conceptual similarity to support learning by letting the users engage in some narrative-based activity. This fact allows the definition of a unitary framework to analyze their educational impact, as will be explained in the next sections.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Technology Enhanced Learning Environment (TELE): This term refers to learning environments where ICT tools are used to support and facilitate learning. Technology, however, is not the focus of the learning process, nor is it all a student needs to learn in such environments. The TELE is rather a scenario comprising learning objectives, tasks, learning materials, tutors, teachers, other students and technology. In this scenario learners can play an active role in their own learning process.
Narrative Learning Environments (NLE): These are learning environments where the user gets engaged in some learning activity in which a story plays a central role to facilitate learning. In such environments, a story can be given to the learners or be constructed by them. In the first case, the given story helps the learners build an overall mental picture of a problem situation, highlighting the role and relation of the different data involved. In the second case, the construction of a story by the learners aims to facilitate the acquisition of some competence, e.g. expression abilities, in mother tongue or in a foreign language, various subject matters and soft skills. A variety of ICT tools can be used in NLEs to amplify the learning potential of stories, by speeding up their creation or facilitating their fruition. Such tools can range from general-purpose software (like email) to weakly specialized one (like narrative editors), and up to very specialized one (like conversational and autonomous agents).
Narrative Editors: These are multimedia editors explicitly (and, often, exclusively) oriented to the creation of stories made of a sequence of pictures or scenes completed by textual (written or spoken) parts, as in cartoon strips and movies. To facilitate story construction, such editors provide collections of predefined backgrounds, characters, props, speech bubbles and often also voice recording and animation functions.
Autonomous Agents: These are Artificial Intelligence procedures having internal goals to achieve and able to make decisions on the actions to execute, without direct human intervention. They are typically used to implement virtual characters in interactive narrative learning environments.
Narrative: This word is used in the educational field to mean stories and narrations. Narrative is currently recognized as a valid support to learning in both its cognitive and motivational aspects, in the wake of the work of Bruner, which highlighted its cognitive value as sense-making device and its motivational potential raising from the fact that it is a natural form of expression and communication among people of all ages and all cultures.