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Turning online education into a heroic journey

Text that reads: I think you need to adapt your teaching strategies to the medium through which you teach.

For university students – especially mature students – an educational path is rarely linear, and more typically it’s long and challenging. Usually, some resilience is required.

With those ideas in mind, Gordon Lester and UofGH Early Childhood Studies Program Head Dr. Nikki Martyn began developing an ECS and FCSS English course in the University of Guelph-Humber’s new E-campus that doubles as a story, illustrated with charming retro video-game graphics.

Inspired in part by epic pixelated adventures as well as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (also known as the hero’s journey), the course resembles a classic video game. Students set out on an arduous journey that mirrors the research and writing process every step of the way, along with its trials and challenges.

“It’s an online course but we wanted it to be a bit more engaging,” Lester explained.

“I think you need to adapt your teaching strategies to the medium through which you teach.”

To reinforce resilience as a crucial component in education, the heroines and heroes of this quest go through a series of trials before a climactic showdown with – spoiler alert – a ferocious dragon.

Different locations along the journey represent different elements of the writing process, including research, drafting, peer review and, at the end, the final essay.

“I’m trying to emphasize the process,” Lester said.

Text that reads: On a hero's quest, the hero or heroine never succeeds by him or herself. It's always a collaborative effort."

Along the way, the characters have conversations with important historical figures to align with lessons from the class. One unit has students mingling with Karl Marx at a hotel café, while their journeys also include brushes with bell hooks, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

“On a hero’s quest, the hero or heroine never succeeds by him or herself,” Lester said. “It’s always a collaborative effort. So conversation and collaboration is an important part of this course.”

Lester hopes that the unique presentation of the course helps students to remember some of its core concepts. Although he said that in the past he has taken pride in being creative with essay topics and readings, this is the first time he has taken this particular approach.

Beyond the embedded lessons about the spirit of education, the format also just seemed perfectly suited for distance learners who will be interacting with the course material online.

For Lester, it’s been an illuminating experience as well.

“I typically don’t think of university courses as stories, but after doing this, I might actually,” he said “In a classroom, you can see when the students get it; you can see it in their eyes and you can see it in their reactions, but it’s not the same way online. So I think as an instructor you need to put a little bit more effort into hooking them.”