EDL 396A—The Leadership Challenge and Social Change

EDL 396A—The Leadership Challenge and Social Change

We didn’t enter into the process of developing EDL 396A – The Leadership Challenge and EDL 396A – Social Change with any grand plans to design these courses around the hero’s journey. Rather, given the nature of the learning content and its emphasis on individuals embarking on a journey to affect positive social change, we knew that the courses would need to be highly personalized by students and create a strong sense of learner autonomy. Taking this approach, we discovered that the courses perfectly complemented the framework of the hero’s journey.

Social Change Model of Leadership

Originally designed as a way to develop students’ understanding of their unique skills and talents and subsequently motivate them to apply those skills in acts of service, the Social Change Model of Leadership has been taught within and beyond the classroom as a way to facilitate positive change on the local, national and global level. The University of Arizona had long offered two courses on the Social Change Model to its main campus population, and in Fall of 2014, began work to expand this curriculum to the newly formed fully-online campus.

Building the Course

Weaving narrative structure into online course design can serve as a compelling force in supporting student engagement and persistence in meeting articulated learning outcomes. But how do you leverage effective practices and technology in order to actually make it happen?

The assignments in both courses were designed to support the social construction of knowledge, with a series of reflections, collaborative projects and mini-cohorts bonded by self-selected course themes. In that the student was identified as the primary player in the narrative that was the course, narrative in online course design paired effortlessly with the constructivist environment that the instructors sought to create. In the initiation phase of The Hero’s Journey, the epic hero collaborates with allies to prepare for the challenge ahead. In the same way, the students became a part of a community of inquiry, where the class worked together to solve shared challenges. The responsibility for the collection of knowledge was shared and social, while the final deliverables were unique to each student and highly personalized. Every student worked with their allies to create their own solution to a larger problem posed by the instructor.

Additionally, students were asked to share their perspectives and changing perceptions as they negotiated challenging topics on their personal role in performing service. In a meta design stroke, these courses wove narrative into each assignment with ease. A great example of this was the use of elements of the hero’s journey in the creation of digital storytelling project. The creation of the story, itself, became the challenge, with the students researching and documenting elements of an external narrative, while simultaneously completing the tasks of the larger course narrative that they themselves were a part of.

Course Technology

Easily one of the most powerful tools for supporting personalized learning, adaptive courseware allows instructors the ability to create computer-based branched scenarios that give the learner agency over their path through the curriculum. These courses used Articulate Storyline to create stunning, interactive learning content, as well as pull data from the students’ interactions with the content, and map that work to assessments in an LMS.

Additionally, with such gameful principles as leveling up and branched pathways for learning, badging principles work well in the design of narrative structures. Purdue Passport was originally used in conjunction with our LMS for its LTI integration. However, the work on the creation of the badging framework was the true accomplishment. Having a strong plan for the badges and how they were tied to assessments made the lesson planning evergreen and agnostic of system.

Students engaged in multiple ways throughout the course, but none stronger than in their usage of VoiceThread. Using the visual discussion board tool, students reflected and commented on their progress through their journey. Additionally, they used the video upload feature to display their work for group critiques and collaborative assessments.

Connections to Narrative Structure

Regardless of whether you are currently using a particular educational method or effective practice, or are looking to reap the benefits of weaving narrative into your newly created course design, modeling a course after the Hero’s Journey has the added benefit of furthering several established methods for increasing student engagement.

The elements of a narrative can be mapped to the structure of an online course as a means of centering the learning experience on the student. The action of a student moving through the learning content becomes the student’s journey. The student then assumes the role as the “protagonist” of the course, and the work they produce serves as a series the thematic elements making up the overarching course narrative. The student is empowered by this call to action, thus becoming an “epic hero” of the online course. In the case of the two educational leadership courses, students were given choice over the badges that they could complete, the themes that they would use to weave their projects together, and the order in which they would complete the various requirements of the course.

These courses demonstrated that the connection between student as epic hero is not a far flung idea in any way. The individual learner, when placed into the role of epic hero, must embrace such 21st century skills as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and innovation. Students meet defined curricular outcomes just as the hero obtains a goal upon completion of their journey. Beyond all else, the student engages with the material in a way that is deeply personalized, fostering both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation throughout the course.

In addition to serving as the thematic backbone of the courses, the elements of the Hero’s Journey are closely aligned to such methodologies as constructivism, communities of inquiry, service learning and differentiated learning. Additionally, such technologically-friendly effective practices as digital badging, adaptive learning and digital storytelling were all applied to these courses, following in form with the narrative structure.


Based on this approach, we want to hear your thoughts:

  • How might you incorporate narrative or the Hero’s Journey in your course design? How would you apply it at the assignment, module or course level?
  • What are some of the benefits of using narrative structure or the Hero’s Journey in your course?
  • What are some technological tools that could be used to support narrative in the design of your online course?


Komives, S. R., & Wagner, W. (Eds.). (2016). Leadership for a better world: Understanding the social change model of leadership development. John Wiley & Sons.

Angela Gunder
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