Narrative learning environments

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Draft 1

Editor: Giuliana Dettori, Institute for Educational Technology, CNR, Genoa, Italy


A Narrative Learning Environment (NLE) is a learning environment involving its user(s) in ICT-mediated activities where narratives (i.e., stories or narrations) related to the proposed cognitive task play a central role in facilitating learning.

In this definition, the emphasis on activity excludes story-based tutorials from NLEs, since this type of tutorials does not involve learners in any activity apart from reading. Analogously, the emphasis on the connection of narrative and cognitive task leads to exclude from NLEs all learning environments which only use stories as appealing backgrounds for unrelated problem solving activity, with the aim to raise extrinsic motivation but without exploiting the learning potential of narrative.

An Interactive NLE is an AI-based NLE which allows the joint construction of stories by the user and the system.

Comments on the history

The expression Narrative Learning Environment was created in the 90s within the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), to name learning environments where stories, interactively created by user and software, had a central role in facilitating learning. Afterwards, the widespread interest raised by the educational potential of narrative led this expression to be used to name a variety of learning environments based on different kinds of technology, which share with the original NLEs a similar use of narrative-based activities to support learning (Dettori & Paiva, 2009, p. 58).

AI-based NLEs are technological constructions, with all the necessary components packaged in them (assignment of task-related narrative activities, pedagogical approach, selection of suitable technological tools to represent stories, support dialogues and play artificial characters). On the other hand, NLEs based on Educational Design, Multimedia or web 2.0 technology do not consist of single programs but are conceptual constructions in which widely-available technological tools (such as multimedia editors and communication technologies) facilitate the execution of learning-related narrative tasks. Tasks need to be defined by teachers or educational designers. Together with a pedagogical approach, they are apt to foster the achievement of the expected learning. These NLEs allow the level of interactivity afforded by the technological tools employed, such as hypermedia navigation and communication with networked users, but can not support joint story construction by user and software; for this reason, they are not considered interactive, even though the learner actually interacts with a story and with other learners.

Related terms


Narrative-centred learning environments, Story-based learning environments

Other related terms

Interactive narrative learning environment, narrative learning.

Translation issues


Disciplinary issues

NLEs may be mediating tools for the development of narrative competence, as well as mediators for the development of other kinds of competence, both subject-related (linguistic expression in foreign or mother language, history, science, etc.), or soft skills (decision making, relational behaviour in critical conditions, etc.). In either case, cognitively relevant skills are also put into play, such as creativity, understanding, communication, awareness of logical constraints, negotiation with peers, memory. This multiple influence on learning is not surprising since narrative is a cultural artefact mediating learners' action, and it is typical of mediated action to have several simultaneous goals (Wertsch, 1998, p. 25).

The term "narrative" is often improperly used to mean non-technical or non-pictorial discourse, instead of a "sequence of events, mental states, happenings" interrelated with each other (Bruner, 1990, p.43). A wide-angle, generic, use of this term voids of meaning the use of narrative in education, missing to exploit its learning potential, which derives from the fact that story elements constitute, all together, a whole from which each of them takes meaning (Bruner, 2003; Ricoeur, 2005). This allows people interacting with a narrative to infer more than what is explicitly reported, and hence to engage in an instinctive meaning-construction process. Narrative communicates ideas in a holistic way, which grants it the potential to convey rich and complex messages in simple form. For this reason, stories are considered the prime means by which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality, cause-effect and personal actions (Polkinghorne, 1988).

Key references

[1] Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[2] Bruner, J. (2003). Making Stories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Dettori, G., & Paiva, A. (2009). Narrative Learning in technology-enhanced environments. In S. Ludvigsen, N. Balacheff, T. de Jong, A. Lazonder and S. Barnes (Eds.), Technology-enhanced learning: Principles and products (pp. 55-69). Berlin: Springer.

[4] Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. New York, NY: State University of New York Press.

[5] Ricoeur, P. (2005). Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Edited and translated by J. B. Thompson, 17th edition. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 216p.