Captivating Learning: Storyboarding

It’s midnight and you are in front of your TV. You’ve just checked your phone and you have a busy day tomorrow. You should go off to bed. But you stay and watch the next episode of the new drama you started following this evening. Why?

Someone went before, planned and piloted to keep you hooked. They worked out how to pull in millions like you. Maybe there are ‘cliff-hangers’ or intrigue (oh what next?), powerful characters and themes? Perhaps the storyline taps into your own experience or hopes or dreams in some way and feels authentic and relevant to you.

Of course, I know there are risks to “binge watching”. But before you condemn…

What if you could capture that positive connectedness and desire to continue, in your education courses?

In academia, courses are usually planned by an individual writing a hugely detailed document. My research and practice demonstrate that there is a better way. Storyboards are a simpler and more agile process (you can more easily write the documents later if you must). They deconstruct the action and lay out a visual representation. They sketch out how the tale will unfold. Storyboarding is a seminal technique – it started with Walt Disney enabling animators to draw sequences and stick, them up on their office walls, work and rework them together. Storyboarding went on to underpin all movie making, and now box sets and series.

Storyboards are best done in a fast-paced collaborative environment with others. Seek those with like-minded and similar knowledge to yours and those from different disciplines and professions too if possible. Use everyone’s strengths and interests. Set them free. They will surprise you and add huge value to the whole.  

You don’t need much. A few good brains. Maybe a wall, and some nice coloured sticky notes. During the pandemic, I worked on converting from location-based walls to entirely digital collaboration. With my small team and worldwide participants, we used an online collaboration platform (MIRO) and have created hundreds of storyboards this way. Digital storyboarding is accessible, fast, low cost, lean, practical, fun, future-proofed and it works!

Where to begin? Start with the end in mind! 

You’ll need a design brief. To get one, investigate the future of the graduate of your programme and surface your threshold knowledge and skills.  Work out how your students’ will make the biggest jumps that make up vital moments. For Disney, it was Pinocchio’s frequent tendency to lie, which caused his nose to grow, or Cinderella’s slipper confirming her identity.  Yours might be to ensure your learners are prepared for future developments, in your discipline or profession.  Hone in on tackling the ‘difficult bits’ to make the most difference.

Next, it’s super hands on!  

Develop a BIG timeline – physical or electronic. Now start to add all the components. Scaffold and plan your topics but most of all  what your students will DO and how. An early sketch is fine. Nothing is fixed yet. Just the minimum amount of information needed. Keep it dynamic.  Move things around. Express your expertise, as the teacher.  Let yourself be disruptive and creative.  Shoot at the active, engaged, committed involvement of your learners to achieve their success.  Go on, empower yourself.

Draw out your ‘narratives’…

… And frame them in the wider world in which your learning story is set. That turns into your learning scaffold. How do you want people to feel about it?  How will you stage it to present it in the best possible way? Make choices of learning techniques and technologies, synchronous and asynchronous, location based or mobile? Of course, there will be some boundaries; lay out the  length of your course calendar and  explore of the  key currency: students’ study hours.   

Layer your characters, synchronous and asynchronous components, on and offline and massive opportunities for feedback of all kinds. Where are the key ‘turning points’ in the drama’? Could you possibly have your own little ‘cliff-hangers’? Can you create mini storylines by looking back in your discipline or profession and then explore insight and foresight in our future uncertain world? Who or what are the key controversies and characters? Expose your students to them – get them to explore for themselves, where they ‘stand’! Make it super relevant to your learners for sure, for now, for their futures! Then re-order the elements in a sequence, try out combinations of ideas. 

List your absolute ‘must-haves’…

… A fixed point for assessment? When will you introduce a key threshold concept? When does the action change?  Where are the clues to what happened previously (published research, seminal aspects’ ) but especially what might happen next? Highlight controversies and choices. Provide authentic links to the future world of work or further study.

Then look at the whole

… Is this working, can you improve, does the learning journey lead to meeting the design brief and your  intended outcomes. Is each activity purposeful and contributing to the flow and the overall intentions?  

Make the storyboard highly visible to all throughout the processes to maximise contributions. Don’t shirk any suggestions (but just smile if anyone says, ‘Well we’ve always done it this way’). It’s a new proven technique, you say. You are all both developing and editing as you go along.

It’s your trial run. Stand back and BE DISNEY. ‘Walk’ through the learning journey yourself. Ask a student in to run through and give feedback. Or a colleague (be brave!). Make changes and improvements.

Step back again and admire – you have a blueprint– something that now can be built ready for students to engage. Students will be hooked, retained, successful. Worth staying up an hour or so to achieve? You will find that what you have created is nothing less than an optimum pedagogical process. Its highly visible so quality checks are easier. It’ll be sustainable and scalable… you can design once and deliver many times.

Here’s one example: a brief introductory course to assist undergraduates to prepare for their end of course dissertation.

Use your blueprint

Successful boards massively speed up the production of the online or blended course.  Now use your draft storyboard to transfer and communicate to others who might help you ‘produce’: your own animators, media producers, learning technologists and subject librarians. Or do it yourself using your Learning Management system functions. And explain and engage the tutors who will deliver the human element of the learning.  

You’ll have super quality for your learning. It will cut out a lot of unnecessary work and avoid holding up the ‘production’ of the course.  It’ll make your education distinctive, relevant, and special. Your students will want to engage, again and again.  

Build, build, build

Be ready for your students to be captivated and want more. Disney did it – so can you!  

Written for OEB21 by Gilly Salmon. Make sure to save your seat at her Pre-Conference Workshop on Wednesday, December 1: Storyboarding for Successful Student-centred Online Learning.

Please find more information about Prof Gilly Salmon and her work at: and at

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