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Interactive Story-Based Learning Environments

Contemporary computer-based education and training systems are effective to the degree in which they can incorporate four complimentary design characteristics. Systems should support situated learning by presenting learners with situations that mirror the contexts in which their acquired skills will be executed. The acquisition of these skills is more effective when learners are given one-on-one guided instruction from an experienced tutor. Multimedia presentation can help people learn certain types of information, particularly when they encourage dual coding of the information, when the media support one another, and when learners have low prior knowledge or aptitude for the subject matter. Finally, educational experiences should be set in a rich narrative environment, supporting the learner’s retention of educational experiences as remembered stories. The adoption of these four design characteristics has become nearly universal in the development of immersive learning environments, as in each of the systems described earlier in section 2. Unfortunately, the development costs (time and money) of these systems are also universally enormous, typically including the labor of computer programmers, scriptwriters, 3D graphic artists, animators, voice talent, and sound engineers. In our own research, we explored the opposite extreme of this design space: what is the minimal-cost design for computer-based education that supports situated learning and guided instruction in a multimedia narrative environment?

Our design solution is a web-based application called Fourth Frame Forums, which combines traditional four-frame comic strips with online web-based discussion forums [Gordon, 06]. In this application, users are presented with a four-frame comic strip that depicts a fictional problem scenario, where the protagonist is faced with a decision. The last dialogue balloon in the comic, where the protagonist decides what to say to resolve the problem, is left blank. By typing a statement directly into this dialogue balloon, the user creates a new discussion thread in an online forum, where the user’s dialogue choice can be critiqued and discussed by other users of the forum, guided by an experienced mentor that moderates this discussion.

The central innovation of the Fourth Frame Forums application is the authoring methodology, which is designed to allow a training developer or instructor to quickly create new Fourth Frame Forum scenarios based on non-fiction stories of real-world experiences gathered from practitioners in the organization. The approach mirrors the techniques developed for authoring branching storylines for training applications [Gordon, 04], where stories are analyzed to identify the specific expectations about the task that they violate (the reason they are surprising and interesting). These expectations are then used to craft a fictional situation where a decision is to be made by the user, and where their choice will be dependent on whether or not they believe the expectations that were violated in the real-world story.

As part of our original work on the Fourth Frame Forums application, we created a series of fictional scenarios based on real-world stories involving leadership as told by U.S. Army Captains interviewed for the Army Excellence in Leadership project [Hill, 04]. To visualize these scenarios as four-panel comic strips, we gathered a number of screen captures from the game-based virtual-reality environment used in the ICT Leaders project [Gordon, 04], and used a standard graphical illustration application to arrange these screen captures into the four-frame comic format with the

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