Credit: Joshua Earle, Unsplash.

Establishing Online Students as Epic Heroes

A Research Analysis on Narrative Structure of Online Course Design and Campbell’s Monomyth

Effective learning design, particularly in the online environment, requires close attention to the relationship between the various stakeholders, the salient content and the intended learning outcomes. Structuring these variables within a framework serves as a powerful tool in creating an online environment that supports experiential, student-centered learning. This research analysis highlights how literature related to online course design can be leveraged to support a narrative structure that establishes students as part of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth in the role of “epic hero.” As more and more elements attributed to effective online course design are directly correlated to narrative structure, this analysis defines and discusses current and emerging approaches to creating learning environments that empower students with a sense of agency over the learning process.


In 1949, writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about the “monomyth” cycle in his seminal work, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” citing that many of our stories passed down throughout time follow a common narrative structure (Campbell, 1968). Since its publication, Campbell’s seventeen stages within the monomyth have been identified in myriad works ranging in diversity from the Bible to Star Wars (Campbell, 1968; Vogler, 1992). Beyond its ubiquitous application in literature and cinema, the monomyth structure has the power to serve as a framework for creating points of engagement in many other modalities — in digital stories, games, and even online course curriculum. While research on the direct use of the monomyth or narrative structure in online course design has yet to emerge, the salient components of the monomyth and their parallels to widely-accepted models and practices for effective online course designs are compelling. In recent year, educators have placed a greater emphasis on establishing the role of the learner within the online classroom, shifting the level of autonomy and direction that they have over the entire process (Palloff & Pratt, 2013). The concept of establishing learners as “epic heroes” in an online course correlates with this role shift, with educators moving students into the role of creators of knowledge. Using the monomyth as the framework for redefining the responsibility of learners means that individual students are tasked with completing a concrete call to action whereby they set the path and pace in meeting an established outcome. This theoretical analysis of research related to the core elements of narrative and Campbell’s monomyth seeks to highlight some of the more compelling literature present that is supportive of both narrative structure and effective online course design. The compilation of definitions and discussions included in this analysis contextualizes the concept of the monomyth and its stages within effective learning design practices, both current and emerging, and answers the challenge of how educators might begin to align learner-centered practices to a framework supported by relevant research.


The selection process for identifying articles related to the topic of narrative in online course design was focused on highlighting areas of research that might prove critical in determining a link between narrative structure and effective online instructional design principles. Articles were selected based on their ability to meet two specific criteria — does the research represent an emerging or established effective practice for online course design; and, does the research highlight theories or frameworks correlated to elements of narrative structure. Search terms were culled from The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report as important points of focus in the determination of whether emerging and ubiquitous practices were relevant and appropriate for analysis and mapping to a narrative framework. The structure for categorizing the articles included assessing their relationship to the topics included in the Horizon Report, defining the topics and then discussing their connection to the stages and stakeholders within Campbell’s monomyth.

Criteria for Inclusion

In that the scope of the emerging and effective practices related to online course design is vast, The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report was chosen to anchor the analysis of key trends in education as they relate to narrative structure. The Horizon Report was selected for its status as an internationally-recognized compilation of trends, challenges and developments related to technology for teaching and learning (Johnson et al., 2016). Utilizing the developments, challenges and trends from the 2016 Higher Education Edition allowed for analysis of both current areas of focus and also concepts and approaches with the potential for sustained relevance and future potential to address long-term challenges. The sources selected were then analyzed for their relationship to the elements of the monomyth, and chiefly, how innovative learning environments might be built that support various elements built within narrative structure. Although sources published prior to 2000 were reviewed, the majority of the research articles and books selected were from 2000 or later due to their relevance to emerging and future effective practices. Additionally, though the majority of scholarly research available on the monomyth is related to works within the disciplines of literature, film and religious studies, publications were selected for inclusion that were aligned to education technology and instructional design. Additionally, as in the case of articles related to student presence, gamification and digital storytelling, publications were included that were not strictly focused on the concept of narrative in online design, but that supported effective practices found in online learning environments.


Current publications related to this research field are significantly limited. While it continues to emerge that data collected on effective practices within online course design have strong connections to principles supported by narrative structure and Campbell’s monomyth, no significant research has been completed that focuses on these two concepts intentionally merged in online instruction. However, the similarities between the elements of the monomyth as applied to learning environments as compared to the emerging and established trends in education technology are strong. While this literature review serves as a preliminary investigation of the relevant research causally linking these two concepts as a framework for a new effective practice, it also seeks to call for more research around the direct relationship between these two concepts.


As a means of supporting the synthesis of research for its relevance to this topic and for its strength in establishing the correlation between narrative and online course design, a series of research questions were created and compiled by the author to drive the assessment process.

· Which key trend, challenge or opportunity does this research highlight?

· How is this research highlight related to online course design?

· Which, if any, of the components of Campbell’s monomyth are supported by this research?

In utilizing this framework for review, a clear relationship was highlighted between the salient research that encompassed online course design, narrative structure and innovations in education technology.

Defining the Narrative Structure of Campbell’s Monomyth

Understanding the relationship between narrative and online course design must begin with a strong foundation of defining narrative structure itself. Campbell (1968) describes the progression of an identified hero through a series of seventeen stages, which he presents “in the form of one composite adventure the tales of a number of the world’s symbolic carriers of the destiny of everyman” (p. 33). Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey combines the series of stages into three major units or acts — the hero’s departure into the adventure, the initiation into a series of trials, and the return to the ordinary world with new knowledge or treasure to be shared with his peers. The three major acts of the departure, initiation and return serve as the backbone of the monomyth, which Campbell substantiates with examples spanning multiple continents and time periods, from such diverse sources as the Bhagavad Gita and Sigmund Freud.

Campbell’s exposition of the journey of a hero (1968) begins with that individual receiving a call to adventure (p. 45). This is sometimes followed by an immediate refusal of the call, quite often out of selfishness or an unwillingness to change one’s current comfortable existence (p. 55). Heroes who have not refused the call are given some form of support or knowledge to help them on their journey, which Campbell refers to as “supernatural aid” (p. 63). Steeled by this support from a “supernatural helper” (p. 66), the hero embarks on the next stage of crossing a threshold from her present reality into the fear-filled world of the unknown (p. 71). The first act concludes with the hero fully consumed by the world on the other side of her current world in a stage called “the belly of the whale” (p. 83). This aggressive transition into the journey is often a reminder of the hero’s own mortality, and the gravity of the journey awaiting her.

The monomyth continues into the second act called the “initiation” — it is here that the hero engages in a series of trials that illuminate not only the skill and successes of the hero, but the support of the supernatural helper in the third stage (p. 89). The hero interacts with a series of allies, opponents and trials throughout the initiation stage, culminating in a final challenge that is rewarded with some sort of elixir or gift of knowledge that Campbell calls “the ultimate boon” (p. 159). Though tempted to remain in the comfort of this new knowledge, the hero continues into the final act, called the return.

The third act begins with the hero’s refusal to return home, despite the fact that the knowledge or gift received in the previous stage “may redound to the renewing of the community” from where the hero began her journey (p. 179). The hero’s ultimate return home is referred to by Campbell as the magic flight, and is often aided by supernatural support (p. 182). This support may be great, particularly given the struggles of the hero, and marked by the stage that Campbell calls rescue from without. In this stage, the hero needs restorative assistance in order to successfully return home (p. 192). The hero eventually crosses the return threshold, moving from the darkness of the adventure to the light of home (p. 201). At home again, the hero’s journey concludes with learn to live peacefully between two worlds — home and the adventure beyond — and doing so, intrinsically understand the importance of their own existence (p. 221).

Mapping the Concepts of the Monomyth

Comparing this narrative structure to the stakeholders and components of online learning environments proves to be a compelling metaphor, particularly in creating a foundation for such principles as constructivism, differentiated learning and gamification. Each stage within the monomyth can be correlated to established learning events, with the characters of the monomyth representing the various roles in the classroom.

Regardless of whether it is an assignment prompt for an individual assessment, or an overarching intended learning outcome for an entire course, learners are provided with a call to action (“1. The Call to Adventure” p. 45) and offered the necessary resources and guidance required to successfully complete the task in front of them (“3. Supernatural Aid” p. 63). As the learner takes the initiative to begin the task (“4. Crossing the Threshold” p. 71), she begins to explore the key challenges and criteria associated with the assignment (“5. Belly of the Whale” p. 83) and creates a strategy for completion of the task. In completing the assignment, challenges have less to do with actual tangible enemies, but rather struggles with missing information, time and identifying solutions to problems (“6. The Road of Trials” p. 89). However, in this period of the hero’s journey, the learner may relate to Campbell’s observation “it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage” (p. 89). Indeed, the student is supported by meaningful feedback and points of engagement proffered by their professor, or even their peers who are uniquely completing their own journey in parallel. Upon completing the task (“10. Apotheosis” p. 138), the learner is presented with new knowledge (“11. The Ultimate Boon” p. 159) and is called to share this knowledge with her peers (“15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold” p. 201) and ideally, to the larger community. This new knowledge and the experience of completing the assigned task provides the learner with a better understanding of how their work is connected to their prior knowledge of the subject (“16. Master of Two Worlds” p. 212) and their future work related to the topic (“17. Freedom to Live” p. 221).

Campbell identifies several characters within the monomyth that can be likened to the established roles in the learning environment. The learner is given a call to action based on a concrete problem or challenge that will improve her community — by completing this task, she is established as the hero. The instructor can serve as the supernatural helper, providing the hero with the key knowledge or insight required to succeed at the task ahead. External members of the learning community, such as mentors or peers, may also fill this role as provider of supernatural aid. The hero’s initiation is marked by interactions with other individuals, some supportive of the journey and others adding to the difficulty of the struggle. The supporters, again, may serve as other learners, and the trials might be tests or requirements that must be completed in order to finish the overarching assigned task. When the hero returns home, she is called to embetter her community with the knowledge gained on the journey. In that same vein, defining the members of the learning community allows one to extend the metaphor of the hero’s journey to such applications as collaborative group work and service learning.

Campbell’s monomyth has previously been mapped to such diverse applications as storytelling, screenwriting and psychotherapy. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers links the stages of Campbell’s monomyth to contemporary storytelling, claiming that “despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey” (p. 7). Vogler highlights the importance of translating the monomyth from the literal to the figurative with his mention of the “many stories that take a hero on an inward journey, one of the mind” (p. 7). Moreover, Vogler shares that the power of the monomyth comes from its flexible interpretation — “The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power. The values of the Hero’s Journey are what’s important” (p. 19). The structure of the monomyth draws parallels to established practices for the development of learning as well. Looking at Robert Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (Gagné, 1985), learners are called to attention and provided with a concrete objective that they must meet. They are provided with support through references to prior skills and knowledge as well as new learning content and guidance on its application. Students then demonstrate mastery with their performance and are given feedback on their work. They finish by applying their newly found knowledge to personal contexts as a means of both sharing the content with others and better retaining the information gained.

In mapping the stages of the monomyth to the learning events and stakeholders within the classroom, educators can hinge their effective practices on a framework that is inclusive and supportive of learner-driven processes focused on meeting established learning outcomes. Furthermore, the malleable structure of the monomyth leaves room for student autonomy and collaboration, while underscoring the importance of achieving set learning goals.

Defining Current and Future Trends in Education Technology

In measuring how well narrative structure might serve as a strong organizational framework for effective practices in online course design, the monomyth must be assessed in relation to supporting both current, established trends as well as future challenges and opportunities burgeoning on the horizon. Through the combined efforts of an expert panel collected from across the globe, The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report identifies six trends, six challenges and six developments in education technology that call for the attention of higher education institutions (Johnson et al., 2016). 2016’s report identified short-term, mid-range and far term technologies and effective practices, many of which correlate to narrative structure as a powerful tool for structuring the organization of online curriculum and facilitation practices. The New Media Consortium (NMC) cited a short term trend of blending formal and informal learning, a short term challenge of improving digital literacy, and a short term development in technology of learning analytics and adaptive learning. The midterm trend of redesigning learning spaces was highlighted, as well as the challenge of personalizing learning, and the technological development of makerspaces. Lastly, they spotlighted far term trends of advancing cultures of innovation and rethinking how institutions work, as well as the challenge of keeping education relevant. Using these identified current and future trends as a benchmark for analysis of pedagogical practices related to narrative structure in course design, the relevant literature on the practices was organized into three categories — practices that use similar principles to the monomyth to redefine the role of the student as epic hero, to redefine the intended curricular outcomes as the hero’s call to adventure, and to redefine the components and structure of the learning environment as the road of trials in the hero’s journey.

The Epic Hero: Redefining the Role of the Learner

Educators are called to create learning experiences that put students at the helm, giving them authority and agency over the process of negotiating meaning in a personalized way (Land & Hannafin, 2000). Learner centered design, and more specifically, shifting the locus of control to the learner, creates an environment where students gain a sense of self-efficacy over the completion of the course material and their interaction with the learning environment, their instructor, and fellow students (Shen, Cho, Tsai, & Marra, 2013). Zimmerman (2000) cites self-efficacy as a powerful indicator of student motivation through the learning content, with the learner taking the initiative to work through the content. This practice of redefining the learner as having the power to determine the path to meeting the outcomes of the class supports the short term trend highlighted in the Horizon Report of blending formal and informal learning — strict, presentational didactic and traditional contact hours are intertwined with research and the development of products to demonstrate the mastery of concepts (Johnson et al., 2016). Where once the learning process was considered to be a transmissive process, constructivists see learners as active and intentional in their cognitive process (Jonassen & Land, 2000). Establishing learners as the “epic hero” of a course that follows the structure of Campbell’s monomyth creates a metaphorical structure that allows them to personalize their learning, a midterm challenge in The Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2016).

As each “hero” embarks on their personalized journey, they leverage the knowledge and diverse perspectives of their classmates. Amplifying the social characteristics of the learning process as multiple “heroes” progress through the journey of the class creates a sense of community grounded in the scholarship of active and collaborative research (Boud & Lee, 2005). Critical applications of synchronous and asynchronous technology allow online learners to work collaboratively and in support of their unique, individual efforts (McInnerney & Roberts, 2004). Indeed, this collaborative process to support personalized goals mirrors real-world, 21st century skills (P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2016) required of graduates entering the workplace, keeping education relevant as highlighted by the Horizon Report as a “wicked” challenge (Johnson et al., 2016). In looking at the success of the “hero” in their progression through their journey, persistence plays a key role in supporting intrinsic motivation to complete. The flexibility of the format of instruction serves as a “facilitator of persistence,” as does a sense of community and communal support (Hart, 2012).

Arguably the most powerful approach to establishing learners as “epic hero” is the creation of a constructivist learning environment. Constructivism applied to online learning environments, in particular, supports such engaged learning characteristics as interaction, collaboration, freedom of expression, real-world practices, student-centered approaches, and greater access to multiple voices and perspectives related to the salient content (Huang, 2002). The challenge of redesigning the learning space, a trend highlighted as a trend of mid-term impact (Johnson et al., 2016), can be significant in terms of the implementation of meaningful uses of technology, shifting the role of the instructor to a supportive guide, and creating authentic opportunities for interaction (Huang, 2002). However, the benefits outweigh the challenges, particularly in that emerging practices to create and document the effectiveness fully-online constructivist learning environments are quickly becoming ubiquitous.

The Call to Adventure: Redefining Curricular Organization as Adaptive User Paths

At the heart of the hero’s journey remains a single truth — that despite the road that the hero travels, the final goal remains fixed in nature and importance. Indeed, the shift towards personalized learning has led to multiple user paths within an individual course, but the intended learning outcomes remain fixed regardless of the path that students take to achieve them. The monomyth is a celebration of adaptive learning at its best — as the hero completes various challenges on her road of trials, she is presented with data to inform her next steps towards the goal. The Horizon Report proffers that learning analytics and adaptive learning are prominent short-term technological developments, allowing both users and systems to tailor curriculum according to input and data. Adaptive systems have the ability to granularize the personalization of system interactions, serving a multitude of learner types with differing backgrounds, skill levels and needs (Brusilovsky, Eklund, & Schwarz, 1998). A compelling benefit of this level of personalization is the ability to control the level of user satisfaction upon completion of the overarching tasks built into the courseware. In several cognitive psychology studies conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman, the researchers found that memory bias, and specifically recency bias, caused individuals to more readily hold on to positive peaks within an experience as milestones, and to more clearly recall memories of events ending an experience rather than earlier events (Fredrickson & Kahneman, 1993; Kahneman, 2000). Referred to by Kahneman (2000) as the “peak-end rule,” leveraging this research allows creators of learning spaces to support intrinsic motivation and user satisfaction through celebrated milestones and positive feedback on accomplishments. Furthermore, treating culminating activities with the reverence of a hero completing a formidable journey has the power to create a lastingly memorable impression on students. The Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2016) and the Gartner Report (Lowendahl, Thayer, & Morgan, 2016) both cite adaptive learning as current, impactful technological advancement.

Two additional curricular organization structures with the ability to launch students as heroes into a call to action include problem-based learning and service learning. According to John Savery (2015), problem-based learning (PBL) is “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem” (p. 7). PBL directly supports The Horizon Report’s “solvable” challenge of improving digital literacy by requiring students to employ such real-world skills as critical thinking and problem solving (P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2016). As learners collectively work to solve a shared problem, they utilize skills prized by employers and real-world practitioners seeking experienced researchers, critical thinkers and collaborators (Savery, 2015). Innovative practices such as makerspaces have their roots in PBL — defined by Educause (2013) as “a physical location where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build,” makerspaces have the power to support project-based, learner-driven research and construction (p. 1). Just as students established as hero of a course must use prior knowledge and self-selected resources to complete a trial, makerspaces support the framework of student as autonomous in the process of solving designated problems associated with the overarching advancement of a culture of innovation. This concept of advancing a culture of innovation has been highlighted as a trend that will be impactful in the the long-term as identified by The Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2016). Within the same realm as PBL, service learning seeks to engage learners in service experiences aligned to curricular outcomes and demonstrated needs of communities, preferably communities that learners are a part of (Waterman, 2014). In selecting projects that have real-world applications and value to individual learners, educators can support such challenges posed by The Horizon Report as personalized learning and keeping education relevant (Johnson et al., 2016). In Campbell’s monomyth, the third stage consists of the hero’s return home to provide the treasure acquired through her trials to the people as a means of improving the quality of their lives. Service learning has the power, through the metaphor of the student as epic hero, to address The Horizon Report’s long-term trend of rethinking how institutions work (Johnson et al., 2016). As learners engage in work beneficial to real-world applications beyond the brick and mortar structure of the classroom, they engage in both scholarship and service simultaneously. The hero’s journey in the learning environment is not divorced from its impact on real communities in need of meaningful solutions to critical issues facing them.

The Road of Trials: Redefining the Design of the Learning Environment

Creating authentic learning experiences that engage students in meaningful assessments requires redistributing the roles and tasks in the learning environment. As such, this redesign seeks to increase the breadth of participants in the active creation of knowledge as a “network of learning” (Boud & Lee, 2005, p. 503). This network, defined by a cohort of heroes journeying on a highly-personalized quest, entails innovative approaches in the design of the learning space in order to keep it highly-functioning. As previously stated, methods and effective practices that give learners control over the learning process are critical to implementations of narrative in online course design as well as addressing the trends and challenges highlighted as noteworthy by The Horizon Report (Johnson et al., 2016). Three approaches to redefining the design of the learning environment to support this shift of the locus of control from instructors to students include digital storytelling and gameful learning.

Digital storytelling is the process of crafting compelling narratives from images, videos, audio and other media for the purpose of communication, persuasion or demonstration of the mastery of a topic (Educause, 2007). Addressing The Horizon Report’s “solvable” challenge of improving digital literacy and “difficult” challenge of personalized learning (Johnson et al., 2016), digital storytelling requires that learners distill complex topics into a highly-curated format that is both interactive and readily accessible to their target audience. This synthesis of salient content and new media is interdisciplinary in its application, and can serve to bring students in on the process of using narrative to hinge a framework of active learning. Students create their own narratives within a course built upon its own narrative structure. Marshall Ganz articulate the power of storytelling in establishing each individual as a thought leader, “From stories, we learn how to manage ourselves, how to face difficult choices, unfamiliar situations, and uncertain outcomes because each of us is the protagonist in our own life story, facing everyday challenges, authoring our own choices, and learning from the outcomes” (Ganz, 2006). In that same vein, calling learners to share their story as heroes of their respective journeys celebrates the importance of tailoring the learning experience to individual learners and inviting them to share their unique perspectives.

Gameful learning, closely related to gamification, advocates for the utilization of aspects of games within the realm of learning design. Aguilar, Fishman and Holman (2015) define gameful learning as “[the extension of] gamification with a reimagining of the fundamental structure of classroom assessment systems” (p. 2). They go on to describe the role of gameful learning in supporting student persistence and achievement in the redesign learning environment, “This process requires simultaneously increasing the opportunities for students to have autonomy and mitigating the impact of failure, such that learners are empowered to exert effort in spaces that they might otherwise have avoided” (p. 2). This freedom to explore, research, iterate and test support the blending of both formal and informal learning, as well as keeping education relevant to real-world practice where these four aforementioned skills remain essential (Johnson et al., 2016). Additionally, gameful learning encourages collaborative learning, with students progressing towards a shared goal while still maintaining a high-level of individualized control and personalization (Aguilar et al., 2015). Lauded expert of gameful learning approaches, James Gee, cites that the best aspects of games have the ability to enhance learning, and that current research in cognitive psychology connects gaming and learning with such characteristics as iterative and reflective processes, taking risks in safe spaces, encouragement for practice and achievement, and learners discovering meaning (Gee, 2014). Because of the nature and structure of gamified designs, previously mentioned effective practices of adaptive learning and learning analytics are well-suited to combining with a gameful learning approach. Above all else, gameful learning approaches have the power to celebrate personalization by elevating the individual. Rigby (2015) shares how gamification has leveled the idea of the learner as a satellite orbiting the institution, positioning the learner as the center of the system (p. 113). This redesign of the learning environment to support the learner at the central focal point serves the strongest call to action for the learner as epic hero — the path is illuminated for them, the trials await. It is up to the learner to accept the call to adventure and step beyond the threshold of home into the challenge ahead.


In summary, narrative serves as a powerful tool when used in conjunction with the process of creating a compelling didactic. As educators explore the role of the stakeholders in the classroom (individual students, learners as a cohort, educators as guides, external community members), creating a strong framework around narrative structure allows for established roles and responsibilities that support learner autonomy, agency and intrinsic motivation. A chief recommendation would be for the research of learning environments where narrative structure and Campbell’s monomyth are intentionally applied as a means of better supporting learners. These environments would then be analyzed for their design, along with a qualitative study on student perceptions of courses mindfully designed with narrative structure. Ultimately, there should be quantitative studies performed on the measured success of learners within these environments. Hopefully, further research within this area will illuminate a solid correlation between online course design and narrative structure as a design framework, but until then, utilizing the current and emerging trends highlighted in this analysis as a means of shifting the locus of control to students will serve as an impactful step towards establishing learners as the masters of their own learning environment.


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