Educators face the challenge of creating learning environments that support experiential, student-centered experiences, fostering student engagement and persistence. As a means of creating a high-engagement experience in the design of the online environment, what if we reframed the role, responsibility and path of the student through the course? What if, in the course design process, we took the approach of envisioning the experience as a narrative unfolding over the course of the semester?

The Power of Narrative

Narrative can serve as a powerful metaphor for compelling online course design. Like a book that you simply cannot put down, or a game that motivates you to keep leveling up, a compelling narrative triggers our imaginations, prompts us to ask questions, and helps us come to conclusions. All of the aforementioned characteristics of narrative are elements that educators seek to encourage in the classroom. Simply put, 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.

Monomyth in Online Course Design

With our student defined as epic hero, what would the hero’s journey look like in an online course? The Hero’s Journey (or the monomyth), a pattern of narrative defined by writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” describes the progression of an identified hero through a series of stages. Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey, which has heavily influenced such filmmakers as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, 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.

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. The direct use of the monomyth or narrative structure in online course design is still emerging, but 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. The compilation of definitions and discussions included on this site contextualize the concept of the monomyth and its stages within effective learning design practices, both current and emerging, and answer the challenge of how educators might begin to align learner-centered practices to a framework supported by relevant research.


Campbell, J., 1904-1987. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2d ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2013). Lessons from the virtual classroom: The realities of online teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Vogler, C. (1992). The Writer’s Journal: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters.

This website, created by Angela Gunder, Cathy Russell and Jessica L. Knott, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Site originally created with love on March 23, 2017.