What can instructional designers learn from a murder?

In 1999, on an otherwise average day in Baltimore County, 17 year old Adnan Sayed murdered his ex-girlfriend and fellow student Hae Min Lee then calmly returned to school for track practice. Or did he? That’s the question the Serial podcast has listeners obsessing over. 

In this post I look at why this weekly podcast has so many people hooked and how it has stirred voluntary learning between episodes. 

Lessons from Serial 

Serial is an award-winning podcast recorded and produced by a small team out of Chicago. Host and journalist Sarah Koenig tugs at the threads of evidence that held together the case against Adnan Sayed and resulted in his life sentence. It’s an engaging story, filled with suspicious testimonies and evidence that often raises more questions than they answer. Serial does many things well but aside from the gripping story and great journalism, I think something a little less obvious contributed to its success. 

It’s all in the delivery 

Serial is an episodic podcast – it’s released in chunks, week-by-week. I spent a lot of time in between episodes thinking about the case, analysing the evidence, formulating my own theories and talking about it all with fellow Serial listeners. I was engaged even when I wasn’t listening to it. 

Binge watching deprives us of all this goodness. After all, when the answers to all your questions are just a few moments away, why would you bother thinking too hard about them? And as for the social side of things, are you really going to hit pause and start talking about everything you’ve learnt so far?

What’s this got to do with learning? 

Most of the time elearning is more like a binge than an episode. Sure, you could choose to quit an elearning course and return to it later, but given the choice most learners would prefer to complete it all in one go. What if they didn’t have a choice? What if you delivered your learning in much shorter episodes? 

With a clever design, the right timing and a good episodic story to tie it all together, you could deliver the same content in a way that’s more likely to get your learners thinking deeper and over a longer period of time. Avoid giving away all the answers and throw in some cliff-hangers, maybe some challenges too, you’re going to get your learners talking about it too.