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Adventures in Writing

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 Faculty/Instructors: Christine Alfano, Erik Ellis, Wendy Goldberg, Sohui Lee, Megan O’Connor, John Peterson, Carolyn Ross, Zach Waggoner (Program in Writing and Rhetoric)  

CourseAdventures in Writing


Adventures in Writing is both a free, online course and a graphic novel. Launched in January 2015 on Stanford OpenEdX, the course features five narrative lessons on writing skills delivered in a graphic novel format which follows a single storyline. The course is presented as a self-paced program via which learners can practice their writing. Each module ends with a set of writing exercises that solidify enrollees’ understanding of the material and, at the same time, help move the story forward.

  • Goal: Develop a self-paced online course surrounding a graphic novel to help students acquire, develop and refine effective written communication skills. 

Teaching Innovation

The instructional team developed a series of interactive learning modules surrounding a graphic novel to move away from the “talking heads” approach to teaching writing online. “We wanted to talk about the subject in a way that was new and innovative,” explains Megan O’Connor, an academic technology specialist and one of the group of staff in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) who developed the course in the summer of 2013. Aided by a grant from Stanford Continuing Studies, a graphic novel was born to develop a new approach to teaching writing in an online course format.

  • Format: The course consists of five modules which all focus on one theme integral to writing communication. Each module is made up of a unit of the graphic novel followed by interactive exercises for students to test their knowledge. Each unit of the graphic novel focuses on a different storyline, including where the characters attend a baseball game, drive a friend to orchestra practice, visit an amusement park, and lobby for a campus garden.
  • Audience: The course is designed with a number of audiences and uses in mind. “Our challenge was to keep the instructional quality high but make it accessible to everyone,” says Christine Alfano, associate director of PWR. While the content is primarily intended as a resource for Stanford students, the course is available to anyone interested in improving his or her writing. “Because it was funded by Continuing Studies,” O’Connor adds, “we always imagined it would have a life outside Stanford.”
  • Length: The course is self-paced and takes between four and six hours to complete.
  • Credit & Statement of Completion: Unlike many other online courses, Adventures in Writing does not offer credit or a statement of completion.


  • Initial Planning Sessions: The instructors initially worked together to establish a coherent  narrative in their first ‘chapter,’ then they worked alone and in pairs to develop the rough storyboard sketches, dialogue, and narration for the four remaining lesson units.
  • Illustration: The instructional team hired five undergraduate assistants each of whom illustrated one section. Hiring a single illustrator to draw the entire set would have taken too long. Having the initial planning sessions meant that all of the undergraduate assistant illustrators were able to maintain consistency across the characters, but were also able to create a distinct look for each unit.
  • Changes: The team was originally intending to develop an animated mini-film, but it proved too resource intensive. The graphic novel approach was supported by their budget and achieved the same learning goals.

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