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Graphic Novels as Learning Tools

Like many organizations, Girl Scouts of the USA is challenged when integrating multiple generations into cohesive, effective teams. Perhaps the most challenging to reach are the millennials, who want hands-on learning participation.

November 30, 2012
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Girl Scouting operates through a network of 850,000 adult volunteers who are supported by approximately 8,000 staff members distributed throughout 112 councils and a national headquarters. Together, this network covers every ZIP code in the United States and includes adults from ages 19 to 90. While technology has helped to bridge distances, it has changed work and learning expectations for each generation in different ways.

Girl Scouts of the USA knew it needed to bring about higher levels of teamwork across the generations in light of conditions facing not only the Girl Scouts but many organizations, including a geographically dispersed audience, a highly diverse adult population and limited funds.

Earlier this year, the company built a facilitator-led classroom program titled Harnessing the Power of Your Multi-Generational Workforce and offered it to its members in-person through Girl Scouts University (GSU). The program targeted the Girl Scouts workforce as a whole, instilling in its staff the idea that each generation has its own take on issues such as how and when to use technology. This three-hour program focused on the advantages and challenges of a multigenerational workforce. Participants discussed generational approaches to topics such as communication, social media, conflict, flexibility and leadership hierarchies. Participants included adult staff and volunteers across the organization.

Participants rated this facilitator-led session a 4.9 on a five-point scale, but, while successful, the program needed to be revamped and put in an electronic format to reach geographically dispersed audiences, which include more than 270 administrative sites and approximately 430 program sites, plus overseas offices.

As the learning group within Girl Scouts assessed how to engage different generations of adult learners in issues such as communication, rewards and recognition, social media and workplace flexibility, it knew that reaching the millennial generation would be a particular challenge.

Girl Scouts’ Instructional Design Quest
Before stumbling across the use of graphic novels, the Girls Scouts experimented with a variety of learning methodologies. Videos, social media tools, lectures, case studies and other typical instructional design methodologies were used, but feedback from trainers and staff told the organization they were not engaging enough. The dilemma of engaging millennials, the future leaders of the movement, was of particular urgency. A 2011 membership survey of Girl Scouts’ volunteer population indicated that more than 50 percent of the volunteers are millennials or Gen Xers, and that number is expected to grow.

The answer came in an unusual way, but that is not unexpected for this learning group. “We think of ourselves as a center of excellence and a little innovation engine,” said Diane Oettinger-Myracle, chief learning officer for Girl Scouts of the USA. “We take pride in bringing new things to our movement and have learned to be comfortable with the risks, rewards and occasional arrows that come our way.

“The graphic novel is an example of looking at something old and applying it in a new way. In this case, it is to help facilitate communications and knowledge exchange between generations.”

GSU members decided to proactively explore a variety of nontraditional instructional design methods. After attending a 2010 lecture hosted by Hy Eisman, the illustrator and writer for “Popeye” comics, and visiting comic book convention Comic-Con, it became clear that comics and graphic novels might be the answer.

“Graphic novels are the fastest-growing segment in the digital publishing industry,” Eisman said.

Despite this, the graphic novel format has been largely untapped as an organizational learning tool, especially for companies with modest budgets, because creating them can be expensive. Figuring out if the medium would work for the Girl Scout audience required research.

Christian Zabriskie, assistant coordinator for young adult services for Queens Library, tracked the popularity of graphic novels. He found that they were far more popular than even the Harry Potter and Twilight series. “The graphic novel/comic area has the most reader traffic of anywhere in the library,” he said. “When I grew up in 1970, comics were boys stuff. Now you’ll find 30 to 40 percent of readers are female. The market is finally catching up with them, and more novels and comics are targeting female readers.”

The learning group decided to use the content of its face-to-face multi-gen course as a basic shell for a Web-based graphic novel that would embed articles, blogs, videos and other techniques to help energize the material.

Drawing on Graphic Novels
Once the Girl Scouts knew the multi-gen graphic novel would target all of its staff and volunteers, with emphasis on millennials, and consist of vignettes about multi-gen workplace issues, writing and illustrating were the next steps.

While at Comic-Con, members of the learning group spent some time with Ian Flynn, writer of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a comic strip based on the Sega video game. Noting that writing a comic strip or graphic novel was similar to writing other learning programs, the learning group modified the existing facilitator-led program to suit the graphic novel online format.

Illustrating the novel was perhaps the most important and challenging piece to figure out. “As an instructional designer, I am used to thinking in words and limited graphics,” said Mary McLean-Hely, a Girl Scouts senior learning consultant. “Designing this graphic novel required a shift in focus. Now mapping out the vision for each of the multi-gen pages was the most important element of the project.”

The cost of the illustrations could have been prohibitive, so the Girl Scouts had to find creative ways to keep costs within its ability to experiment.

Eisman suggested the Girl Scouts contact The Kubert School, an accredited school in cartooning and graphic art. After contacting several students, the learning group found Elisa Feliz, a recent graduate, on the school’s website. By using a recent graduate, the Girl Scouts kept costs down while helping Feliz to establish her graphic art design company.

To achieve the needed scale for the company’s geographically dispersed audience and to virtually eliminate publishing costs, the team decided to publish the novel only online. Further, rather than use a traditional page turner type of e-learning format, the learning group chose to develop the program as a website and integrate the theme of graphic novel pages. After examining a variety of online WordPress templates, the team was inspired by a format that easily corresponded to the multi-gen site design that is segmented by topic and key actions — learn, try and apply.

The program, Your Multi-Gen Workforce, had a soft launch in June and is expected to fully launch in January. The Girl Scouts has begun to assess reactions and usability from the soft launch. “This multi-gen program is designed to appeal to every generation which aligns with our vision for the extended Girl Scouts family. We welcome women in every generation within our staff and volunteer teams,” said Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA.

Ruth Strawser, director of business operations and customer satisfaction for Girl Scouts Northern Indiana-Michiana, was initially skeptical of the graphic novel format, so she showed it to her senior team. “At the time, we were having misunderstandings about the best way to manage flexible work arrangements,” she said. “One of the graphic novel chapters dealt with workplace flexibility. The formula helped us bridge a discussion about a topic we had been struggling with. It gave us credence for why we were having misunderstandings. Originally we thought our words were wrong, but we came to understand we had different points of view.”

Susan Kushnir is the director of organizational development at Girl Scouts of the USA. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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