Sep 25 2011

5 Tips to Get Students to Adopt Digital Storytelling

Pick up some practical pointers about how to help your students learn with technology.


Digital storytelling. That term is both surprising and somehow comforting.

The name surprises by juxtaposing the ancient memory of storyteller and audience with technology. Yet it comforts many listeners, as digital storytelling instructors have noted for years. Applying "story" to "technology" humanizes a sometimes scary digital world, quietly making cryptic hardware a tool for enhanced teaching and learning.

Beyond those two opposing words, digital storytelling also has two meanings. The first is historical and starts in California in the 1990s.

A Bay Area group experimented with making digital tools accessible to any user. The result was a three-day curriculum combining basic video skills with autobiographical narration. Nearly two decades of technological invention have transpired, and the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) curriculum still stands as a powerful, inspirational teaching strategy.

The CDS team never registered digital storytelling as a trademark, never licensed it to a company that might have turned it into, say, iDigitalStorytelling. The term floated in the public domain, taking on new meaning as new digital tools proliferated over the past 15 years.

Digital storytelling's second, modern meaning is the world of creating stories with digital platforms. These include not only video, but also social media, computer gaming, augmented reality and nearly every digital platform used for human communication.

Once we realize that cyberspace has become an enormous, diverse and – most important – easily entered venue for creating and consuming stories, we can begin to think through the implications for teaching and learning with technology.

Not a Tall Tale

Digital storytelling has been at work since the mid-1990s, which means that we are fortunate to have access to a long record of educational exploration. No single implementation has won over schools; instead, a variety of uses have taken root.

One theme persists throughout the pedagogical record: increased engagement, both emotional and cognitive. Teachers see digital storytelling as a way to connect learners with material, to help students internalize, reflect on, then communicate back about academic topics. Let's start by exploring five elements of digital storytelling.

1 Digital storytelling is a natural fit for education. After all, the act of successful storytelling necessarily requires aggregating and reordering information, with the ultimate aim of communicating to an audience.

For a nondigital example, describing a childhood experience to an adult friend requires reconstructing events, selecting the right amount of context, estimating what that friend already understands, then creating an ad-hoc narrative structure. We tell stories using some form of this information-wrangling process in all walks of life, from romantic relationships to interactions with authorities, from eulogies to job applications.

We can see this familiar pattern as analogous to school-based learning. As students, we work through information from multiple sources, grapple to understand, and then present our results to an audience (the teacher) in various forms. This might include an oral presentation, essay, quiz, exam or poster. At worst, the result is flawed regurgitation; at best, an innovative take on an academic topic – the creation of new knowledge. Creating a story is a way for students to rethink, review and communicate their learning. Digital storytelling offers some ways of doing that.

2 Digital storytelling is a way to connect with learners increasingly immersed in a digital world. While it is possible to overstate the Net Generation model, it is broadly useful to observe that today's students have experienced a greater share of their lives through digital media than have their elders. Most schools have been looking for ways to take advantage of this situation. Some teachers see digital storytelling as a way for learners to make sense of challenging curriculum through more familiar media. This approach is strengthened by the ever-growing proliferation of digital tools.

3 Digital storytelling can offer students a way to develop their voice, which is sometimes a desired pedagogical or curricular outcome. The panoply of digital tools offers a wide range of creative pathways. Moreover, the CDS workshop structure is a proven way to engage participants' emotions. A personal story can power a digital story exercise, building capacity for a less personal, more academic second story.

4 Digital media allows students to remix content, which offers a new way of teaching archival materials. While some digital storytelling pedagogies start from scratch (creating and editing new content), other practices encourage students to build on pre-existing content.

5 Because it requires a significant amount of time, digital storytelling connects with project-based learning, while helping to ward off plagiarism. As contrary as this seems, it is really a practical outcome. Even the lightest digital storytelling platforms, such as Twitter and wikis, require time to develop technology training, curricular situation, iteration and reiteration, and assessment. That extension in time maps neatly onto the longer schedule that project-based learning entails. Students can create a story alongside a project, either as part of that work or as a reflection on it.

Students who work together on long-term projects are less likely to be absent. They also develop cooperation and communication skills, practice problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and improve their test scores.

Academic honesty is also brought into play, as one classic antiplagiarism technique encompasses this kind of extended, iterative creative process. In other words, it's harder for a student to cheat when they have to repeatedly create, and then revise that creation. It's harder to plagiarize when creating a digital story.

In addition, that kind of project-based iterative learning is often collaborative. The CDS curriculum emphasizes colearning, from participant-­to-participant story-writing feedback, to learners helping each other with the nuts and bolts of media content creation. I have seen workshop participants holding cameras, recording voice-overs, acting in video clips, even bringing props from home for other participants. This reflects the reality of contemporary digital media, where many (and variously skilled) hands help lighten the load. Insofar as teachers value team-based learning, digital story­telling can fulfill that goal.

Digital storytelling is never applied uniformly across an institution's programs. Instead, certain fields make better use of the form than others. Study abroad has proven to be such a field, following pioneering work led by digital storytelling innovator Doug Reilly. Reilly serves as program coordinator at Hobart and William Smith College, 60 percent of whose students study abroad at more than 40 locations worldwide.

Supporting Digital Storytelling

If digital storytelling has pedagogical value, how do we best support it? Once again, a long and growing track record offers ample and various best practices.

Training support can be hosted in different locations or by combinations of personnel. Student peer support is consistent with the classic CDS pedagogy. Instructors can provide some measure of support, but only as a supplement to their content expertise. Institutional support staff from different offices (such as educational technology or media services) can play a role during class sessions, in learning centers or on demand. Libraries can help with media search, management and assessment.

Support can also be met by structuring work differently from the three-day CDS workshop format. For instance, project-based learning distributes story creation into items over time. Breaking a story into smaller parts reduces individual support tasks. Reilly has pioneered one- and two-day workshops, relying on Web 2.0 video editors and shorter end products. Others have used other tools to support smaller projects, often relying on web services.

Beyond campus, digital storytelling practitioners steadily provide examples and accounts of their work through social media (such as blogging, YouTube, Twitter or Facebook) and scholarship. As creators are often very peer-oriented in their work, so too do teachers and support staff tend to be open in sharing their work.

Digital Storytelling Technologies

  • Video editing: The classic CDS workshop can include either PC or Apple products. On the PC side, there are several options: Windows Movie Maker is free and widely available. From Apple, Final Cut Pro is extensive but teachable. Web-based tools are being developed, with JayCut the best of breed so far.
  • Audio editing: Audacity is a powerful, open-source tool. Aviary's Myna is web-based.
  • Images: Adobe Photoshop is the industry standard.
  • Game authoring: Some tools create basic platform jumpers, such as Venatio Creo. Second Life and Open Sim support virtual-world content, which can be turned into drama or games.

Online Resources for Digital Storytelling

Center for Digital Story Telling
Digital Storytelling, Williams College OIT
Digital storytelling and study abroad: a workshop in Charlotte, National Institute for Technology in Digital Education
Digital Storytelling Finds Its Place in the Classroom, Tom Banaszewski (2002)
Digital Storytelling: Learning in a Networked World, National Institute for Technology in Digital Education
Digital Storytelling Research Design, Helen Barrett (2005)
Digital Storytelling: Tips and Resources, Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Simmons College (2008)
Normon Centuries: A Norman History Podcast, Lars Brownworth
Project 1968, Laura Alexrod
Tell a Story, Become a Lifelong Learner, Microsoft (2010)
Tell A Story in Five Frames, Flickr
Twitterers Stage Mock Martian Invasion a la 'War of the Worlds, Jenna Wortham, Wired (October 2008)
Young Holocaust victim has over 1,700 friends on Facebook, Linda Vierecke and Michael Lawton, Deutsche Welle (November 2009)
Young Writers Project