The Changing Story: How to Harness the Power of Digital Storytelling in the Classroom and Community

Embracing the ability that digital storytelling gives my students to incorporate the elements of audio, video, art, text, animation and more has been rewarding.

In my new e-book, The Changing Story: digital stories that participate in transforming teaching and learning (which you can download for free), I provide a road map for other educators who are interested in thoughtful integration of digital media assignments as part of a transformative learning experience. Through form and content, The Changing Story enacts the multimedia nature of digital stories. It is designed as an introduction to the concepts of digital storytelling, along with classroom assignments and resources to help educators introduce students to this exciting form of learning, as well as to help us deepen our visual ways of knowing and to consider the power of story in transformative learning. The Changing Story is the culmination of three years of collaborating with CEHD Designer Susan Andre, and Project Manager Thomas Nechodomu. I hope that, by sharing my experiences and those of students and colleagues, I can help inspire and aid others in exploring the possibilities of digital storytelling in the classroom as well as the community.

Discovering Digital Storytelling

My academic and teaching background is rooted in the humanities, with an emphasis on creative writing, composition, literature and art. In 2007, I designed an undergraduate writing intensive seminar that introduced students to water resources topics through disciplines represented in both the sciences and the humanities. I turned to the digital story as the capstone assignment in order to harness students’ visual learning skills and allow them to create work in a medium that communicates their findings beyond the confines of the classroom. Through creating and sharing their digital stories, students understand that they are active participants in academic discourse while also contributing to positive social change.

There weren’t a lot of online resources, aside from MIT’s open courseware and the Center for Digital Storytelling (now StoryCenter.org). Using these tools, along with the help of technology fellows and colleagues here at the University of Minnesota, I began to explore the possibilities of digital storytelling. The first year was a madhouse. There was no student support (now we have the U’s Smart Learning Commons), and we were all learning new technology. Though it was a challenging experience, I was struck by the level of engagement that the process of creating the digital stories engendered in the students. Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy sheds light on the higher level thinking skills required for students to absorb the subject matter and then turn around and communicate it effectively in a digital story. We’re multisensory creatures by nature, and the digital story weaves together audio, video, and art with traditional text-based storytelling. I’ve been teaching some version of digital storytelling in most of my classes since. 

A Dialectical Approach to Technology in the Classroom

The Changing Story also helps educators think through the implications of teaching with technology. Technology has been introduced to the classroom so quickly that I think most educators are still catching up. My experience teaching with digital storytelling has sometimes resulted in me being called a technology “expert” which I am not. I am an explorer, and one with grave reservations about the reach of technology. I believe it’s important to take a dialectical approach to the role of technology, both in the classroom and beyond.

Thoughtful integration of technology can benefit students and teachers. In addition to accessing students’ creativity through its multimedia features, it can help us move toward less reliance on paper. Students and teachers have access to real-time data instead of expensive, quickly outmoded textbooks.

However, in addition to contributing to our shrinking attention spans, the proliferation of mobile devices and our dependence on them, in combination with the energy these devices require, causes environmental and human rights destruction to people and ecosystems near and globally. A dialectical approach to technology would encourage transparency in and participation with these complex issues, among students and teachers.

In great part due to the influence of technology in teaching, it’s incumbent on us as educators to teach students the same essential skills we’ve always worked on: to write and communicate effectively, to listen and analyze critically and deeply. As I write in The Changing Story, “Lead with your pedagogy and let the technology follow.”

Teaching the Teachers

In my discussions with colleagues across campus and educators at conferences, similar questions arise regarding the digital story assignment. What exercises do you use to help students create an academically viable, engaging story? How do you assess these stories? What do you do when a student has clearly understood the subject matter but didn’t create a very good story in the end?

As a writer, I wanted to create a book that would give educators a framework for teaching digital storytelling skills, so they wouldn’t have to experiment only by trial-and-error as I had.

If I truly wanted to create a model for teachers to follow, I should work in the medium I was writing about: a multimedia e-book. This format would allow me to enact the dynamic elements of the digital story which would hopefully inspire educators to create their own digital stories. In The Changing Story, you’ll not only read about best practices in digital storytelling education, you’ll view student projects, listen to students and teachers being interviewed about challenges and discoveries, and view illustrated stories. This ability to seamlessly blend a myriad of mediums and narrative voices while communicating insights about subject matter are important aspects of digital storytelling.

Another motivation for creating The Changing Story as a digital experience was my commitment to make sure that all students and teachers – regardless of how affluent their school district – have equal access to the content my collaborators and I have created. The Changing Story is free, available on diverse platforms, and licensed with Creative Commons so educators can adapt it to their needs. It’s my hope that the teachers and students who read it will be inspired to use digital technology to create their own stories.

The Building Blocks of Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling can be intimidating to approach. In The Changing Story, I outline how to prepare your students for their projects through a “scaffolding” approach – a series of low-risk, playful exercises.

You don’t learn to juggle by throwing five balls in the air at once; you start by learning to accurately throw and catch one ball and gradually add complexity from there. By isolating the various skills necessary to do digital storytelling, you’ll allow your students to gain knowledge incrementally. When they are prepared they can concentrate on deeply analyzing their subject matter rather than worry about properly using audio or video software.

Here are a few guidelines for implementing digital storytelling in your classroom:

Lead with your pedagogy and let the technology follow. Technology is a powerful presence in your classroom and one that must be used wisely and for a specific purpose. Have a clear goal and learning objective for your assignment and then seek out the technology that best serves that purpose.

Collaboration is essential. Working with others is crucial to being effective with digital storytelling – and that’s a good thing. Too often, educators find themselves isolated due to classroom and research demands. With digital storytelling, you’ll need to rely on help and input from people at your college – colleagues, tech fellows, academic instructional designers and your students. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help if you need it.

Make use of online resources. This is a great time to enter the field of digital storytelling. In contrast to when I began in 2007, there are a lot of research-based resources available online. In addition to The Changing Story, here are a few sites that I recommend:

Linda Buturian

About the Author

Linda Buturian

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