My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: Digital Storytelling: a videoconference discussion

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on November 4, 2011 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Talking digital storytelling around the digital campfire from flickr user NMC SecondLife

How does digital storytelling get used at liberal arts colleges?  This was the subject of yesterday’s impromptu videoconference discussion.  The concept was suggested by recent discussion on NITLE’s instructional technology mailing list and a new digital storytelling working group exploring multimedia narrative in the liberal arts and beyond. Inspired by this, we hosted a Google+ Hangout for a dozen people.  Discussion ranged over the definition and application of digital storytelling for teaching and learning, as well as practical considerations for implementing digital storytelling on a campus.

The definition of digital storytelling: Before we could talk about digital storytelling, we had to define it.  While discussion acknowledged the fairly narrow definition of the Center for Digital Storytelling (a short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds), we were inclined to be more expansive in our understanding.  For example, members of the digital storytelling working group use the definition “short videos, using images and sound, focused on helping the viewer understand a concrete experience,” while Bryan Alexander’s new book, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, takes in many different forms of digital composition, including games and twitter.

More interesting than the basic definition of digital storytelling, was the productive tension between professionally produced media and amateur digital storytelling.  Brett Boessen noted that his discipline, media studies often focused on the products of industry (perhaps with an element of elitism), and he appreciated the possibility for amateurs to produce using digital storytelling methodologies. Doug Reilly concurred: “my approach is very much about taking back or seizing for the first time the power of media to do something with it.”  Joe Murphy suggested an exploration of the “relevance of digital storytelling in exploring things I can make and things I can’t make,” and Bryan Alexander concluded that in this tension between professional and amateur, digital storytelling becomes media criticism.  These appreciations of the capacity of digital storytelling to allow production on par with professional media production echo the value of participatory culture described in Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.

Pedagogical value. Our wide-ranging discussion found myriad pedagogical applications for digital storytelling.  A primary use is, as Felix Kronenberg put it,  “simply a way to reflect the reality that a text is no longer simply a printed word but includes other media as well”.  Digital storytelling provides alternative methods of composition besides essay writing.  So, at Wheaton College departments are beginning to use digital storytelling as one component of their writing plan for writing across the curriculum.  Brett shared the acronym WOVEN: Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Non-Verbal literacies to cover the range of literacies we should now teach.  The University of Richmond is exploring digital storytelling in the context of information fluency.  Students start with writing, then look at visual literacy aspects.  According to Kenneth Warren, over 500 students and about 20 faculty have been involved with the LearnDST.Richmond.Edu project so far and students now compete to have the best story.  At Wheaton College, digital stories are also taking the place of or becoming part of oral presentations.

Creativity. Digital storytelling also empowers student creativity.  Students start to see themselves as storytellers and appreciate their ability to share something in a wider way.  This sense of legitimacy or agency, then, encourages them to be more creative.  The group noted that often the strongest digital stories come from the students who aren’t as strong in the written form.  With text, students know the forms which may reduce opportunities for thinking of things differently or from a different perspective.  As production in digital media becomes increasingly common, we may lose this effect.

Student voice. Digital storytelling also facilitates student voice.  Teb Locke described how business students at Franklin and Marshall are using digital storytelling to bring a personal perspective to an evidence of the popular reception of corporations and law.  In the languages, digital storytelling empowers students to communicate even if they don’t have the spoken vocabulary.  At Wheaton College, Gabriela Torres has her students using digital storytelling at the beginning of the thesis-writing process to express their passion for the topic, which they often lose by the end.

Communication and community. Digital storytelling also has value for connecting to the world beyond the classroom.  Joe Murphy suggested that digital storytelling “will take off in the natural sciences at Kenyon, where we’ve got interest in being able to communicate both with professionals and with the general public.”  Earlier this year, Gary Roberts bloggedabout this rhetorical potential of video at Alfred University.  Digital storytelling can also help bring community voices into the classroom.  Felix Kronenberg described a “grant-funded project to combine community-based learning and DST [digital storytelling]. Students go into the community [in Memphis] to interview immigrants and then use DST to tell their stories.”  A model can be found in Howard Levin’s work in this area:  Kronenberg sees his project as different from oral history in that it is condensed information rather than extensive.  Students must learn to synthesize material and crystalize their message.

This community-based learning leads to the intersection of story and place.  Several projects are exploring that connection.  For example, Cleveland Historical is a mobile app that allows users to find stories of their surroundings.  Lora Taub has students producing short documentaries about places in Allen Town under the auspices of Muhlenberg College’s Story Mapping Project. Inspired by Taub, Brett Boessen is doing a project on places in Sherman, Texas.

Issues, tools, advice. Discussion also covered the technological and other challenges that arise during digital storytelling.  The iPad is emerging as a tool for producing stories at Franklin and Marshall College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  At the University of Richmond, incorporating digital storytelling requires 20+ hours to learn tech skills to produce a compelling piece.  Faculty must find room in their syllabus for their extra work.  If they bring it in as the final presentation, then they may lose the benefit of the feedback at the end of the semester.  Doug Reilly suggested that much of the feedback should come throughout the process, so that the final screening was more a celebration of what had been accomplished.  Collecting and storing the stories is another issue.  The University of Richmond first used Omeka, but found that WordPress worked better.

Interactive fiction.  Finally, discussion turned to interactive fiction as an alternative form of digital storytelling.  Joe Murpy suggested that it would be an interesting way for students to engage counter-factuals.  Inform is one tool, although it takes some class time to explain.  Joe Murphy also pointed to EchoBazaar as an example of interactive fiction, even though at any given point you have about 2-6 defined choices, not a full repertoire of actions.

Participants in this hangout included Brett Boessen, Michelle Kassorla, Felix Kronenberg, Teb Locke, Steven Lubar, Joe Murphy, Patrick Rashleigh, Doug Reilly, Fritz Vandover, Kenneth Warren, Bryan Alexander and I.

Resources, projects, and other links mentioned during the hour

Digital Storytelling Communities and Information

Tools for Aggregating and Publishing Stories


NITLE Symposium: Inventing the Future, Call for Proposals. Submit an idea – we’re gonna have fun!

Previous NITLE impromptu videoconference discussions:

  1. Mozilla badges for education (part 1part 2)
  2. Google+ for education
  3. Recent developments in open education
  4. Unbundling Education

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