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Digital storytelling in higher education

Page history last edited by Martin Jenkins 14 years, 7 months ago

Digital Storytelling in Higher Education



McLellan (2006: 73), while recognising that digital storytelling has applications in a range of disciplines, prioritises its use for personal stories, digital story archives, memorial stories, avocational stories, educational stories and stories in medicine and health.  This usage can be said to reflect the agentive nature of storytelling.  Oppermann (2008), Coventry (2008), Jenkins & Lonsdale (2008) Olney et al (2009) all provide examples of how digital storytelling use within higher education is broadening out beyond the priority areas identified by McLellan.


Behind this increased use, both in frequency and spread is an understanding of the impact that this approach can have on the student learning experience that draws upon the pedagogy of storytelling but also recognises the affordances provided through the use of technology.  Discussing the use of digital video, Burn (2007:511) highlights three affordances which could also be applied to digital stories: feedback, dynamic representation and iterative opportunities.


Benmayor (2008: 198) identifies digital storytelling as a social pedagogy, approaching learning as a collaborative process.  The opportunities for collaboration within the digital storytelling process exist at multiple levels.  The process of story development is one of refinement through the telling and re-telling of ideas; digital storytelling is a self-reflexive and recursive process (Benmayor, 2008: 189).  Through this process and its interactive nature, as highlighted by McDrury and Alterio (2003) learning is reinforced through the synthesis of ideas and the multiple opportunities to gather feedback.  Digital storytelling introduces multiple media into this process and the need to express their understanding visually as well as verbally.  As a consequence formative peer feedback is embedded in the process.


Creating digital stories both enables the students to use their own voice and the potential for wide representation of their ideas.  Helping students to develop their own identity, is a social process, our concept of identity is dialogical and so narrative can play an important part in the construction of identity.  Digital storytelling is recognised to encourage emotional engagement with the task (Oppermann, 2008) which is indicative of its widespread use in community based projects.  In educational use it provides the opportunity for students to use their own voice.  Oppermann (2008: 180) found that students recognised the importance of voice in presenting an argument and that this helped in the development of their own sense of agency.  Oppermann (2008: 184) sees digital stories as a contact zone between the cognitive and the affective.  This is particularly so when students participate in activities that engage them with social and cultural issues (Oppermann, 2008; Benmayor, 2008) and through presentation of their own personal stories.  Reflection on critical incidents, such as those from an industrial placement, is one such example of how digital stories can be used to present their own stories (Jenkins & Lonsdale, 2008).  Reflections on critical points are ‘thickly agentive’.  They are not just reports on past events but have a role in helping the individual clarify their own self-concept.  They are then critical learning events in helping to develop individuals ‘agency’ (Hull & Katz, 2006).  In addition the digital format means that there is potential for wide dissemination of stories.  The use of web based video sharing sites indicates the potential scope for such wide representation.  However, for educational tasks this may not be appropriate and needs to be carefully considered.  The form does though present an accessible means of sharing which reinforces the potential opportunities for feedback and the iterative nature of the process.


Burn (2007) identifies the opportunities for iteration as one of the important affordances of using digital video.  This is also part of the storytelling process and can be applied to digital storytelling.  Creating a story is a powerful stimulus for reflection.  Coventry (2008: 168) observes that ‘digital storytelling encapsulates the important pedagogical principles of restatement and translation that are central to helping students engage with difficult material’.  This communication of understanding with others allows a different perspective to be introduced and new questions to be asked, which can potentially prompt further thoughts and reflections.  Learning is an iterative process and digital storytelling can make this explicit (Leon, 2008: 222).

The whole process of creating a story promotes such opportunities for collaboration, whether the stories are created in groups or individually.  The process is therefore fundamental.  However, there may be some applications where it is clear that the product is the main topic of interest (e.g. perhaps as part of a media-based course), or is intended to be a point of discussion (e.g. use in a critique – see Case Study 1), but there are other occasions where the purpose of the activity will be to promote student reflection and in this situation it could be argued that the final product may not always adequately represent the level of learning or understanding that was developed through the process of creating the story, or 'reveal the intellecutal processes' (Coventry, 2008: 210).  Depending upon the purpose of the digital story, it may therefore be appropriate to consider whether some form of additional evidence is required, for example a reflective journal outlining the steps taken to create the digital story, as it may be possible for a student to engage in quite high levels of learning and reflection – as indicated by Moon’s ‘Map of Learning’ – but for this not to be manifest within the final digital story.


Digital storytelling as a process is about the construction of artefacts.  Cultural artefacts, which can be language, writing and other symbols are important in achieving identity.  They are a means of allowing individuals to locate themselves with the world (Hull & Katz, 2006).  Within higher education the linguistic form is the dominant paradigm still, Oppermann (2008: 176) observes that it has become ‘naturalized’, in his discipline of American Studies, and so unquestioned.  As such it is still an approach that will challenge both staff and student.  Students can become accustomed to traditional forms of assessment and internalise processes for coping with them.  The form of digital stories, being multi-layered and demanding ‘compressed argumentation’ (Coventry, 2008), means that students are challenged to consider how they present their ideas.  The different media forms also mean that students are working across different ‘languages’ which encourages a more reflective approach and moves them out of the comfort zone of traditional written forms of assessment.  By adopting a multi-layered approach students are able to use and develop different skills and literacies to convey ideas rather than just words alone, which can present creative opportunities for assessment.  Case study 4, from the University of Gloucestershire, provides an illustration of where such an approach was taken to explicitly take students out of their comfort zone.  The result was positive both in terms of student feedback (after initial concerns) and in the quality of the student outputs.  Research into the use of digital storytelling with students at Leeds University and Leeds Metropolitaan University (Sanders, 2009: 11) found that students had mixed opinions on the use of this approach.  This appeared to be related to students' preferred mode of learning, with those with a preference for written approaches less favourable towards digital storytelling; however, the research found that the creativity of the digital storytelling process helped to facilitate reflection (Sanders, 2009: 12).  This was recognised by academic staff involved in the delivery of the projects, one of whom noted how 'digital storytelling can encourage students to sidestep habitual approaches to reflection and engage in a more intuitive and creative way' (Sanders, 2009: 15).  Oppermann (2008) and Coventry (2008) recognise that digital storytelling works at the boundary of emotional and epistemological learning, bridging theory and practice.  Students become emotionally engaged with the creation of the digital story leading to a ‘spiral of engagement’.


The web site 'Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling', developed at the University of Houston organises the education use of digital stories into three categories:

  • Personal narratives
  • Stories that inform or instruct
  • Stories that examine historical events.


Taking into account the broader interpretation of digital storytelling that particularly the new media narrative definition provides there is now evidence of an increasing range of uses.  Many of these do fit with the three categories identified above.  However, from the examples provided on Examples of Digital Storytelling Use, it can be seen that this categorisation is becoming potentially limited.

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