Digital storytelling has a transformative power to amplify the voices of silenced groups, to empower the marginalized, and to engage learners in a multitude of essential 21st century skills from critical thinking to multi-literacy skills. It is a technology and pedagogy combination that can be a method, media, and content all in one. It can be a simple amateur photo and text or a complex professional multimedia video. A digital story can tell a personal narrative of a new immigrant or represent a historical, educational, or social topic in a new light. In this issue paper, I begin by teasing out the various definitions of digital storytelling to find the common elements. Next, I describe the ways that digital storytelling has been used for different purposes in different contexts with different audiences in order to demonstrate the numerous benefits for learning. A high level descriptive overview of the general process of making a digital story precedes a brief discussion and conclusion with thoughts on the power and potential of digital storytelling in the future.
As I began this exploration, I first considered, “What does digital storytelling mean to me?” The kinds of words and images that popped into my head included: computers, technology, multimedia, video, pictures, text, audio narration, classics, fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, plot, characters, folklore, tales, narrative, vivid imagery. While these are descriptive qualities of digital storytelling, what I discovered in my research is that digital storytelling is so much more—it is also a pedagogy and process. It has transformative power that can give a voice to oppressed groups. It can teach writing skills, multi-literacy skills, critical thinking skills, and design skills. It can engage digital storytelling creators in cognitive, affective, and social processes that Kozma (1994) asserted were essential to effective learning. Kozma (1994) posited that traditional learning design has been grounded in an outdated behaviorist paradigm that ignores “the cognitive, affective, or social processes by which learning occurs… [and] the underlying structures and functions of various media that influence these processes.”
Definition of Digital Storytelling
A useful approach to defining digital storytelling is to first consider what digital storytelling is not. The type of media to develop and deliver a story does not define digital storytelling, but digital stories include some element of media. The length of the story does not define digital storytelling, but digital stories are typically brief. The purpose or subject of a story does not define digital storytelling, which can be lighthearted to profound, tacit to concrete. The processes or procedures of creating a story do not define digital storytelling; these can be simple to complex. Digital storytelling means different things to different creators in different contexts for different audiences. Digital storytelling is typically brief, 2 to 10 minutes, uses some element of media from a photo and text to video and audio, and tells a narrative that can be a personally evocative story or an objective position on a familiar or unfamiliar topic related to history, art, science, education, people, places—virtually any topic. As Meadows (2003) describes, “Digital storytelling isn’t just a tool; it’s a revolution” (p. 192). Alexandra (2008) defines digital stories as “hyper short, personally narrated multimedia fragments” (p. 101).
Not only are there many varied definitions of digital storytelling, but it is also known by a variety of different names such as photovoice, photo storying, citizen journalism, photojournalism, video journalism, interactive digital narratives, geo-tagged or place-based stories, multimedia storytelling, and transmedia storytelling (Ferraro, 2011; Johnson, 2012; Worley, 2011; Murray, 1997; Dulai, 2012; and Jenkins, 2003). Paul and Fiebich (2005) created a detailed taxonomy of the elements of digital storytelling which include (1) the number and type of media, (2) content and user actions, (3) linear and nonlinear storylines in customizable or standard plot lines, (4) linked or standalone contexts, and (5) one-way or two-way communication. This taxonomy illustrates the varied facets and multiple dimensions of digital storytelling, which are part of its strengths as a pedagogy and technology.
Benefits of Digital Storytelling for Learning
From this taxonomy, it is clear to see the technical nature of digital storytelling, however the context, content, and process can add a powerful transformative aspect to digital stories. One of the most significant educational benefits of digital storytelling is that it gives people a voice. As Chung (2007) describes, digital storytelling “allows learners to cultivate and apply their multiple literacy, artistic, and critical skills to give voice to greater issues of importance to a worldwide audience” (p. 17). Digital stories have been used in many contexts that include, but are not limited to, critical literacy, citizen journalism, art education, religious education, in articles addressing the digital divide, and in gifted education (Oppermann, 2008; Worley, 2011; Chung, 2007; Hess, 2012; Gyabak & Godina, 2011; Kieler, 2010). Through the process of giving someone a voice particularly otherwise silenced persons, digital storytelling becomes a transformative power. The process of creating digital stories provides a structured way to reflect on a critical issue or personally relevant topic and develop writing skills, multi-literacy skills, critical thinking, and design skills (Kajder, 2004; Chung, 2007; Yang & Wu, 2012). The process follows a social constructivist path from beginning to end, from story conception to final sharing, which can be applied in many different contexts for many different audiences. Kieler (2010) explains that an important element of developing a digital story is to give students time to find the content that speaks to them in a powerful and personal way and give them time to think about it, talk about it, and interact with it so they develop emotional buy-in. This will translate to a more powerful message and experience. This element illustrates the social nature of digital storytelling and highlights the critical first step in the process.
The Process of Developing a Digital Story
The process, while unique to each context, generally takes the following path: reflection, planning, production, and distribution with generous sharing.
Reflection is an essential component of the process. As Alexandra (2008) describes, “an oral story-sharing circle and time for reflection, writing, and problem posing laid a central foundation for the project that foregrounds the voice” (p. 103). Ideally, participants share ideas for stories in a safe environment in the context of a story circle that is founded on tolerance and acceptance. Taking time at this point in the process is fundamental for participants to connect emotionally with the story topic. Without this connection, the digital story may lack its transformative power to carry an important message and provide a meaningful learning experience. The outcome, without time for reflection and emotional buy-in, may be perceived as a mundane educational requirement or presentation.
An essential second step in most digital storytelling processes involves planning. The planning stage may include using story maps or storyboards for more complex digital stories. Students can use paper and pencil or concept mapping software tools to create story maps. Concept mapping tools are useful to help students visually plan various aspects of their stories such as the title, main characters, supporting characters, setting, central problem, and the solution (see Figure 1). After students develop the characters and story plot, then storyboards can help them visualize design layout, effects, and other media elements. The storyboard displays screen design and layout, transitions, timing, effects, background music or audio, and the narration script (see Figure 2).
Some authors have combined reflection and planning into a pre-production stage followed by production, post-production, and distribution. However the process is divided or named, similar activities are involved in the pre-production stage such as finding authentic questions, exploring personally relevant topics, sharing ideas, and creating story maps and storyboards (Yang & Wu, 2012).
Following the planning stage, students gather and create media to develop their digital stories in the production stage. Along a spectrum of simple to complex, this production stage may involve developing text or a script, recording audio narration, taking photos or finding stock images, creating or downloading background music, creating video, or using a software tool to bring the media together and publish it for distribution. Students learn about 21st century information literacy skills through developing media elements, writing narration scripts, and selecting key story elements. In this process, students increase their technology and media literacy—they become proficient with multimedia applications and they think critically about ways to select and combine media elements that tell a meaningful story (Educause Learning Initiative, 2007). In this way, students see from first-hand experience how authors create a message and intentionally seek to evoke particular emotions or motivation. In addition to critical thinking, technology skills, and information literacy skills, students learn about writing through script development. Furthermore, digital storytelling supports experiential learning about emotional design through personally experiencing the influence of aesthetic qualities such as audio, visual, layout, and color on the story’s message.
Distribution and Sharing
Following production, students distribute and share their digital stories. This final stage is an essential aspect of digital storytelling that highlights the social nature of this constructivist activity. Students come full circle from the initial reflections shared within the story circles to voicing their messages within a larger audience. In this distribution and sharing stage, there is significant potential for transformational learning experiences as well as dignity and democracy in the classroom. As Alexandra (2008) explains, “this process and critical practice challenges dominant power relations between [teacher] and [student] by defying the reduction and/or silencing of experience and actively seeking a shared authority” (p. 111). Digital storytelling has potential for being a particularly powerful learning motivator for low achievers as it combines an expectancy of success with the value of rewards as it relates to the expectancy x value model of motivation outlined by Brophy (2010).
Discussion and Conclusion
Given the multidimensional quality of digital storytelling, it can be perceived as both a method and media while serving multiple learning purposes. Digital storytelling can be adapted for diverse learners in a variety of contexts, which gives it the potential to have tremendous reach. As learner-centered digital technologies and social media mature, digital storytelling has the power to make an impact on education in general, and critical literacy and learning technologies in particular because of its strength in addressing the affective domain of learning.
Method and Media
A multitude of digital storytelling resources and research shed light on the great media debate between Clark (1994) and Kozma (1994) who take opposing sides on the issue of whether or not media influences learning. Clark (1994) asserts that it is the method alone from which students learn while Kozma (1994) claims that it is futile to arbitrarily separate method from media. Given that the process of digital storytelling incorporates a structured method for improving critical thinking, writing, and design skills through various forms of media and technology use, it has potential to support Kozma’s argument. The transformative power of the method lies in the affective aspect of learning evoked from the media (images, video, audio) and through the process of critically thinking about the content subject and the production of message design. Additionally, digital storytelling provides support for Kozma’s position given that there are information literacy skills that would be missing from a paper-based approach to this activity. This is not to say that a powerful message cannot be articulated through a static image and text, because it can (see Figure 3).
Rather, the technology-enhanced aspect of digital storytelling gives learners additional experience in accessing digital libraries and culling artifacts for their contribution to the emotional design of the message. As Kozma (1994) asserts, technology can be method, media, and content that address cognitive, affective, and social aspects of learning. Digital storytelling is a useful technology to examine issues within this debate.
The Power and Potential of Digital Storytelling
Digital storytelling has revolutionary potential because of its wide application for a diverse user-audience in multiple contexts using a range of simple to sophisticated technology tools. Similar to other engaging, authentic technology-enhanced approaches such as anchored instruction, case-based learning, and situated learning, digital storytelling has the potential to support learning in meaningful and memorable ways. Furthermore, as in other anchored instruction programs that are anchored in authentic technology-enhanced multimedia stories such as Geothentic (Doering, Veletsianos, Scharber, & Miller, 2009), digital storytelling exemplifies the interplay of technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge that is key for effective technology enhanced learning (Koehler & Mishra, 2009).
Digital storytelling has immense potential to offer marginalized and oppressed groups a voice. By finding a voice, participants’ learning experiences are elevated from the simple transmission of how-to information through a transactional process of discussing story ideas with others to an overall transformative learning experience when they distribute and share their personal narrative. It can be an empowering experience that can trigger an immensely rewarding and validating experience for those who were once silenced. The power of digital storytelling is this potential for transformative learning that can be applied to nearly any content area, context, topic, or audience. Digital storytelling has the power to be an engaging means to educate, inform, influence, and inspire.
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