Integrating Digital Storytelling into the Classroom

Chris Millet recently wrote a post about how Digital Storytelling can enhance college students’ ability to retain information and synthesize research. He argues that creating effective narrative-based videos–ones that elicit an emotional response from the viewer–can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning across disciplines.

To understand why, and Millet outlines a number of reasons, we might look at our response to a natural disaster from across the globe. Reading about the number of fatalities from an earthquake may startle us, but it’s not until we see the photos from the destruction and hear people’s stories on the news that we respond to the tragedy on a visceral, gut level. This potent combination of narrative and imagery, what I’m referring to here as “digital storytelling,” humanizes factual statistics, giving them real meaning. And so rather than having students robotically regurgitate dates, or rush through an essay for a single reader, we are asking students to dive deep into their topic, discover the most compelling narrative elements, strategize how their message can best be conveyed through video, and convincingly show a public audience why we should care. Thus, the students become more than the experts; they become the teachers.

This may see like an intimidating task, but the learning process involved is multi-layered, collaborative, and often times, enjoyable. In fact, faculty who already incorporate digital storytelling into their coursework have told me the most challenging aspect of the project has little to do with technical knowledge. Indeed, with user-friendly Media Commons equipment (flip cams, iMovie, Kaltura) and user-friendly Media Commons support, students quickly learn how to shoot and edit moving images. The real problem occurs on a more abstract level—how to conceptually develop an engaging video narrative. This issue deserves significant attention. Just as students need to be able to string together sentences in a coherent fashion, they need to be able to organize multimedia content meaningfully, especially now.

In light of this, there is a crucial step in the planning phase of digital storytelling that I think we need to emphasize more as educators. Most students begin with some sort of written essay that they then must adapt into their final movie.  This process of translation, from text to video, is not a manner of recording one’s voice reading over the essay and then inserting random images. Because video operates differently as a medium than print, students must understand its unique limitations and affordances. And to maximize a video’s storytelling potential, students must rework their papers so as to “translate” it for the language of cinema.


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