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Digital Storytelling

Discussing and Defining Digital Storytelling

Feb 09, 2018 2018-02-09

By Jason Ohler

In this installment of our Digital Storytelling Series, Jason Ohler gives insight into his teacher workshops about digital storytelling. He discusses how teachers react to seeing different digital stories created by students and teachers, and the discussions that ensue.

In my teacher workshops about digital storytelling, I realize that teachers welcome the opportunity to talk about their role in students’ lives. Students’ lives are filled with digital technology and new media, often leaving teachers feeling unnecessary or underprepared. Teachers want to learn how to be helpful to students in their endeavors to make media and digital stories. I find an effective way to help them do that is to begin workshops by showing digital stories created either by students or teachers. Below are examples and recaps of the stories that are shown during the workshops:

A Day At School
A one-minute film about a day at school, told from the perspective of a severely disabled student. The story is made of pictures that other students took of her; a voice-over from a message communication system, since she is unable to speak unaided; and instrumental music that plays throughout the story.

My Piano
A teacher tells the story of how important the instrument has been throughout her life in a one-minute piece. Her story begins in her youth, when she began playing the piano, showing her development as a pianist through the years. The story was told through scanned old photos and piano music framing her narration.

Super Bugs
A digital story that was created by two students who shared their understanding of drug-resistant bacteria by using graphs, scientific illustrations, and a conversation between the students. One student explains why he is unable to get rid of an infection despite medical treatment with antibiotics. The story is four minutes long.

School Train
A group of grade 4 students created this story as a response to a language arts assignment in which they are required to show their understanding of the concept of metaphor. The project features music and advanced editing techniques. In the story, the school is compared to a train ride. Instead of a clear story line, this project highlights similarities between riding on a train and going to school. It is a challenging project due to its abstractness. The four-minute piece is narrated in both Spanish and English.

I ask teachers three questions afterwards:
  1. Story type, purpose, or impact
  2. Story elements
  3. Story production
Story type, Purpose, or Impact
I ask teachers to discuss how they can consider the stories they saw in terms of their academic goals with regards to the purpose of the story and how it reflects student understanding of content. Most important is the determination of what teachers expect students to create: an essay, a poem, or another kind of academic artifact. The difference is the audience expectation. An essay is expected to be clear and concise, have well-defined and articulated points, and follow a structure. The content should be easily absorbed and understood. Poems, on the other hand, are expected to be challenging, compelling the audience to think about language and meaning. I refer to this as “clear, like an essay” and “challenging, like a poem.”

Story Elements
Story elements are traits that are also addressed in “traditional” language arts and writing classes. They include point of view, first or third person narration, tone of voice, emotional engagement, and objective distance. Teachers need to make this part of their expectation when assigning new media projects: which story elements do they want students to focus on to meet the academic goals of an assignment.

Story Production
Story production is the most technical part of the discussions. While teachers might be used to seeing digital stories as consumers, their point of view changes once they begin considering themselves as media producers. This is mainly due to the fact that most teachers have little to no experience in producing stories. Depending on the expectations, teachers often point out how polished, professional, or well produced a piece was. They generally regard “glitzy” stories as having higher production values than less polished ones. I often have to refocus the conversation on “story” and assure them that creating a clear and compelling story is the goal, not producing wow and glitz.

Discussing these elements often leads teachers to voicing concerns about using digital storytelling with their students. They are trying to find their footing in this new territory. They are interested in learning how to help their students create stories and utilize the technology available, especially in a day and age when students are often more versed in using technology than teachers themselves. How much freedom should they allow students to express themselves? In addition, teachers need to figure out to which degree they want students to work alone or collaboratively. The primary challenge for teachers is to define clear objectives and goals for digital storytelling projects and to determine ways they can help students succeed in their efforts.

Dr. Jason Ohler is a professor emeritus, speaker, writer, and a lifelong digital humanist who is well-known for the passion, insight, and humor he brings to his writings, projects, teaching, and presentations. He has been helping community members, organizations, and students at all levels understand the ethical implications of being digital citizens in a world of roller-coaster technological change. His most recent book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future, reflects on his 35 years in the world of educational media and innovation in order to chart a course for a future. He is first and foremost a storyteller, telling tales of the future that are grounded in the past. Find Jason on Twitter @jasonohler or visit his website:

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