Digital Storytelling: From a Professional Endeavor to a Homework Assignment

If you could time travel and be transported to the early 90’s, is very likely you would be producing professional videos with Betacam. You would need to use huge cameras, half-inch magnetic tapes, and large machines for postproduction.  The editing back then was linear: you needed to find the chosen shot on one tape and transfer it to another one. If you needed to change something at the beginning, you had to start again.  I compare this process of editing with an old typewriter.  It was quite troublesome to move, add, or change shots or audio once you have started the process.

Caméra Betacam Ampex flickr photo by zigazou76 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Sony UVW1200 Players and recorder for Hire flickr photo by AV Hire London shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Digital Betacam tape flickr photo by DRs Kulturarvsprojekt shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license 


Fast forward to 2018 and it is easy to see how technology has advanced tremendously, and how simply with your smartphone, you have the tools and capability to embark on a multimedia production.  The cameras on new phones are so advanced that you could record videos in 4K high-resolution with incredible contrast and details.  Then, with the raw footage, you can use apps such as iMovie, WeVideo, Magisto, Clips for post-production (see more options, here).  It is as simple as cutting and pasting the different scenes, adding voice-over, text, transitions, and music.  In a little over 20 years, we have gone from having a small number of people monopolizing multimedia equipment — and, therefore, telling their story —  to having ubiquitous technology which has the potential to empower everyone to share their unique perspectives of the world.

But, is having the tech tools enough?

If we dissect a short story, a novel, or a memoir, we would be able to identify characteristics that grasp the reader’s attention  — or the listener. There should be no difference when we bring images, text, and music to convert the written story into a digital one.  Tiziana Saponaro in her blog, Digital Storytelling: An Efficient And Engaging Learning Activity, supports this idea:

Although the concept of digital storytelling is closely linked to the use of new technology, we shouldn’t forget that it is always the story and not the technology that teachers should focus on. We should merge the digital skills with the literate education; this is where teachers still have a role to play, even in the digital age.

So, teachers continue to be crucial at guiding students through the steps for creating digital stories. As with everything in education, it requires planning and various stages of deep probing to make sure students are on track. Here is a video that summarizes the following steps in the process:

  1. Start with an idea
  2. Write your story
  3. Create a storyboard
  4. Research and gather elements (recording original footage)
  5. Build your story
  6. Share it and receive feedback

Now, let’s go back and focus on item number four:

Research and gather elements (record original footage)

Here is where teachers need more explicit instruction. With the intention of using non-traditional ways to assess learning, we often assign video projects to students without a real notion of how much time it would take from beginning to end.   Very few teachers have embarked on the process of videomaking themselves, so it is hard to judge a realistic timeline for students to follow.  In addition, not many educators have learned video composition, the use of lighting or the different guidelines that the language of cinematography offers to convey the message that we intend. Therefore, teachers must learn along with students and become knowledgeable about visual literacy in order to teach basic principals and to be able to evaluate what their students produce. I found the resources below useful, and, before starting a digital storytelling project, I would share them with students (whether posting them in the (LMS) Learning Management System, or via other means).

Design: William Coonan/ CC-BY-NC

Design: William Coonan/ CC-BY-NC

Design: William Coonan/ CC-BY-NC























How would I use digital storytelling in the classroom?

There are unlimited ways to use digital storytelling in schools, such as an end product in a PBL project. Students can use video production to communicate, to document and to make any learning more visible.  One example where I witnessed high student engagement was in a Spanish class. Students wrote scripts for a production of a short film.   “Alto y Claro” written by Tony Vallés y Emilio Martinez — middle school students — had very little dialogue.  They had to convey the mood of the story with the use of light and shadows, camera framing, editing and startling music. The students were clearly knowledgeable about framing the scenes, using the 180-degree rule (to not confuse the viewer), and how to combine elements in the story to create suspense. Without the rubric, I am unable to judge if the students met all the criteria required by the teacher; however, as a viewer, it certainly kept me on edge. The students were not only engaged in learning but were applying visual literacy at its best.

For the writing of this blog, I also found the website Story Center which provides public free webinars to whoever wants to learn more about digital storytelling. I signed up for the upcoming one here.

What other resources have you used or intend to use when incorporating digital storytelling in your classroom?  No matter what they are, don´t forget to think about the entire process you are asking your students to undertake.  Your own clarity and realistic expectations will help lead to their success in visual communication.

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4 Responses

  1. Sara McAllister says:

    Hey Carolin!

    I love your title! So true and so crazy how quickly technology has moved us along, you highlight that so well with your examples from the 90s. I am still so amazed (maybe a little jealous too) to see elementary students who can edit videos and have access to learning these skills at such young ages! It’s truly incredible!

    You share some really great resources here! I will definitely plan to take several of these videos and the infographic into my class and provide them to teachers I work with on video work in class. I have been doing video work in class with students for a few years and sadly have become a little more stagnant in what I do and how I go about it so I haven’t really researched any new resources recently for teaching this. You’ve give me lots to go on now to make some improvements with how I approach my lessons that involve video work. One video I shared in my post that I’ve used is on the basics of storyboarding, the link is here:

    I completely agree with your point that most teachers have never done video work themselves and therefore either blindly assign the work to students or avoid using the tech in class at all. I’ve seen both when working with teachers. I wonder what could be done to help teachers learn to better instruct these skills and to have realistic expectations for what students can produce and in what amount of time. I want teachers to allow students to use video as a means for communicating, but I also want them to understand the process better before assigning it with rubrics that critique video skills they’ve never taught or focus on the wrong thing in general.

    I wonder if there are any resources that exist to help teachers learn how to do learn and work with this type of technology better to best benefit students and student learning? If not, maybe there should be a guide created to help teachers know how to assess and what to expect when working with technology to do certain tasks.

    Thanks for another great post and some awesome resources!

    • Dear Sara,
      The video that you shared about creating storyboards is great. I have bookmarked it to use it in the future. The same as you, I think there is a lot of potential in education to use video making for storytelling, but teachers need training. Maybe we should get together an create a PD online course!
      Have a great week.

  2. Jason Graham says:

    I was having a conversation with a Grade 4 teacher at school, he was asking what is so great about digital storytelling? Its just tech right? I like how you’ve outlines that tech enhances learning like making it visual (and the whole visual literacy part of learning) and not to mention how helpful this to non English speaking students in his class. Having the option to see and create digitally opens so many opportunities for creativeness as well. The process may not change whole lot- kids use storyboards etc but the way it is presented to the audience. It is also much more shareable on blogs for example giving a real authentic audience rather than works stuck on a page in a book in a desk. Thanks for Story Center resource!

    • Dear Jason,
      Yes! Authentic projects that make the learning more visual is what I am all about. When you have an audience, besides your teacher, to showcase your work, we move towards the learning being useful and relevant to students’ lives. I have two teenage daughters, and, sometimes I lack words to encourage them when they come home disappointed and ask, “when am I going to use this knowledge in the future?”
      Thank you for commenting on my post.

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