How we teach is just as important as what we teach. Students today – who are sometimes described as digital natives due to their lifelong engagement with digital technology – can seem practically wired to their digital devices. And in a way, they are – they communicate, interact, process information, and learn different than any previous generation[i]. According to a study presented at the 48th annual American Heart Association Conference, 60% of teenagers spend an average of 20 hours per week in front of television and computer screens; about 30% spend closer to 40 hours[ii].
For teachers, digital natives and their love for technology pose a challenge. Instead of forcing students to put the devices down to join the real world, however, more and more teachers are meeting them where they’re at — online.
If you have ever posted a blog, photo, or status online, then you have done what educators are calling “digital storytelling”— and it is gaining value as a standard classroom practice. In their 2011 article entitled Digital Storytelling: A Tool for Teaching and Learning in the YouTube Generation, the authors describe the practice of digital storytelling:
“How we speak to our students is as important as what we say. In today’s culture, the noise of information can be deafening, and competing for students’ attention can be a matter of broadcasting on the frequencies to which they are listening. The digital story, which dials into digital natives and connects them with the curriculum, represents one of our most powerful instructional tools today.[iii]”
Digital storytelling is the practice of delivering content through a digital medium. It can be done by teachers, students, or even school administrators. Platforms can include websites, blogs, video channels, podcasts, or online portfolios. Many of these platforms can be used for free: companies like WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr charge nothing for their basic services, for example. Many teachers already incorporate these into their classrooms; many are starting to get their students to do the same.
There is no limit to what kind of content is shared — digital stories can include personal anecdotes, historical events, school events, or original creations. Digital stories can also include math instruction, science demonstrations, or general discussions about a topic. Because you can include animation, music, pictures and text, there is a lot of room for creativity. Digital storytelling allows teacher to compete in the digital world; it is an ideal medium for students who seek out opportunities for self-expression and interaction with others.
Although there are many types of digital stories, they can be grouped into three main categories [iv]:
- Personal narratives – stories that contain accounts of significant incidents in one’s life.
- Historical documentaries – stories that examine dramatic events that help us understand the past.
- Instructional Story – Stories designed to inform or instruct the viewer on a particular concept or practice.
Digital storytelling sounds like a fun way to teach – but is it effective? A study from 2007 found that the approach was positive in some ways, and challenging in others:
“Evaluations show that staff and students have found this approach to be a positive experience for encouraging student creativity; however, the very personal reflective nature of the stories created has raised issues about how student reflection and progression is adequately captured using this approach.[v]”
It is generally agreed upon that digital storytelling is new and more research is needed about its effectiveness. It should not be regarded as perfect for everybody: students who lack skills with traditional storytelling may not necessarily be able to compose a good digital story, for example. With such a new and unique medium, some other challenges are to be expected – for example, what is an appropriate way to grade digital stories? How can teachers avoid student use of copyrighted material?
Many teachers create digital stories to use as part of their anticipatory set, or use them to supplement lessons with. Tyler Binkley, a first-year math teacher at Palmyra Middle School in Pennsylvania, has set an example with the online math videos he created to teach students critical math skills. His videos, which have gone viral, are now used to teach other educators about the “cultural value of the digital storytelling medium.” His classroom has even been the focus of research.
Digital storytelling is also a tool for students, who can be taught to create their own stories using multimedia. Students can use digital stories to present a topic from a particular point of view, for example. Digital storytelling can also help enhance a student’s ability to research, organize, and communicate information to different audiences. Knowing that their unique message can be shared by the entire world can be extra motivating.
School administrators can also use the digital storytelling medium to tell the histories of their schools and communities. There really is no limit to where it can be used or how it can be applied.
[i] Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. (2005). Is it age or IT: First steps towards understanding the net generation. In D. Oblinger & J. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the Netgeneration (pp. 2.1–2.20). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/Resources/EducatingtheNetGeneration/IsItAgeorITFirstStepsTowardUnd/6058
[ii] American Heart Association (2008, March 12). Many Teens Spend 30 Hours A Week On ‘Screen Time’ During High School. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 15, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/03/080312172614.htm
[iii] Dreon, Oliver, Richard Kerper, and Jon Landis. “Digital Storytelling: A Tool for Teaching and Learning in the YouTube Generation.” Middle School Journal May 2011: 4-9. Print.
[iv] Robin, B. R. 2006. “The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling”. [Internet document available at http://www.coe.uh.edu/digital-storytelling/evaluation.htm%5D
[v] Jenkins, M., & Lonsdale, J. (2007). Evaluating the effectiveness of digital storytelling for student reflection. Proceedings of the 2007 ASCILITE Conference on ICT Providing Choices for Learners and Learning, 440-444. Citeseer. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.88.8318&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Note: This essay was written in 2011 for my “Teaching with Technology” course at Wayne State University’s College of Education, where I earned my BS.