Digital narratives: Telling stories using digital media.

Jacob, a twelve-year old boy, shows me his latest video production: a skateboarding DVD. The title of the DVD, Get Out, refers to a sequence in the video when the skate boarders are chased away from the site where they practice their tricks. The DVD is presented with a printed covering, designed by Jacob, complete with his company name, Mimic Films. Playing the DVD reveals a stylised menu accompanied by the sound of skateboard wheels on pavement. As I click through the menu options, I am able to view carefully edited movies of Jacob and his friends… (Willett, R. 2009:13)

Digital cameras, be they still or video, have revolutionised the art of photography and movie making. Images captured digitally can be seen immediately, then transferred to other digital devices for long term storage and editing. This immediacy has popularised photography and we now find digital cameras with both still and video as a fixed feature of most mobile phones. While top quality digital SLRs are expensive, affordable digital cameras are available in a majority of schools in developed countries, where they are used by teachers and children to add pictures to class folders, where they can be edited, shared and used to aid discussions and support learning across the curriculum.

In this post I would like to look at the idea of getting children to use digital media in the classroom to add value to text and even to replace it as a story telling medium, as in the case of video and photo essays. Video is generally well understood in the world we live in, given that television, computers and even mobile technologies can be used to watch movies and ‘home made’ stories on sites like YouTube. Photo essays are perhaps more challenging, given that in this case the images themselves tell the story. This is not an easy task, given that it is more limited than general digital storytelling, which uses a combination of words, photographs, video and audio.  However it has the potential to develop students’ understanding of discrete narrative mediums to a greater extent than general multimedia narratives.

Several skill sets need to be developed in order to complete this kind of task successfully.  These would include developing a good understanding of the camera as a tool, learning how to edit still and video images and, more importantly, how to use these mediums to develop clear and coherent narratives.  Other more generic skills would include organisational and problem solving skills. These skills developed incrementally over time with practice and guidance from understanding and enthusiastic teachers. Access to a good quality equipment is essential, as is access to good quality editing and presentation software. Luckily, this equipment is a good deal cheaper now than it was in the past, with editing suites often provided with operating systems.

Sylvester and Greenidge (2009:284) provide a useful overview of the different ‘literacies’ involved above. These include technological literacy (skills used to operate cameras and computers adequately), visual literacy ( ability to interpreting and encode images in a ‘product’), media literacy (ability to access, evaluate and create messages in written and oral language, digital still, digital moving images, digital audio … to create  a multimedia product) and information literacy (the ability to find, analyse, evaluate and synthesize information). What emerges from this is that digital storytelling involves the use of a wide range of literacies, both new and old, which are combined to develop new and exciting multimedia narratives. Sylvester and Greenidge’s overview  shows clearly that it uses traditional writing (pencil and paper, word processor) to compose a story, which is then recorded in digital format to form the narration. Scenes are then designed using image frames and story-boarded to match the narration. These are then translated into a graphical narrative using photographs, appropriate clip art and video footage, which are then under-laid by the narration in the final product.  It is clear that this is a complex process, involving a good deal of discussion and decision making by the production group. Clearly, both academic and social skills come into play here.  Sadik (2008), working with teachers in Egypt to enable them to use technology effectively in classrooms, found that the best approach required learning to be designed from a (social) constructivist approach that encourages students to learn in a social context, as suggested by the Sylvester and Greenidge’s model described above.

An important aspect of creating digital stories is that they motivate students, keeping them engaged and on task (Burn & Reed, [1999] in Sylvester and Greenage, [2009]). Additionally, they provide an alternate conduit of expression for those students who struggle with writing traditional texts (Reid, Parker & Burn, [2002] in Sylvester and Greenage, [2009]), enabling them to discover voice, confidence and structure.  The main thrust of Sylvester and Greenidge’s paper is that the creation of digital narratives can go a long way towards helping ‘struggling writers’ by providing them with the opportunity to use other literacies which can “boost their motivation and scaffold their understanding of traditional literacies” (p 286). This is echoed by Bull and Kajder (2004) who claim that “Technology has the capacity to amplify the writer’s voice in a well written story. In particular, digital storytelling can be used to engage struggling readers and writers who have not yet experienced the power of personal expression.”  Riesland ([2005] in Robin,  [2009:222]) states that powerful but affordable hardware and software is exactly what is needed in today’s classrooms, providing students with the skills to “thrive in increasingly media-varied environments.”

While it may be the case that struggling writers are supported by using technology to create stories of different sorts, it is also true that young people are generally avid users of digital technologies outside of school. Evans (2004:8) reports young people as “initiating, appropriating and establishing changes to literacy practices in a fast and furious manner”.  and Robin (2009) points out that they regularly use a variety of internet resources, not simply as consumers of information, but as contributors, creating wikis, blogs, podcasts and movies which they share on sites like YouTube. This is echoed by Willett (2009) in her description of the twelve year-old’s video production, Get Out, which heads this post.

An important aspect of successful use of digital technologies in the classroom is that teachers need to “possess the expertise to use technology in a meaningful way in the classroom” (Sadik 2008:487). Sylvester and Greenidge (2009:293) concur, saying that “one of the major reasons for the dearth of digital storytelling in schools is that most teachers have not been exposed to the medium” and that “they are reluctant to initiate it because  of their lack of competence or confidence.” Furthermore, even teachers who were confident in their own ability to create digital stories were not necessarily comfortable trying to guide a whole class because of the logistical issues involved.

Bull & Kajder (2004) highlight Lambert’s  seven element guide for structuring digital stories.  These are further developed by Robin (2009:223). These include:

  1. a point of view –
    the main point of the story and the author’s perspective
  2. a dramatic question –
    a key question that keeps the viewer’s attention and is answered at the end of the story
  3. emotional content –
    serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way,connecting the story to the audience
  4. economy –
    providing just the right amount of content to tell the story with overwhelming the viewer
  5. pacing –
    rhythm, how slowly and how quickly it unfolds
  6. the gift of voice –
    personalising the story to provide a meaningful context for the audience
  7. an accompanying soundtrack –
    music or other sounds to support and embellish the storyline.

Equally important is the provision of appropriate contexts for this kind of storytelling. Robin (2005), talking about digital storytelling in general, lists three types of narrative – personal, those that examine historical events and those that inform and instruct. All of these could be used in a relevant way in schools, given the prevalence of all three in general storytelling environments. The reality is that relevant contexts present themselves every day, be they personal or curriculum based. As teachers we need to recognise them and use them.

Robin (2009:223) provides a useful diagram illustrating the convergence of digital storytelling in education.

Robin, (2009:223)

References.

Bull, G. & Kagdir, S. (2004) Digital Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom. Learning and Leading with Technology, 32(4). 46-49.

Evans, J. (2004) Literacy Moves On. Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Primary Classroom. David Fulton, London.

Robin, B.R. (2005) The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. University of Houston.

Robin, B.R. (2009) Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the 21st Century Classroom. Theory into Practice, 47(3). 220-228.

Sadik, A. (2008) Digital storytelling: a meaningful technology-integrated approach for engaging student learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(4). 48.

Sylvester, R.  & Greenidge, W.  (2009) Digital Storytelling: Extending the Potential for Struggling Writers. The Reading Teacher, 63(4). 284-295.

Willett, R. (2009) Young People’s Video Productions as New Sites of Learning. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices. UKLA/Sage, London.

Other resources.

Lambert. The Digital Storytelling Cookbook.

Photo Journal – First Brighton and Hove M25 Tour.

Highly recommended reading:

Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Contentions Technologies. Introduction, Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

Dowdall, C. (2009) Masters and critics: children as producers of online digital texts. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

Leander, K. (2009) Composing with old and new media: towards a parallel pedagogy. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

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2 Responses to Digital narratives: Telling stories using digital media.

  1. Pingback: Digital narratives: supporting story telling with digital media. « M’s … | Love to read, love to learn!

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