Published: Jan. 7, 2013

Screenshot of VideoPad softwareThe images are sometimes faded and the voiceovers are rarely crisp, but the stories they tell are real. She is the youngest of five sisters. He plays a perfect game of pool. A daughter struggles to care for her schizophrenic mother. A young woman finds solace at a Catholic church in Wales. Using scanned family photographs, recorded audio, and software like iMovie and Final Cut, students produce short video narratives that can be uploaded onto the internet and shared with a wide audience.

This is digital storytelling.

"Digital environments have fundamentally changed the way people read and communicate," says Amy Goodloe who served for two years as the Digital Composition Coordinator for CU's Writing and Rhetoric program. "So why are we teaching students to write to audiences that won't exist in the future, using mediums that are relics of the pre-digital world?" Amy Goodloe has integrated digital composition assignments into her writing courses for many years, and when she offered Digital Storytelling for the first time in Fall 2012, students clamored to take the course.

In recent years, Digital Storytelling has gained momentum in classrooms across the country. Often presented as an interdisciplinary project option that blends rhetoric and technology, students simultaneously learn how to use new digital tools and how to compose a compelling narrative. In the past several years, top universities including UC Berkley, The University of Maryland, and MIT have begun offering Digital Storytelling as an official course. But storytelling knows no age limits. In 2010, a kindergarten class in New Jersey used VoiceThread software to create a collaborative class narrative about polar bears.

On the whole, the classes have been successful, with students rushing to fill the available seats. Digital Storytelling is a particularly powerful tool when applied to service learning projects. CU students taking Dr. Beth Osnes' and Dr. Max Boykoff's Spring 2012 Inside the Greenhouse class created powerful videos about plastic waste, hunting, and climate change in an effort to raise awareness about pressing environmental issues.

So what is the pedagogical value of digital storytelling? "The goal is to... equip students with the writing skills of the future, which extend beyond the scope of text-based writing," Amy Goodloe explained in her notes from a presentation at the COLTT conference in August. "Stories hold our attention," she says. "They move us." She went on to explain the importance of the personal story, rather than a media-created one. "The concept of moving from consumers to producers is frequently used as a justification for teaching students to compose digital media," she says. "The digital story movement is powered by the rest of us."

"Why do we assign papers in the first place?" asks Goodloe. "What do students want to learn? Can that be learned through digital storytelling instead of a paper? Sustained inquiry or argument across multiple pages has educational value, but perhaps we should reserve paper assignments for the kinds of learning they're best suited to. Digital storytelling creates greater engagement, encourages seeing writing as a process, improves critical analysis and digital literacy skills and provides preparation for the future of writing."

Watching the student videos is often a moving experience. One student project contains grainy home video footage of three boys as they grow up. An eccentric patriarch behind the camera asks his children to spin in a circle as he films. The boys grow older. Entering their teenage years, they spin in front of the video camera again and again, their relative heights and personalities shifting as they near adulthood. Finally, the narrator of the story appears as a squalling baby in his father's arms. Together, the family spins as they welcome their new generation.

It is a small story, like most other stories that the students created. But its smallness strikes a chord. "Personal experience is a valid form of knowledge,” says Goodloe. “When we invite students to investigate an aspect of their own lives (instead of simply focusing on academic research) they not only become more deeply invested in what they're learning, they also become excited about being able to contribute to our larger understanding of the issue."

As a viewer, these personal narratives expand our understanding of our own experience. In a world where we are so often presented with a slick product, the amateur quality of these films is endearing and easy to relate to. These stories become our stories too.

Article Written by: Ashley E Williams