Published: April 14, 2013

Nancy HightowerI would like to teach my visual art students how to use digital storytelling in order to 1) learn how to use narrative as a form of persuasion 2) how language is not “fixed” but always interacting with other media—sound and visuals 3) to have them discover a more powerful writing voice.

Description of the problem:

Students have a very hard time connecting to an authentic voice. The “academic” voice they often assume is rather stilted, and uses too many prepositions and passive construction. Writing should be intriguing and creative; it should invite the audience to keep reading. I tell my students that they get an A on the essay if they make me forget that I am reading an essay. They do not have a hard time recognizing a lack of voice in their writing, but they are often afraid that they have no “voice” to discover.

Idea or opportunity:

Introducing digital storytelling to my visual artists as both a way to persuade their audience but also, to discover their narrative voice. Students have to create a five-seven minute digital story either 1) about their own artistic work or field of study 2) another artist’s work or 3) an issue of their choice (such as nutrition or how we need to make STEM into STEAM). Making a digital story requires the same critical revision skills as editing a paper—the project must be coherent, concise, clear, relevant and thoughtful.

Description of how it has changed over time:

The notion of “writing” has usually been limited to a 5-10 page research paper, turned in to the teacher. Often, students are only writing to the teacher, citing factual information that holds very little persuasion. However, a truly persuasive piece of writing operates on pathos, logos, and ethos, and while many students are certainly knowledgeable about how to set up the appeal to authority and logic, they have a hard time appealing to our emotions in a truly authentic way. Likewise, to prepare students for a work environment that is increasingly becoming digital, we need to make use of these new resources and think of “writing” more in terms of composing.”

Description of factors that make it compelling now:

Students are going onto a job market that calls for social and digital media skills. Many companies want students that know how to make videos, post articles to blogs and write for Twitter. Teaching students how to create a digital story 1) introduces students to the power of narrative 2) helps them discover their voice by creating a script instead of a normal essay and 3) allows them to “write” for a public audience. It also helps them get fluent in using technologies such iMovie, Move Maker, Audacity, and Garage band. While this generation of students are digital consumers, I would argue that very few are digital producers. This assignment will help them produce an effective message addressing the particular prompt. My end goal is that is can be used a sample to show future employers.

Course details:

I wish to use the Digital Story assignment in my WRTG 3007, Writing in the Visual Arts and WRTG 1150, Writing and Rhetoric classes.


To help students correct grammatical errors in their writing by learning to “hear” for them; to help students write in a more authentic voice for different audiences within academic and professional settings; to learn how visual elements, written text, and audio interact with each other in any given rhetorical situation, and change or create meaning; to encourage students to be more creative when composing a message while being aware of the needs of the audience.


I incorporate the digital story after their resume/cover letter or mission statement assignment and before the next analysis paper. This allows the students to have a baseline in terms of defining what their passions are or what course of study or field of expertise they wish to pursue. The Digital Story then, is a way to expand this framework, explaining in a more narrative structure their personal tie to the subject matter. By this point, we have gone over the rhetorical appeals of pathos, ethos, and logos in terms of the previous assignments and we examine how to incorporate ethos and logos in this narrative structure (that privileges pathos).

Students work both in-class and out of class on the project. After they have drafted and revised two pages, I have them read the “scripts” out loud to the class (I divide the class into two sections of 10 each). It’s important not to wait too long to begin this process, since some of the students have a hard time getting out of the “academic essay” mode, and reading it out loud helps them remember that the writing must be fluid. It also helps correct quite a bit of their passive voice, since they will trip up while reading awkwardly constructed sentences.

I allow a few days for students to bring their computers to class in case they need help with the technology—I have not given a tutorial on how to use iMovie or Movie Maker, and it has worked out well so far. I do give in-class assistance to students who have PCs and need to download Audacity, since it can be a bit tricky.

I am experimenting with having students showing drafts of their videos—about a two minute segment—to see if that is as helpful as reading the drafts out loud. I found this semester that students often miscalculate how long it will take to get out all the technical “kinks” (aligning pictures with words or music, uploading, etc.)

I am also giving students a chance to revise their Digital Story assignment before we watch them during the last week of class.  Next semester, I will add a few reflective assignments to the work, where they have to describe the rhetorical choices they made in terms of script, visuals and audio.

How will you know if your students have achieved the intended outcome?

I plan on developing a basic rubric for the digital story in order to construct more concrete outcomes for my students. This will be especially useful since students are often curious about how much technical excellence is required in the project, or if the idea or creativity count more. The rubric will help them see the interconnectedness of the two.

Another way to measure the strength of this assignment is if the students were willing to use it as part of a professional portfolio, such as a website that branded their art. That would mean that they have seen some intrinsic value to the assignment that went beyond the classroom.

Lastly, I will be grading the assignment on fluidity, narrative strength, creativity, and persuasion, and will give them feedback. This gives them the opportunity to revise their digital story before the final presentation (where they will show the class their videos).

How will you know if the changes you made in your teaching made a difference?

The students will write a reflective paper describing how, exactly, they went about achieving the objectives of the rubric. I believe this will show me both the strengths and weaknesses of the first rubric used in class, and will allow me to see how students are connecting the guidelines of the assignment to their own objectives of the piece.

I have kept past digital stories made by students, and plan to do a comparison study, to see if the rubric has made a difference in the quality and creativity of the stories.

This semester, I have changed some of my teaching practices by having students read their scripts out loud, and this has helped significantly in developing their voice as they have been able to hear other the “voices” of other students when reading. They can also hear sparse narratives that are meant to more directly interact with the visuals. This kind of peer review also leads to better analysis of the final project, both for the students, and for the audience.

How will you identify/measure growth in your students or in your teaching?

The digital story is a formative assignment, since it comes before the final project. I hope to see a marked difference in the quality of their multi-modal final projects. One outcome I’ve already seen is that the student who wrote a digital story on nutrition now wants to work collaboratively with another student to create an online college cookbook. The collaborative nature of the digital storytelling workshop allowed students to see deeper connections they had that went outside the normal “visual arts” track. In that sense, the authentic voices they discovered led to a greater sense of collaboration.

I am also hoping to see this authentic writing voice be more apparent as they use social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I might have them write a reflective piece at the end of the semester describing the strengths or weaknesses of the digital storytelling process as a scaffolding assignment. Did they see the value in creating such a piece in order to get them ready for the final, multimodal project.

Brief description of project

I incorporated both digital storytelling and digital essays into my Writing for the Visual Arts and Writing and Rhetoric class, respectively. Students first brought in typed drafts of their papers, and learned how to turn them into “scripts”—writing with more fluidity with each draft. They then learned how to incorporate music, pictures, and videos to go along with the verbal message. My Writing and Rhetoric class had a longer project (10 minutes) since it was a final paper, and it did not have to have a personal anecdote incorporated into it.

What worked well?

In both classes reading the drafts out loud and creating more a script with them really helped quite a few of them get them out of the passive voice construction that usually plagues academic writing. Likewise, they were more confident in critiquing other people’s drafts after hearing them read—in part because they could “hear” the grammatical issues or repetition as opposed to trying to identify such issues in the hard copy. Also, in my Writing and Rhetoric class, we reviewed drafts of the digital essay itself (the first two minutes) and this helped quite a bit. First, it ensured that the students weren’t leaving the technical aspect to the last minute, and secondly, it helped the class see the different ways a digital essay could be created. We saw how an argument changes depending on visuals and use of music, etc. The only downside to this kind of workshop is that it takes two full days to get through just two minutes of everyone’s drafts. But I do think that it helped in terms of producing a final product.

What did not work well and what would I do differently in future implementations?

Many students had a hard time thinking about how to use narrative as an argument for the digital story, despite my showing them numerous examples. Next time I would have us read a few critical essays either on the importance of narrative in forming an argument, or on how digital storytelling is becoming the new mode of persuasion in many professional venues. Also, I think making the digital story a scaffolding sort of exercise, as opposed to the final assignment, might have been more a hindrance than a help. While I gave my Writing in the Visual Art students the opportunity to revise the digital story for a better grade, few took it. The first-year students, however, were able to move more quickly through the drafts, even though their digital essay was longer (by as much as ten minutes than the digital story). I believe they were more prepared to delve into their topics and less intimidated by the technological aspect since we had other kinds of assignments to get them ready for this kind of final draft.

I would also note that for some, the digital story is intimidating since one does have to tell a story (and some students automatically put this into the “creative writing” category). Also, some had a hard time talking about themselves or using their own experiences to create a sense of ethos. The first-year students didn’t experience this anxiety nearly as much, since the digital essay is more focused on an issue, and uses less storytelling techniques.

I also did not have a grading rubric ready for either assignment, but since a digital story/essay has so many components, I think a rubric is not only useful, but necessary. I am in the process of drafting one for each.


For the digital essays, students covered issues such as covering up concussions in high school football students, how men are starting to become more objectified in advertising and how this is affecting teenage males, and how students are abusing drugs on campus through their health centers.  My visual art students wrote digital stories on their own art aesthetic, the rhetorical value of improve, why cake decorating should be considered art, and the importance of art therapy.