Published: July 29, 2013

Holly GayleyWhen we introduce a new pedagogy into the college classroom, how do we know if it's working? In the field of Religious Studies, certain pedagogical approaches are considered tried and true. For example, a mainstay in teaching religion is to engage students in a close reading of a religious text, modeled in class and then undertaken by students in papers. Most of my courses on Buddhism typically employ this approach, since it fosters critical thinking and strengthens writing skills. Yet for a new introductory course in religion that I designed at the 1000-level, I decided to prioritize student engagement and harness technology to help.

When we introduce a new pedagogy into the college classroom, how do we know if it's working? In the field of Religious Studies, certain pedagogical approaches are considered tried and true. For example, a mainstay in teaching religion is to engage students in a close reading of a religious text, modeled in class and then undertaken by students in papers. Most of my courses on Buddhism typically employ this approach, since it fosters critical thinking and strengthens writing skills.

Yet for a new introductory course in religion that I designed at the 1000-level, I decided to prioritize student engagement and harness technology to help. The course is Ritual & Media, part of the Arts & Sciences core curriculum in Contemporary Societies at CU Boulder. It has up to ninety students, mostly freshman who are being newly inducted into campus culture during the fall when I offer the course. For this reason, I try to offset the perceived anonymity of the lecture hall with interactive assignments, facilitated through technology.

In line with the adage "learn by doing," in this course, I have pioneered an assignment in digital storytelling that encourages students to participate in the very process we are studying, namely the interaction between ritual and media. The assignment is a hands-on collaborative project to create a documentary short and written analysis of a contemporary ritual.

In what follows, I investigate the effectiveness of this pioneering assignment with the help of student surveys conducted in Fall 2012 during the second iteration of the course. Through the use of technology in this class and examples of student projects, I reflect on the role of digital storytelling in teaching religion.

I designed Ritual & Media with the immediate goal of exposing students to the myriad forms of ritual in civil society. Our definition of ritual in the course goes well beyond what happens in a church, temple, mosque or synagogue. Alongside classic genres of ritual like pilgrimage and rites of passage, we explore secular ritual, national holidays, and media events that demonstrate how ritual is integral to the way that contemporary societies publically enact their values and sanction sources of authority.

In my course, media becomes central to the study of ritual, both pedagogically and theoretically. I use film and news clips as a way to view rituals and to analyze the media's effect on ritual, i.e. what changes when a ritual is captured on film or staged as a media event. We also explore how mass media appropriate the role of ritual and its techniques to become a primary shaper of social values and shared realities in contemporary society.

In line with 21st century learning, I emphasize digital literacy and collaborative learning in the course. Michael Wesch has advocated for shifting the focus of the college classroom from mastering information, or becoming knowledgeable, to developing skills, becoming "knowledge-able" (2009). In Ritual & Media, this involves turning students from passive consumers of media into active producers of it. Students submit their written assignments on a course blog, comment on one another's writing, and collaborate on the final capstone project: a documentary short (3-5 minutes in length) featuring original footage of a contemporary ritual of their choice alongside a written analysis.

I view technology as a robust vehicle through which to facilitate interaction between students both inside and outside of the classroom. While I sometimes have used the discussion board function on CU Learn and Desire2Learn, I find a well-designed course blog to be a more powerful format for interaction between class meetings. Blogs appeal to ways that students already use technology in their ordinary lives, to read news and share opinions, and the layout facilitates longer entries and active commenting.

Are there benefits to teaching religion through interactive digital media? I asked the students, and here's what they said.

Survey One: Media & Technology in the Classroom

I conducted two surveys: one at the middle and one at the end of Ritual & Media during Fall 2012. The first survey focused on student perceptions of using media and technology in the course. And the second focused on their perceptions of what they learned from the final project.

With respect to the use of media and technology, the first survey inquired about three general areas: (1) the effectiveness of documentaries and feature films assigned for the course through e-reserves, (2) the effect on student writing of posting assignments of specified word count to a course blog for peer review, and (3) the enhancement of student learning through reading the written work of their classmates.

Two thirds of the students in the course responded to the survey, and most found the use of documentaries and feature films, watched outside of class as part of their homework, to be useful to understand ritual and its representation in the media. However, they were evenly divided on which of these two (documentaries or feature films) were more effective. Feature films were "more attention grabbing" and "a good way to spark conversation and debate" while the documentaries were "much more informative" and "able to directly touch on so many key points in the ritual."

Students submitted the two papers, assigned with a rolling due date, to a course blog for peer review in addition to comments from the Professor and TA. The topics for these papers were (a) a first-hand account of a rite of passage or coming of age experience and (b) a film review of a documentary or feature film that treats the topic of ritual. Only a few students reported dissatisfaction with comments like: "I deeply dislike blogs" and "I hate being peer reviewed." Otherwise, most found it to be "fulfilling" and "rewarding" to have their peers read and comment on their work.

For the majority of students, submitting papers online for peer review encouraged them "to make my writing as interesting as possible" and "to write an interesting paper as opposed to one that would grant me a good grade." This indicates at the very least an increased motivation among a number of students to write well for their peers. Some comments also indicted an enhanced sense of satisfaction with their written work. As one student put it, "it made me feel like what I wrote meant something."

Overall peer comments were perceived to be "gratifying" and "supportive" though sometimes "repetitive" and "forced." As one student said, "Comments seemed mostly forced but were a good way to actually get everyone involved." From comments along these lines, in the next iteration of this course, I plan to provide more guidelines for peer review, so that the comments are more substantive.

The major gain noted by students came out of reading the rites of passage and film reviews of their classmates. Many reported that this enhanced their learning by showing "a diversity of perspectives" and "alternative viewpoints" on ritual in contemporary society and its representation in the media. Students described the impact of reading one another's papers as a "broadened mind" and "widened horizons," making students more "aware of ritual in daily life" and providing "enhanced cultural understandings."

Most students reported that they did not significantly alter their writing style due to peer review and spent approximately the same amount of time on their papers as normal. Both assignments specified a word count of 800-1000 (equivalent to 2-3 pages double-spaced) and took students 2-3 hours on average. In the course, written assignments and the final project are supplemented by more standard forms of assessment for a large lecture course, namely a midterm and final exam.

One third of those completing the survey reported technological difficulties posting to their papers to the blog. They resolved these difficulties by various means: trial and error, logging off and on again, resubmitting work, and emailing the Professor or TA for help. Based on this feedback, in the future, I will allocate more time at the start of the semester to introducing the technologies used for the course.

Although students today are considered to be "digital natives," reared on video games and smart phones, they nonetheless need stepping stones toward achieving digital literacy in a variety of platforms. Certainly, assignments that employ digital media are one effective way to promote such literacy. More importantly, the midterm survey indicates that most students profited from submitting written assignments to the course blog where they could receive comments from their peers.

Having explored the interactive format and perceived benefits of the course blog, let's now turn to the capstone assignment for the course involving digital storytelling.

Digital Storytelling & Ritual Analysis

Digital storytelling has been heralded as a dynamic pedagogy that engages students as knowledge producers and empowers them as learners. In digital storytelling, students combine footage, photographs, text, voice over, and a soundtrack to create a multimedia narrative. The narrative could serve any number of purposes, such as to chronicle a historical event or to illustrate an issue using an example that personalizes it.

The approach in digital storytelling is consonant with other forms of teaching with technology that harness the capacity of Web 2.0 for user-contributed content. According to Catherine McGloughlin and Mark Lee, the "individual empowerment of learners" comes about by anchoring assignments in real-world contexts and encouraging students to create knowledge for the benefit of a learning community (2008: 641-645).

Digital storytelling has a number of benefits. As Robin Bernard has observed, students learn how to communicate effectively using multimedia tools, to illuminate theory through a case study, and to organize research into a compelling narrative and persuasive presentation (2008). In my course on Ritual & Media, students learn these skills interactively, by collaborating on the filming and editing of a documentary short and by viewing and critiquing the creative work of others.

In designing the capstone assignment for the course, it occurred to me: what better way to teach students about ritual and media than to have them get behind a video camera. By creating a documentary short, students come to understand the extent to which any representation of an event is shaped by the one documenting it. In other words, documenting a ritual involves a selective process on the part of the person doing the documenting—whether anthropologist, journalist, or film maker.

In creating a documentary short, students engage reflexively in this selective process: what is important to shoot and what gets included in the final cut? They work in teams to choose a contemporary ritual (religious or secular), shoot at least 30 minutes of footage, and then edit that footage down into a 3-5 minute video. They are supported by Dave Underwood and Tim Riggs at the Media Lab in ATLAS, who provide formal instruction on storyboarding and editing (using iMovie) and offer rental equipment and assistance throughout the process.

In the production process, students combine original footage of a ritual or ritual-like event shot onsite in the Boulder area with photographs, text, voice over, and a soundtrack. Once edited into the final cut, they upload their documentary short onto Kaltura or Youtube and then embedded it on the course blog alongside a written analysis of the ritual. The result is a richly layered multimedia project.

Student projects run the gamut in terms of how they conceptualize ritual. I encourage them to think broadly about ritual and to focus on any event or activity that involves a significant degree of ritualization. A big part of the intellectual work of the project is to explain how and why the event their team chose to document can profitably be analyzed within the rubric of ritual.

Students fan out across the Front Range in search of appropriate events and have created projects on the Zombie Crawl and Parade of Lights in Denver and Kirtan Chanting and the Pearl Street Stampede in Boulder. Many have found inspiration for their projects without leaving the CU Boulder campus in an array of events, such as Homecoming, the Gay-Straight Alliance Drag Show, and the Diwali performance by the Indian Student Association. Besides the staple fall holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving, each year presents different opportunities. The midnight release of the final Harry Potter movie inspired one team in Fall 2010, and the presidential elections became the focus of a project in Fall 2012.

Overall, I challenge students to think about how we define ritual in contemporary society and what their case study contributes to our shared understanding of ritual and media in the course. In the written analysis, students discuss the history and context of the event; its stages, symbolism and ritual elements; and the multiple meanings ascribed to it in official publicity and participant interviews.

Here are two examples of student work that illustrate the creativity with which they approach the category of ritual. Both share a theme, the role of ritualization in preparing for a performance, but take this theme into quite different arenas on campus.

In this documentary short, "Behind the Curtains" (2010), Elizabeth Schenk and Ben Levin explore the methods used by dance students on campus to prepare for a performance. They provide an intimate, behind-the-scenes view of invented rites: shared by the dance troupe as a group (passing the kiss), handed down from teacher to student (the roses on opening night), and observed individually by dancers to warm up and gather their concentration. As Elizabeth and Ben explain in their written analysis, these "quirky traditions" create a "strong sense of communitas" among the group and also allow its individual members to mentally and physically prepare in their own unique way.

Along similar lines, in their project on "Game Day Marching Band Rituals" (2012), Jamie Henderson, Megan Miller, and Sophia Grenier look at the game-day traditions of the Golden Buffalo Marching Band at CU. The documentary short toggles between interviews with band members and shots of the band warming up on game day, or in the words of one band member, "getting pumped up before going out to perform on the field." As Megan wrote in her section of the written analysis, "This is not as simple as merely reviewing the pre-game and halftime performances; because the band is also the core of student spirit at the games, Game Day Practice also needs to get the band ready to serve that function."

The comments on this project show a high degree of student engagement:

"Unlike the Stampede which is meant to be a spectacle for members of the CU and Boulder community, the Game Day ritual is much more private. The ritual is meant to bring about the feeling of excitement and preparedness to the members of the band and dance team rather than to the overall community (like the Stampede). In any kind of team, a ritual like this is a necessary function. In band or in dance teams during a show there is a reliance on each other to perform correctly and well. Establishing a feeling of communitas before such a performance is essential, and the Game Day ritual fulfills that role." – Nikki

"I particularly liked your last paragraph that discussed the ludic qualities of game day practice. It’s true that practice on game day is more light hearted and fun than a regular practice, which sets it apart in of itself along with the ritualistic chants and attire." – Danielle

"What I enjoyed the most about your video is the range of scenes that you included, such as personal interviews and clips from sunrise! You did a really good job at capturing the enthusiasm and dedication that goes into being a member of the band." – Tierney

"This was a very well done documentary, showing the inside workings of the Marching Band on game days. It was interesting to see that even within the larger ritual, each instrumental section had their own set of rituals that they participated in. Your analysis shows the importance of the band in CU game day as a whole." – Steven

"Great job on the cinematography of this film. I especially loved the shot of the director at sunrise. Being friends with a lot of people in band in high school I already knew that there were a lot of rituals associated with things like game day, but it was nice getting educated about the rituals of the CU band." –  Joey

In terms of fostering student engagement, the interactive elements of this assignment include not only working in teams to shoot and edit the documentary short and presenting it to their classmates in recitation but also watching and critiquing the work of other teams as well as reading and commenting on their ritual analyses on the course blog (as above).

In this way, documentary storytelling engages students as producers of knowledge for their peers. Through the final project, students learn first-hand how the media transforms an event through the very process of documenting it. They also become engaged and discerning consumers, learning how to evaluate the production quality and content of the videos that they watch.

Is this approach effective? Let's look again at what the students had to say.

Survey Two: Final Project – the Documentary Short

I conducted the second survey toward the end of the semester on the day that each student team presented their documentary short in recitation. The survey explores student perceptions of what they learned from the final project and covers four general areas: (1) the collaboration process and distribution of workload, (2) surprises and challenges in filming and editing, (3) technological issues with film equipment, editing software, and video platform and (4) what they learned through the process. The members of each team filled out the survey independently while listing their project title so that I could compare and collate the information by team. All but two students in the course submitted the survey.

Almost every team reported equal distribution of the workload across the members of their group. Nonetheless, several teams praised one teammate as the steward of the project who organized outings or collected all the film for editing, and three teams identified a single outlier who participated substantially less than others. The teams were equally divided between those who did all the filming together and those who divvied up the labor or split up to cover different aspects of an event. At least four groups had film majors who insisted on doing most of the editing work, and those projects were more polished as a result.

While some teams reported good communication with comments like "we got along famously" and "everything went smoothly," many others expressed difficulty coordinating their schedules to find times to meet for filming and editing. Only one team could not surmount a breakdown of communication, and so the original group of four eventually split into two teams of two.

Challenges in the filming and editing process varied. Most common were complaints about dark night footage and background noise in interviews. A number of students expressed surprise that people declined to be interviewed or that there were certain parts of a ritual that no one would discuss. For example, the team that covered Black Friday encountered resistance on the part of Walmart employees to discuss the rush of customers at opening time and how staff were trained to respond. Another team found certain topics off limits when documenting a Quinceañera, the Mexican rite of passage for fifteen year old girls. Two or three teams changed topics after finding their initial idea unrealistic.

One case stands out as unusual in Fall 2012: one of the teams chose to document "The Naked Pumpkin Run," a Boulder-based event on Halloween, only to find out that it had been discontinued. They decided to forge ahead and do an investigative-reporting style of project on what happened to the event. I gave them special permission to use archival footage, and they also filmed interviews on the Pearl Street Mall on Halloween with police officers and by-standers who were anticipating the now-defunct event. The result was impressive.

In a lively documentary and clever analysis, the group ended up arguing that "The Naked Pumpkin Run" could be understood as ritual on account of its participation in the antinomian and guising aspects of Halloween as a "rite of reversal" (i.e. subverting social conventions by streaking and creating anonymity by wearing hollow pumpkins on their heads) and on account of its contribution to Boulder's identity in the "Keep Boulder Weird" campaign that tried to resuscitate the event.

A similar challenge confronted a team in the first iteration of the course in Fall 2010. A group of students chose to do their documentary short on Bikram Yoga, also referred to as "hot yoga." They sought permission to film a yoga class in Boulder and were denied. The students turned this challenge to their advantage and interspersed interviews with yoga teachers and practitioners with footage of a student on their team who demonstrated each of the 26 poses in sequence. This elegant solution made for a well-paced and intimate portrait of Bikram Yoga.

Returning to the survey, half the course reported experiencing technological difficulties of one sort or another. The biggest culprit by far was uploading their documentary shorts to Kaltura, a video platform integrated into Desire to Learn. Despite the best efforts of the Office of Internet Technology to facilitate the process, students found it onerous to use. Uploading was timely and the program often froze on students. Because of difficulties with Kaltura, many teams decided instead to upload their videos to Youtube instead. Finding the right video platform will be a priority in the next iteration of the course. Some groups expressed challenges editing with iMovie, particularly adjusting the volume on interviews and voiceovers.

There were a variety of responses to the question: What did you learn about ritual and media through making your documentary short? A significant number of students registered in one way or other their surprise at the pervasiveness of ritual in contemporary society. Students also described their discovery in practice about the influence of the media in representing events. As one student put it, there are "so many different ways to interpret footage that the story is really up to the eyes of the director(s)/producer(s)."

This comment and others like it dovetail neatly with a long-term goal for the course: for students to come away with a critical eye toward media coverage and the selective process involved in constructing a narrative of an event—whether in a news story, documentary or feature film. Insights along these lines, expressed by various students, constitute a important take-away from the final project and signal the difference between lecturing on a topic and giving students the opportunity to "learn by doing."

Is digital storytelling a pedagogy that can be effectively employed in college courses in the study of religion? I hope that these reflections, the examples from student projects, and the students' own voices suggest a resounding "yes." Through digital storytelling, students engaged first-hand in creating knowledge about ritual in contemporary society as they engage the events and activities in their immediate surroundings along the Front Range of Colorado and right here on the CU Boulder campus. Through digital storytelling, students "learn by doing" in a 21st century way, harnessing the collaborative technology of Web 2.0 to create and share their original research as a narrative in digital format.

McGloughlin, Catherine and Mark J. W. Lee. “Mapping the Digital Terrain: New Media and Social Software as Catalysts for Pedagogical Change.” In Proceedings Ascilite Melbourne. Melbourne Victoria Australia, 2008. Available at:

Mishra, Punya and Matthew J. Koehler. "Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A Framework for Teacher Knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108/6 (June 2006): 1017-1054.

Robin, Bernard R. “Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the 21st Century Classroom.” Theory Into Practice 47/3 (July 2008): 220-228.

Wesch, Michael. "From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Learning in New Media Environments." Academic Commons blog. January 7, 2009.