3 Digital Storytelling as an Interactive Digital Media Context


Learning Sciences Lab, National Institute of Education, Singapore

This article was originally published in the September-October 2010 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 32-36.

Digital storytelling involves the creation of short, personal narratives combining images, sounds, and text in a multimedia computer-based platform. In educa­tion, digital storytelling has been used to foster learning in formal and informal spaces worldwide. The authors offer a critical discussion of claims about digital story­telling’s usefulness for supporting various types of learning and conceptualize it as a context rather than a tool. Drawing on examples from digital storytelling workshops, their research team has designed for Secondary English classrooms in Singapore, the authors discuss the role that digital storytelling as an interactive digital media (IDM) context can have in shaping youths’ opportunities to be active authors and participants in a media production culture, which is a growing focus of education across the globe. Wrapped up in ideals of 21st century learning, digital literacies, and new media lies a dual mandate to resonate with and draw upon youths’ everyday media practices as well as foster critical thinking dispositions, and the authors offer brief recommendations to these ends as they relate to digital storytelling-as-context and the learning sciences.


Digital storytelling began in the late 1980s as a move­ment to promote democratic media production aimed at personal expression. Then, digital technologies were just beginning to be affordable and user-friendly to the extent that, with limited guidance, individuals could easily produce a multimedia digital story. Workshops to support these practices quickly proliferated. Digital stories were first defined as short, personal stories comprising still or moving images, narrative, and text, composed using simple digital video editing software.

A primary component of digital storytelling is the sharing of personal stories in a way that can be pub­lished on the Internet, thus resulting in people anywhere broadcasting to people everywhere (Meadows, 2003).

Initially drawing on the one-to-many approach of digital media production afforded by Web 1.0, digital storytelling has changed over the last two decades due to the decreasing cost and increasing power of multime­dia authoring tools and Web 2.0 capabilities. Digital storytelling can now be a many-to-many affair with individuals creating, posting, sharing, responding to, critiquing, and engaging in other participatory activities around their digital stories.

We review here uses of digital storytelling for educa­tion and offer a critical commentary on claims about its uses in light of a continuing shift from Web 1.0 to a par­ticipatory media culture (Burgess, 2006; Jenkins et al., 2006) that extends the digital storytelling movement’s democratic aims to new levels. Or at least we suggest that it can. How digital storytelling is used in education largely dictates whether or not it is a stand-in for a basic skills-directed exercise, a static Power Point­esque soliloquy, or a context for exploring, performing, sharing, and critiquing audience-participants’ messages.

We begin this discussion with a review of how digital storytelling has been used in education and our synthesis of how it can continue to grow as a context for developing critical, creative, authoring skills framed as participatory media practices.

What Is Digital Storytelling Good For?

Mclellan (1999) characterized digital stories as “experiences that are participatory and immersive” that support thinking and remembering through narrative structure and supporting empathy and “bootstrapping” through experiential features (p. 36). More recently, Mclellan (2008) commented that digital storytelling leverages an expanded and more participatory sense of audience, because it can connect learners in disparate places and situations. This expansion of audience changes accountability structures, motivation, and the types of meanings that can be made and gotten from digital stories. In tandem with shifting types of immersion and types of audience, digital storytelling also affords shifting roles for learners and teachers.

Robin (2008) pointed out that, while digital story­telling can be used for skill-and-drill type activities, where the adoption of technological tools is the primary focus, its unique affordances lie in its ability to support novel types of position-taking not available in classrooms as recently as ten years ago. In this respect, digital storytelling is not unlike other interactive digital media (IDM) such as virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life), complex games (e.g., Quest Atlantis), or networked communities of learners (e.g., Knowledge Forum).

But let’s take a step back and consider the ways that digital storytelling is used in education. We characterize the main categories of its use as (1) skills development technology or content (e.g., reading, writing, presenting information), (2) reflection and connection making (e.g., multiliteracies, synthesizing, self-reflexivity), and (3) fostering voice and empowerment (e.g., stance taking, identity development). Of these broad uses, we argue that alI are necessary, but not sufficient, components of digital storytelling seen as a context for participatory media production. We also argue that an uncritical acceptance of digital storytelling’s ability to accomplish any of these areas is problematic, because how learners are engaged in digital storytelling depends largely on how it is structured and populated as a context for being and doing in classrooms. To simply practice or develop skills that do not draw on possibilities for connection between digital storytellers or changing roles of teachers and learners does not draw on the affordances of digital storytelling that set it apart from giving a PowerPoint presentation to a class or doing a book report.

We stress the “other side of digital storytelling”­–participatory media production–in order to set this use in high relief against a backdrop of using technology for technology’s sake. Like other uses of technology in education, digital storytelling can be used to raise familiarity with computers, software programs, or digital media composition. It can also be used to practice skills in language arts (composition, grammar, spelling) or other disciplines. Teachers can use digital storytelling as a pedagogical tool for delivering content, raising issues for discussion, or explaining abstract ideas in a novel way (Robin, 2008).

However, our goal here is not to delineate all of the uses of digital storytelling (see Hartley & McWilliam, 2009 for a review); rather we aim to sketch the range of claims about digital storytelling’s usefulness according to the three categories listed above and then discuss why it can and should be used to more comprehensive ends as an IDM context for participatory media production.

Uses of Digital Storytelling in Education

Content Skills/Tech Skills/Multiliteracies Skills

Royer and Richards (2007) discuss the usefulness of digital storytelling to enhance reading skills by construing reading as the “application of known and newly-learned reading skills and strategies” beyond narrow contexts (p. 2305) rather than the acquiring of decoding or learning about specific standards-based topics. Similarly, Bull and Kajder (2004) claimed that digital storytelling can enhance writing skills by drawing on technology to “engage struggling readers and writers who have not yet experienced the power of personal expression” (p. 47).

In primary science classrooms, Valkanova (2007) used digital storytelling to encourage reflection on science learning. She claimed that students developed better use of scientific terms and presentation of infor­mation through appropriating computer and multi­literacies skills as communicative, social acts. Integrating arts education with an appreciation for audience understanding, Chung (2006) claimed that digital storytelling “allows students to develop and apply multiIiteracies skills and funds of knowledge, aesthetic sensitivities, and critical faculties to address greater issues of importance to a larger audience” (p. 48).

Robin and Pierson (2005) made general claims about using digital storytelling to support real-world problem solving as well as pedagogically to support content delivery, provide lesson closure, or provide examples. All of these studies frame digital storytelling as a form of communication and social connection–a way to develop writers’ voices, reflect on learning, and connect learning to real-world issues beyond classroom walls.

Reflection and Connection Making

Mclellan (2008) discussed the use of digital story­telling to navigate information and find meaning. She claimed that stories are a natural way to “encapsulate and remember information,” and also encourage play­fulness and interdisciplinarity along with “21st century skills” like problem solving, self-directed learning, and creativity (p. 21). Leon (2008) discussed digital story­telling as encouraging self-reflexivity that fills “the space between regurgitating knowledge created by others and creating original, critical work” (p. 221). He claimed that critically reflecting on digital stories can improve the quality of students’ “traditional work” and constitute multivocal multimedia artifacts that “bring us all to new insights about culture and criticism” (p. 223). These examples point to the posi­tionality that digital storytelling affords when students consider their stories in light of what others are saying around them as well as more distally.

Voice and Empowerment

Benmayor (2008) claimed that digital storytelling helps learners develop their own perspectives by drawing on their experiences to appreciate the dialogue between their own and others’ positions. She states, “both product and process in digital storytelling empower students to find their voice and to speak out” (p. 188). The crucial components to Benmayor’s approach to digital storytelling include beginning with examples that students can relate to culturally, using digital storytelling as a platform for creating “testimonios” about something that matters to them, reflecting on how their experiences support their testimony, and using the digital stories as artifacts for future learning. Meadows (2003) explored using digital storytelling with adults in a BBC initiative to capture the “voice” of Wales. At the heart of Meadows’ approach is the belief that by using their own resources to tell stories, tellers no longer “have media done to” them, which allows regular folks to take back power.

Digital Storytelling-as-Context

We contend that proponents of these various approaches to digitaI storytelling can suffer from potential “-topias.” Skills approaches can fall prey to a technotopia where the incorporation of “digital” with storytelling supposedly launches students and teachers into the 21st century. Robin (2008) made a similar argu­ment that simply using digital storytelling as a technol­ogy in the classroom does not necessarily engender enhanced learning. We have noticed in our own work that the degree of students’ tech-savvyness forms a bimodal distribution, with some students’ already knowing how to use most of the simple tools required to do baseline digital storytelling (e.g., Windows Moviemaker, searching for images on the Internet, uploading images from digital cameras, importing music) and others struggling with most aspects of the tech­nology. Due to this heterogeneity of skills, using digital storytelling as an exercise whereby students combine audio, visual, and narrative in an editing platform does not unto itself foster skills learning for all students.

Nor does digital storytelling automatically foster narrative abiIities, reflexivity, or other skills develop­ment. Those that are burdened by the technology scramble to get the components assembled, to the detriment of developing their message, not to mention critiquing and revising it. Another issue that we encoun­tered in our work in classrooms with lower-tracked secondary language arts students was that proposing a topic was hugely challenging to many students. Our ini­tial hopes of providing students with a more open envi­ronment at school in which to develop creative authoring practices beyond basic technical and English skills (an unfortunate focus on much lower-track education in Singapore; Ministry of Education, 2004) assumed that given the opportunity, students could arrive at topics.

This brings us to the notion of a “voice-topia.” When working with learners, one must consider whether or not they have had prior experiences constructing their own positions or telling stories from their own perspectives. Much formal education focuses on instilling a top-down set of values and an authoritative canon of skills that students must appropriate in order to matriculate. Suggesting a sudden departure from this approach neglects the fact that without exposure, experience, appropriate examples, or compelling reasons to do so, many learners will balk at the idea of telling their own stories.

Digital Storytelling-as-Context: Implications for Theory and Practice

The idea of digital storytelling-as-context draws on arguments across the fields of the learning sciences, new literacies, media studies, and cultural studies that suggest engagement in digital media production practices is more aptly thought of in terms of contexts rather than tools. Accordingly, digital storytelling is not a tool that can be implemented for skills development but is rather a context for doing certain things with others and being a type of audience-producer in a community of other audience-producers who tell about, problem-solve, brainstorm, or just share thought about a set of common issues that serve as the topics and contexts for engagement in purposeful learning.

In a related and recent argument, Leu et al. (2009) discuss the Internet as a context. However, the Internet took many years to become a context. It was mostly used as a search engine as recently as 15 years ago. It took a decade for Web 2.0-type uses of the Internet to develop and for networked social relations to flourish outside of institutionally sponsored meeting places like chat rooms or listservs.

Digital storytelling-as-context differs from the Internet because it is not an interface unto itself. Instead, the context for digital storytelling’s use are the crucial joists, which need to be built locally, be it in a classroom, a community center, or a nationwide curriculum. How to support the growth of said context is key. Digital storytelling can draw on already burgeoning communi­ties of storytellers via social networking sites, through individual teller-generated affinity groups, or through school-to-school partnerships across continents.

By itself, digital storytelling as a technology or platform for skills development or as a liberal context does nothing that older technologies (including analog ones) cannot do. Rather, a digital storytelling context needs to be populated by people, goals, even ideologies, to be more than a container–more than a skill developer or a liberal emancipatory ground.

We have been working to develop uses for digital storytelling in Singapore schools and have already encountered a number of challenges as we try to transform practices around youths’ authoring. For example, the ideologies of what counts as learning in Singapore as well as what are seen as useful ways for youth to spend their time in- and out-of-school (e.g., preparing for high-stakes exams, working toward content mastery) are similar to other cultures that place a premium on student achievement on standardized assessments as the way to succeed and propel oneself forward in society (cf. Woronov, 2008 for a discussion of China, and Sloan 2007 for a discussion of the U.S.).

The impact of these priorities affects youths’ in­- and out-of-school time, which we argue must shift for digital storytelling to propel students’ learning into a participatory field where the audience goes beyond classroom walls, the impetus for learning goes beyond exams, and the trajectory of learning morphs from Iinear, compressed lessons to interconnected processes of exploration, composition, reflection, and revision. It is not about delivering the necessary content as efficiently as possible, nor is it about getting it right the first time, whatever “it” may be.

Another tension is the issue of voice. Using one’s own voice is a hallmark affordance of digital story­telling. However, the appropriation of authoritative voices is still the main goal of education in Singapore (Cheah, 1998). Students are expected to emulate the canonical and reproduce the valued types of informa­tion and ways of presenting it. We saw this in a recent workshop with Secondary 3 English students who developed arguments in their digital stories. A combi­nation of how we introduced the idea of argument as a genre, including the types of arguments the teachers used, led students to create digital stories that looked a lot like the sanctioned examples provided by the teacher and our team.

In a similar vein, how digital storytelling helps learners to practice different modes of telling and then enhancing their awareness and reflexivity about their ability to communicate is crucial to our approach. Therefore, allowing students to choose their message is important. However, this approach works on the assumption that students have a message in the first place. Many students in our experience so far have felt lost when asked to choose a topic about which they feel strongly for their story. Other digital storytelling projects highlighted that while we should not direct students how to think, we need to provide guidelines as to viable possibilities. By guiding the participants into awareness of issues before beginning the digital storytelling process, students can imagine possibiIities for their message before thinking about how to com­municate them. However, in sociocultural contexts where little value has been placed on one’s own voice, this presents a formidable challenge.

Recommendations for Digital Storytelling-as-Context in Classrooms

Based on our review and the argument we have put forward for thinking of digital storytelling as a context and not simply a tool, we offer the following sugges­tions. These points encapsulate what we feel helps to continue transforming the use of digital storytelling in education from that of technology-as-container for skills development to a context that is populated with ideals surrounding what it means to teach and learn. The way these are taken up would be different depend­ing on features of the local context, of course, but we feel that their crucial importance remains the same despite these situational differences.

  • Audience–digital stories made only for class do not achieve the broadened roles and goals that are a main affordance of digital storytelling. Publishing stories on the Web to YouTube, in other forums, on Facebook, and in class/school distance partnerships are viable options.
  • Purpose–must be something students have some interest in other than completing the assignment, earning a grade, or displaying evidence of having done research. It also must have a social component. The practical possibilities for digital storytelling must be clear to learners before they can meaningfully engage in the process, as any­thing beyond a skills exercise or regurgitation of adult-offered, authoritative forms of digital stories.
  • Position–taking-students-as-tellers can come to appreciate the significance of their own perspec­tives in light of those of others (peers, authors, textbooks, teachers).
  • Stories as artifacts–storytelling must be framed as a creation and sharing process centered on artifacts that promote connections. Sharing, com­menting, revising, and using stories throughout multiple units all accomplish this goal. Students need to understand what types of connections might be possible and how they might be used.

Digital Storytelling-as-Context and the Learning Sciences

As part of this special issue based on the learning sciences in Singapore, we situate our argument here in light of an understanding of the learning sciences as an interdisciplinary field concerned with understanding learning as a social and context-bound activity. In this way, we approach digital storytelling as a social mode of text making, critiquing, and consuming that places learners in the position of authors with respect to an audience.

Without the abiIity to create, share, and receive feedback, digital storytelling is just another form of writing and publishing texts–a static form of learning that can just as easily be examined from a transmission model of education. However, we have highlighted the social affordances of digital storytelIing-as-context that transforms the potential of youth creating stories into a digital community-based activity that is perspectival, contextual, and social.


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Kate T. Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences and Technologies Academic Group and the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Puay Hoe Chua is a Research Assistant at the Learning Sciences Lab, National Institute of Education in Singapore.



Narrative in Instructional Design Copyright © 2018 by KATE T. ANDERSON and PUAY HOE CHUA. All Rights Reserved.

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