4 Digital Storytelling: Effective Learning Through the Internet


This article was originally published in the March-April 1999 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 46-50.

My colleague, Dr. Veronica Pantelidis, came racing into my office one cold, rainy day late in the Fall semester, her eyes shining and a piece of paper clutched in her hand. “I’ve found the perfect Website for you!” she exclaimed, waving the paper at me. My good friend Veronica teaches courses in virtual reality and Web-based research, and she loves the Internet. For years now, filled with an almost missionary zeal, she has been trying to convert me to the thrill of Web exploration. But I, who delight in the shining eyes and rapt expressions of my students as I tell them stories or read them my favorite bits of children’s literature, have held firm. “I want to see faces, not computer screens!” was my refrain.

“This Website is different! See?” Veronica said hurriedly, slapping her piece of paper on the desk in front of me. “It’s storytelling on the net. They call it digital storytelling.” Just to be polite, I glanced at the paper. It proved to be a printout of an Internet Website, and there, beneath a stylized representation of a tree house complete with satellite dish, was the question, “What is digital storytelling?”1 Quickly skimming the text, I learned that digital storytelling is the term used for the application of multimedia software techniques to the telling of stories.

I tucked the term away in the back of my mind, bookmarked the Website on my computer, and thought no more about it. After all, I had successfully taught storytelIing to university graduates and undergraduates for fifteen years without the Internet, and I wasn’t about to change now. Storytelling, as I tell my students, is a relationship between teller and listener. Stories move and change and live as the teller responds to the emotions of a listening audience. What could computers offer to an age-old art that was based on human interaction? This was Fall semester, a time of innocence before the semester of compromise. But Fall, inevitably, is followed by Spring, and that Spring semester, through heaven knows what scheduling error, I ended up with a class of 45 students, graduates and undergraduates, all eager to partake of the joys of storytelling. Although I could not convince any of these potential storytellers to drop the course, 45 students were just too many to teach this course effectively. As I searched for some way to enrich the experience of the graduate students, while giving needed additional time to the undergraduates, a little voice whispered to me, “Why not try digital storytelling?”

Digital Storytelling Defined

A growing literature on digital storytelling provides a broad definition of the term that incorporates all available multimedia tools–graphics, audio, video, animation, and Web publishing–into the telling of stories. In fact, as Mary Axelson reported in the September 22, 1997 issue of New Media, “digital storytelling is being hailed as the latest treasure in new media and interactive online content.” She goes on to declare that developers and venture capitalists “are ready to bet that the participatory aspects of storytelling, such as sharing, community, and folklore, will have greater appeal in the digital world.”2 For many innovative software developers, storytelling, with its compelling components of characterization, plot lines, and setting, provides an effective framework to guide the development of more universally appearing software.

The Digital Clubhouse Network, my first introduction to digital storytelling, provides an online introduction to the creation of digital storytelling techniques through the use of personal experience stories. As this Website explains, digital storytelling can be seen as a “resurrection of the personal oral tradition in our culture,” using multimedia software tools to create personal stories that can be shared with the world.3 And the concept of telling personal and family stories through the medium of the Internet appears to be increasing in popularity. A cursory examination of the almost 800 entries on digital storytelling found using a popular search engine, Alta Vista, showed that many people were telling their own stories online. While some of these stories, following the broad definition of digital storytelling, had incorporated photographs and other graphic elements, many used only text.

As I examined the diverse ways in which digital storytelling was making its appearance on the Internet, I began to reconsider my initial objections. Perhaps there might be something here that I could use to enhance the way in which the personal-experience story was taught.

Developing the Digital Storytelling Assignments

The storytelling courses I teach include both traditional tales and personal-experience stories. While personal-experience stories, when they are told, always create an atmosphere of warmth and bonding among students, they are also the most difficult for students to construct. Drawing from the Internet examples of personal-experience stories told digitally, assignments were created from existing materials and activities. Since students varied widely in their ability to use multimedia tools, and since this was a course in storytelling, not computer technology, digital storytelling was defined in the simplest possible way: as a written response to various trigger questions that would encourage students to explore their own family stories.

The digital storytelling assignments were designed to use a simple, existing technology that had already been incorporated into several other courses: the onIine conference center. A Web page for the course was equipped with a link to an online conferencing facility that allowed the instructor to set up any number of topics, or “threads.” Students could connect to the online conference center from the course Web page, then access a particular thread to add their entry. These threads, and all entries, remain available until the instructor asks to have them cleared. The online conference facility permits students to add their own entries and to read or review the entries of other students during the duration of the course. This technique would work equally well by linking stories to a digital storytelling home page.4

For this first experience with digital storytelling, four assignments and their accompanying threads were developed: a family member who made an impact on your life, an early childhood memory, an heirloom or object of sentimental value, and a humorous incident. A fifth thread focused on evaluating the digital storytelling experience and creating new digital storytelling threads. I was still not a full convert to the value of digital storytelling–in fact, I approached it hesitantly and only as a solution to a temporary problem–but I had found an aspect of online interactivity that I was willing to try, and 16 of my students agreed to participate.

It was late one Thursday evening when I finally sat down to look at the first of the digital storytelling threads. I was still not convinced that this technique had anything of value to contribute to the storytelling experience, so it was with some indifference that I finally called up the file. And there it was, the first story, a perfect Iittle gem that brought tears to my eyes. The walls of my office faded away, and there I was, sitting on the screened porch while Carolyn Ambrose and her father quietly talked and rocked. This is Carolyn’s story:


In late September of 1973, my forty-six-year-old father was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. The doctors told my mother and me that he had only a couple of weeks to live and that he should stay in the hospital, but we decided that home was where he should be. My father spent his last weeks preparing us for his death, an inevitability that he accepted without question. While mother was bravely handling the business of putting things in order before he left us, I spent long afternoons with my father on the screened-in back porch. We sat facing each other in those cane rocking chairs that we had rocked in for so many hours during my lifetime. As we watched the leaves change and the air grow crisp, my father tried to lead me into an adulthood where I would think and make the right decisions without him. And now, twenty-five years later, I sit on my own screened-in back porch, still rocking in those chairs that I have used all my life, and thinking, as my father taught me, before I act.5

Each of the 16 stories that I read that evening was beautiful and touching, revealing as much about the writer as it did about the subject of writing. By the time I had read the last word, the tears were rolling down my cheeks and I felt closer to this group of storytellers than I had to any earlier storytelling class. Moreover, I was convinced that digital storytelling could make an important and unique contribution to storytelling instruction. Participants, given the right trigger questions, would pour out their feelings in stories via the Internet that they might be unable to share in the same way in person.

The First Digital Stories: An Influential Family Member

Students presented interesting and engaging narratives for each of the four digital storytelling assignments; however, it was the first assignment that elicited the most memorable and poignant stories and began to develop a feeling of community among the members of the class. Therefore, the responses to this assignment will be used to illustrate the power of digital storytelling. The trigger materials for the first digital assignment read as follows: Identify someone in your family who had an impact on your life. Before you write, close your eyes and use all five of your senses to recall one event involving that person. What do you see? What words/sounds do you hear? Does the touch of anything remind you of the event? Were there smells or tastes associated with the event? After you have pictured the event in your mind, write a 25-30 line description of the event and post it to this thread. Among the 16 participants, six selected a parent, six a grandparent, three an aunt, and one a sister.

It was interesting to note that, although there were no directions given for the construction of the digital stories, many students automatically felI into the pattern of the traditional storyteller: an introduction that draws the listener into the story, a series of scenes that lead to a dramatic high point, and a satisfying conclusion that moves the listener out of the story.

There are many intriguing introductions and conclusions among this group of delightful little stories. Bonnie Carriker introduced her story in this way: “My Aunt Hattie was a tall, thin woman whose eccentric personality lent her a certain peculiar fondness by almost everyone she met. She loved nature and could watch birds for hours. My sisters and brother used to say that she could really communicate with the robins and cardinals.” Bonnie went on to describe a childhood incident in which she and her sister hid left­over bread intended for the birds. Their aunt, with only a hurt look, began to bake more bread and the two sisters, feeling guilty, bundled up and went outside with their aunt to help feed the birds. Bonnie concluded her story like this: “As I grew older, I understood that Aunt Hattie always wanted to have children of her own, but was unable to. Her birds became her children. As strange as some of her ways seemed to us, she taught us a lot about reverence for nature and how important it is to nurture life that is more fragile than ours.”

Melissa Fields presented a story about how her father, a cardiac technician with a weak heart, saved the life of a woman while on the verge of heart attack himself. She begins her story with these words: “As far back as I can remember, my dad has always been helping people. Whether it was leading the local union through a strike or serving as a volunteer fire-and-­rescue squad member, my dad did it with undying dedication.” Melissa ends her story with this stirring tribute: “My dad was a true hero that night. He may have a heart weakened by years of heart disease, but it is still a heart of gold.”

Kelly Riel used a unique style to paint a portrait of her grandmother. Using a series of contrasts, she provided a loving introduction to a woman she will always remember:

They accused my grandma of a lot of things. They said she was bad-tempered. Well, maybe. But her anger never lasted longer than the time it took to break a few dishes or say a few well-chosen curse words. She was quick to forgive and forget. They said she was a perfectionist. Possibly. But her house was always beautiful and elegant. Her cookies always came out perfectly and her turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy is still without equal. They said she spent money frivolously. That may be. But it was just so much fun shopping and to leave a store without a bag would have been rude. And there were always so many pretty things. My grandma said she’d rather see her money make people happy while she was alive, than to leave it to them after she was dead. They also said she played favorites. Again, maybe so. But her constant words of love and praise, her way of always smiling when she saw me and her unretractable affection for me shaped my self-esteem. She never wavered in her high opinion of me or in her high expectations for me. I remember her when life tries to make me feel small. They said she loved me unconditionally. Absolutely so.

This first digital storytelling assignment rings with unforgettable characters. There was Theresa Bell’s mother who, when her husband suddenly died, went, “in one brief moment from being a housewife to being the head of a household.” Theresa tells how she and her sisters huddled together in their mother’s bed that October morning. Theresa concludes: “Whenever I think back to that morning in my mother’s bed, I draw from the strength and courage she showed during that difficult time.” And Valerie Pearce’s young son, Jacob, stirred precious memories that December morning when he proudly presented his waking mother with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. As a child, Valerie would awaken each morning to the grinding sound of the old metal juicer as her father, a soft­-spoken Southern gentleman, prepared fresh juice for his sleeping daughter.

There were many more beloved parents and grandparents, sisters and aunts, whose contrasting stories brought smiles or tears. Pat Daniels’ Grandmaw, a woman with “a smile that would melt your heart and a twinkle in her eye that showed just a hint of mischief.” Debbie Blizard’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant who was “small in stature but big in his influence on me and all who knew him.” Beth Strecker’s great grandmother, who taught her to crochet and always had a special needle to give her when she would visit. Deanna Albertina’s Aunt Ethel, an adopted aunt whose last beautiful quilt Deanna still treasures. Ramon Serrano’s sister, Norberta, who became a surrogate mother to her younger brothers and sisters when their mother left Mexico to help their father earn enough to bring their children to the United States. Pat Collins’ Ma Maw Kerns, who had a “quiet, unassuming influence” through her actions: “hardworking, thrifty, understanding, and strong.” Nancy Thoman’s grandmother, who showed her “that in life you should be patient, enjoy the little things, care about others, and not take yourself too seriously.” Nell Morrison’s mother, who, on Christmas, decorated their tree with live orchids flown from Hawaii. And Angelica Taylor’s Mamita, who never let her daughter realize how desperately poor they were.

In contrast, Karen Tutt’s story shows the lessons learned by negative example. It begins with the funeral of her Aunt May. Says Karen, “Aunt May was a woman whose loss was hard to mourn. In life she could turn on the charm like a faucet, yet those of us who knew her well knew that her glitter came from the ice in her veins.” Aunt May “managed to absolve herself of all responsibility for her young daughter and elderly mother,” leaving Karen’s parents to care for them. Karen concludes her story like this:

Standing there that October day, looking down at the face of this woman who had epitomized egocentrism, I realized that it lacked the look of peace and tranquillity that funeral directors usually achieve. There was, instead, an ugly scowl on her face. “How awful,” I thought, “to have to go through all eternity with such a look on your face.” Yet how well it mirrored the life she’d led. Each time I feel twinges of selfishness or ego, I force myself to think of Aunt May’s final “appearance.” This is her lesson, and her legacy to me.

Evaluating the Digital Storytelling Experience

The digital storytelling experience, as mentioned above, was evaluated through the online conference thread. The trigger material for evaluation read: For this thread, you need to have read through most of the submissions by fellow students on the first four threads. Now I want you to evaluate digital storytelling. What did you like about creating digital stories? Reading the digital stories posted by others? What problems/shortcomings did you find with creating and reading digital stories? How do digital stories compare to the oral storytelling experience?

All 16 students had very similar perceptions of the digital storytelling experience. They enjoyed the experience of creating digital stories and reading the stories of fellow students. Most students mentioned the process of writing the stories, and several were uncomfortable with their writing ability. Said one student, “When I realized I would have to write stories, I felt a mild panic since writing is not a strong area for me. However, I have enjoyed writing the stories. The topics were ones I felt I could handle and they caused me to look back on experiences and memories in my life that I had not thought of in years.” Many students mentioned that writing stories “forced” them to recalI situation and events long past and, as one student explained, “to take the time to enjoy the luxury of reflection.” Another student liked being able to edit stories before they were submitted. She said, “If we make a mistake in the oral presentation, we just have to cover and adapt on the spot, but if we make an error in typing the story, we just change it before the audience sees it!” An interesting note was added by this comment: “Problems for me revolved largely around deciding what to write, and having the time to write when I wasn’t exhausted from a day at the middle school. Once I made up my mind, it was a challenge to get something written that I liked well enough and felt comfortable enough with to put on the Internet, and in front of you all.”

More than half of the students claimed that they enjoyed digital storytelling because they were uncomfortable with oral presentation. One student explained that digital stories “allowed me the opportunity to express myself without the fear of having to stand up in front of a crowd,” and another declared, “I do not enjoy speaking in front of a group of people … children, yes-adults, no!”

Students also enjoyed reading each other’s stories. Said one student, “It was nice to log on and wonder what story would be waiting for me today.” Another commented that “the stories were very personal and I enjoyed reading them. They were also convenient to read. It was almost like the dial-a-story program sponsored by some public libraries, except it was for adults.” A third student declared, “I looked forward to reading the stories each day, and was disappointed when there wasn’t a new one waiting for me! You’ve made me laugh. You’ve made me cry. But I always felt better after reading one of your stories.” And lastly, there was this heart-warming statement: “Some of us have poetic souls and beautiful stories that reading in private allowed me to cry while reading without feeling silly. Thank you, Dr. Mellon, for the stories, ideas, and safe, welcoming environment that you created for us to tell our stories!”

The evaluation data, in addition to indicating strongly positive feelings toward the digital storytelling experience, yielded several other important themes. First, many students commented on the fact that the digital stories were often so deeply personal that they would probably not be able to tell them orally. Said one student, “You don’t have to worry about choking up when emotions come rushing in.” Students also felt that reading these personal stories brought them closer to their classmates. “Although we can see no face with the story being told, we get a sense of oneness with the writer,” one student declared. And another commented: “The digital stories have allowed us to share stories we probably would not have told otherwise …. I feel as though we’re a storytelling family.”

In addition to composing digital stories, students also participated in several oral storytelling sessions during the semester. Therefore, data from the evaluation thread provided an interesting comparison of oral versus digital storytelling. “Both oral and digital storytelling are unique in their own way,” declared one student, and all 16 students agreed. “Some of [the stories] should be more interesting if they were told orally with the use of body language and expression. Others who are more gifted in writing than in oral presentation are allowed a medium with which to share their experiences and talents,” explained one student. Students missed the “sights and sound” of the storytelling performance and the reaction of an audience. One claimed that, although she was uncomfortable performing, she was still “ham enough to like it when you laugh.” Another had this to say:

You put effort into creating a story but you never find out how it has touched people. Did anyone relate to it? Did it make people think about your experience? Were you able to bring them to your world? Live storytelling gives you that through the expressions in people’s faces. You see if they laughed or sympathized with you.

Even though students agreed that digital stories would never replace oral storytelling, they alI felt that digital storytelling had an important part to play in the storytelling course. Said one student, “I do believe that stories are much better when told in person. . . . However, I know lots of stories would never have been told if digital storytelling didn’t exist.” Another claimed that digital storytelling could be “just as powerful” as oral storytelling. This final comment provides a nice summary of the shared perspective on digital storytelling: “I think digital storytelling enriched the class and provided a unique medium for storytelling. I’m going to miss reading the stories.”

One unexpected theme arising from the evaluation data was a closer connection to family members. Students claimed that preparing digital stories encouraged them to “talk to family members and learn all sorts of interesting information and details.” Several stated that writing the digital stories was cathartic. As one student explained, “I have sent my son copies of my digital stories so he can read them. I think they allowed me to express my feelings and I want to share them with my son. He will appreciate some of the memories I was forced to bring up.” And a second student claimed that, because of the digital stories, “I’ve thought to ask my mother things I’d always wanted to know, but never got around to asking, like where did my father propose to her?” This unexpected side effect of digital stories, a closer connection to family members, was summarized by the student who wrote:

These assignments have allowed me to remember events that I haven’t thought of in years! I really enjoyed “reliving” those events! I plan to make copies of these stories and give them to my parents and our two daughters. I want to also keep them in our album of family history so that our children and future grandchildren will have some stories to pass on about some of the relatives they never knew …. “Thanks for the memories!

Digital Storytelling: A Unique Learning Experience

While I am not now, nor likely ever will be, an enthusiastic supporter of learning that takes place entirely on the Internet, the experience with digital storytelling has taught me an important lesson. We, as instructors or designers of instruction, have not taken the time to sort out the activities for which Web-based learning is uniquely suited. This case study shows that digital storytelling is one of those activities. Students are willing to create and share stories that reveal their deep personal feelings, stories that they probably would not choose to present orally. Through the medium of the online conference center, digital stories become instantly available for class members to read, and they remain on the Web until the instructor chooses to delete them. Moreover, these stories, with the permission of their authors, can become part of a permanent Website, and in this way be shared nationally and internationally.6


1 This was an earlier version of the Digital Clubhouse Network’s site on digital storytelling. The current Website can be found at http://www.digiclub.org!whatisadc.html

2 Mary Axelson, “The New Storytellers: Interactive Media Producers Mine the Narrative.” New Media, 7(12), September 22, 1997, p. 38.

3 Digital Clubhouse Network, http://www.digiclub.org/whatisadc.html

4 An example of this can be seen by visiting the Students Web page of the Principal Schools Program at the University Laboratory High School, University of Illinois at Champaign­-Urbana. The Web page address is http://www.uni.uiuc.edu/ psp/students.html

5 This is an abridged version of the story by Carolyn Ambrose entered on February 5, 1998.

6 The stories upon which this article was based can be accessed from the East Carolina Digital Storytelling Page created by Sue Harris. The Web page is: http://soe. eastnet.ecu. edu/lset/mellon/DST/defauIt.htm

Constance A. Mellon is Associate Professor, Department of Broadcasting, Librarianship, and Educational Technology, at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina.



Narrative in Instructional Design Copyright © 2018 by CONSTANCE A. MELLON. All Rights Reserved.

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