6 Digital Storytelling: Expanding Media Possibilities for Learning


Contributing Editor

This article was originally published in the September-October 2008 issue of EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY, p. 18-21.

Stories offer a powerful framework for engagement, reflection, and other important skills that young people need to learn. As digital media have expanded, so have the possibilities for creating stories. Here, several examples of those new possibilities are examined, examples that highlight student-produced online broadcasting initiatives, podcasting and blog applica­tions, the convergence of computer and television, and a student-produced virtual reality game designed to promote learning about urban history and urban renewal. Digital storytelling, the author states, offers a wealth of potential in education and training.


Now that digital media have become so ubiquitous in our lives, many analysts are concerned that popular applications such as social networking sites and video games are not conducive to reflection, effective social interaction, and other important skills that young people need to learn, For example, according to Sherry Turkle (2006), “The challenge for this generation is to think of sociality as more than the cyber-intimacy of sharing gossip and photographs and profiles. This is a paradoxical time. We have more information but take less time to think it through in its complexity. We’re connecting globally but talking parochially,” Stories offer an antidote to these problems, together with a powerful framework for engagement and learning. As digital media have expanded, so have the possibilities for creating stories.

Stories and Digital Media

Stories make up the fundamental way we make sense of what’s happening around us, and how we remember things. Stories help make information memo­rable, accessible, and meaningful. Stories act as repositories of accumulated wisdom, and as a powerful means of expression. Norman (1993) explains, “Stories are marvelous means of summarizing experiences, of capturing an event and the surrounding context that seems essential. Stories are important cognitive events for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context, and emotion” (p. 129). Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) and others have high­lighted the importance of stories as a learning tool.

John Seely Brown (quoted in Kahan, 2003) explains, “stories have always been a kind of dialectic or conver­sation between the storyteller and the listeners.” That is certainly true with digital storytelling, where the tech­nological dimension adds tremendous new possibilities to the ancient art of storytelling–and to the potential relationship between storyteller and audience. Joe Lambert, Director of the Center for Digital Storytelling, uses the metaphor of “conversational media” to illustrate the unique power of digital storytelling. “We approach the storytelling part of our work as an extension of the kind of everyday storytelling that occurs around the dinner table, the bar, or the campfire” (Lambert, 2002, p. 17).

Initially, storytelling with digital media centered upon personal stories and oral history, for example, stories of World War II veterans. And digital storytelling originally referred primarily to short digital movies, created with software tools such as iMovie and Adobe Premiere. But new media have emerged, including versatile cell phones and digital cameras, iPods, and a range of software programs and Internet applications that have become part of the storytelling mix. We are seeing a powerful convergence of digital media, in particular, computers and television.

Many digital storytelling applications draw upon journalism for their inspiration, expanding its boundaries. For example, blogs draw upon a range of applications, including creative writing, reporting, analysis, journaling, and much more. Podcasting offers a wealth of possibilities (Pickens, 2007; Selingo, 2006; Schmit, 2007). Games also provide an inspiration for storytelling with digital media (Newman, 2006).

Lambert (2002) contrasts digital storytelling with digital spectacle. Spectacles, such as the circus, opera, and film, create total sensory immersion, and in that state the audience members become fairly pliant observers–but they are only observers. The model encourages passivity on the part of the audience. Multimedia in presentational environments often follows this tradition and leans heavily on spectacular events, loud pulsating music, lots of projection, fast-moving edits, and flashing lights (Lambert, p. 89).

By contrast, digital storytelling is far more intimate and participatory, with less flamboyance, yet deep power. Ultimately, digital storytelling seems to reach people more profoundly than spectacle. Harper (1999) explains, “with digital storytelling, the audience is also storyteller. The whole notion of audience is changed.” Indeed, this has important implications for education and training.

“Current TV”

Some media developers are exploring how to link the World Wide Web with television to enhance storytelling in both media. Current TV, an independent media company founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt, is leading the way. This cable television network, and a second network operated in the United Kingdom and Ireland for Sky and Virgin Media subscribers, is exploring how to integrate viewer supplied content: digital stories.

Current TV features short programs called “pods” (i.e., digital stories). Most are under five minutes in length. Viewer-contributed content comprises a third of the broadcast schedule. Audiences can send in their short programs, which are posted on the Current TV Website, and viewers may vote on whether specific programs should be put on the air. This builds a remarkable new relationship between television and viewers, and between storytellers and their audience. Current TV offers a guide for creating pods, including guidelines for storytelling (http:/ /current.com/studio/survivalguide).

MacManus (2007) reports on Current TV and its audience:

The philosophy behind the pod is fascinating too. It’s designed to cater to their young audience–who are prone to multi-tasking. I was told that 70-75% of Current’s audience has a computer in the room while they watch TV. And while they are watching TV, they are interested in learning more about what they’re watching, e.g., constantly refreshing the Website and getting content from their community. That’s the theory anyway, and the pod format was built around it. The UI [user interface] makes it very simple to consume the media (video, music), click on responses (uploaded community videos), find related information, even do “assignments” about the topic. As well as showing what times the shows are on TV, of course.

Here we see an appeal to a young audience in tandem with an emphasis on participation, interactivity, and storytelling, in the context of media convergence. This has important educational implications.

BBC Programs

Somewhat similar to this, the BBC has sponsored two major digital storytelling initiatives. One is the “Capture Wales” digital storytelling project, designed to offer workshops and to capture the stories and heritage of people in Wales. The other BBC project, “Telling Lives,” captures the stories of people in England, including stories of World War II memories. Both of these projects include face-to-face workshops to teach participants how to use digital media to create their stories. Some of the “Telling Lives” stories are broadcast on television. And some stories are produced for radio broadcast. Daniel Meadows of BBC Wales comments, “I think of digital stories as ‘scrapbook television’ made on the kitchen table, with feeling . . . Digital Stories are short, personal, multimedia tales, told from the heart. Anyone can make them and publish them on screens anywhere. They have the potential to be a very democratic kind of storytelling.”


Another example of media convergence combined with storytelling comes from the Bering Strait School District (BSSD) in Alaska (Pickens, 2007). This school district sponsors the lditaProject, centered upon the annual lditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. The district’s Student Broadcasting Team, headquartered in Unalakleet, a village in western Alaska, has student reporters and camera crews along the route of the race. Pickens reports:

The race coverage is conducted by members of SBT. Members carry regular press credentials issued by the lditarod Trail Committee, just like the professional press crews. They conduct interviews, record digital video, take pictures, and issue vodcast, audio, image, and blog updates on happenings along the trail, including twice-daily five-minute broadcasts starting the Monday after the start of the race, and continuing until the last musher is across the finish line. Roughly 8,000 students in 170 schools contributed to the 2007 race coverage. In addition to the daily race updates, 12 live, two-hour broadcasts spread over six days integrate the district’s curricular content into the reporting. Special guests such as veterinarians, race officials, trail rangers, and pilots are interviewed by BSSD students and teachers.

This project is an extension of a regular unit about dog mushing in the region within the Bering Strait School District, but it also connects schools and students outside Alaska. The central story is the lditarod Race, but it offers the possibility of many story strands.

John Concilus, the BSSC educational technology coordinator, explains that the project uses the lditarod race as “an opportunity for our students to teach outside audiences about our regional history and culture while learning the skills needed to communicate using new technologies” (quoted in Pickens, 2007). The lditaProject Website (http:// mushing.bssd.org/) extends the media convergence further. It features a “Checkpoint Wiki” with material for teachers and students, a live chat area, videoconference information, links to maps and weather information, images, audio podcasts, and much more.

“Remembering 7th Street Project”

One project that is expanding the possibilities for digital storytelling in a unique way is the Remembering 7th Street Project, which is under development at the University of California Berkeley. This is a joint project of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and School of Architecture (Newman, 2006; Sydell, 2007; UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, nd).

This project is focused upon a neighborhood in Oakland, California, now dilapidated, that was once the home of a vibrant jazz and blues scene. The main goal of this project is to create a history lesson, in the form of an interactive game created with a virtual reality program. Another goal is to try to reconnect the Oakland community with this part of its cultural heritage and to perhaps recapture the vibrancy of this earlier era in real life in the city today. A third goal is to promote an understanding of city planning and civic engagement in urban planning and development (Newman, 2006).

The virtual reality program used to create the Remembering 7th Street Project was developed by the Architecture Department to recreate ancient cities like Cairo. Architecture students are modeling the buildings as well as characters for the video game recreation of 7th Street. A six-block stretch of 7th Street is being created virtually as it looked in its heyday as an important music scene. Architecture students are working on the recreation of famous nightspots like Slim Jenkins’ Place and Esther’s Orbit Room and getting digital recordings of the music played in the clubs. “They’re also bringing back to life the musicians, club owners, and other characters who frequented the area-people like Charles “Raincoat” Jones, the unofficial mayor of 7th Street and a patron of the clubs; Harold “Slim” Jenkins, owner of the most famed 7th Street club; Bob Geddins, a local record producer who recorded many of the 7th Street musicians; and C. L. Dellums, one of the founders of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the uncle of Oakland’s current mayor-elect, Ron Dellums” (Newman, 2006).

Complementing this, Journalism School students are researching and reporting on the old jazz and blues scene on 7th Street to provide the content for the VR world. Graduate and undergraduate students from other departments, such as African American Diaspora Studies and Public Policy, have participated in this initiative. Their research includes interviewing elderly residents of the area who experienced 7th Street when it was a blues and jazz destination.

At the center of this project is an interactive digital story that takes the form of a series of quests. Newman (2006) explains, “Visitors will be able to log on, choose an “avatar” to represent themselves, and saunter down a virtual Seventh Street. They will be able to interact with this simulated West Oakland in the same way game players create civilizations and interact with strangers using SIM technologies online.” Visitors can interact with other people who are logged onto the site via their avatars. (An avatar is the graphical representation of someone logged on to the game.) Visitors are assigned a series of quests that form the centerpiece of the narrative. “In the game, a player will be able to compose a piece of music and then is challenged to get his or her music played at the clubs, such as Slim Jenkins’ Place, recorded by local record producer Bob Geddins, financed by Raincoat Jones, and distributed by the Sleeping Car Porters. In subsequent levels of the game, the player will help organize the community to stop the redevelopment projects that destroyed the area” (Newman, 2006). The interactive game allows people to experience what the clubs were like and learn the story of Oakland’s jazz and blues scene, through a narrative path.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Museum designers are adapting digital storytelling methods (Kirsner, 2000). A primary example of this is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It was recently redesigned by BRC Imagination Arts, a leading company in exploring interac­tive media in the design of museum exhibits.

Using BRC’s Scholarship Meets Showmanship approach, the great stories of history, culture, science, and technology, informed by impeccable scholarship and research, are being told through immersive environ­ments and theatres designed using state-of-the-art tech­nology and special-effects techniques. Audiences are absorbed in the stories of the institution’s content, as though “they are there,” allowing for experiences that amaze and educate at once, while creating memories that last a lifetime. Unlike static displays, content-based expe­riences emotionally and physically engage audiences while also capturing the magic, the wonder, and the adventure in authentic historical items and ideas.

Stories are at the center of this approach. And digital media are applied in innovative ways. This is an exciting example of one emerging path for digital storytelling.


Biogs, Web-based online journals, have become a remarkable phenomenon. First introduced in 1994, there are now many millions of biogs on the Web. Often, blogs center around personal stories and reflections. The rapid emergence of blogs over the past few years has brought forward a powerful, accessible tool for digital storytelling. Biogs are well suited to education. Huffaker (2004) explains, “Biogs, which resemble personal journals or diaries and provide an online venue where self­-expression and creativity is encouraged and online communities are built, provide an excellent opportunity for educators to advance literacy through storytelling and dialogue.”

Teachers and students are creating biogs to serve many purposes. The centerpiece of many biogs is to create a personal perspective on a subject matter through the narrative format of a journal. The goal is to reflect and report upon learning experiences, in this way deepening the learning through integrating tacit and explicit knowledge.


Digital storytelling offers a powerful, compelling framework for enhanced engagement and learning through digital media. As digital media have expanded, so have the possibilities for creating stories. The potential of digital storytelling is only starting to be tapped, yet as the projects discussed here illustrate, there are already many exciting and highly diverse applications. Digital distribution opens up a range of possibilities, from Web-based media to fixed media (CD-ROMs and DVDs) to broadcast, as well as convergence between different distribution formats.

Digital storytelling offers a rich tapestry of possibilities across a range of media. The playfulness of the digital tools promotes creativity. Digital storytelling promotes an interdisciplinary approach, something extremely valuable in today’s world. Digital storytelling utilizes the unique capabilities of digital media to leverage the natural ways that humans learn. This includes different learning styles. The transformation in the relationship between creator and audience is a powerful factor; awareness that their work is reaching an audience far beyond the school is highly motivating to learners.

Digital storytelling offers great potential in education and training (Meehan, 2004; Mclester, 2005; Salpeter, 2005). Storytelling can capture everyday examples of practice and turn them into an opportunity to learn­–encouraging reflection, a deeper understanding of a topic, and stimulation of critical thinking. In addition to serving as a valuable tool in subject areas across the curriculum, digital storytelling can help promote skills such as visual literacy, collaboration, and mastery of technology–all skills needed for the 21st century. Digital storytelling can also promote creativity and problem-solving while encouraging self-direction and personal initiative, all valuable skills.

John Seely Brown (2000) has suggested that today’s learners focus not on information, but on meaning: How does information take on meaning? Stories provide a valuable tool for navigating through informa­tion-and identifying the underlying meaning.

The future holds rich potential for digital storytelling. Here’s one example of what the future holds: Lambert (2007) reports that Google has brought UNICEF, the One Computer Per Child (http://www.laptop.org) initiative, and StoryCorps together in a new program. The goal is to develop a program to capture five million stories, in the form of recorded audio narratives, in the developing world by 2010.


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Hilary McLellan is a partner with the media consulting firm McLellan Wyatt Digital in Saratoga Springs, New York. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member for the Center for Distance Learning at Empire State College and is a member of the board of the Digital Storytelling Association.



Digital Storytelling: Expanding Media Possibilities for Learning Copyright © 2018 by HILARY MCLELLAN. All Rights Reserved.

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