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Digital storytelling is one of the most effective teaching tools in an online environment. In its loosest sense, “digital storytelling” just refers to a means of communication by video that combines images with narration. It need not be a “story” per se. It could be a tour of the Colosseum in Rome or a description of the process of building a bridge. Here the term is broadly used to distinguish the video format from a live action shot of someone in front of a webcam or in a study.
But in its stricter sense, digital storytelling is teaching through telling a story. The excellent documentary “March of the Penguins” taught us about the life cycles of penguins through the story of how they breed and survive a winter. This is a far more effective method of teaching than just walking through concepts in the abstract. Stories capture our attention by providing context, significance, practical application, and relevance to information. This might even have an evolutionary origin in that stories were the first form of education. The children of a tribe learned the behaviors expected of them through stories that provided a moral. It might be the case that our brains are just hardwired to draw themes from a story.
Digital storytelling is also an excellent tool for assessment. Students can be asked to illustrate a class concept by creating a story that demonstrates the concept applied in practice. Students can use events from their own experience, such as how their first running race demonstrates the principles studied in a physiology course. Students might also tell fictional stories, for instance, by describing the Battle of Gettysburg through the first-person account of a hypothetical soldier engaged in fighting it.
Most teachers assume that such stories are best used in “soft” fields such as literature, art, or philosophy. But Nihat Kotluk and Serhat Kocakaya of Yuzuncu Yil University in Turkey demonstrated that digital storytelling works equally as well in a “hard” science such as physics. They had 13 preservice teachers in a physics course each construct a digital story to illustrate a physics concept that they researched, such as gravitational lensing, blackbody radiation, or the uncertainty principle. Afterwards, they surveyed students and found that all believed that the stories aided their learning.
This study and others found that digital storytelling arouses student interest and motivation. The researchers also noted that students can have a hard time grasping the abstract principles of physics. But translating these principles into digital stories aids their understanding. Consider how well-known scientists on TV often illustrate principles with visual metaphors, such as how gravity warps space by demonstrating the effect of a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. The act of translating the theoretical to the experiential brings understanding.
Creating a digital story is easy. It is best done in two steps. First, record the narration. The narration is always recorded before imagery because narration determines pacing. You can use a computer microphone and an audio recording/editing app such as the free, open-source Audacity. I would not use the pinhole microphone on your laptop because it produces poor sound quality, but a webcam microphone should work well enough. A headset or stand-alone microphone is the best.
Make sure to test your recording volume before starting so that your voice is clear. Low volume is the number one error in audio recording. You can type out a script to read from or just go with notes. I have done it either way but have found that reading from a script tends to make you sound like you are reading from a script. Reading from notes sounds more natural. Whichever method you use, make sure to consciously use voice inflections for emphasis. The second biggest problem with audio occurs when the speaker uses a robotic monotone.
Another good trick is to not restart your recording when you make a mistake. It will drive you crazy and take forever to get a clean take. Instead, just pause for a few seconds after any mistake and then repeat yourself from the prior natural break, such as the start of the sentence. Once you are done, you can just highlight and delete all of the errors, leaving a clean copy. The pause will show you where the errors exist on the timeline and provide plenty of space to “insert the knife” for the cut. This is very easy to do in Audacity.
Once you have the narration, the second step is to combine it with imagery on a video editor. WeVideo is a good system that allows you to make digital stories for free. I use Camtasia Studio, a paid system from TechSmith, because of its ability to add text, shapes, highlights, or zoom. But if you are not going to edit the video, then something such as WeVideo is adequate.
Start by dropping your narration into the video editor's storyline. Then play the narration and add images as you go along. I sometimes get my images lined up ahead of time, but just as often, I pause and go out on the Internet to find an image each time I need one. I drop it onto the timeline and continue until I am done.
Make sure to use striking images that grab the viewer's attention, not bland stock photos of young, good-looking happy business people that you see in bad marketing. When I needed to illustrate how we communicate through nonlinguistic cues, I used the image of a young girl giving the viewer a death-stare. I got many comments about how effectively it communicated the message.
A good place to find photos is Google Advanced Image Search. I just type in a word that represents what I am looking for, such as “sad patient” or “determined scientist” to see what comes up. Of course, you need to be mindful of copyright restrictions. Advanced Image Search allows you to filter results by license, including “free for use.” Other good sources for royalty-free and Creative Commons images are Pixabay, PhotosForClass, Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, Flickr—The Commons, and Creative Commons.
There are just a few stylistic elements you need to keep in mind when crafting a digital story. First, use a perspective (Lambert, 2010). You might tell the story through the eyes of the character. This is easy when it is a personal tale, but when it is not, the narrator can still adopt the persona of the character. The story of a Civil War soldier might include something such as “We marched all day and were dead tired by the time night came.”
Second, make sure to use emotion to help convey the feelings of the characters and the importance of the events. The narrator might say, “Hubble was shocked when he looked at the images and realized that the universe was actually expanding.”
Third, open by grabbing your audience's attention, not by giving an overview of what you will cover. A documentary never opens with, “We will cover six interesting facts about penguins.” Martin Luther King did not open his “I Have a Dream” speech with “Today I am going to outline eight reasons why Blacks should have rights equal to those of Whites.” The opening is about motivating the story. You might start with a question, problem, or interesting fact. A story about your first running race might begin with “I'm only three miles in, and already my lungs feel like they are about to burst.”
Incorporate digital storytelling in your own teaching and your students' work for better learning outcomes.
Kotluk, N., & Kocakaya, S. (2016). Researching and evaluating digital storytelling as a distance education tool in physics instruction: An application with pre-service physics teachers. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 17(1). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1092820.pdf
Lambert, J. (2010). Digital storytelling cookbook and traveling companion. Berkeley, CA: Digital Diner Press.