In my writing classrooms I ask my students to challenge their idea of what makes a “good” story. I encourage them to imagine new and unfamiliar ways of experiencing a story, and then I support them in bringing these stories to life. One broad approach is digital storytelling, which I define as storytelling—whether fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or hybrid work—that is enhanced by digital tools. The enhancement may be adding visual or audio components, making the stories interactive, or adding other experiences for the audience.
There are so many directions students can take with digital storytelling it’s impossible to address all of them in a short post. Here, I outline my initial approach to introducing digital storytelling in the classroom, which I modify depending on student needs and interests.
I first begin with the reminder that the story itself is essential to digital storytelling. Without a strong story employing techniques of whatever genre they are writing in, the effects of digital tools will be limited. I encourage students to focus on story selection and composition first before selecting the tool or tools they’d like to use.
Then, I provide my students with examples to show the possibilities of digital storytelling and to inspire their own work. Here are a few:
- “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” by Jennifer Egan (the print version is in her book A Visit from the Goon Squad)
- This story demonstrates how digital tools do not have to be complicated or unwieldy. Simple tools, such as PowerPoint, can be effective in storytelling.
- “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge” by Dinty Moore
- This essay, built with Google Maps, shows how maps can help readers locate the place of a story.
- “Escape from the Man-Sized Closet” by The Late Show Staff
- Built with Twine, this funny choose-your-own adventure reflects the possibilities for inviting an audience to participate in a story.
- Welcome to Night Vale
- As a popular podcast that now has associated books and other media, Welcome to Night Vale shows how audio stories can reach audiences in a long-lasting way. Simple audio stories can be developed in programs such as Audacity.
Next comes the exploration of digital tools. Importantly, I don’t teach a specific tool to students. I also don’t know how to use every digital storytelling tool available, and I strongly believe I don’t need to. This is for two reasons: 1) technology changes quickly, and much of the information I teach students will soon be outdated, and 2) I don’t want to limit students on the possibilities for creation by requiring them to use a tool I’ve taught in class.
Instead, I encourage students to teach themselves what they need to know. This type of learning is crucial since, as I just stated, technology evolves quickly, and students need to be able to adapt with technology changes. As instructors, we can foster student independence and problem solving with digital tools—skills which will be important to whatever work students do after graduation. I support students by helping them identify learning resources, from the FAQ or help pages on a digital tool’s website to YouTube instructional videos.
I find it helpful to set aside class time so students can explore digital tools, either by bringing in their own devices or by having work time in a computer lab. In these spaces students can also teach each other about the basic workings of whatever digital tools they discover.
A good place for students to start their research of tools is the DiRT directory, a directory of digital research tools, including story creation. I also introduce students to resources from Dr. John Barber, who is in the Creative Media & Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. (I had the opportunity to study under Dr. Barber at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute 2017—an excellent course and conference.) Finally, I remind students to investigate the tools used in the examples we read.
Since digital stories are designed to engage readers, I encourage students to share their pieces. There are many options for this—in-class presentations, department symposiums open to the campus community, and public “readings” for anyone to attend. By watching users engage with their stories, students can see the effects of their stories in the moment.