digital storytelling in theory & practice


Most of the time, I like floating around in a cloud of a ideas. But this time I have take a more grounded approach with the topic of digital storytelling. Well, for the last third of this at least. 

After attending my first three-day workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS), I wasn’t thinking much about pursuing it in any way. In fact, when I was invited to speak in a panel at a local conference the next day, I barely had anything to say (and count it among my worse presentations). Later on, I would put together a more cohesive workshop with one of my colleagues but still had little ambition to move forward with it. Don’t get me wrong–it was a memorable experience as I’ve mentioned; it just wasn’t something I needed to do anything more with.

But as I’ve been grappling with the pedagogy and curriculum of online credit courses we teach over the past two years, all paths seem to converge on digital storytelling for me as a designer. It provides a cohesive and compelling framework for helping students gain the skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking that’s needed to be truly literate in the 21st century. Given this insight, I’ve been strategically getting myself involved with current campus efforts.

As you can imagine, I’ve been excited that it’s a topic in the MOOC, and I enjoyed the recording of the discussion with Bryan Alexander and Nicola Allain. However, I’m only going to be somewhat philosophical as I prefer to discuss more of the educational application in this case. At some point though, I’d love to tackle the issues of preservation for digital stories (which I actually spent the past week learning about in professional development).

Part 1: What is storytelling?

In the webcast, one of the early questions that Bryan asks is:

What isn’t storytelling?

Because everything can be a story–including a rock as a participant pointed out–it’s often hard to define what a story is. But I argue that while most things can have or contain a story, that’s not the same thing as storytelling. Bryan goes on to respond to the question by saying:

The humanists will say ‘data’ and then the scientists will say ‘That’s not true! You can tell a story with data!

And I completely agree (with the scientists). But the operative word there is can. It is self-evident: Until the story is told, there is no storytelling. And therefore I reject the claim that data (or a rock) alone is storytelling. Not without some further context. Bryan offered up a more normative definition:

For a given audience, a story is a sequence of content, anchored on a problem, which engages that audience with emotion and meaning.

But defining it isn’t a huge concern for me. I think the dramatic structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement works just as well. I also like the advice of Wilkie Collins (as retold by Bryan in response to a question about keeping people engaged in a story):

  • Worry – have the audience care
  • Weep – incite emotion
  • Wait – make them anxious

Collins is apparently a serial fiction writer who was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, although when I looked up this advice it’s cited as “Make ’em cry, make ’em laugh, make ’em wait.”  This Guardian article thinks that the quote is ascribed to another guy from their time named Charles Reade. But I digress.

Stories can encompass a wide variety of forms and platforms including digital. After that first workshop, I remember looking at everything (e.g. commercials, radio spots, ads, games, etc.) and seeing a digital story. And I wholly agree with Kate Herzog that the medium is part of the message. But its very ubiquity is what leads me to my currently narrower conception of digital storytelling.

Part 2: Scoping digital storytelling

As an educator, I’m focused on what digital stories can do to prepare students for a 22nd (not a typo) century information environment. Bryan describes three primary benefits (13:40 mark):

  • build “critical facility” with technology
  • help students discover their voice
  • “forces your brain to re-conceive all those [subject-specific] objects and line up those facts and make sense of them”

Nicola also clearly communicated how digital storytelling can contribute to metaliteracy–and I completely agree with both of them. But I think facilitating it in a formal setting takes a more definitive scope.

While the discussion in the MOOC has been taking a broader perspective, I believe that the CDS approach provides a clear framework that helps set people up for success. For the uninitiated without getting too far deep into it, it’s comprised of seven steps (or elements):

  • Owning your insights
  • Owning your emotions
  • Finding the moment
  • Seeing your story
  • Hearing your story
  • Assembling your story
  • Sharing your story

Along with the story circle process (a necessary component in my opinion), it works as a great underlying instructional framework for whatever subject is being taught. While it may seem a bit prescriptive at first, the CDS approach engages people in critical processes that contribute to deeper reasoning, social learning, and multimodal thinking in a scaffolded way. And each element can still undergo a lot of subject-specific unpacking in its instruction.

The fact that it’s individual and personal is often also waged as a criticism, but learning is a personal process. While I agree that perhaps it doesn’t inherently foster collaborative work, I don’t think it would take a lot of tweaking to turn it into more of a group effort.

Granted, I may be biased because of my current involvement with a group that has adopted the very model and because it’s the only one I’ve gone through formally. To be fair though, it’s not always adhered to very closely* as the focus ends up being on research and learning the technology** rather than on the “metaliterate” elements of the process that I think would enhance the learning experience. Also, I have done other digital storytelling (broad definition) on my own and still feel this is a great method.

In the end, I don’t even feel the need to play devil’s advocate. At some point, I would want to try to reinvent the wheel, but there are so many opportunities and unexplored territory with CDS (by the way, they don’t pay me nor do I have close and personal relationships with any of them).

The only thing I would advocate is to make sure that the design of such a course or workshop is well-thought out and that crucial elements aren’t left out.

*The one exception I know of was that first experience that was facilitated by Joe Lambert, the founder and director of CDS. But I’ve also just gotten started with the group.
**Those pieces of the course (or workshop) certainly need to be strategically planned in order for the experience to be successful, but they shouldn’t be the focus. Telling the story should. 

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