Digital Stories in Modern Academics: The Post-Pandemic Value of Storytelling

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Digital storytelling has been part of the lexicon of course assignments for several decades at this point. So, as I’ve been pondering the work of the Digital Learning and Media Center, the ever-present question has been, what’s the relevance of digital stories in modern, post-pandemic coursework? Further, should this be our bread-and-butter project type?

Before answering these, it’s worth grappling with the terminology. Digital stories, digital narratives, and other synonyms are oft translated as long hand for something simple: the 3-5 minute video project for student submission that includes found footage and a voice over track. While this is undoubtedly a component of this type of work, it’s a notion that we eschew when thinking holistically about digital storytelling work, as there is a much wider net to be cast, as discussed in other posts. Really what we speak of when discussing digital stories and digital narratives is constructing a story, with a narrative arc, that is aided in it’s form by a digital presentation with the hope that this digital addendum will increase engagement and immersion.

This is an important point – the ‘digital’ in digital narrative work is not the driving force, but the vehicle by which we add value to what *should* be an already developed and stable narrative idea. Thinking like this, we start to see that podcasts, in all their variations, are a part of this tradition. Video essays, vlogs, instructional videos, all fit. Voicing over analysis of downloaded YouTube clips, less so (not to diminish the value of performing good and critical analysis on sources!).

So, the answer here is yes, I think this is still a very useful form for course learning, especially as we grapple with what post-pandemic return to learning looks like. The blessing that comes with time is that research into the effectiveness of methodologies like this comes to light. We now know that storytelling is a critical element in education for a few reasons:

  1. Engagement. Digital stories, when done well, drive a learner’s engagement and provide a form of experiential learning. They can easily be furthered through activities that ask for critical reflection and analysis. Incidentally, this is why including a diverse element in stories increases their effect – as people from all backgrounds can find commonalities with which to relate to the situations presented.
  2. Simplification and abstraction. Stories are able to break hard ideas into small chunks, and teach learners to relate abstract concepts to real concrete examples that they relate to.
  3. Visualization. Narratives can literally put a face to a name. They can connect ideas to images, which can help promote the learning of more complex ideas.
  4. Universal appeal. Humans have been communicating learned knowledge through stories for centuries. We even have some science to explain why stories are so important to our learning.

Considering these points, narratives help to encourage learning among all learners, and dovetail well with UDL principles. They allow a chance for learners of multiple learning style strengths to exercise their skills in new ways, and to develop some digital fluency – marketable job skills in today’s world – along the way. For these reasons, the DLMC in many ways is doubling down on it’s commitment to storytelling as a form of learning and assessment of learning. If you’re interested in potentially incorporating digital storytelling into your curriculum in a new way, we’re happy to collaborate!

Andrew Smith