End of Semester Thoughts: Digital Storytelling, Wikis, and the Changing Conversation

Another semester has zoomed past and, before these thoughts escape me, and I begin a series of summer workshops and our CRWP summer institute, I am going to try to capture a few of the lessons learned in relation to digital writing and digital teaching. Good lessons seem to come in threes, so here goes:

1. Digital storytelling takes time, and a story to tell (larger lesson: any digital writing takes time, and a distinct audience, purpose, and sensibility to craft and design)

I enjoy digital storytelling, both as a digital writer and as a teacher. I appreciate the ways in which a combination of images, sounds, music, and video — coupled with one’s own voice — can create a multimedia work that is truly more than the sum of its parts. Moreover, I continue to be intrigued by new understandings related to fair use of digital media, and the implications that this has for creating digital stories. So, when I introduce digital storytelling to any group, especially my pre-service teachers, I get excited about the possibilities of what can come.

That said, I also get worried, because sometimes what comes when their stories finally premier are not really digital stories in the sense that they have crafted a narrative and supported it with multimedia. Instead, they are slideshows set to music. While one could argue that I am being snooty in this distinction, I don’t think that I am. Let me elaborate a bit.

If we want writers to compose stories, then we have to expect them to begin with the story. I am not sure where I went wrong with this over the past semester, but as I watched the numerous digital stories that my students produced for their final portfolio, I was amazed by the fact that so few included their own voice (literally, by recording it) even after they asked me if they needed to do that. Also, even after we looked at a few digital stories and talked about the ways the authors used transitions and effects, as well as supporting their tale with music rather than letting the music tell it, I still saw many, many slideshows with music.

So, I am not sure what else to say about this right now except to say that I need to reiterate the idea that digital stories need to, well, tell a story. In your voice. With your voice. More to think about with that in the summer institute.

2. Wikis are the most functional space for digital writing to live

After talking with my friend Steve before the semester about how and why to keep using wikis (after almost making an ill-fated decision to switch to Ning), I am more pleased than ever that I use a wiki for the hub of activity in both ENG 315 and in CRWP.

This semester, I asked my ENG 315 students to post almost all their work to the wiki, as well as to respond to the work of their peers. This really extended the conversations that we were having in class and made having a writer’s profile that much more important because they could link all their work back to it to form a makeshift portfolio. As many of them have continued with their work over the semester, the wiki grew and grew. Now, most have very robust writing profiles that also include their multigenre projects.

I like the idea of calling these writers profiles, as that implies something that will continue to grow and change over time whereas, somehow, “portfolio” seems to be more fixed. Given the ways in which the profiles worked this spring, I hope to use the same strategy in CRWP this summer, the WRITE NOW grant workshop in August, and in my ENG 618 research methods class in the fall.

3. Something is changing in the conversations about literacy and technology

I am really not sure when and how this happened, but Sara and I were talking about the fact that, in the past year or two, the ways in which people talk about technology and education seems to have changed. Even as recently as the workshops I was doing for PROJECT WRITE in 2007-8, it seemed as though participants kept asking “why?” when a new technology was introduced to them (and these were people that volunteered to be a part of the grant). That said, it really seems to me that in the past two years, the question has shifted from “why?” to “how?”

In other words, there really isn’t a lot of time spent on arguing for technology use in education anymore, at least not when I go to a school or conference. Maybe it is because many people have laptops and internet-ready mobile phones. Maybe it is because of a backlash to NCLB. Maybe it is because of the many curriculum documents and reports about 21st century literacies. Probably some combination of all of this, plus a shift in the skills and attitudes that children now bring to school.

All the same, I have begun to find it refreshing that I can start the conversation with a group of pre-service or in-service teachers now and not have to justify technology use so much as I need to talk about the literacy practices enabled by technology. I get my first chance of the summer to have that talk tomorrow with teachers in Littleton, CO, as they work to integrate laptops into their writing courses.

So, considering my approach to digital storytelling, the use of wikis, and the ways in which we talk about technology will continue to be on my mind this summer. I look forward to the continued learning as I participate in the many upcoming PD events I have scheduled for the summer and hope to share more of my thinking here.

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5 thoughts on “End of Semester Thoughts: Digital Storytelling, Wikis, and the Changing Conversation”

  1. Troy,

    I’m raising my ugly head from the depths of a dissertation in progress to add one quick comment concerning your thoughts and questions about digital storytelling. I’ve noticed the same thing (although I haven’t worked with this in over a year with students). Often, when something doesn’t seem to work out the way I expect, I ask myself what schemas my students have.

    schema + my instructions = product

    If the product isn’t what I had in mind, there are two likely culprits: the schema they have for the concept or my instructions. Might be interesting early in the semester to ask them to bring in samples of what they consider to be digital stories – would go a long way to figuring what schemas they have and may help you craft the instructions to modify or replace their schema.

    Hope all is well – I’m hoping to be finished by the end of summer – so far I’m on schedule (if not a little ahead of schedule).


  2. I am just beginning to develop a wiki with my advanced reading students, all of whom are teachers. They are distance ed students and the class is experimental. I wanted to link Troy’s digital writing space to our wiki so they could learn more about wikis, etc. I found the comments on the home page really compelling, and wanted to add some ideas.

    Having recently finished a class on storytelling, I guess I would also want students who are building a digital story to reveal their story and storytelling schemata — as well as share samples of what is and what is not a digital story. I’ve seen a lot of digital stories and even multi-genre pieces that are assemblages of assets — lacking story. What is the repetend and how does the digital space open up new possibilites?

    And in reflecting on instructional outcomes, the model of hypothesis testing might be interesting to try. Find at least five possible hypotheses for why something did or didn’t work–then have a conversation with colleagues or students. That could be a very cool way to “change the story.” I’m trying this now with a student who observes students in the computer lab doing what they do (gaming, surfing) instead of digging up “prior knowledge” to prepare for a unit on something in a content area. What accounts for these students’ online behaviors? Some answers to that are knee jerk, but what if we think beyond those?


  3. Just a note about digital storytelling:
    Maybe it’s just semantics. I could present a “digital story” to you using only images and music and it would be just as valid as one with words. The best example I can think of in terms of this is the marriage montage at the beginning of Pixar’s ‘Up.’ The phrase “digital storytelling” does not make me think that words are a must to get a message across.
    Perhaps students need to think of the project in another way. Compare their voice-over to those heard in documentaries: informative and consistent. Or the narrator in ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’: melodic and poetic. Give them an outside connection so that they can apply what they already know to this new genre.
    And perhaps your students (just like everybody else) do no like the sound of their voice, and would rather not use it.
    Force them.

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