(etmooc) Digital Storytelling, I’m just not that into you …

… and I’m not sure why. So I decided to work on a post to try to write my way to understanding my reticence.

We’re now into topic two of etmooc, on digital storytelling. What is digital storytelling?

Storytelling, by Surian Soosay (Flickr; links below)

According to a University of Houston site,

Digital Storytelling is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories. … [A]s the name implies, digital stories usually contain some mixture of computer-based images, text, recorded audio narration, video clips and/or music.

Storytelling is an art

It’s not just about putting together a video through, e.g., Mozilla popcorn maker or putting some photos to music with Animoto. It’s not just about finding and learning how to use the many, many tools available for digital storytelling.

As Alan Levine (@cogdog) notes in his reply to a tweet during a recent etmooc twitter chat (#etmchat), the tools aren’t the most important thing:

The difficult part of digital storytelling is storytelling itself (as noted in this post). Determining what story you want to tell and how to tell it (regardless of the media used) are the hard parts. Finding the digital tools to use to tell it generally come after you’ve figured out what you want to tell (though Amy Burvall intriguingly suggests the opposite may work as well). But first, you have to know how to create art, not crap. And that’s hard to do. (One might start by looking at the Digital Storytelling Cookbook by Joe Lambert, a partial view of which is available for free on this site.)

I think that’s one of the main reasons I’m not really as engaged in this part of etmooc as I was in the “connected learning” section–I feel like I would need to know more about how to not create crap, yet all I think I’m really getting so far is a list of tools and examples of how they’ve been used. I suppose one can learn a lot from just watching examples of good stories being told, absorbing ideas on how to do it through those. But to be quite honest, I just am not into spending the time to do that. For it does take a lot of time–not just to learn the various tools to figure out which one you might want to use for a story, but also to figure out how to tell a story well. This could be a real time sink, and I have too many other things on my plate at the moment.

The other issue is that I don’t see myself using these methods and tools in my philosophy courses very much. I’m willing to spend the time needed for things I foresee using in courses, but I’m not seeing that for digital storytelling. I really value the written, argumentative essay format that we tend to focus on in philosophy courses. I don’t think it’s the only thing that anyone should ever use to make a point, but it can be a very effective way to make clear, concise arguments. And it takes a lot of practice to do well, which is why I emphasize a good deal of writing in my courses (and am working on how to teach it better, with more scaffolding, so that students work through the process step by step).

Value of digital storytelling

This isn’t to say that I can’t imagine using digital storytelling to make arguments in philosophy. On the contrary, I can imagine students telling stories like this one, or this one, or this one in courses where we discuss current events, ethical, social and political issues. I agree with Alan Levine when he notes in this video that “if you want to motivate, or inspire, persuade, stand out, be different, touch people, then tell a story.” I think that some philosophical arguments can be made even more strongly, perhaps, with a story (and a digital story wouldn’t hurt, because it can be shared so easily across the web). I see that.

I also see Alec Couros point here that

Storytelling may give voice to individuals and groups who have been oppressed by a culture of literary dominance.

This is important–some people’s voices may get lost if we emphasize only reading and writing, if all we ever produce are written documents to make our points.

My apology

And yet, I’m still reticent. I think it’s because:

  • Storytelling is hard
  • I don’t know how I’d teach students to do it, plus use tools, in a 13 week course that is too short already
  • Storytelling is hard and I’m not sure I know how to teach it

That last point is easy, right? Just read some things, watch a lot of digital stories, and practice, practice, practice yourself and you’ll figure it out. That’s probably true; but somehow, even after recognizing all of the above, I still just don’t feel excited enough to want to put the time in to do all that.

And I still really like and want to teach students how to do well at writing argumentative papers. Regardless of all of the above, that is still a valuable skill to have, and it’s something I know a good deal about already. I feel like I want to let others focus on digital storytelling in their courses if it grabs them as something they want to do, and I’ll still focus on writing. And that way, hopefully, students can get different options in different courses.

But why do I feel I must apologize for this, explain it, defend it? I suppose it feels like the written argument is already overdone, something that has been emphasized over and over in education, and now it’s time for something new, better and more inclusive. Writing argumentative essays does leave some people’s voices out, those who aren’t good, for whatever reason, at expressing themselves this way. And it is not always as good at capturing and inducing emotional reactions as something like digital storytelling. So it’s not good for every purpose.

But neither is digital storytelling, of course (as I expect those who promote it will also recognize). And for some people, it just doesn’t resonate as much as a good, clear, strong argument–e.g., for me.

I am a little into you

Of course, being not “that” into something can also mean one is still a little into it. I did play around with some six word stories (okay, one of them was three words) during the past week or so, and I really enjoyed that medium (note: no need to spend time learning new tools, since I already know how to use Twitter).


This one was about trying to put our rubbish bag in a place where animals couldn’t get to it. Impossible: either the possums climb the tree or the wallabies jump to the bag. You can imagine the results.

This one isn’t, strictly speaking, true–I did have conversations on my blog and Twitter before etmooc. But I have many, many more conversations now. So I used “soliloquy” for dramatic effect.

[This superhero pic and story were added Feb. 18, 2014] I haven’t done this myself, but I’ve also really enjoyed the six-word stories that others have been doing with images as well as text. Here’s one of my favourites, from Margaret A. Powers (see the blog post about the origin of this story herethese superheroes are window washing at a children’s hospital).

Six word story from Margaret Powers

Also, I plan to use Mozilla Popcorn Maker to add some things to a true story of openness video I created for Alan Levine’s collection. I’ll upload that here later, when it’s done. [Actually, I ended up putting it into another blog post.]

Finally, I have a kind of digital story of my own etmooc experience (ongoing, in process) over at Storify.

Warming a little more

In addition, by writing this post and watching some more digital stories in order to find good ones to link to this post, I have come to recognize that using digital stories would be a much better medium that written essays for making philosophical arguments that might actually have more of an impact on large numbers of people. Since I do have a great interest in philosophical discussions and philosophical thinking and reflection not being just something academics engage in, then creating more digital arguments myself, and encouraging students to do so, would be a good thing. Then our conversations about philosophical issues could more easily extend beyond the classroom. I can envision students creating digital stories, posting them online, and engaging in conversations with others who see them. I can imagine using digital stories created by others in my courses and then having students respond to them, comment, create their own stories as part of a conversation. It could be the start of an interesting conversation for the students and for others. I can certainly see the potential.

This won’t work for every course, though; sometimes you just have to write a clear argument to explain just why and how a certain part of someone else’s argument doesn’t work, referring exactly to the words said, page numbers, others’ arguments, etc. And I won’t give up on the emphasis on writing argumentative essays, either; it’s just that I can see the value in asking students to produce a digital story for one of their assignments in addition to writing papers.

Back to the beginning

Still, that adds on more work for them, too, in an already-crowded, 13-week term. They’d have to learn a new tool and learn how to tell a story well. And it would mean I’d have to figure out myself what makes for a story that is not crap, which I am still not yet excited enough to take the time to learn. So I’m back to my original problem.

Thus, for now, I am ambivalent. Perhaps I am in the minority, in that telling and watching digital stories just isn’t that engaging for me. And perhaps that is either my personality or years and years of training in text-based philosophy.

Does anyone else fell similarly? Or perhaps you can offer me more arguments why it would be worth it to try to push past my ambivalence?


Photo credit: Storytelling, CC-BY license (2.0), shared by ssoosay



  1. Christina,

    At first, I was really thinking that this topic was going to be fun. I even posted about how excited I was to embark on this Journey – but then I found the challenge to be much more daunting than I had anticipated. It is exactly as you said:

    “It’s not just about putting together a video through, e.g., Mozilla popcorn maker or putting some photos to music with Animoto. It’s not just about finding and learning how to use the many, many tools available for digital storytelling.”

    I found that after thinking and thinking and thinking the only thing I could end up doing was just that, putting some photos to music with Animoto. You are absolutely right – Storytelling is indeed an art and much more difficult to accomplish in the given time-frame for the course. I didn’t get the opportunity to really participate in the Connected Learning portion of the MOOC because of work, but I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Hi Rudy:
      I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in my sense that this is hard stuff! Thanks for your comment.

      I don’t want to denigrate creating things with Animoto, though! I mean, learning how to use that sort of tool is an important step, and then if one wants to go on one can get more creative with other tools. And I think one could create something really nice with Animoto…it’s just that it would take some careful thought to craft it, I believe.

      I guess this particular course (etmooc) doesn’t have the time to allow us to develop that sort of skill (nor the time to get us really deep into theories of connected learning!)…it’s more of an introduction so we can pursue what really excites us. Maybe by the end of this section I’ll be more excited about pursuing digital storytelling in the future. Or maybe I’ll just re-focus myself on teaching writing, which I think is also important!

  2. This was a heartfelt post and I thank you for writing it. I was surprised to see my name in there, and I hope you could see where I was coming from with my suggestions. That being said, I’d like to recommend this article: http://www.sparringmind.com/story-psychology/ as well as Jonathan Gottschall’s book “The Storytelling Animal”. I think with an increasing need for empathy many disciplines and even businesses have adopted the “storytelling platform” as a way to inform or persuade. Also, with “big data”, analysts are seeking to extract meaning that would provide us insight into human behavior (that’s why I am fascinated by using hashtags and other social-media elements to grow a story). Please check out my storytelling website if you get a chance – there are a lot of inspiring resources. http://www.storifyinghistory.com/
    Hang in there,

    1. Hi Amy:

      I certainly can see where you’re coming from with the suggestion in the post I linked to. I think it’s a good idea, which is why I linked to it! I hadn’t commented on your love story earlier, so I went back and did so. I think it’s a fantastic way to show how the tool can come first, before the story.

      Thank you for the links; I’ll definitely check them out. I expect there will be something inspiring in your site!

      It’s not that I don’t see the value in storytelling–I certainly do! It’s more a matter of my own time priorities, and how much I want to spend learning how to do this well, or how to teach my students to do it well. I’ll keep investigating, though, and perhaps I’ll change my mind. Or maybe I’ll leave digital storytelling to those who are good at it and highly engaged by it, and focus on the art and craft of writing text!

  3. Hi Christina

    I can totally understand how you’re feeling. Everyone has their own personal preference as to what they connect to, how they prefer to express themselves and what engages them. The series of bloggers during the connected learning section of ETMOOC who chose mainly to use video blogging is a classic example of personal preference in action.

    It hasn’t surprised me that Digital Story telling has been very popular with participants. Years ago I used to facilitate professional development workshops and Digital Story telling was the most likely workshop that you would be able to get even the most reluctant technology user to engage with. It’s a skills that most were able to make the connection on how they might use it for areas that interest them i.e. more likely to spend time at home learning.

    I really think the key is what Alec’s points out:

    “Storytelling may give voice to individuals and groups who have been oppressed by a culture of literary dominance.”

    I don’t necessarily believe that we need to teach them how to create digital stories but we should give them the options to express themselves in a wide range of ways they feel is best suited. Last year Joyce Valencia showed this most amazing digital story created by a student who told the story of his life that he had never shared with others. If he had written his story it wouldn’t have been any where near as powerful compared to sharing it through a digital story.

    Doesn’t look like there is an option to subscribe to email notification if you respond back? Can you send me an @suewaters if you do – so I remember to check?

    1. Hi Sue:

      You’re right–we do all have our own personal preferences for expressing ourselves. Mine is the clear, well-organized, logical, well-argued essay! I feel sometimes that that form is denigrated by proponents of innovation in education, as if it has been shown to be problematic and it’s time to move on. I don’t think all proponents of things like digital storytelling think there’s no place for the traditional argumentative essay; I expect many of them would say that form is useful for some purposes. But sometimes I get the feeling that some people want to move away from it entirely. I don’t think that’s a good thing to do; it can be a very effective communication tool, and it takes a lot of practice and skill to do well. So I’m not going to give it up!

      I like your point about giving students the option to express themselves in other ways as well. I will still require some essays, but I am thinking of opening up some assignments (especially things like student presentations) to other forms. And some courses will lend themselves more easily to something like the storytelling format (such as, as noted in the post, ethics, social/political philosophy, and the like).

      I think I fixed the “subscribe to email notification for follow up comments” problem. Let me know if the check box isn’t there; it should be now.

  4. If you are anxious about the tool learning, there’s a couple of possible avenues to deal with that – and the art of storytelling too.

    For example, there;’s no real need for you to teach your students either. If you have open enough specifications about what tech is used to tell the story, and your students buy in strongly enough to the idea, let them choose the medium themselves. If thje taslk setting is engaging and well structured enough, the storytelling aspect should evolve as the project unfolds. Set it up as group work, and try to spread skills amidst each group (maybe a questionnaire beforehand might help to identify people with techie, narrative, research and other relevant skills, to enable a good skill spread across each group).

    My experience of storytelling work is that students, if they are invested, tend to overcome the tech and structure hurdles, provided they are not too strong.

    You could provide extra support. Examples are important, as are techie and subject based resources, structuring the task with useful supports/dealines – required storyboards, specific deadlines for parts of the project to be delivered (the initial idea in week one plus mandatory reading for each project, the medium and workload split in week two plus additional reading and a crit by the students of a similar project, the storyboard in week three and four to be presented in rough form with class based feedback, final storyboard in week five plus the first part of the story, week six is delivery, and week seven, everyone piles into class with popcorn and hotdogs to view the finished projects, all parts to be posted on a group blog).

    In our college, lecturers set storytelling tasks at the beginning of courses, set students up in groups, and then monitor the progress as group work unbfolds ( the process is documented on blogs, boards, paper, and made available to the lecturer). Giving sudents the supportd freedom to choose their opwn mediums helps manage and generate enthusiasm. And the sense of control – over what’s included, the medium, the process – is valued. The public aspect seems to help focus, and non negotiable deadlines create an environment with enough pressure to focus, and avoid meltdowns.

    I’d suggest, focus on what stories you want your students to tell, how you are going to support and encourage that, and generate the enthusiasm, the rest will take care of itself.

    The history of a single idea, for example (eg the scientific method). Or the birth, life and death of another (alchemy,

    You could try using peerwise to foster intrgroup/interstudent work too, in a way that lets you see it happening, and creates a community of learners. You can set up closed peerwise groups and mandate minimum numbers of questions and answers. That way, expertise can be shared amongst the whole group.

    1. Thanks, Keith–good ideas. I wasn’t thinking about how easily people can get into learning about tools when they’re engaged in a project. And students at university may already have learned some of these tools long before I did! I like your point about setting up groups consciously, finding out who has tech skills and pairing them with people who do not. Not sure how to find out who has good narrative skills, or research skills, though I suppose one could just take students’ word for that, too!

      I’m still not sure I’m enough into asking students to do this sort of assignment to put the work into pulling together a list of resources and examples, teaching them how to do storyboards (which I don’t know how to do myself), etc. But the process you outline sounds like a good one.

      I haven’t looked at peerwise yet, though I just saw a colleague’s wiki that discussed her use of it in her course. It is an intriguing idea, and looks like it could be useful. I’ll have to try it out.

      You may have noticed that I have another post where I note I’m getting more excited about digital storytelling, but that’s mostly for myself at this point. I hope I can use the skills of storytelling to make my lectures more engaging. Perhaps through that process, I’ll start to want to ask students to do it too.

      1. I’m supposed to be putting together a digital storytelling resource for my course – resopurces, tools, storytelling tips, pedagogical do’s, don’ts, adv and disadvantages, as well as examples of different tool typers, and different story types being told through them.

        If I produce something I’m proud of in a digestible form, I’ll post it up and send the link on.

        I’m not suggesting you have to do digital storytelling here, but if the resources might help should you make that decision, then it makes sense to post them up.

        Re narrative skills, it’s not always necessary, or desireable, to have a good writer or narrator. In my experience, students who are involved and enthused about the process tend to do a good job, and if the class climate is receptive and supportive, a little leeway is normally extended.

            1. This is great, Keith! I’m going to bookmark it to look at later, as it gets further along. I’m personally especially interested in storytelling itself–how to do it well. That’s something I didn’t get a lot on in etmooc (though, of course, we didn’t have a lot of time!). Much obliged.

  5. Thanks for writing about your resistance to digital storytelling, your thinking as you worked through the topic and started to warm, a little, to the topic. It is refreshing to read a post about not loving a topic, and how you (started to) resolve those feelings. I was not as interested in this topic as the other topics in etmooc either (and I teach media), I am glad that we have moved on to digital literacies.

    It was great to see you acknowledge that “storytelling is an art”. I think sometimes teachers loose sight of this fact and just assume that if they introduce students to a storytelling tool or hand out video cameras, they should be able to create effective stories. But good storytelling requires scaffolding, and if students don’t have enough scaffolds, like an understanding of the structure of stories or how to write storyboards, the process can be frustrating for them and their teacher. When I first started teaching high school students how to make videos, I didn’t insist that they create storyboards; but I found that it was always the groups who didn’t make a storyboard that ran into problems or could not finish their stories in the allocated time. Now I always insist that the stories be planned out before shooting starts. I imagine you it is similar with an an argumentative essay, an outline should be done before the essay is written.

    If you do end up introducing digital storytelling as a tool I would love to see kind of stories about philosophy your students end up making. While philosophy isn’t a topic immediately sings storytelling to me, I bet the stories they produce would be pretty interesting.

    I have many resources for storytelling at the high school level (information about story structure, blank storyboards etc.) If you think they would be useful let me know, I would be happy to share them.

    1. Hi Rhonda:

      Exactly! If I can’t just immediately create something effective with digital tools (and I certainly can’t, not without further practice and guidance), then how can I expect students to do it? I’m still pretty lukewarm about the idea of asking students to do storytelling in the classroom, though I do appreciate the offer of information if I decide to do so! I’ll take you up on that if later I think I might include some of this in a class.

      I did warm even more to the idea see this post, mostly because I realized I could think of my own work in the classroom, my own lectures, as stories. Or at least, I could use some of the elements of good storytelling to make my own lectures more engaging. That’s where I’m focused now, though I must admit I have a lot of work to do in order to accomplish that. Any suggestions on sites or other resources that talk about storytelling in general, what are elements of good stories, etc.?

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