Is this a story?

I thought so and I tried to tell my own story using this medium. My first humble attempt at telling a story using kinetic typography – I created it to illustrate the shaky ground of designing technology for learning.

What about this? Is this a story?


or this?


The original 6 word story which has inspired twitter 6 word stories.

In answering the question of the title I started challenging our conventional wisdom of what a story is.

I started the research with a fairly fixed notion of what digital storytelling was: a film is a digital story, isn’t it? And given this, then clearly digital storytelling is an educational tool – we use film to teach, the Open University has used film for distance learning for 40 years, so how is this even an interesting question to ask? I was in for a surprise as I started exploring and the images and links above are examples of my initial challenges.

The more I thought about it the more my sense of what makes a digital story changed. Here is the core of the process as defined by Mark Standley:

The cooperative learning process of debate, discussion, and reflection that students engage in as they work together to storyboard, shoot, and edit their digital stories is critical to the learning process

This was interesting in the light of the distinction we were making in our digital storytelling project: our aim was to produce artefacts within the context of social work training rather than get students to create them in order to engage with the themes of the training course they were attending.

Our client for the project thought that it would be a step too far to ask students with low digital literacy to produce them. Yet the more I read the more I realised that the inherent value seemed to be in the creation of the digital story. One of my project team mates challenged this view again by reminding me that we ‘can be changed by a film or play’ and that we ‘feel as if we are immersed in an emotional event when just watching a story unfold’ hence the value of digital storytelling as an educational tool is also in the power of immersion and rehearsal of new mental models which are key to education in the domain I operate within – that of management education. In our discussions of how to innovate on this course via the use of digital storytelling (DS) we also realised that watching a film can enable perspective and allow the possibility for the exploration of highly sensitive subjects that may be resisted if faced directly in face to face conversation. We teach meta-cognitive skills of dissociation to manage phobias and in this context there is no active involvement in the crafting of an artefact but change (a measure of achieving and educational outcome?) is achieved through it.

At this point in my exploration I was convinced that watching digital stories could be an effective educational tool when used in contexts that require students to work through ethical and sensitive issues. This is clearly seen when you watch a Soul biography film.  The site offers educational materials that deal with difficult issues – such as death, poverty, cancer – using filmmaking as a medium to tell a story in a digital format. The stories help viewers make informed and thoughtful decisions about how to live a life where they are ‘truly seen’. Nic Askew, the educator, says on the website that ‘Soul Biographies is about being truly seen. For when we are, the world changes.’ The essence of his work is about witnessing soul and recording it in a simple narrative. His choice of black and white short film interviewing ‘the courageous, and for the courageous. Of the courageous as it’s an act of bravery, and of immense trust to sit in front of such a revealing camera not knowing what might come. For the courageous as it is a similar act of bravery to pay attention to another who is most likely to challenge your world.’  you can watch many powerful films on his site. Here is one that moved me, called  ‘The humility of taking notice’.

So digital storytelling is an effective educational tool when you sit back and watch or listen to the stories but don’t participate. Here is a ‘teaching story’ that made me smile and challenges my preconceptions:

But now I need to get back to the definition above that speaks to the value of crafting the story as critical to the learning process. There are those that talk to us about how we define a self through post facto narrative – the crafting of a self through the telling of digital story.  And then I discovered DS106.
More radically, Jim Groom set up an open course on digital storytelling (, which combines learners from a global community with those based on his own campus of University of Mary Washington. Participants are required to create digital artefacts and to share these on their own blogs and sites, which are aggregated together on this course blog. The course is fluid, with participants suggesting assignments, and distributed across many sites, using the hashtag #ds106 to group content. It combined 32 campus-based students who are studying for credit, with more than 250 learners from from a global community studying for their own interest and even had its own radio station – Martin Weller in the Digital Scholar
If you listen to Jim Groom talk about what originated the ideas for DS106, which is today a thriving online community and continues to run regularly, he takes it back to a paper by Gardner Campbell titled ‘A personal cyber-infrastructure’ which is understood as much more than a personal learning network. It asks that students’ cyber-world is ‘expressively composed as an excellent essay or an ingenious experiment.’ This implies that our fragmented web presence tells a story of identity which we can choose to purposefully build. Gardner talks about this craft as a way to give students the means with which to fulfil their dreams:
if what the professor truly wants is for students to discover and craft their own desires and dreams, a personal cyber-infrastructure provides the opportunity. To get there, students must be effective architects, narrators, curators, and inhabitants of their own digital lives.
The suggested how sounds a little dated to those of us now used to hearing about connectivist MOOCs, hashtags, Netvibes and facebooking.
As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools via graphical user interfaces such as cPanel or other commodity equivalents. They would install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts. They would play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections. They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives. In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.
Jim Groom tells us he did not want to approach the course from the perspective of traditional story telling, but that he was interested in the idea that developing artefacts online in a fragmented sort of way started to create a self-narrative and that this was the essence of digital storytelling. So the point for him was not the creating of an animated GIF say, but what that GIF said about its creator when put together with all other online creations. Here is my attempt at an animated Gif – what does it say about me?
A virtual social construction of the self reminds me of Gergen’s notion of ‘the saturated self’  – the idea that in postmodern society the boundaries of a stable self have begun to erode as our lives have become a complex set of roles played in many different contexts. When considering online presence as an evolving story, the notion of ‘fragmented’ takes a whole new meaning. The development of ‘many self investments that conflict’ are said by Gergen to lead to ‘multiphrenia’ these self-investments are also ever expanding with technologies that allow us to develop relationships far beyond our neighbours.
So from a pedagogical perspective DS106 holds to a post-modern social constructionist approach, as the artefacts are crafted students continually develop their sense of identity as ‘each new lamination is influenced by the preceding, accounts are layered upon accounts, and reality is transformed into a hyperreality.’ As the designers talk about it ‘DS106 is not on the web but of the web’, meaning that it uses the infrastructure the web affords in its design. A key message here is that learning how to have a an effective if fragmented life online is key to success for future generations. The implications of this are many and need to be explored when designing for those who do not have a digital life but who actively resist developing the skills needed to have one. The value of storytelling supported by technology to support learners in the evolution of their digital selves may be a core parameter of its effectiveness as an educational tool. People like to tell stories and they may learn about the medium as the story is told – this was certainly the case with my own explorations. I liked the stories that kinetic typography told, I wanted to learn how to do it. I laughed with the many animated Gifs of DS106, I wanted to make make one. And believe me the process was much longer than I expected.
So both viewing and crafting digital stories can be effective educational tools. I then had a new insight  that ‘data is beautiful’ and can tell a story.
Infographics are digital stories and are certainly educational. Visit the site Information is beautiful to corroborate my assertion for yourself.
I now have to introduce you to a master storyteller – Stephen Fry – talking about how little time we have for the words that tell our stories these days.
And here is a digital story that draws its power from good old fashioned words with no help from video of kinetic typography – compelling. It stopped me doing other very important things as I got absorbed and challenged in my thinking as I read. it is called ‘A rape in cyberspace’ and challenges our thinking on the boundaries between the virtual and real. 
In my explorations I also learnt about something called Avatar Therapy – using Second Life for psychotherapy sessions – to my mind this approach incorporates a number of the threads we have been discussing here: witnessing, creation, developing a coherent narrative out of a fragmented life, and the creation of a digital story of self via an avatar and its movement in a virtual world has to add a level of exponential learning as it is used. Seely Brown tells us that gaming does achieve this very thing, as research suggests that there is no dip in the learning curve of gamers immersed in a game.
So interested in learning how to do it? I know I am after researching the topic for a few weeks.
You could do worse than this.  Or try this. An approach that I feel has merit for non-technologists is the use of digital means to support existing skills. Here a traditional story teller using digital media to enhance storytelling skills.
Some of you may need to go a step further back and learn why storytelling is such a powerful tool in real life.  Or you might decide to learn how to tell stories in real life – the tips and techniques are the same in the virtual as in the real. if you want to listen to some inspirational talks on storytelling of the digital and non-digital variety, listen to Andrew Stanton on TED. If you are inspired by the beauty of story and want to learn more here is a set of six curated TED talks – digital stories about telling stories…
In conclusion, I am reminded of my first story telling workshop. The tutor closed the workshop by asking us to ‘give something back’ to the world of story as a way to saying thank you for its gifts to us during the workshop. This blog is my gift back to the world of story to reciprocate for the many gifts I have received in the researching of this question. And here is the worst story ever told – but I am proud of my first attempt at an educational digital story. May it stand as a humble gift to the world of story.
Can digital storytelling provide an effective educational tool? You betcha.