What is DS?

Digital Storytelling is a powerful methodology for quickly teaching people how to write, construct and edit short, powerful videos. Digital Stories are often, but not always, told in the first person. Since its invention in the 1990s by the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California, Digital Storytelling projects have spread around the world, and have been used for diverse purposes, from public/oral history, to consciousness raising and community development, to academic endeavors that might combine elements of everything else.

The Digital Storytelling movement began in 1991 when the American Film Institute hosted a workshop in a new digital video lab they had created. The workshop presenters were Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley, both of whom were active in exploring the intersection of video and theater. Shortly after the workshop, they founded the Center for Digital Storytelling and began offering 3 day workshops to the general public, taking people of all age, classes, races and levels of education and both empowering them and giving them the tools to create their own short films.

Joe Lambert points to one film that was created during that workshop as the genesis of the movement. It’s called Tanya.

There is a great interview on the Center’s blog with the author of Tanya, Monte Hallis.

Digital Storytelling has been variously defined, but we like the following definition:

“Digital stories are short, short videos that employ images (still and/or motion) and sounds (spoken words and music) in a multilayered, economical narrative the goal of which is to capture the essence of an experience. Digital storytelling is the practice of making digital stories, usually in a collaborative workshop.”

NITLE was one of the first organizations to look at how Digital Storytelling might be used in academia, giving three-day workshops geared to educators at their Center for Educational Technology in Vermont. Since then, there have been a wide variety of applications in academia.

At HWS, we have focused on using Digital Storytelling with our study abroad programs, running workshops for returned students who often face great challenges in succinctly articulating their experiences abroad. We have also used digital stories, made by students as well as ourselves, in preparing future students for study abroad. Here is one such example, made by Doug Reilly to use as a teaching story during study abroad orientations.

One of the most ambitious implementations of Digital Storytelling has been undertaken at UMBC, which has tried to integrate it across their entire curriculum. The projects range from academic to experiential and many of them place the students into the wider community as story facilitators, for example, helping members of a retirement community tell the important stories they want to preserve for the future. Here’s one excellent example of a digital story from that project that crosses generations, as well as cultures:

Digital Storytelling as a process has some remarkable attributes that make it a very powerful methodology in higher ed. Because it is viewed by students as “video”, it generates a lot of enthusiasm and buy-in. But at heart, Digital Storytelling is a writing activity. The power of a Digital Story rests on a tight, smartly edited script. Workshop participants are often faced with a strict word limit, often 200 words. In order to tell the story they want to tell, they have to consider every single word of their script. The editing process is both intense and collaborative, as students help one another identify the essential parts of their story, and what parts can be safely jettisoned. Many faculty members are amazed by the commitment to editing workshop participants often evidence. How often do you willingly get a student to go through multiple drafts? Digital Storytelling regularly makes that happen.

It’s also a powerful way to help students develop succinct communication skills. The themes that Digital Storytellers often deal with are complex, often life-changing or at least, perspective-shifting. The challenge of communicating “the essence” is a great writing and storytelling exercise that often also sheds light on how people communicate verbally.

Digital Storytelling, because it is a video methodology as well as a writing one, often teaches participants quite a bit of media literacy. They may have never considered how video is put together, what transitions and camera movements are and how they can be used as a kind of “punctuation” of film.

Lastly, Digital Storytelling is a pedagogy that empowers students to take responsibility for the production of knowledge and culture, and part of the consistent enthusiasm participants have for Digital Storytelling (both students and faculty alike) stems from the way in which the process gently challenges everyone to speak with their own voice, share a story, and believe that it is relevant for others.


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