Friday, April 15, 2016

The Effectiveness of Digital Storytelling in the Classroom

Jonathan P. Bell
INFO 266
April 15, 2016

Smeda, N., Dakich, E. & Sharda, N. (2014). The effectiveness of digital storytelling in the classroom: A comprehensive study. Smart Learning Environment, 1(6).

The article evaluates digital storytelling as an education tool. Storytelling has been a method of knowledge transference since humans developed language, and the advent of digital storytelling takes this communication method to the logical next step. Using now readily available and cutting-edge new media, students learn to be tech-savvy while telling stories digitally and more vividly than we ever did in oral cultures. The authors set out to determine the degree of effectiveness of digital storytelling by “explor[ing] the impact of digital storytelling on student engagement and learning outcomes.”

The authors approach digital storytelling through a theoretical framework of constructivism. In the constructivist framework, students learn best through collaborative and constructive instruction, through which they construct their own perspectives on the world. The learner should take an active role in student-led instruction. Student-centered digital storytelling provides an ideal platform for facilitating constructivist learning environments.

This study sought to determine the effectiveness of digital storytelling on student engagement and educational outcomes. Research was conducted in several grade levels at one school in Australia. The research employed the case study method. Using pre-observation forms and in situ field notes, the authors collected qualitative observational data on classroom interactions with digital storytelling. A quantitative component enabled data collection on timed use of technologies in the classroom. An evaluation rubric was developed to grade students’ digital stories on categories including Plot, Pacing, Technology Competence, Emotional Content. The authors interviewed teachers about their perceptions of digital storytelling in classrooms.

The authors confirmed that digital storytelling enhanced student engagement and improved educational outcomes. Digital storytelling was found to produce these five core findings:

  • Enhanced engagement -- Digital storytelling got students engaged in technology and new media. The authors found that student engagement fluctuated between moderate and high when they used technology tools to tell stories. Whether they were the story creators or the audience, students’ interest and participation was observably better.
  • Improved collaboration -- Students collaborated effectively when working on digital storytelling projects. They engaged with technology extensively, and worked together to complete the digital stories. Greater shared problem-solving and peer assistance was observed as compared to traditional classroom assignments.
  • Transformed learning -- Digital storytelling supported constructivist learning by placing the responsibility of design and delivery into students’ hands. The teacher shifted to a facilitator role while students took up the mantle of educator in student-led classrooms.
  • Improve digital literacy -- Digital storytelling resulted in increased capability with new media tools and techniques, thereby improving digital literacy. Because technology capacity varied among participants, some students became tutors who taught classmates with lesser developed skills how to use technologies. This was especially beneficial to immigrant students.
  • Personalized learning experience -- Digital storytelling supported the benefit of personalized learning. Because learning styles vary among students, a one-size-fits-all approach is not an effective teaching method. Personalized learning through digital storytelling accommodated different learning styles and built confidence in students.

It was reassuring to learn that digital storytelling produced a more engaging learning environment. The one-directional, top-down approach that I know from my U.S. public school K-12 education has many flaws that I now see, in hindsight, in adulthood. Chief among these flaws is the assumption that the teacher always knows more than the students, and that the student simply does not teach. While such a perspective may be true for elementary school environments (where I’d argue exceptions still exist), this perspective becomes increasingly untrue as grade levels approach adulthood. By the time students are in early adolescent years around high school, many of them have lived experiences that can be instructive. Some have faced hardships and loss, some have triumphed, many have travelled and so forth. While students may not be polished lecturers at the head of the class, they can nonetheless be effective educators through digital storytelling. Students and teachers can learn from their lived experiences rendered through new media technologies.

The authors point out that the results of the study are exploratory because they tested their theories in one school in the Australian educational system. It’s wise for them to acknowledge that limitation and to suggest further research. Still, I think the study’s core findings are broadly applicable and affirm that digital storytelling improves student engagement and learning outcomes beyond the Australian environment.

But I hasten to point out that the benefits of digital storytelling hinge on students having access to the tools and skills to tell digital stories. The authors note that digital storytelling helped build digital literacy among students, especially immigrants. This is great news. Of course it’s difficult to build digital literacies when digital divide keeps new media technology out of students’ hands. That digital divide persists globally, in developed and developing countries. We need to find ways to get these new media technologies into educational environments in marginalized communities, whose stories need to be told.

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