Digital Storytelling

What is Digital Storytelling?

Wheaton faculty have found that their students have many stories to tell. As they travel overseas, work in their community, react to a class reading or discover a passion, the simple communicative power of telling a story can be a powerful way to make sense of a transformational experience. Our faculty have been creating classroom assignments that couple the power of storytelling with new digital media to produce short "digital stories." There aren't any hard rules around what constitutes a digital story; they tend to be between 3–5 minutes in length, and use either images or sound or—most commonly—both. And, perhaps most importantly, they should be narrative in structure and engaging to a broad audience.

Why Digital Storytelling?

The reasons for doing so vary with each course: sometimes it's to focus a student's research interest. Other times it's to develop communication skills in visual or audio media. In another class, it may be to relate an experience that is more personal in nature—too personal for a more formal academic paper format.

Image: Raleigh and the laptop


How is Digital Storytelling used at Wheaton?

As the curricular potential of Digital Storytelling has been recognized at Wheaton, increasing numbers of courses have incorporated a Digital Storytelling component.

Digital Storytelling has been used in the classroom to:

  • make sense of overseas and workplace experiences
  • clarify and focus the research process
  • develop presentation skills
  • learn to communicate to a broad audience
  • develop media awareness and production skills
Telling Stories of Travel and the Workplace

Digital Storytelling can be an extremely effective way of encouraging reflection around complex, intense experiences — such as travel or an internship — and helping to distill moments of transformation (Digital Storytelling has been described as a particularly effective way to “turn experience into learning”).

Grace BaronDonna Kerner

Donna Kerner and Grace Baron each taught classes that included a storytelling component to make sense of students’ experiences in new environments.


Telling stories of travel

For her Anthropology 215 class, Prof. Donna Kerner took Wheaton students to Tanzania, Africa. Her purpose was to "put a human face on some of the complex policy issues targeting development in the Third world [and], even briefly, learn to speak and think in a different cognitive domain, and […] connect with people whose lives are different from their own.

To that end, she and her students collaborated with secondary school students in Tanzania and LIS liaison Patrick Rashleigh to produce the following short digital story, which was subsequently sent to the White House and published in the inaugural issue of the online magazine CURA.

Two other students on the Tanzania trip, Jessie Davidson and Emily DeWet, created their own Digital Story to relate an experience in which they encountered an artist in a local market. After recording over an hour of field interviews, they produced a short video that teased out one of many threads covered in their conversation.

In 2013 another group of Wheaton students traveled to Tanzania and were shown a new tree nursery in the Rombo district that has been dedicated in Wheaton’s name. They were later able to partake in tree plantings in the Lerangwa and Rombo districts and wrote reflection pieces on the experience. Professor Donna Kerner and LIS Liaison Lauren Slingluff collaborated with the students to produce “These Roots Run Deep,” using the students’ written reflections and photos from their trip.

Telling stories of the workplace

Students in Prof. Grace Baron’s Psychology 334 “Practicum in Human Services” course were placed in internships in a wide variety of local medical institutions—including Sturdy Memorial Hospital, the Grodin Center for autistic children, and the Tufts Floating Hospital for Children.

Towards the end of semester, Professor Baron had the students present to each other their experiences in their various placements using the Pecha Kucha presentation format, in which speakers deliver their talks in front of a Powerpoint projection that consists of 20 slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. Therefore, every presentation is exactly 400 seconds (or 6 minutes and 40 seconds) long.

Like Donna Kerner, Grace Baron sees this as a means to encourage brevity and discipline, and to encourage students to tease out threads of personal significance through reflection and translate them into a form that can be communicated to others.

Here are some examples of her classes’ stories, recorded live in class:

  • Caity Vomastek’s experiences in Tufts Floating Hospital for children
  • Maya Ambroise’s experiences in Sturdy Memorial Hospital
  • Jessica Flori on the “messier side of research” at the Grodin Center

Why use Digital Storytelling?

  • Encourages reflection
  • Short format enforces efficiency of communication and careful editing
  • Requires distilling complex experience into a clear communicable form
  • Encourages connection specific, personal experiences with a larger context
Clarifying and Focusing the Research Process

Students embarking on a large research project can find the process overwhelming. Completion can take a long time, during which the focus can be lost in the midst of re-writes, re-thinking, drafts, and edits. By the end of the process, some even find it hard to recall what fired their interest in a topic in the first place.

Bruce Owens and Gabriela Torres had their Anthropology seniors produce short, 3–5 minute digital stories as “elevator pitches” to their peers and professors describing their initial thoughts around their senior research projects. The emphasis on these was to showcase what fascinated them about these topics, and to communicate the topic’s essence clearly, quickly, and in an engaging manner.

Example: student Lindsay Cobb ’12 describes the personal interest in physical beauty that led her to study the issue of cosmetic surgery from an Anthropological perspective.

Example: student Morgan Foster ’12 tells a story from her past to explain her interest in medical Anthropology.

In this use, digital stories primarily serve as a writing strategy to:

  • help students focus their research topic
  • provide a means to communicate their interest to their faculty supervisors and supportive peers, friends and family
  • serve as a reminder of what drew them to this topic once the research process is underway.
Storytelling to Hone Presentation Skills

Increasingly, faculty at Wheaton have been encouraging Digital Storytelling practices in their students’ class presentations, particularly by assigning the Pecha-Kucha presentation style. Pecha-Kucha limits the presenter to 20 slides, each of which is displayed for exactly 20 seconds. The slides advance automatically, outside of the presenter’s control.

Truth be told, Pecha-Kucha presentations do not have to be Digital Stories (narrative form is not required), but there are significant similarities in the use of slides with images — rather than written text — to accompany a short oral performance. And like good storytelling, Pecha-Kucha presentations should be engaging, entertaining social events, not dry formal affairs.

Because it shares so many features with Digital Storytelling, we have tended to treat Pecha-Kucha as manifestations of the same principles underlying Digital Storytelling: clarity of communication, multimedia presentation, and compressed, emotive treatments of topics.

Making your case for change

Students in Lisa Lebduska’s ENG280: Writing in Professional Contexts class each gave a Pecha-Kucha pitch for a change on campus; Kevin Morton took on smoking at Wheaton.


Analyzing media

Students in “Writing about Writing” were asked to compose rhetorical analyses of representations in the Trayvon Martin killing. Their goal was not to determine the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer. It was, instead, to examine the various visual and textual representations of the killing, and to consider how these representations both reflected and shaped audience views of Zimmerman, Martin and race in the United States.

Digital storytelling allowed the students to examine media images related to the killing, to examine what was and was not being said; what was changed; what was juxtaposed and why and to tell their own stories about storytelling. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a flag is never just a flag.



Text with images, images with text

  • Students compose their own visual narratives and, by doing so, learn the power of images to inform and to illustrate; to argue and to move.
  • In a digital medium, “composition” involves choosing among and between images, words and sounds. The composer must decide when and why it is better to show than to tell and then to consider how.
  • Images are not merely word decorations; they are, instead, a part of meaning. The digital story forms what JT Mitchell called an “imagetext,” in which the verbal and visual are fused, each situated within the other. Digital stories transform the process of making meaning and in doing so change the idea of “meaning” itself.

—Prof. Lisa Lebduska

See also Grace Baron’s PSY334 “Practicum in Human Services” page, in which she used Pecha-Kucha in class to report back on intense internship experiences

Digital Storytelling Resources

If you’re interested in doing some Digital Storytelling in your classroom, there is good news: the tools have never been easier, and there are many, many people documenting DS practices on the web.

Of course, if you’re at Wheaton, please contact your liaison!

Getting started

The basic whys and hows of Digital Storytelling:


All of these books are available at the Wheaton library; click on the titles to see the library catalog page

Digital Storytelling for specialized applications

Digital Storytelling Organizations and groups

… So how do I grade this?

There’s a rubric for that!

Examples from outside Wheaton

This site is in part a showcase of what’s happening at Wheaton; here are some links to explore what’s happening elsewhere.
Note that this list is bound to be instantly outdated — you may want to try a Google search instead.

  • Edmonton Pipelines
  • Muhlenberg College’s Story Mapping Project
  • DS106: Digital Storytelling open online course from Mary Washington College. Participants agree to regularly produce creative digital works and share them back to their classmates (and the world – they are posted publicly)

Not exactly digital storytelling, but related

Links to some kindred sites

  • PhotoVoice
    a combination of photography and grassroots social action; participants (often from marginalized groups) are asked to represent their community or point of view by taking photographs, discussing them together, developing narratives to go with their photos, and conducting outreach or other action
  • HistoryPin
    take a google map, drop a marker, and add a picture and a story. Repeat amongst a community of thousands, and you get a communal historical landscape

Our thanks to Rebecca Davis of NITLE for kickstarting this resource list

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