Saturday, 4 April 2015

Digital storytelling - the process

image: pixabay
So the digital stories are now rolling in. Final year students on my course are all now engaged in producing their end-of-year reflections on learning.

I began the year/semester with the Photopeach video essay on professional identity and values. This had a dual purpose - introducing students to the concept of the digital reflection or story, using OER, and also familiarising them with a Web 2.0 content creation platform - a form of digital warm up.

The step up from this to the digital story is not inconsiderable - there is a narration/voice over required in this final work and the level of reflection should be higher and the content more personal - but the basic processes are the same, including the use of creative commons licensed images and music and hosting on a social platform.

To support my students in the development of their stories I have provided them with a range of resources, including a link to a really useful website - which gives an overview of how to produce a digital story from storyboard through to video editing software and lots of examples to inspire them. I also gave them a free choice as to which platform to use and showed them examples using Prezi and Knovio. Other options include Screencast-o-matic and Windows Movie Maker.

I developed a rubric or set of assessment criteria based on Moon's stages of learning (see p6: ) which I shared with the students to help them understand the level of reflection that is expected.

I am hoping that the digital stories will yield a deeper or higher level of reflection because of the medium used. In previous years when asking the final year students to reflect on the group process and their learning from it, I have in the main received traditional, theory based essays written in the academic style. I was hoping that by asking for this to be spoken, rather than written, and to include images and music, there will be a greater emotional depth to the reflections.

So far the themes emerging from the final year students reflections over the course of their University careers are much as would be expected (or hoped!). Most frequently mentioned themes are their future career plans, increasing confidence, development of communication skills, the stress of studying, worries about academic ability, developing emotional resiliance, self organisation and time management skills and overcoming all of the fears associated with starting University  - moving away from home, fitting in and making friends. Developing independence, managing work/life balance and motivation are also mentioned by quite a few. Because our course places a major emphasis on it, it is not surprising that many refer to volunteering and work experience and remark upon the transferability of skills learned to future employment. Team work was actually the most frequently mentioned theme - but as my final year students are producing this assignment for a module on teamwork and leadership, this is hardly surprising.

A less common theme, but mentioned by some students from the BME community, is the ethnic diversity within the cohort, and the tendency for those from the African diaspora to stick together. The stories of refugees' journeys - running from civil war to higher education in the UK - were particularly moving. Similarly, the mature students on the course frequently refer to the age of students and feeling "too old for school" as one put it. Some students talk about their struggles with chronic illness, learning disabilities, being bullied at school, and being the first of their families to enter higher education.

I was struck by how this form of assignment gave a voice to some who generally are not very vocal in seminars. Indeed the less formal style of expression and the freedom to be creative seemed to allow some of these quieter students to really excel. The assessment criteria for this digital story is based mainly on depth of reflection and there were some surprisingly high levels from students who do not normally do well in the usual academic assignment. On the other hand, this creative format may have been less comfortable for those used to getting high grades in essays and reports: they seemed to stick to a more formulaic response that focused on academic skills and achievements rather than their personal development.

I have assessed the levels of reflection to some extent on how much the students engage in meta- reflection - commenting on the process of learning itself, rather than simply what they have learned, on their growing self awareness and their commentary on how the process of reflection aids this. The artefacts seem fairly evenly spread between three levels: (2) making sense (able to notice and organise material to develop a reflective narrative) (3) making meaning (linking this narrative to other perspectives - including theory - and evidencing an emerging awareness of their own part in it) and (4) working with meaning (an emerging understanding of the learning process itself and increased self awareness). No-one has been stuck at the level of merely noticing (level 1) - i.e. a purely descriptive account, as most have been able to at least add some form of evaluation of their experiences. But neither have I seen much evidence of a convincing Level 5 -  that of Transformative Learning. One student came close to this with some quite deep ruminating about the influence of friendships on the successful functioning of groups: I had a sense there of a radical shift in her thinking as she explored this.

In terms of platforms used and level of technical skills, the majority used Prezi with a voice over added at each step. Next in popularity was good old PowerPoint - again with a clip of narration added to each slide, followed by Knovio, which is basically a PowerPoint presentation uploaded to the internet and then a voiceover recorded.

Two or three students have created videos in a photostory format, one did an RSA-style speeded up drawing on a whiteboard and another used Screencast-o-matic, navigating through various documents whilst discussing them.

The level of technical skill demonstrated in producing these digital stories has been variable but all have managed to produce something at least functional, attractive and audible whilst the very best are brilliantly creative, witty and original.

Quite a few students in their evaluations of the past year actually cite this assignment as amongst their favourites - of course there is a sense in which they would say that, wouldn't they? but they haven't at the same time gone overboard in their praise of me or the module itself... they simply seem to have enjoyed this and the previous student led learning activity as "different" forms of assessment which tested and developed new skills that they also recognised as valuable in the field of employment.

 What about the impact on me as the marker? On a practical level, it is fairly quick and straightforward to watch a 5-10 minute video; trying to arrive at a level is less easy, even following the rubric I developed before hand, as it is hard to interpret what someone else has learned by listening to short accounts such as these, still harder to put any sort of "value" on that learning. Nevertheless it is no harder than trying to do the same with a 2000 word reflective essay and in many ways it is a good deal more engaging, as in listening to their stories I have felt as though I am in some way sharing their journeys. The use of images, music and voice to tell their story gives these reflective accounts much more emotional impact and in many cases they feel very intimate.

That may be why in most cases the students have not made their stories public but instead chosen PowerPoint or an unlisted url on YouTube. Where they have used Prezi or Knovio, most have disguised their identities and all have been anxious to be reassured that only I (and the external examiner) will get to see and hear their finished artefacts. There are though one or two that I would dearly love to use as "promo videos" to show prospective students and I am hoping that their authors can be persuaded to go public at some point. I am incredibly proud of what they have all achieved  - on many levels - and would love to share their labours with you too, dear reader!

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