Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Teaching and learning with digital storytelling

Image: Flicker wfryer  CC BY-SA 2.0

The digital story format is something I have used this year for the first time and, because I liked the idea so much, (and because it fitted well with each) I have used it as a part of the summative assessment for both my first year "study skills" and the final year "Leading Teams" modules.

The fit with the first year module is particularly apt as this is all about developing digital skills: from finding and managing information to Harvard referencing, from learning to use the VLE and sending emails to creating online collaborative content with Google Drive, Padlet and Photopeach.

For the final year students this is very deliberately about encouraging a summative reflection of their whole three years of University study preparatory to presenting themselves to employers in the health and social care field. And its about honing their "21st century skills". It is also presented very much as an opportunity for them to reflect on their experience of team work and their potential as leaders.

Preparation for this summative assessment took virtually the same route in each module, despite the difference in levels. Probably the degree of scaffolding for the first year cohort was higher but essentially the process and the materials used were the same in each case.

Step 1 at the start of the academic year was a warm up digital exercise using Photopeach where students worked in small groups to develop a photostory about the values of health and social care.

Following this, the theme of being a reflective practitioner, which emerged as a key theme from this consideration of professional values and identity, was explored further in a workshop when students were presented with information about a number of relevant models (Kolb, Gibbs, Moon) and undertook an initial exercise reflecting on their own significant and transformative learning experiences.

Mid way through Term 2, we returned to the theme of the reflective practitioner. The final year students undertook some group reflection and self evaluation related to the student led learning activities they had just run. With the first year students, I went over the theoretical models of reflection once more and gave them a set of prompts to use in small group discussions as a stimulus for starting to develop their reflective accounts.

Both groups were introduced to the website http://digitalstorytelling.coe.uh.edu/ which has lovely examples of digital stories using a variety of media and platforms and provides a really straightforward "How to" guide. For the first year students, in response to questions and concerns, I produced some simple screencasts showing in more detail how to use Prezi as a platform. Then on second thoughts I made these available to the final year students too. Although in general the final year students were less inhibited about creating a reflective digital story, they still had some worries about the technical side of production.

Finally I ran two or three drop in technical workshops for anyone who was still struggling or needing reassurance. During the whole process I only encountered two students (out of around 200) who claimed the task was beyond them. One was a male first year student who was a self declared technophobe but who was seeking additional help from the library and learning resources staff; the other a final year student who initially panicked herself into believing the task was impossible but finally talked herself round to the realisation that she could at any rate produce a PowerPoint presentation - with audio - and went away from the drop in session with renewed determination!

There were of course many other students who encountered difficulties, made mistakes, failed to grasp the finer points of Prezi etc, but the informal workshops also provided opportunities for students to help one another, showcase their own first efforts and get feedback, as well as ask me questions. These small group sessions were among the most enjoyable of the academic year for me precisely because there was more opportunity here for peer to peer teaching. At the end of one of these classes an older student was talking to me about the difficulties he was still having in understanding Prezi. A younger student overhearing him interrupted, invited him to join her in the library for a quick tutorial and three days later he had submitted his first "draft"!

The final step in the process was to go through Moon's Levels of Learning in detail - with exemplars - as these were closely aligned to the assessment criteria. For example, the lowest level, Noticing (description without reflection) might equate to a 3rd for the learning outcome related to quality of reflection, whilst the highest level -Transformative Learning - would be a High or Exceptional 1st.

The exemplars - which were short samples of writing reflecting on working in a group - were important in really clearly illustrating what was meant by each level and seemed to help the students to  grasp the concept more easily. On the down side, one or two students did quote these examples back at me in their stories!

Comparing the reflective stories of first and final year students that are currently being submitted, some differences are emerging. Not surprisingly, the first year students are not reaching the higher level of reflections in most cases - they tend to be split between Level 2, Making Sense or Level 3 Making Meaning areas of Moon's map of learning. The final year students by comparison are split between the Level 3 (35/84) or Level 4 (Working with Meaning) areas (27/84) with only 14 in the Level 2 area or mainly descriptive.

Technically the first years are also not as adept: few have provided soundtracks or voice-overs on their presentations and one or two are rather thin in terms of content too. Notably though, one first year student who is a mature "returner" to full time study has made her year long struggle with technology (and her eventual triumph) the main focus of her digital story - which she has done to a very high standard using PowerPoint, with voice over.

Alison: A Year of Firsts

In terms of themes, top of the final year students' list of topics is team work (72% of students referred to this but that was the theme of the module after all). After this comes future plans and recognition of transferability of skills from study to work (70% each) - with graduation a few weeks away that is not a big surprise either! Next in line is increased confidence (68%), improved communication skills, reference to academic subjects and developing study skills, time management, and the value of work experience (all mentioned by around 60% of students).

For the first year students, the most popular themes are reference to academic subjects studied, moving away from home, fitting in and making friends and the support of other students. Next in order of frequency, around a half of first year students mention team work - noting this as a way of working that is very different from school or college and one which brings many challenges. Around a half of all the students also recognise how their confidence and independence have increased through overcoming personal and academic problems.

Other things I have taken note of in particular are whether or not the students specifically mention the learning process (85% of final year students do), the development of self awareness (increased understanding about themselves) (74%) or the act of reflecting (57%) . These are elements which I saw as being more of a meta reflection (a reflection on reflection) and indicative of a higher order of learning. In the case of first year students only about half mention learning and self awareness specifically. Less than 15% discuss the process of reflection.

I have also noticed a difference in the stories of mature students. In almost every case, these students seem to reflect more deeply and evidence higher levels of learning. Generally they have had a variety of challenges to overcome (returning to education after initial failure or career change), had more life experience (migrating from another country), have other demands on their time (such as family) and this manifests itself in richer content, higher levels of self awareness.

Lucy: Me,myself, my learning,my family

Donna: Change

Tinashe: Too Old for School

What about the process from my perspective? In teaching "about" reflection, I have certainly found students to be more engaged possibly because they have a summative assignment in view that has reflection as its main focus.

Teaching "about" reflection though does not create reflective practitioners. That can only happen through deliberate acts of reflection on experience that are designed to raise self awareness. The process of creating a reflective story is such an activity: it forces the student a) to think about the reflective process itself (perhaps using a specific model, such as Gibbs to add structure) b) to practise the skills - moving from describing to evaluating an experience, to analysing and formulating plans for future action and c) to perform the art of reflection. Through the use of various media - combining images with spoken words and music - the finished artefact is a creative representation of learning: reflection as performance. The digital element adds other dimensions and levels of complexity: the need to get to grips with new technologies, familiarisation with online platforms, the reality of putting an essentially private reflective activity "out there" in a public space.

So my role changes to that of audience or witness to the performance and I am also the assessor. I find this a difficult balancing act. On the one hand I have to award a grade, on the other I am in a privileged role of witnessing what is often a very personal ** account - a performance that has something of the confessional about it. I am acutely aware of the student's vulnerability in what they share, at times I feel very emotional in response: touched by a moving story of overcoming huge challenges, amused by a witty remark, proud of their achievements. I have felt these emotional responses before when students have written reflective accounts as essays - but not as often, nor as deeply.

The digital stories are for the most part fairly short - 5 to 10 minutes was the guideline - and are submitted as the final part of a portfolio of work which has already received formative feedback or grade in partial fulfilment of their summative assessment. As a capstone project for the module it is therefore not particularly time-consuming to assess, so all in all, marking these has been a genuine pleasure! The biggest drawback is when something goes wrong technically - files uploaded in a format I can't open, problems uploading large files to the VLE, url's copied incorrectly or online videos set to private. This has involved a few hurried emails to get everything sorted out which does add a little more work to the marking process and a teacher using this method of assessment does need to be fairly confident themselves in using a variety of digital tools - or have some very friendly IT or Learning Technology staff standing by! That said, some of the students have proved themselves very technically creative and I have learned some new tricks from them. That to me has been another of the aspects that has made this assessment so enjoyable.

**(Students have been made fully aware of the private/public options for the sites used and have employed pseudonyms, restricted urls or even used non-published media - such as Powerpoint or MP4 files - in order to maintain their privacy. Prezi for example is public, unless a premium subscription is paid, YouTube has non-searchable or private url options whilst Knovio can also be set to private).

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