Digital Storytelling in Study Abroad: Taking the Show on the Road!

May Term 2016 Study Abroad

This May we took our ‘show on the road!’ Instructional Technologist, Kathy Filatreau and I traveled to Denmark with professors of social work, Paula Sheridan and Lisa Ibanez and 19 Whittier College students.

This study abroad course is designed to bring students to Denmark to research and understand how this country runs its welfare and workfare state.  Our course was filled with site visits, lectures by invited guests, and a digital storytelling workshop that included faculty partners from Metropolitan University College in Copenhagen and a class of international students visiting from different countries throughout Europe.  Together with our Whittier College students, the EU students worked in teams to create digital stories that reflected their collective thoughts on articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and how each relates to youth in their respective countries.

Over the last five years, Kathy and I have been working with the social work department at Whittier College to create various digital assignments including collaborative community resource maps, digital magazines, capturing community stories with digital presentation tools and digital storytelling. Thrilled with the success of seeing students actively engaged in this process of crafting personal narratives filled with evidence-based knowledge of what they have learned and how they will apply their experiences as emerging professionals, we wanted to share our pedagogy with international partners.  These narratives juxtaposed with images, sound, and graphics can be powerful ways to communicate– in ways that perhaps traditional ‘papers’ cannot capture or translate.

The digital storytelling assignment is rigorous!  Students go through a series of writing and peer review sessions before a final narrative is formed. It’s an exercise in the economy of writing and communication forcing them to be concise in the usage of their words.  Digital stories are typically three minutes in length and students must also learn to use visuals that correspond to their recorded words.  We coach students on techniques to capture photos on their mobile devices for use in their digital stories. For students that want to use work created by others we explain the use of creative commons licensed media and the responsibility of properly giving attribution for borrowed work.

This academic process of combining personal narratives with stories of achievement have produced compelling student-produced digital stories that are too good not to share!  With student permission, we have compiled an online archive of digital stories created by Whittier College students here.  

Taking the Show on the Road

When we designed the digital storytelling assignment for study abroad in Denmark we had to keep in mind that we didn’t have a whole semester to work on it like we normally do. We had to scaffold the assignment in a way that made sense to our Danish partners and the classes they were teaching.  We would also be working with a group of students from an international community that we wouldn’t meet until the day of the digital storytelling workshop.  The success of our project was based on what we did know:

Digital Storytelling is Relatively Low-Tech

Editing the Digital Story: Yes, we needed wifi to create projects. But we were prepared to go offline if necessary.  We checked with our Danish partners in advance to make sure all of our students would have access to an internet connection.  We use the web-based video editor WeVideo because of the collaborative editing options and assigned administrators can manage student accounts and projects. It also makes digital stories easily shareable.  Our Whittier College students were asked to create accounts in advance to save time and avoid tech hiccups before our workshop.

Photos for the Digital Story: We scheduled a field trip with a local photography expert while in Denmark who explained technique and use of lighting.  Our photography expert had a very nice DSLR camera with multiple lenses but we had cell phones.  We shifted our lessons to iPhone/cell phone photography (which has become quite popular).  Most students have cell phones with cameras that take great photos!  They are portable and the photos can be easily transferred into WeVideo through a free app.

Recorded Audio for the Digital Story: We purchased $15 microphones on Amazon to record student narratives on our cell phones.

Sharing the Digital Stories: At the end of our workshop day, we shared student digital stories in class.  The advantage of using technology to create these stories is that the finished products can be saved in multiple platforms and they are easily accessible. The playlist for our Denmark digital stories is here.

We also did quite a bit of  pre-planning before we left the country.  We met with the Whittier College students who would be joining us on study abroad nearly six months before departure.  On various dates we discussed the digital storytelling project and what the expectations would be.  As plans and events were confirmed we communicated this with our students. We also wanted to make the topic they would be writing about in their digital stories simple but meaningful.  As I explained before, we didn’t have a full semester to work on this so it was important to create a writing prompt that our students were exposed to and could discuss with a group of international students.  We required the stories to only be a minute in length.  We had to keep them short but meaningful. We also created an agenda for the workshop that included breaks and lunch schedules to make sure we were on task as needed.  As the day progressed during our workshop, we noticed that some students completed their stories ahead of time while others required more time.  Perhaps this was because of varying levels of skill or experience but our thoughts in debrief were to ask these students to help others who required more assistance.

What We Hoped for But Didn’t Expect

Students bonded!  They wanted more in-class time together to talk and discuss their ideas.  It really sparked discussion and engagement.  They cheered each other on as we introduced each story for viewing.  They also hung out after class socially.  On the day of the last meeting a class party was organized and all of the students attended.  Surely they’ve found ways to keep in touch via social media.  

We see the value of digital storytelling in teaching and learning.  Students learn to use technology in meaningful ways to create and communicate powerful stories of awareness, discovery, and reflection.  As educators, we see the need to build critical thinking skills in our students.  In her study, Digital Storytelling for Reflection and Engagement, Catherine Boase states “The process of constructing a story requires numerous cognitive strategies to come into play, such as comparing, selecting, inferring, arranging and revising information.  Making a digital story is a process that is interesting and valuable in its own right. Intellectually and emotionally, creating a story involves cognitive processes of reflection, evaluation and creation, while technically the production of a digital story can require some degree of new media literacy.”  Cognitive processes of reflection, evaluation and creation–this is the strength of the digital storytelling assignment! If telling stories are a way to transfer knowledge then we are all partners in teaching and learning.  Digital storytelling also fits the High-Impact Educational Practices that we strive for.  I am grateful for the opportunity to take our digital storytelling assignment into a study abroad course and to share our pedagogy with international partners.  I am especially thrilled to showcase the collaborative work we do here at Whittier College and DigLibArts!

See and read more about Digital Storytelling in our study abroad course at