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Digital storytelling can foster collaboration in class and cultivate community that affords true dialogue about complex issues: necessary skills for students’ uncertain futures, including the ability to critically analyze visual narratives which shape societal discourse around issues of race, class, gender and the environment; impacting who wins elections; who languishes on death row; and whether we have the collective will to make adjustments to address a changing climate.

Our futures are intertwined with our students, and we need their generative minds, imaginations and desire to shape more just societies. They need us as educators to provide learning opportunities to create academic work informed by their voices that embodies hopeful and integrated approaches to learning.

Developing Critical Thinking

The digital storytelling project can serve as a catalyst to help students wrestle with complexity and nuance on issues that have no easy answers, and are often situated in dynamic contexts -- in brief, critical thinking. Over the past few years, students from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School’s public affairs department taking energy, environmental and water policy courses have produced video investigation projects weaving together background research, multimedia sources, voice-over narrative and subject expert interviews. These projects are meant to communicate multiple perspectives on issues ranging from the challenges of increasing combined heat and power electric generation to causes and solutions for mitigating groundwater contamination.

By capturing diverse perspectives, the students are better able to consider the challenges of these issues from multiple viewpoints, aided by networking with experts outside of the classroom. Further, by pairing the video with a policy paper and presentation, students are forced to more deeply reflect upon and analyze key causes and potential solutions.

A primary initial challenge for instructors considering the adoption of the student video project is overcoming the unknown versus the familiarity of a research paper. Once an instructor has decided to move forward with a media project, Scott Spicer, media outreach and learning spaces librarian, often consults with an instructor to consider important assignment development aspects. These include:

  • balancing required compositional components (e.g., an expert interview) and video genre to best meet learning objectives while leaving the creation process open enough to allow for creative expression;
  • existent student technical skill sets; scaffolding the assignment to allow enough time for quality video creation and revision while considering pre-required content delivery and related course activities;
  • balancing the overall course workload;
  • and developing rubrics for effective assessment.

Further, Spicer often provides guidance to the students specific to the course media project, including an overview of the production process, tips on quality video composition and access to production equipment and support, typically through services offered in the libraries and campus partners. As with any type of assignment, there are benefits and challenges with media projects. Fortunately, through experience and iterative tweaks, with the support of campus media support professionals and online resources, these media projects can be strengthened over time to better realize their full potential.

At its most basic level, the digital story has been fueled in part by the availability of affordable, high-quality, intuitive media production devices, computing, and online delivery platforms like YouTube. As a result, at the University of Minnesota, several faculty members have integrated media assignments into their curriculum, supported by media specialists and centralized programming such as library media services.

Over the past decade, Spicer has consulted with over 125 instructors to help develop and coordinate support for student produced media projects. This outreach has included over 220 courses, spanning campus disciplinary and curricular contexts from agronomy to zoology.

As students become more adept with the technical aspects of media creation and institutions invest more in related support, he has witnessed a shift with instructors towards deepening the pedagogical, compositional and media literacy skill set development potential of these projects.

An Unexpected Outcome

Since 2016, Kari Smalkoski has co-led 10,000 Stories. This storytelling collaborative partners with urban public middle schools and is housed in the department of gender, women and sexuality studies (GWSS). To date, 10,000 Stories has worked with over 500 middle school students to create digital stories focused on social issues ranging from gun violence, global warming, and racism to bullying, mental illness, body image, and LGBTQ issues. As an interdisciplinary collective, the team is rethinking dominant approaches to K-12 education, offering new ways to tell the complex stories behind educational statistics about urban youth, while elevating and amplifying students’ voices.

An unexpected outcome of the project has been the impact on undergraduates. In spring 2017, Smalkoski taught a community engaged learning course that brought 27 undergraduates from four different colleges at the U of M to Parkway Montessori middle school in St. Paul, to work weekly with 300 middle school students. As part of the work, undergrads created their own digital stories and shared them with middle school students and one another.

They noted how telling and listening were often times transformative and built trust between these older and younger youth. As large as the U of M Twin Cities campus is, the majority of Smalkoski’s undergrads admit to staying in bubbles that prohibit them from engaging with others who are unlike them. Although they are bombarded by stories in the news about the problems in K-12 public schools and urban poverty in Minneapolis and St. Paul, this was the first time many of them had actually been in an urban, high-poverty school where the majority of students are nonwhite.

Through weekly writing reflections, they discussed how participating in this project gave them opportunities to put theory into practice for the first time.

Given our current political climate, the digital storytelling curriculum also has the potential to improve civic discourse and observing the lives of others, by encouraging students to engage their community and discuss directly with people that hold a diversity of perspectives.

This is not to suggest that this approach will necessarily bring about total agreement. But at a minimum, this dialogue might have an effect on sharing, reflection and appreciation for the complexity of divergent viewpoints that moves beyond the media sound bites and social media echo chambers that so effectively reinforce our preferred point of views, while also fostering the development of critical media literacy skill sets that are invaluable to teaching and learning.

Through the process of creating digital stories on impactful social issues, in addition to working with middle school students creating their own, undergraduates in this course developed something that is not easily taught in university classrooms: empathy. As one undergrad in Smalkoski’s course reflected, "I find myself caring more about the academic performance of all children in school, not just those of my own race."

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