Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Digital Storytelling

The Purpose

For the technology component of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Alaska Southeast we all had to create a digital story in our respective content areas. Given the research showing the effectiveness of the story format in teaching and the easy overlap between storytelling and history, I was excited to create something I could later use as an example for my students.

Currently I'm teaching history in a sixth grade classroom where we're studying ancient Rome and I as the quarter progresses I'm interested in having my students create a digital story of their own. The storytelling process was, to me, both challenging and thought provoking and yet also very engaging and creative. The major benefits of storytelling as a teaching and learning tool is that the storytelling process requires students to:
  • Have a clear understanding of the subject matter.
  • Think imaginatively to create their own story.
  • Think deeply about how to integrate their knowledge of the subject into their own personal narrative.
  • Reflect on the storytelling process and on what makes a good story.
The digital media component of digital storytelling enables students to interact and create in a medium which is both familiar to them (in that they are constantly exposed to digital media) and yet exciting and exotic (in that they may have never created anything like it). Digital media also has the added bonus that it forces the student to use multiple intelligences to create a finished product that is well written, flows smoothly, is well narrated and which is visually appealing. The student must therefore effectively integrate multiple facets of presentation, including the following:
  • The written word
  • The spoken word
  • Relevant / evocative images
  • Appropriate narration, sound and music
In doing so, the student is forced to think more holistically, making connections between the verbal, auditory, and visual realms in order to create a product which seamlessly unites the three into a compelling whole. Having to think in this way and making connections between different areas of understanding can be a very powerful learning tool and offers students a creative way to truly show what they know.

The Process

Before I break down the process I used to create my own story, perhaps I should tell you where you can view my digital story. It's here.

The basic idea I had was to illustrate the process of building a Roman aqueduct and to highlight some of the technologies the ancient Romans used to accomplish this. Personally, I've always been impressed by the graceful arched arcades the Romans used to span valleys and astounded by the extraordinary engineering and the sheer blood, sweat, and toil it would have taken to build such phenomenal structures. Even so, I could tell that a straightforward "this is how you build an aqueduct" story would be pretty boring.

In our tech class we talked about how good stories generally incorporate emotion, tension centered around the potential for success and failure, and some sort of personal transformation in the main character. This last part is perhaps the most important because, as humans, we seem most compelled by stories in which the protagonist, through his/her experiences, undergoes some sort of a personal transformation or growth. My aqueduct story, in its early documentary phase, had no such transformation, no real tension, and no emotion. Clearly there was work to be done.

My inspiration finally came while discussing substories. I decided that I could tell the story of building an aqueduct through the eyes of the fictional Roman in charge of its construction. Through his eyes, we could learn about the process of building an aqueduct, about the obstacles in the way and the human ingenuity and determination that overcame them. By telling it in this format, however, I could also incorporate emotion and personal transformation. Issues of race and class have always resonated with me, and so I decided that my fictional Roman aristocrat builder could begin the story as an elitist disgusted with having to oversee his crew of slaves, lower class Romans, and legionaires. As the story progressed and he saw these men work and overcome hardship and tragedy, he would be moved to reconsider his notions of human worth based on race and class and would come to respect his men simply for who they were, regardless of their status in society.

Now I finally had an idea that incorporated emotion, tension, and personal transformation. Next I set out writing the story. First I sketched a rough outline of the interplay between the plot (building an aqueduct) and the subplot (the transformation of my Roman aristocrat). Once I had this I wrote out the story in diary format, which you can see here. After a few proofreads by Dr. Ohler and my classmates, I was ready to start making my digital story. The basic process is as follows:
  1. Record narration of the story.
  2. Select and incorporate pictures that help bring the narration to life.
  3. Work with transitions and effects to give the movie a polished feel.
  4. Cite sources and include credits.
Though it looks simple, there's a lot that actually goes into this process. Getting the narration right took time, and achieving the proper inflection and emotion was a challenge for me. It was also difficult to find pictures that showed exactly what I'd hoped to get across but I was able to achieve the basic effect that I'd hoped for. Adding transitions and effects went very quickly and smoothly on Windows Movie Maker, as did adding credits. The process of actually making the video was considerably less involved than that of creating the story. My experience bore out completely what Dr. Ohler had been telling us all along, that it is much easier to create a reasonably polished movie than it is to create a well crafted story, and that for that reason it is especially important to spend the time to think critically about how to create a compelling story. In the end, I learned a lot about how to make a movie on my computer, but I learned immensely more about how to think about what makes a good story and about how to create one myself.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Technology & Education: Article Assessments

For the technology component of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Alaska Southeast we read several articles about the use of technology in the school environment. These articles, which I review below, were both thought provoking and informative and raised interesting questions about the place of technology in the classroom.

Article 1: The Overdominance of Computers by Lowell W. Monke

The focus of Monke's thoughtful and incisive piece is the rethinking of the notion that technology should play a central role in education simply because that technology plays such a central role in modern society. Monke points out that the realm of the computer is a "purely symbolic environment" in which users work "with abstract representations of things, never the things themselves." While these synthetic models most certainly have value for organizing and working with data and concepts, they also separate the learner from the concrete world which they are studying. This is, in both Monke's and my own view, problematic when we consider the extent to which today's youth are already engrossed in digitally synthesized environments when they interact with their peers and play. Monke cites a study showing that the current generation of elementary age students have 30% less face to face interaction than their peers in previous generations. Given the importance of face to face interaction in learning and developing positive relationships with others and the world around them, this statistic is troubling.

Having seen that the current generation of students already spends much of their life immersed in digital environments, the challenge of education becomes not to further inculcate students in the use of technology but rather to balance technology's use with real world learning, hands on activities, and personal interaction. This is especially true when we consider that technology is, by itself, neither a positive nor a negative force. Before students learn to interact in the impersonal, abstract digital world we need first to help them develop firm foundations in what really matters in education:
  • Positive and caring relationships with both peers and adults.
  • An understanding and appreciation of the natural world, its processes and inherent value.
  • Hands-on, physically engaging, and in-depth exploration of the core subjects (mathematics, science, history, language arts, etc.)
  • Creative thought and expression, tempered by respect and responsibility towards others.
  • Critical thinking, introspection, and reflection.
To rephrase Monke, the essential guideline for technology use in the classroom is that its use should be limited to those situations where it provides, in a way that other resources cannot, genuine opportunities for in-depth exploration and analysis of the content being studied. To use technology simply because it is so prevalent in modern society shortchanges students by introducing a layer of abstraction that is in many cases unnecessary and distracting. In short, technology needs to be balanced with traditional learning, face to face peer interaction, and hands on instruction. Technology can be appropriately used when it genuinely enriches the curriculum and once students have a firm foundation in both the subject matter and the underlying values of respect, compassion, and responsibility.

Article 2:
Assistive Technologies for Reading by Ted S. Hasselbring and Margaret E. Bausch

Modern schools are founded on literacy. Books and other written materials are a wonderful storehouse of knowledge and the written word remains the most prevalent means of retaining and passing on knowledge. Given this reality, the ability to process written material -- to read and write effectively -- is essential for success in the academic environment of today's schools. However, statistics cited by Hasselbring and Bausch show that about 10% of U.S. students have learning disabilities and as many as a further 80% of these students "have reading problems so significant that they cannot read and understand grade-level material." Nearly half of these students spend most of their time at school in inclusive classrooms where the required reading is far above their own level. Traditionally teachers would have made accomodations and provided learning disabled students with text at their own level. This had the positive effect of enabling all students to access similar materials, but the readings and information would, of course be different and the exact material could not be matched. Now, however, new technology may enable learning disabled students to access the same reading material as their peers.

The most practical technology for inclusive classrooms is perhaps text-reader software, which uses computer synthesized speech to read aloud highlighted sections of texts, allowing the reader to follow along with the specific words and phrases being read. Use of this system requires that schools have access to computer-readable school texts. Hasselbring and Bausch reference the success of text-reading programs in Kentucky schools, where learning disabled students have made significant gains in reading and writing skills and where the state has made accomodations to testing whereby learning disabled students are able to use assistive technology when taking state assessments. Students also appear to show greater improvement using text-reader software than they do when teachers simply read aloud to them, perhaps because the software allows students a degree of independence they would otherwise not have. Combined with skilled teaching, accomodation, and supportive parents, technologies like text-reader software have the potential to make grade level reading materials accessible to more and more students. As the technology improves, it will be interesting to see how schools and teachers incorporate it into the classroom to make learning accessible to everyone.