Digital Storytelling, Visual Literacy and 21st Century Skills

Imagine a learning experience, supported and extended by the application of

technology, that empowers students to create and contribute, all within the

context of what they are expected to know and be able to do in the 21st Century.

Imagine that this learning experience provides students with a compelling and

competitive voice and enlarges the boundaries of their ability to communicate,

potentially to a worldwide audience. That learning experience is digital


Everyone has stories, including our students. Stories come from a variety of

places, from a person’s past to their imagination. Some can be funny, some can

be painful, but all are personal. Digital storytelling is the process of writing about

that story, and adding the multimedia elements of voice, imagery, and music to

create a visual story.

In this paper, we will talk about how the process of digital storytelling works, what students learn, and how to build a digital storytelling program in your school.

How does the process work?

The process of digital storytelling can be broken into a series of steps. Following

these steps will help ensure that a successful experience will be provided. The

end goal of this process is to complete a digital story between 2-3 minutes in

length that is composed of about 20-25 images and has a script length of about

one page, double-spaced. Steps 1-3 are done in the classroom before a student

even uses a computer, steps 4 and 5 are done in a computer lab, and step 6 can

occur back in the classroom or any other venue, including online.

Step 1: Writing. Digital storytelling first begins with writing (Figure 1). Students

write, rewrite, and continue the writing process through multiple drafts. In most

cases, this writing takes the form of a personal narrative about a particular story

from a student’s life, although the rules and applications of digital storytelling to

curriculum are certainly open-ended. It is important to note that the most

effective digital stories have their genesis in sound writing, so it is important to

emphasize the value of multiple drafts. Within the writing, it is important that the

story have a central theme, such as loss, or accomplishment, among others.

The importance of this theme is for the viewer of the story; even though the story

is about another’s experience, the viewer relates to the story because they have

experienced similar types of events in their lives.

Step 2: Script. After the narrative is completed, students develop a script. This

script is usually a distillation of the essential components of the narrative story.

As the digital story is created, the script forms the foundation, and the inclusion of

the various multimedia elements serve to rebuild the story. For example, the

narrative may be between three or four typed pages. The script resulting from

this narrative may be about a page in length. Producing the digital story from the

script ensures that the multimedia elements convey and contribute meaning to

the story, rather than being included to make the story more “interesting.”

Step 3: The Storyboard. In this step, students are required to complete a

storyboard to organize the flow of their movie. The storyboard includes a place

for the student to associate their script with a visual (still frame or video). At this

point, students still have not searched for visuals, however, the storyboarding

process permits students to determine or draw the type of imagery that will be

associated with a particular portion of the script. This is an essential

management tool; when this is done correctly, students (in the next step) will be

much more effective in locating their multimedia elements because they have a

clear vision of what they are looking for. It is the step most students dislike the

most, and that most teachers do not do, but it is essential!

Step 4: Locating Multimedia. In this step, students use search tools such as

Google (, Mamma (, Altavista

(, alltheweb ( and Singingfish

( to locate still-frame imagery or video. Students may

also scan images from photographs from personal collections at this point. It is

important to note, depending on the topic of the digital story that students will

indeed bring in personal photos; it is important that the computer lab have

sufficient scanning capability.

In Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove, Illinois, we have had

excellent success with digital stories that range between 20-25 images in length.

We have discouraged the inclusion of video as video adds another layer of

complexity to the process, both in the rendering process (making the final movie)

and memory storage requirements on our network. Also, we have found that

students can create very compelling stories by using still frame imagery. These

generally are JPEG images and this number can easily be stored in student’s

personal storage space on the District 99 network without any memory space

issues. We have also found that digital stories above this number of images

begin to lose their effectiveness, as the visuals carry less meaning and are

included in the projects simply because students can.

Step 5: Creating the digital story: In this step, students create their story

using the software available to them.

On Macintosh platforms, this would be iMovie HD. On PC platforms, this might

be MovieMaker 2 (available as a free download from Microsoft for XP operating

systems), Photostory 3 (also available as a free download from Microsoft and

appropriate for younger students), or Pinnacle Studio 9. In District 99, we

support Pinnacle Studio 9 and have had very good success with the product.

To learn the software, the teacher (or in some cases, a librarian) will give a

demonstration which takes about 40 minutes-after this, the students are very

competent on the software. We suggest that the students be supported with

printed tutorials and even a digital storytelling Web site. In District 99, this is

facilitated through our Blackboard Learning Management System. This site also

includes a discussion board to ask questions of their teachers. Interestingly,

many of their classmates end up answering their questions!

Generally, it takes about 4-5 class periods (50 minutes each) to complete the

movie. The most difficult component is recording the voice (called the voiceover)

from the script. Students, like most people, do not like how they sound

when recorded. After a few trials however, most students resolve this issue and

push on. We have found that recording their voice-overs in 2-3 sentence

“chunks” is most effective; if students make a mistake they do not have to record

the entire voice-over, just a small portion of it. To facilitate the recording of voiceovers

in a noisy lab, we suggest using Sennheiser PC-130 noise canceling

microphones that allow students who are side by side to record without

interfering with each other.

Once the components of the digital story are assembled, students then produce

the final movie, a process called rendering. We have students render their

movies as a Windows Media Player file (we are a PC district) in low quality (160

X 120 pixels) just to determine if the movie is what the student had intended.

Once satisfied, we re-render the Pinnacle Studio file into a new Windows Media

file of high quality (720 X 480 pixels) for their final product. Students then add

the completed movie (turn the movie in) to a shared directory that can be

accessed by the teacher so that evaluation can occur. The advantage of the

Windows Media file is that it can be played on any PC.

Step 6: Share. This is a critical step. Students are generally intensely proud of

their creations. Showing their movies in class has a tremendous effect on

classroom relationships-they get insights into their fellow students that they

would have never known had they not seen their digital stories. Showing the

digital stories help students understand each other as human beings, and it helps

kids to understand that they all share common experiences, and that the person

with the blue hair across the room is not that different from them.

Additionally, students have the opportunity to share their stories with a global

audience by uploading their products to,

( produced by Niles Township High School District


At this point it is important to point out that only steps 4-5 are done in a computer

lab. Much of the work required to complete an effective digital storytelling

experience can be done in a traditional classroom environment.

What do students learn?

The process of digital storytelling provides a high-quality learning experience

because the learning experience honors the writing process first. The inclusion

of the technology into the process represents a “value-added” approach where

the inclusion of the technology extends the learning experience beyond what

could be accomplished without technology.

Digital storytelling develops visual and multimedia literacy in students.

Digital storytelling addresses the development of the interpretation of

digital media and the application of that interpretation to a personal

message or story.

Digital storytelling provides students with a competitive and compelling

voice by enlarging the boundaries of who students can communicate with

and by increasing the depth and power of that communication.

Digital storytelling permits students to recapture creativity, develop it and

intensify it, apply it, extend it…

Digital storytelling helps students write more effectively by permitting the

visualization of the writing, resulting in an additional level of perception

that extends the writing process to a place seldom reached.

Digital storytelling provides an authentic personal learning experience- as

such; student investment is greatly increased resulting in greatly improved

motivation and end product.

Digital storytelling teaches elements of technology and information

literacy-students use many different computer applications and must be

conversant about locating and managing visuals and video, as well as

being able to do so in the context of copyright and fair use.

Building your own digital storytelling program

Building a digital storytelling program involves a careful and thoughtful plan built

with all stakeholders in mind. The following are suggestions for beginning:

Begin with a staff development program where program participants

build their own story. Include support personnel in the storytelling staff

development. Teachers must be active participants in the construction of

digital stories; the MUST have the capability to answer software related


Begin with a small pilot program. The process of digital storytelling is

support-intensive and system intensive. To produce a digital story

requires a great deal of student support as well as a stable technology

infrastructure. Test both by running several small projects first and get the

“bugs” worked out. Test, test, and more testing of the technology,

hardware, software and network.

Place software in an area where all teachers/students have access.

Many students will want to, and need to, work before, during and free

period, and after school.

Build administrative support for digital storytelling. Be ready to

defend the process-what do students really learn. Our current reality

includes high stakes testing and school curriculums packed with content.

Focus on the writing process first and foremost. Successful stories

begin first with quality writing.

Require storyboard-do as much “outside the technology” as

possible. Make use of computer time wisely. Require students to

complete the project on their own time.

Begin building a library of best practice examples. This is NOT

PowerPoint. Digital storytelling should not be used for traditional reports.

Clearly identify all support needs and responsibility. This includes

human support as well as tutorials/documentation for students.

Initially, avoid the inclusion of video.

Work very hard with students of the use of transitions. Students have

PTS (PowerPoint Transition Syndrome); they’ll want to use every

transition known to mankind-even though it completely distracts or ruins

their story.

Be sure to carefully consider all copyright issues. Use digital

storytelling as a “teachable” moment to address copyright and fair-use.

Avoid cooperative projects. Storytelling is an intensely personal

process; because of the personal nature of the story, students are

thoroughly engaged and product quality goes way up.


Digital storytelling provides a truly engaging learning experience which blends

writing, technology and emotion to create a compelling product of value. This

process is one that students can use throughout entire lives to tell their stories.

Many Web sites are now beginning to accept video submissions; will our

students in second grade eventually be submitting digital letters to the editor?

Time will tell, but in the meantime, the process of digital storytelling provides one

of the best learning experiences available to students.

Davi S. Jakes Joe Brennan

Instructional Technology Coordinator Visual Literacy Facilitator

Community High School District 99 Niles Township High Schools

Downers Grove, Illinois Skokie, Illinois

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