Active learning through digital storytelling

Jo Lonsdale Postgraduate Researcher
Centre for Active Learning, University of Gloucestershire

Environment courses at the University of Gloucestershire encourage the use of active learning, based on the Kolb learning cycle (1984) and Performances of Understanding (Blythe & Assoc, 1998). Developing reflective practice is an important, yet challenging part of this approach. Reflection is not necessarily an individual process and can be improved when others are involved (McDrury & Alterio 2002). This paper will discuss the development of digital storytelling with first year students and draws on the use of reflection and storytelling as learning tools (Kolb 1984; McDrury & Alterio 2002; Moon 2004; Brown 2005). This approach also acknowledges the claim that many new students now learn differently and seeks to use technologies they are already conversant with (Prensky 2001; Oblinger 2003; Brown 2005). Digital storytelling has been piloted as a reflective learning tool for individuals and groups during their first year, as part of active learning; a dominant pedagogical philosophy of the Department of Natural and Social Sciences. Students are first introduced to digital storytelling within their discipline groups, during induction week, where it is used as a group work reflective tool. Additionally, as part of this induction, students of landscape design were introduced into the studio culture using storytelling as a community building activity, which was then integrated into a mini-project where the final output was a group reflective digital story. The technique has also been piloted as a reflective component of a module where individual students were asked to reflect on their learning process and personal development at the end of their first semester. The paper will report on the results of the evaluation of digital storytelling. This will include student perceptions of the value of these techniques to their learning experience, and staff views on its use and future development.

Digital story, reflective learning, collaboration, induction, student engagement

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Active learning through digital storytelling
Introduction This paper seeks to highlight some of the issues that have arisen from piloting digital storytelling (DST) as an active learning approach with undergraduate students at the University of Gloucestershire. This is one of a number of studies assessing the impact of this process on student learning, student engagement and strategies to integrating technology in learning. An Active Learning Approach At the University of Gloucestershire active learning focuses on inquiry in the field, studio, laboratory and classroom, using real sites, community-related and employerlinked activities. It is seen as more than learning by doing and where ‘learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (Kolb 1984, p38). Thus students are enabled to construct theoretical understanding by reflection on their activities and experiences, in communities of active learners where staff and students inquire together. The approach to active learning at the University of Gloucestershire has been developed from the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb 1984) and the Performances of Understanding (Blythe and Associates 1998). The Kolb cycle may be described as four stages: experience, reflect, generalise and test (Cowan 1988) which each link with individual learning styles making this approach accessible to students of all abilities, ages and cultures. The introduction of the ‘performances of understanding’ (Blythe and Associates 1998) into the model acknowledges that introducing activities at each stage of the cycle, requiring students to use knowledge in new ways or situations, allows students to build and demonstrate their understanding, thus developing ‘capable and enthusiastic active learners’ (Centre for Active Learning: Active learning at the University of Gloucestershire). Digital stories Digital storytelling began in California at the Centre for Digital Storytelling (Centre for Digital Storytelling) and is now a worldwide phenomenon. In Britain digital storytelling has been used extensively by the BBC to capture the richness of people’s lives. Digital stories are media artifacts or "mini-movies" of images and sound, created and edited by individuals, or groups, using cameras, computers, scanners and hard copy images. It is an easily accessible technique that can be quickly learnt. The technique of digital storytelling has been developed at the Centre for Active Learning (University of Gloucestershire) building on the work of Simon Turner (Senior Lecturer in Media Studies) and a member of the BAFTA award-winning BBC Wales digital story team. Digital storytelling uses narratives and collaboration as learning strategies, and technology to enable a fresh approach to student engagement. This allows students to explore and develop communicative skills using images, text, sound and sequence and

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thus a chance to develop a new literacy. Students can achieve results using readily accessible mobile devices, such as mobile phones with cameras, mp3 players etc. Students in the Digital Age The use of digital storytelling recognises that current students are from diverse backgrounds, and some belong to the first generation to grow up with digital technology, referred to by Marc Prensky (2001) as ‘digital natives’. This approach acknowledges the claim that many new students now learn differently and seek to use technologies they are already conversant with (Prensky 2001; Oblinger 2003). Other students, who arrive through widening participation are ‘digital immigrants’ (Prensky 2001) and these students can be assisted in the use of the accessible technology by collaborative working. (Oblinger 2003, p 44) Traditionally, propositional knowledge, or “learning about” (Brown 2005, p40), has been at the heart of university education but “knowledge [is] no longer perceived to be the ultimate goal” (Oblinger 2003, p 40) and “results and actions are considered more important than the accumulation of facts” (ibid). Twenty first century citizens will need lifelong learning or “learning-to-be” approaches (Brown 2005, p40) to enable them to cope with multiple careers, are the rapid acquisition of new skills across disciplines. Thus, the traditional lecture approach does not meet the expectations of many young students (Oblinger 2003). These students may well respond better to an authentic, experiential approach which is also an immersive collaborative experience. The creation of ‘learning communities’ (Lave and Wenger 1991; Tinto 2000; Schön 1983, 1987) is a supportive way to develop this type of experiential approach. Using discipline groups to construct a socially, and intellectually shared, coherent experience where there is an appreciation for the many ways in which individual knowing is enhanced when other voices are part of that learning experience. Developing reflective practice within communities of learners is an important and challenging part of this approach at the University of Gloucestershire where reflection is not seen as an individual process (McDrury and Alterio 2002). Digital storytelling is seen as a tool that combines the use of technology in an environment that is fun, student-centred, with storytelling as a learning tool (McDrury and Alterio 2002; Brown 2005) so contextualising and improving the learning experience and providing a forum to jointly appreciate and learn digital skills. These narratives provide a new insight into the student experience and as Connelly and Clandinin (1990, p2-14) suggest, the “study of narrative... is the study of the ways humans experience the world” and uses the human “readiness or predisposition to organise experience into a narrative form, into plot structures” (Bruner 1990, p45). Schön (1983, 1987) theorises that professionals use particular styles of reflection and reflective practice in their work. This research will investigate student reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön 1983; 1987) and the use of a reflective conversation with the situation, in a reflective practicum (Schön 1987), such as the studio. Sociocultural learning theories have built on the work of Schön (1987) and have introduced a

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group of interrelated concepts, including situated cognition (Brown et al. 1989), cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al. 1991) and communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). These theories suggest that in learning in complex socially negotiated authentic situations, where knowledge is progressively constructed over time by engaging in practices consistent with those of professional practitioners, leads to a rich understanding (Brown et al. 1989). This is seen in part, as a process of enculturation into a community of practitioners where students learn, both explicitly and tacitly, to use appropriate conceptual tools in situated authentic activities and social interaction. It is hoped the analysis of all stories will reveal important aspects of both the sociocultural realities, and the reflective processes in higher education, by making explicit what is normally private, implicit or tacit and will encapsulate “learning-about” as well as “learning-to-be” (Brown 2005), showing the transformation of identity. In practice, it is hoped that digital storytelling will offer students an innovative way to reflect and become active learners. Induction The Department of Natural and Social Sciences in conjunction with the Centre for Active Learning has introduced a specialised induction for students to assist in their transition to higher education through social learning. It intends to provide an enjoyable, relaxed learning experience that introduces students to active learning alongside the opportunity to meet staff and fellow students. This induction, during fresher’s week, is based on the Gloucestershire approach to active learning (Centre for Active Learning 2004) where the events of the week are based on collaborative group work and a scenario related to their discipline; the theme in 2006 was sustainability. The process of induction is intended to help students make social networks and develop skills within their discipline groups, and beyond, to help them with their transition to becoming independent learners. The intent is to “embed[s] students in a rich.....learning community built around a practice” (Brown 2005, p 25) where students can share artefacts and enthusiasms enabling the early formation of communities and the beginnings of ‘learning-to-be’ alongside ‘learning-about’ (Brown 2005, p26). The induction week is linked to a compulsory Semester 1 skills module which seeks to further develop and embed these skills. In 2006 Digital Storytelling was introduced as a technique to encourage and embed student reflection on the activities in which they were engaged. This approach recognised that reflection can be enhanced as a collaborative process (McDrury & Alterio, 2002). The induction week activities culminate in a day’s field work where the students gathered data related to their given scenario; this field based activity was the focus of their group reflections. Students were prepared for the field work through a series of briefings and preparation activities. This included training sessions for digital storytelling led by CeAL’s learning technologist. In these students were first shown some existing digital stories and were then provided with digital cameras and laptops and instructed in their use. It is

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recognised that such an undertaking benefited from having the resources of a Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning available. This comprised: twenty-two laptops with headsets, seven multi-card readers, seven digital cameras and thirty memory sticks. The protocols used were based on those of the BBC Wales team: all stories are a maximum of 250 words long and two minutes in duration. Students recorded their audio directly onto the laptops using the software Audacity. For logistical reasons and given this was the first attempt at using this technique the students only created the components of their Digital Story, the pictures and audio. The completed stories were put together by CeAL staff using Windows Movie Maker the next day and shown to students at a social event on the last day of induction week.

Issues The reflective digital storytelling element of the field activity was both discipline- and tutor-led and was more embedded into scenarios than others. For instance, the Landscape design students had storytelling as a theme running through their induction. The first session they had was in the studio where a basic story-circle idea was used to introduce students to the discipline. The induction was in fact a mini design and build project encompassing many basic concepts of the discipline, where the digital story was the culmination and presentation of the groups design work. Asking the students to create elements of their story in the field did raise some logistical issues. These issues ranged from the lack of equipment in total and in particular digital cameras and the poor battery life of laptops. Some students and members of staff used their own cameras and this worked well as there was the opportunity to use the multicard readers. These more personal photographs did enhance some of the stories. It was fortunate that the weather was good but this could have been a huge problem. Time constraints did become an issue with some groups and this led to audio recordings being done on buses and in cafes which led to poor sound quality. Separating out the final stage of the process, with CeAL staff combining the elements, turned out to be a massive undertaking and was time consuming and exhausting. Some of the problems arose from the sheer numbers of stories to be created in the time, others from lack of content, poor audio tracks, lack of images and from the problem of CeAL staff having not being part of the story. This last issue demonstrated quite clearly that reflection would continue during creation of the story and that students need to have control of this element to fully benefit from the process. Individual Digital stories for assessment Landscape Design students in their first semester were asked to make a digital story at the end of the module. The module had focused on developing design ideas and the use of models where the tutor was interested in encouraging more reflection. The making of the digital stories was supported by the provision of training sessions led by the learning technologist with equipment provided by CeAL. The equipment for

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making their digital stories was made available to all these students at any reasonable time within the CeAL building. In this discipline students work in a studio setting where “all work-in-progress is always made public” which gives opportunities to “witness the thinking process of other students” and where the “public ‘crit’ leads to many learning opportunities” (Brown 2005, p3), and thus: “....students not only get to hear each other’s critiques, but because they were in some sense peripheral participants in the evolution of each others work, they understand the thinking behind it. They have a moderately nuanced understanding of the design choices made early on, and the compromises that may underlie the final product. As a result the brief crit holds substantial significance and presents the learning opportunities for all the students – not just the one whose project is being critiqued.” (Brown 2005, p3) Digital stories were seen as a way for the student to reflect on individual progress of design processes and personal development, and for members of staff to understand the student experience. Ideas on reflection in this discipline are heavily influenced by Dewey and Schön (Dewey 1922; Schön 1983, 1987). Dewey’s ideas of engaging in productive inquiry, defined as “deliberately seeking what we need in order to do what we want to do” (Dewey 1922). Furthermore, John Seeley Brown (2005) specifically describes digital storytelling as a tool for engaging in such productive inquiry. Unfortunately, at the end of the module only a handful of digital stories were submitted, the mark of 5% of the total was clearly insufficient for many students to make time in an already heavily loaded module. These students in general had no problems in using the technology, and those that were worried made time for additional training. Evaluation Group digital stories made at induction (29 no.) and individual stories (5 no.) made as part of an assignment were evaluated in various ways. Two five stage models of learning were used to evaluate reflection. Firstly, Jenny Moon’s Map of Learning (1999), and secondly, McDrury and Alterio’s Model of Reflective Learning through Storytelling (2002). Other factors were also evaluated including: the number of speakers, how engaging the voice was, whether appropriate and / or discipline language was used, how well the script was structured, how centred on the task the students were and how relevant the images chosen. Moon’s Map of Learning (1999) was appropriate to use in assessing these digital story reflections, but as these were not stories in the ordinary sense, or indeed, interactive stories the McDrury and Alterio model (2002) was really problematic to use with most. Most of the twenty-nine group stories were classed as surface level learning (45% level 1: ‘Noticing’; 41%, level 2: ‘Making sense’, Moon 1999), 10% reached level 3: ‘Meaning Making’ where deep learning can occur, and just 3% (1 story) reached level 4: ‘Working

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with Meaning’ where the focus of the reflection moved to explicit reflection, clarification, problem-solving, reviewing and raising of awareness (Moon 1999). The five individual reflective digital stories examined achieved much higher levels of reflection and were very engaging due to the individual nature of the reflection on personal development and their design process. Of these five, three were classed as level 3 ‘Working with Meaning’ (Moon 1999) where students were clearly engaged in reflective processes, clarifying and developing strategies to solve problems with a heightened awareness of their personal development and views on future practice contexts. One of the digital stories was classed as having reached level 5: ‘Transformative Learning’ (Moon 1999) which clearly demonstrated the ability to evaluate their own frames of reference, an awareness of the specific learning processes engaged in, enabling a critical thinking from different perspectives, self-motivation and continuing personal development as a student and into professional practice beyond. It was only possible to evaluate a few stories in the light of the McDrury and Alterio model (2002) where they were found to be generally associated with higher levels of reflection. The reflective digital stories were not required in the form of a story (although some did use a story format) making the task difficult. The research also evaluated other factors to assess digital stories. 86% of the group stories used a single voice and only 10% used multiple voices from the group, and, for unknown reasons, one group failed to produce any audio track at all. The groups that used multiple voices tended to use a more conversational style. This did not necessarily enhance engagement, particularly where this was associated with lack of structure or scripting. Most groups (86%) clearly used appropriate language, and many groups showed above average use of discipline language (43%). The individual stories used their personal voice to great effect which made them engaging and emotional. Most of the stories were well structured and scripted (83%). Interestingly, this didn’t necessarily help reflection, although where this was combined with deeper reflection the story did become more powerful. In the individual stories, script and structure did not associate with deep reflection; in fact, the deepest individual reflection only had an average score for structure (although this was from a foreign student whose first language was not English). With most of the digital stories produced in groups at induction, students only had the opportunity to choose from a selection of images provided, although a few students and staff added their own photographs which tended to improve the impact of the story. It was noted that the choice of images could either enhance a story when well chosen, or could seriously detract, thereby losing cohesion. The Landscape design groups at induction all had at least one student-owned digital camera per-group (where this failed they also had back-up photos on a mobile phone) and thus had much more control over the images they could use. As they were involved in a mini- design and build project this meant they could follow their progress with images. The individual stories produced later by some of these students also showed a good use of images, linked both to their workbook / portfolio / models and final pieces of work which did assist reflection.
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Many groups were well-focused on the activity task set within their discipline (76% were above average) but it was noted that the tasks set had not in themselves encouraged reflection as much as had been expected and it was felt that the reflective element could be embedded better. Some of the groups used humour to enhance their stories and this sometimes made their stories more engaging but was distracting in others. One group also used digital graphic techniques to add some missing members of their group which was innovative. As was stated earlier the protocols used have been set at a maximum of two minutes and 250 words maximum and thus we evaluated the duration of each story in terms of reflection (Moon, 1999). Duration minutes 0-1 1 – 1.5 1.5 – 2.0 2.0 – 2.5 Number Percent Average score ‘Map of Learning’ (Moon 1999) 8 27 1.25 9 0 2 65 0 7 2.0 2.50 Level of Reflection (Moon 1999) ‘Noticing’ ‘Making sense’ ‘Making sense’ ‘Making sense’

The data shows that is difficult to produce a reflective piece in less than a minute and that extending the time limit does not necessarily increase the reflective capacity greatly (within the protocols used here). Perceptions of digital storytelling from staff and students Students gave feedback as part of the induction process which included the digital stories. Staff evaluations were carried out using an email questionnaire. Evaluation of digital stories from staff at induction Many of the staff made comments about the emphasis and time allocated to the reflection at the end of the day in the field. “I think the digital story telling reflection would have worked better if the students had had more time to reflect, choose photos and if they could have produced their own stories”. “Time for staff to do preparation needed - far too little this year. Part of that, to build in time for digital storytelling” “I think there was evidence of active learning, but it was not part of the whole experience. I think greater emphasis on the digital stories, as a means of a reflection task is important.”

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Staff commented on the plenary session where the digital stories were shown and in particular on the poor attendance by students. “Watching the digital stories was great some of them were very good it would have been better if the students could have put them together though.” “Friday: Given the low attendance at the afternoon ‘reflection’ session, it would have been better to devote the morning to reflection and the compilation of the digital stories. The afternoon could then have been used for the Forest of Dean activities, hence rounding off the week.” The use of digital stories is seen to have a wider potential by staff. However, encouraging a focus on the reflective element and process has challenged some staff views: “we tend not to have any marks allocated to this reflective element ....because the module content is not about the learning process... its about subject content” Evaluation of digital stories by students at induction Student feedback on the use of digital stories was generally positive. Responses to the induction evaluation showed that 53% were positive, were 29% neutral and 18% disliking this approach. Students most enjoyed: “The production of the digital story and reflection of what we had done during the day, because I found it really enjoyable and a new take on an evaluation for the day” Students least enjoyed: “... writing what happened in the day for the computer” “Creating the digital story, I don’t think it helped me to learn” “Digital story we were forced to do at end seemed rushed and pointless” Technology issues were raised by students: “Having difficulties with the technology we were using because it slowed us down” Evaluation of digital storytelling in a module by the tutor The following comments by the tutor using reflective digital stories as a means of assessing individual design processes’ and personal development, shows that the usefulness of the technique is wide-ranging. Only a few students completed the

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reflective digital story, possibly due to time constraints within the module itself, and yet the feedback is very positive. “Digital storytelling has really been an interesting process in order to teach & understand design processes. I think it has been a useful process for the students to evaluate their own design methodology. They are able to understand how they as individuals work effectively at solving design related problem, they are able to plan their work more effectively as a result and they seem to develop their cognitive approach”. “In retrospect would have reduced my own assessment in order to utilise the process as one of the teaching and learning outcomes. It is very valuable as a tool for learning and I feel that it plays a very important role in the development of design students”. “A fantastic evaluative process that matures the design process and enables students to increase their cognitive capacities”. “Excellent evaluation process, far better than the universities module evaluation”. “I would like to see the process as an outcome of several modules. “...this has helped me to consider the changes for the module and to identify those students who are at the lower end of the teaching and learning process”. “I intend to write it [reflective digital storytelling] into the future of the course”. “In future would like to use the technique to get the students to explain design concepts as narratives. If they can achieve this via the technique, it may give them the confidence and the necessary ability to be able to communicate at ‘crit’s’, write legible design statements and also develop seemingly vacuous concepts in to artistic and creative prose”. Overall the evaluation showed that both group and individual digital stories can demonstrate reflection when evaluated using Moon’s Map of Learning (1999). Although the technique received a mixed response from staff and students it was seen to have great potential. Future developments It is likely that changes to digital storytelling at induction in 2007/8 will include the students taking ownership of the creation of the stories. This would necessitate some changes to the last day of the week so that groups could come together in the reflective process. It would also be useful if these stories could be shown in their discipline-led tutor groups within their first semester skills module to assist the development of a community of learners and to encourage reflection as an everyday part of undergraduate learning.

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It would seem that individual digital storytelling may well be incorporated into some future modules within the Landscape Design field where it offers great potential. Conclusions The use of digital storytelling in higher education is still in its infancy but does offer new ways for students to present their work and to reflect upon it. The straightforward technology used does not seem to hamper even the ‘digital immigrants’ (Prensky 2001) and all students really seem to like the product as something that is very engaging and something to be proud of. As McDrury and Alterio note “students find stories appealing if they connect with their own experience” (McDrury and Alterio 2002, p47) and this technique does offer an opportunity to enable this. The evaluation of the digital stories was attempted using both the Moon (1999) and McDrury and Alterio Moon (2002) five-stage models. Interestingly, only the Moon ‘Map of Learning’ was useful in this respect as the digital stories produced were reflections rather than truly interactive stories, although the products could be seen as a discipline resource to enable further reflection and storytelling to encourage deep learning. Where digital stories are used for reflection it must be remembered that learning is not always apparent, and that “narrative models of knowing are models of process in process” (Josselson and Leiblich 1995, p35). Thus, although the group stories showed some, but not high levels, of reflection they were useful as an engaging focus for collaborative reflection. It is hoped the group process at induction will assist individual students both in reflecting and in entering the higher education student community, although its use does need to be carefully integrated and sufficient time allowed. The individual stories showed much deeper reflection but were part of a learning process that traditionally uses a studio model, where learning is both social and public. The showing of the digital stories in this peer-learning forum gives students a chance to connect with the thought processes of others, and allows ‘scaffolding’ (Vygotsky 1978) to occur. Where formal critiquing of these stories takes place the possibility of enhanced reflective learning could take place, and may allow the voicing of tacit understandings. McDrury and Alterio (2002) contend that “it does seem that sharing stories encourages a reflective process, especially when storytelling is accompanied by dialogue and occurs in formalised settings” (McDrury and Alterio 2002, p111). Thus, the reviewing of the digital stories in a formal setting would help “bring about thoughtful and reasoned change to practice” where “tellers and listeners work collaboratively in formal contexts to construct knowledge using processes which promote reflective dialogue” (McDrury and Alterio 2002, p59). Such a setting, based on the studio / communities of practice model, would allow multiple perspectives to be explored to enhance not only reflective learning, but also assist with the establishment and enrichment of discipline-based cultural learning communities. The digital nature of these stories makes them ideal for storage and easy retrieval, thus making them available for review at regular intervals to make personal and group

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development explicit, and become part of an organised collection of evidence of reflection. This would encourage the acquisition of “learning-about” and “learning-to-be” skills (Brown 2005) for lifelong learning and the development of skilled twenty first century citizens.

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McDrury, J.and Alterio, M.G. (2003) Learning through Storytelling in Higher Education Using Reflection and Experience to Improve Learning. London: Kogan Page. Moon, J. A. (1999) Reflection in Learning and Professional Development. London: Kogan Page Ltd. Moon, J. A. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. London: Routledge Farmer. Oblinger, D. (2003) Understanding the new students: Boomers, gen-Xers, millennials. EduCAUSE Review 38, 4, 37-47. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9 (5). Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books. Schön, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner. New York: Jossey Bass. The University of Gloucestershire, Centre for Active Learning website [Accessed 21 March 2007) Tinto, V. (2000) Learning Better Together: the impact of learning communities on student success in higher education. Journal of Institutional Research, 9, 48-53. Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind and Society: The development of higher mental processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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