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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
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 employer-
linked 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. Socio-
cultural 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 socio-
cultural 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.

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.

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 multi-
card 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.

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 Number Percent Average score Level of Reflection

minutes ‘Map of Learning’ (Moon (Moon 1999)
0-1 8 27 1.25 ‘Noticing’

1 – 1.5 9 65 2.0 ‘Making sense’

1.5 – 2.0 0 0 - ‘Making sense’
2.0 – 2.5 2 7 2.50 ‘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

“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

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


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

“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

“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.


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
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