Planning a High School Digital Storytelling Class

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Photo Credit: Dominic's pics CC-BY
several photos making up one large picture

Photo Credit: CC-BYDominic’s pics

A friend is moving to Korea to start teaching a digital storytelling class to high school age students. He asked for some thoughts to get started, and I thought these notes might benefit other teachers of digital storytelling. Please feel free to add your ideas, questions, and suggestions for my friend in the comments section below!

Hi Ted. Just looking for any ideas you might have to either incorporate industry into classroom lessons to make school subjects more applicable to the real world for students OR ideas on how to utilize tech in the classroom in cost effective ways. The students are high school age so 14-18. The industries are STEM related or video production. I will be teaching a math class, environmental science, engineering applications, and audio visual storytelling this year.

Are you working from a set of intended learning outcomes (like from the school or their state accreditors), or are you planning on developing them yourself? You should definitely start from a limited set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that you want all students to come away with. From there, you can start to design learning experiences to produce those in your learners.

You may want to check out the Mozilla Web Literacy Standards as a jumping-off point for thinking about which skills are relevant for 21st Century students. Also check out P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning.

Tools vs. Skills

Depending on the expectations of your school, you may find a tension between explicitly teaching students how to use the technology tools themselves, and more broadly, how to engage in specific thinking, learning, and communication tasks using the technology as a support for those abilities.

For example, you could teach “audio visual storytelling” where the main learning objective is to demonstrate full mastery of the features in iMovie or PowerPoint, or it could be to show understanding of how to sequence images and sounds for maximum comprehension, persuasiveness, or aesthetic effect. The first approach ties their learning to a specific app while they could demonstrate mastery of the second using whichever technology they’re most comfortable with.

These are two different orientations towards tech instruction and it’s best to get a clear understanding of what your school, parents, and students expect. With that said, I think the second approach is better for students’ long-term development (though it’s a bit more chaotic to manage).

I’d start with an open-ended objective like “students will be able to express a complex scientific idea in images, not words” and then let students surprise you with their existing tech knowledge (wherever they acquired it), while channeling that forward into more effective communication and sophisticated application of tech tools. This will keep your course from feeling like vocational ed. and more like a free exploratory process of discovery.

Keep it Simple (Stupid)

I am a fan of using a few simple, powerful tools that can be effective in a variety of contexts. Depending on the platform you’re working on (Mac, Windows, Linux, Chromebooks?) you may want to focus on a few core tools that they can use in a variety of real-world workplace tasks.

I think the most effective way of exposing students to tech is to make it a part of their personal repertoire — the same (or similar) tech tools should be with student at home and at school, for work and for play. “Time on task” is essential with technology, and the best way to achieve that is to make the technology “sticky” in their lives, so they see it and use it in multiple areas of their lives. They shouldn’t just learn tools for your class and then never see them again — it’s better if you expose them to tools they’ll continue to have access to (and use for) after your class is over.

It doesn’t make much sense to teach students Adobe Premiere at school if they don’t have it on their home computers, and have to shell out $20/month to keep using it at home. Better to find a simple smartphone video editing app for iOS or Android that they can use for shooting and basic editing on their own tech tools.

Similarly, you may want to form partnerships with your students’ other teachers, agreeing to use a core set of applications in multiple classes so students see the same tools over and over again.

Depending on their level of personal access to technology, you may want to favor web-based, free tools that they can use from any device, even a borrowed one, so they can continue to have access after your class is over. The Chrome Web Store is a great (and often overlooked) “app store” with tools that will work inside of the Chrome browser on any device, Mac/Windows/Linux.

Google Apps in Ed

For this same reason, I’m a big fan of using Google Apps for Ed, because it gives you a free suite of powerful tools for real-world collaboration tasks — email, collaborating on documents, text and video chatting, calendars, video editing, hosting and sharing, spreadsheets, and more.

I think that the best way to integrate technology into teaching is to replicate a real-world work environment. Students should be able to use this basic toolkit to accomplish the kinds of collaboration tasks they will find in a 21st Century workplace. So rather than explicitly teaching them a complex project management app, instead, why not have them manage a project using GCalendars? It can be done, and they will be stronger users for knowing how to get the most out of a basic productivity toolkit. Again, the toolkit they use can be basic if the challenges they’re asked to meet are innovative.

A Blog, A Server, A Domain of One’s Own

When I was teaching digital design, I had all students set up their own free blogs on or The way students “submitted” their work was by publishing it live to the web. In so doing, they learned authentically which file formats are able to be displayed on the web, and how to convert files so they work better online. When students know they are publishing for web delivery, it affects their workflows for getting things done, and they get better at creating work that looks good online.

I could go on (and on, and on!) about how blogs are an ideal starting place for learning a variety of valuable skills, all the way from basic literacy through web literacy, web design, and programming languages like JavaScript and PHP. Especially if you have the ability to get students their own self-hosted WordPress blog, it can become a tool they can continue to grow with over their entire school and professional career.

The Domain of One’s Own project grew out of University of Mary Washington as a way of giving students their own set of free, professional open source tools for accomplishing almost any task online, and you can get a set of domains and servers for students at Reclaim Hosting for very competitive rates. This is an expense, but I believe it’s the best method for creating independent, empowered, tech-savvy students who are not dependent on simplified commercial apps for their computing lives. I’d be happy to explain this further — it goes deep. (In fact, watch for a future post on Domain of One’s Own).

Open Source Applications

You mentioned that you are expected to expose them to industry-specific applications for engineering. For complex tech tools, there is often a robust free open-source alternative that works great. In many cases, the open source tool will have a roughly equivalent feature set and user interface, so they can learn the underlying concepts of working with a specific tool.

This is, again, a great way to free students to install a variety of these apps on their own computers and develop a personal relationship with them that can outlast your class, instead of the “look but don’t touch” feeling they get when using expensive software at school. Do a search on for the industry specific apps and see if there are free, open source alternatives that would do the trick for students.

Digital Storytelling 106

you should really check out Digital Storytelling 106, a massively open online course that teaches digital storytelling skills to anyone who wants to participate. It’s taught by one of my “nerd heroes” Jim Groom, whose punk rock ethos is all over the chaotic, beautiful mess that is DS106. What other college course has its own radio station? They have over 800 reusable assignments (I’d call them “challenges”) that you could probably use as jumping off points for assignments.

I really like the active learning focus of the course — rather than telling students how to use digital tools, it sets them interesting challenges and lets them meet those challenges using whatever tools and techniques they want. The focus is on producing work artifacts, not telling and testing, which I think is really healthy.

Unlike the freewheeling nature of DS106, I’m used to teaching in more accountability-focused settings where there’s an emphasis on evaluating student performance, giving feedback, and moving their skills forward demonstrably. I think there’s a middle path where you can keep the open-ended, active learning focus, but add a detailed grading rubric to the assignments to give students clearer expectations of what kind of performance you expect to see, and then have one-on-one consultations with students to mentor them towards their goals (and yours).

Welcome to the monkey house!

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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