What is Digital Storytelling?

Anthropology faculty have found that their students have many stories to tell. As they travel overseas, work in their community, or react to a class reading or discover a passion, the simple communicative power of telling a story can be a powerful way to make sense of a transformational experience.

Our faculty have been creating classroom assignments that couple the power of storytelling with new digital media to produce short “digital stories.” There aren’t any hard rules around what constitutes a digital story; they tend to be between 3 – 5 minutes in length, and use either images or sound or — most commonly — both. And, perhaps most importantly, they should be narrative in structure and engaging to a broad audience.

Why Digital Storytelling?

The reasons for doing so vary with each course: sometimes it’s to focus a student’s research interest. Other times it’s to develop communication skills in visual or audio media. In another class, it may be to relate an experience that is more personal in nature — too personal for a more formal academic paper format.

Students embarking on a large research project can find the process overwhelming. Completion can take a long time, during which the focus can be lost in the midst of re-writes, re-thinking, drafts, and edits. By the end of the process, some even find it hard to recall what fired their interest in a topic in the first place.

Bruce Owens and Gabriela Torres had their Anthropology seniors produce short, 3–5 minute digital stories as “elevator pitches” to their peers and professors describing their initial thoughts around their senior research projects. The emphasis on these was to showcase what fascinated them about these topics, and to communicate the topic’s essence clearly, quickly, and in an engaging manner.

Why use Digital Storytelling?

In this use, digital stories primarily serve as a writing strategy to:

  • help students focus their research topic
  • provide a means to communicate their interest to their faculty supervisors and supportive peers, friends and family
  • serve as a reminder of what drew them to this topic once the research process is underway.