Digital Storytelling in the Composition Classroom:
Addressing the Challenges







Introduction: Potentials of Digital Storytelling for Composition

"I can't help it," said Alice ... "I'm growing." (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

A few years ago, a student emailed me after I posted grades for the final, multimodal assignments that he and his classmates had just presented. The student had a simple question: "If, as you indicated in class, you liked my video, why didn’t you give me full credit for it?" It was not easy for me to respond to that question. I knew that my reasons for not giving his work full credit were solid: the video was generally "cool" but it did not have a unified message, I could not understand the rhetorical purpose of the type of music in the background or of many of the images used in the video, and the credits page that the assignment prompt required was missing. And yet, I was reluctant to tell these truths to the student because I had not taken the time to teach the necessary skills during the semester, I did not have a well-developed pedagogy or assessment criteria, and in fact I had been hesitating to even use the term "digital storytelling" for referring to the narrative-reflective multimodal essays that I asked my students to compose. I had decided to use digital storytelling in my class after I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day training given by the Center for Digital Storytelling, but I had failed to match my enthusiasm about multimodal composition with sufficient teaching and support for students. So, the ineffectual response that I had to write to my student had me thinking, reading, and eventually writing about how to assess digital storytelling assignments in college composition classrooms.

Digital storytelling has been adopted and adapted extensively in undergraduate and graduate education in general. Outside of composition, digital storytelling has been used in a variety of ways. For example, reporting the different ways in which digital storytelling is used within the School of Education at the University of Houston alone, Rudnicki et al. (2007) state:

In the course "Technology in the classroom" Digital Storytelling is highlighted for its potential to add support to any part of the lesson cycle. In "Art for the Elementary Classroom," Digital Storytelling is used as a way of presenting a topic in art history, or principles and elements of design. ….The social sciences are using Digital Storytelling with students to present personal perspectives on interdisciplinary subject matter in a multimedia format. Early childhood educators incorporate Digital Storytelling to meet individual learning objectives and to support theme-based curriculum for different grade levels as well. (722)

Similarly, in her study of the use of digital storytelling in US universities, McLellan found that "[c]ourses on digital storytelling are offered in communications and creative writing programs at a number of universities, including the University of California Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Minnesota, Empire State College, and many more" (65). Citing the works of Marcia, Stepanek and Weinberger, she notes, "[t]he potential for digital storytelling extends far beyond the fields of communication and media studies across many fields of study, including history, American Studies, business and leadership, knowledge management, community planning, and much more" (ibid.). She concludes that digital storytelling has been used and defined in ways that take it far beyond how the Center for Digital Storytelling defines it. It must be noted here that CDC has been defining and using digital storytelling as a means of creating opportunities to marginalized communities towards making their voices heard by broader audiences; thus, CDC promotes digital storytelling as a collaborative community initiative and it encourages storytellers to affect the healing of harm to them and their community at large. Summarizing how widely the practice has spread, McLellan says: "[c]urrently there are digital storytelling programs [in higher education settings] in 16 countries and 45 of the 50 U.S. states" (70). As a result of the wide variety of uses and purposes that digital storytelling has been put to, it is not easy to define it in the context of higher education in general.

In the field of composition, digital storytelling has not yet been as widely adopted, adapted, defined, or theorized as it has been in many other disciplines. A review of literature on digital storytelling within our field shows that while there is extensive scholarship on digital and multimodal composition in general in this discipline, there is relatively less work done on digital storytelling per se. Perhaps the most notable work in composition studies that focuses on digital storytelling is a three-part Computers and Composition Online (2010) article by some of the leading scholars of new media composition. In the first part of the article, titled "The aesthetics of digital storytelling," Perl compares the emergence of digital storytelling today with the paradigm shift from product to "process" that took place in the research, scholarship and teaching of composition forty years ago.

I think new media brings us to a very similar place: if understood in all its complexity and used well, new media, I believe, can usher us into another kind of paradigm shift, one that has to do with how we conceive of space and time and that broadens and alters our definition and understanding of composing.

Commenting on the unique affordances of digital storytelling in particular, she goes on to add

When I first saw a digital story, in other words, I had a sense that the future was here. That composing using not only text but also images, sound, and graphics was exciting, and complex, that it speaks to a student body raised on images, music and film, and that it gives prominence to what often matters most to me when teaching writing which is voice.

She uses three digital stories composed by her students in order to illustrate her points about aesthetic choices, music, and the value of taking risk in the classroom that are involved in composition digital narratives.

When reading Perl's article, as it also happens when reading other available literature on digital storytelling, we get the impression that composition scholars are still in the early stage of the conversation where they are advocating for the use of this new mode of composition, highlighting its benefits for our students today, and, in a sense, still educating the community about the nature of the new work. It seems as if we are yet to move on to addressing specific challenges involved in using digital storytelling in the classroom.

In the second part of the article, "Moving images of literacy in a transnational world," Hawisher, Berry, Lee, and Skjulstad "talk about the connections [they have] tried to make in moving from pedagogical approaches that rely on digital media to a digitally-informed research methodology for capturing some of the nuances of literate practices here and abroad." The third part, Selfe's presentation, "Stories that speak to us: Multimodal literacy narratives," deals with how to analyze multimodal literacy narratives that are posted by individuals from around the world in the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives. This work does not deal with multimodal narratives as part of college composition. Unlike Perl's portion of the work, the latter two sections move away from the context and concerns of the composition classroom itself and focus on building scholarship on digital storytelling.

There is a small amount of work like the above by new media scholars of composition who deal with various general issues about digital storytelling; but that literature does not address specific issues and challenges of using digital storytelling in the composition classroom. In fact, a large portion of the existing digital storytelling literature in our discipline is about the use of digital storytelling in community learning settings. For instance, in another seminal work on the subject, "Crafting an agentive self: Case studies of digital storytelling," Hull and Katz (2006) analyze two digital stories from the DUSTY community learning project in California in order to highlight how the multimodality can foster the sense of agency on the part of the learner: "digital stories, because they of necessity layer multiple media and modes, complicate our understandings of textual performance as it is linked to the development of identity and agency" (47). One of the two stories has had more than 30,000 views on YouTube.

One of the reasons for the relative lack of scholarship on practical issues about digital storytelling is also true of multimodal composition in general: as new media composition scholars have been pointing out (Tulley, 2003; Borton, 2005; Anderson et al., 2006; Selfe, 2007; and Powell, Poe & Borton, 2011), there is a general reluctance, if not resistance, to the use of multimodal composition in this field. According to these scholars, even students, who are generally assumed to be tech-savvy individuals of a multimedia dominated world, often resist to the use of non-traditional composition practices because they believe that college composition is an opportunity to learn the skills of traditional print-based literacy. In an article titled "Self-analysis: A call for multimodality in personal narrative composition," published in fall 2005 issue of Computers and Composition Online, Sonya Borton discusses and addresses this general resistance to new media and multimodal composition. While she states that she is personally interested in using and teaching multimodal composition, she is cautious in advocating the use of it in the composition classroom: "My argument is that using visual and auditory mediums are more effective for some people than the traditional written essay" (emphasis in original). The author's rationale for using multimodal assignments is that

they require the same type of analytical reasoning as writing, and they are as effective (if not more so) in teaching the importance of carefully editing a composition. Composers of audio and video narratives . . . would also have more at stake in their projects and would spend more time crafting the essays than the time and effort they typically spend on a written essay. (ibid.)

But as the cautious language in her advocacy for multimodality indicates, the potential benefits of multimodal composition like digital storytelling are not enough to get many composition teachers and even many of their students on board. In a recent article in Kairos, Beth Powell, Kara Alexandar, and Sonya Borton reported the results of a study that showed that while multimodal composition has many benefits, "[a]nd yet, despite our assumption that multiliteracies and multimodality should be taught in the composition class because they are beneficial and relevant for students, tension still exists when integrating these kinds of projects into the classroom" (web); these tensions come mainly from the fact that multimodal composition "does not fit in with [their] perception of the composition class as a course in alphabetic literacy" (ibid.).

Discussing the institutional resistance to the idea of adopting/implementing multimodality, Tulley (2003) states in her article "Taking a traditional composition program ‘multimodal’: Web 2.0 and institutional change at a small liberal arts institution" that although "increasingly, multimodal composition assignments are introduced into traditional composition courses," it is hard to bring about institutional approval and programmatic changes in favor of multimedia composition. Similar to what Tulley found in her institution, Anderson, Atkins, Ball, Millar, Selfe, and Selfe(2006) reported in a survey based study that "[o]nly 7 percent of respondents reported that program committee recommendations informed the design and implementation of [multimodal] assessments" (2006; 70). Furthermore, respondents of the survey indicated that for assessing students’ multimodal work, not many resources were available in their institutions or departments. Thus, as this survey shows, there is still a lack of institutional support for multimodal composition like digital storytelling.

In short, while there is a considerable amount of theoretical scholarship on multimedia composition, including some on digital storytelling, more work that directly addresses practical challenges of using digital storytelling in the composition classroom seems necessary.

In out-of-school communities and in K-12 education, there are established definitions, conventions of practice, and even rubrics for assessments of digital storytelling (McLellan, 2006). But because digital storytelling is defined either too narrowly or too differently in those contexts, we cannot directly borrow the definitions, pedagogies, and assessment strategies from those contexts into ours. So, as we try to develop and define digital storytelling as it best suits our own educational objectives, we need to ask a number of questions. Should we define digital storytelling as a genre, as it is practiced in many contexts? Should we assess it as a mode of composition that includes the whole range of narrative genres that composition instructors assign their students, or it is only suitable for personal and/or narrative composition? How can we distinguish it from other types of multimodal composition?

An emerging mode of composition--or a "growing" one, to use an analogy from the epigraph above--naturally presents new challenges to teachers and scholars. I address two of the major challenges that I face myself in my classroom, of defining and assessing digital storytelling, in the following sections.

Ghanashyam Sharma