Digital Storytelling

From the time we could speak and draw images on cave walls, humans have used stories to make sense of ourselves and and our place in the world. As new technologies have arisen, we have applied them to storytelling: pigment, pen and paper, printing press, photography, film, video, digital text and images and now, augmented and virtual reality.

In quality storytelling, however, it is never about the technology, but about the story being told.

In the final module of our class, Teaching, Learning, and Assessment 1, we examined the ISTE Student Standard 6: Creative Communicator, and explored how digital tools can be used effectively, responsibly, and creatively to express ideas and learning. I personally wanted to investigate whether digital stories have proven to be more effective than text-based stories for learning, both for the students creating them and their audiences. I also wanted to familiarize myself with some of the tools that are available for for digital storytelling, particularly for elementary and middle school students.

What Defines Digital Storytelling?

Digital storytelling is not about substituting analog stories…but IS about transforming stories.

Sylvia Rosenthal Tolisano (Robin, 2016)

Digital stories are usually brief (2-10 minutes in length) and combine a variety of digital media, including text, graphics, audio (voice and/or music), photographs, and video. They are most often thought of as being personal narratives or a story told from a particular point of view, but can also include documentary, informational or instructional stories (Robin, 2016).

Learning from Digital Storytelling

Creating a digital story is a complex and very creative process: the voice-over or onscreen text supplies the narrative while the images, video and music add nuance and richness. Finding your voice, distilling your message and orchestrating the timing and relationship of the various elements of digital storytelling is challenging, but also a perfect opportunity for students to dig deeply, both intellectually and emotionally.


To build a compelling digital story, students need to conduct deep research that includes investigating background information on a topic and finding images, videos, and music that are appropriate for the story and and labeled for reuse. The trail of information and media that students traverse to build a digital story is often much longer than writing a text-based story or report. Though this can be overwhelming, it can also be a source of great discovery for students.


Writing scripts and creating storyboards teach students organization, the importance of concise language, sequencing, and narrative structure. Digital storytelling may help some students understand and explore a subject more deeply than they would in a traditional writing assignment. A study with first and second graders showed that students who participated in digital storytelling assignments showed more motivation to work on their stories and saw themselves as more competent writers (Robin, 2016).


Once students research the story and find all the elements they want to use, they must analyze and synthesize the information and media into a cohesive whole. Robin points out that older students in particular “construct their own meaning” through the process and end up with “…a multimedia artifact that richly illustrates not only what the student has researched and brought to life but also what they have learned from the experience” (2016, p. 20).

Digital Skills

Digital storytelling makes students creative users, rather than passive consumers of technology (Robin 2016, p. 19). They must learn to use a variety of digital tools, including photo, video, and sound editing software in addition to the software in which the digital story itself is built. Though a challenging process, students can point proudly to a finished product that not only show creative process but also technical mastery of multiple types of technology.

Emotional Awareness

Students of all ages can develop greater emotional awareness when they create digital stories. Students are usually encouraged to pick a topic or an aspect of a topic that resonates with them, and this alone can motivate students. In research conducted with preschool teachers whose students (with guided practice) had created multimedia stories, it was found that students “…behaved better in class, had an increase in self confidence and displayed greater interest in the subjects they were learning” (Robin, 2016, p. 20).

Older students in particular may be surprised by the emotions their stories display or elicit. They may not have realized how they felt about a subject until they pull the various multimedia pieces together to form a complete story. Students also build emotional and collaboration skills by critiquing other students’ work as well as having their own stories critiqued by their peers (Robin, 2016).

Language learners or students who struggle with writing may feel empowered to express themselves using visual or audio elements of digital storytelling. Multilingual students may even use their native language in the voice-over with subtitles in English as a way of sharing a part of themselves normally hidden to their classmates or teacher. Antonacci and O’Callaghan (2011) point out that “this opportunity to display proficiency in another language boosts self-esteem and confidence” (p. 240).

The Use of Voice to Create an Emotional Connection

Though using one’s own physical voice to narrate a digital story is not mandatory, doing so can create a surprising element for the author and a powerful connection between the author and the audience.

“When we hear our voices coming from ourselves, we have a moment of seeing ourselves as someone other than our Self. In that moment we can experience the kind of empathy and compassion for ourselves that we would feel for another person who might be telling this story.”

(Rossiter & Garcia, 2010, p. 43.)

This video was posted on the University of Houston College of Education’s Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling website by an anonymous storyteller. Though not an example of a young student’s work, I thought it was an amazing and touching example of the power of voice in digital storytelling and a reminder of how technology can enhance a very human story.

Digital Storytelling Tools

Though there are some great tools available for younger students to use for Digital Storytelling, I was surprised that nothing appeared to be available cross-platform (iPad/Chrome/Windows) that would allow students to combine audio narration, text, video and images for free or for minimal cost.

Shadow Puppet EDU is a free, easy to use product that includes all media elements but only works on the iPad (not on Chrome or Windows). This video shows a great example of its use.

My Storybook Creator is a free, web-based and simple to use, but doesn’t allow voice narration.

Microsoft Sway is free to anyone with a Microsoft account and could be used by older elementary and middle school students, but doesn’t allow background narration – you can only insert audio cards as slides which requires pressing the play button on each slide.

Book Creator gets good reviews and allows students to create digital stories using all types of media but doesn’t work on Windows. Pricing varies but starts at $60 per teacher, per year, for 180 books.

Buncee is a really nice product that works on the web and can be used not only for multimedia stories, reports, and presentations, but also by teachers to build media-rich lessons. Classroom pricing starts at $10 per month.

WeVideo is a sophisticated video creation app that Common Sense Media says is suitable for 4th – 12th grade. The classroom cost for 30 seats is $199 per year, so not inexpensive.

Microsoft PowerPoint – I initially overlooked PowerPoint but it really offers an easy way to incorporate audio (or video!) narration that syncs with slides. PowerPoint also includes the ability to search for online images and automatically insert Creative Commons attribution.

Best Practices for Digital Storytelling

In their article Digital Storytelling: A New Player on the Narrative Field,” Rossiter and Garcia (2010) offer some valuable tips for digital storytelling students, which are summarized below.

  • Carefully consider multimedia elements – do they enhance or detract from the story?
  • In every digital story, there are two narratives: the overt narrative as told by the voiceover and the covert narrative as implied by the images and background music or sound effects. It’s essential that the two work together for the desired effect.
  • The narrated voiceover should flow as a conversation does (not as formal written text) and can be enhanced by layers of ambient sound or music.
  • Text should be used sparingly since the audience has different reading speeds and may also be trying to follow the audio track
  • Once a digital story is available online, it is hard to control where it goes. Therefore it is important that any work includes crucial context information. Otherwise those who view it may not have the information they need to make sense of the story.

Digital storytelling is a powerful way for students to learn more about themselves while building key skills they will need as they grow up: creative and critical thinking, analysis and synthesis of research and ideas, communication (written and oral) and emotional awareness of not only themselves but their audience. To me, digital storytelling melds the best of what’s old (storytelling) and new (multimedia technologies) into a perfect whole.


Antonacci, P. & O’Callaghan, C. M. (2012). Strategy 41: Digital storytelling, in promoting literacy development: 50 research-based strategies for K-8 learners, pp. 238-241. Retrieved from:

WeVideo Review (2013). Common Sense Education. Retrieved from:

Robin, B. R. (2016). The power of digital storytelling to support teaching and learning. Digital Education Review, Number 30. Retrieved from:

Rossiter, M., Garcia, P. A. (2010). Digital storytelling: A new player on the narrative field. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education (2010)126, pp.37-48. Retrieved from:


Lascaux painting. Retrieved from:
Attribution: CC Share Alike Unporte

“Virtual Reality in Story Telling” Moody College of Communication (2016).
Retrieved from:
Attribution: CC By-SA 2.0

“Digital Storytelling Challenges Students to:” background photo from via Prezi.

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