Add digital storytelling to your online learning toolkit

Chris looks at the fundamentals of digital storytelling and how it can play a part in effective online learning and assessment.

Given that lots of teachers across the education sectors are looking at expanding their range of online activities in the wake of COVID, it’s a good time to review the basics of digital storytelling’s place in teaching and learning.

What do we mean by digital storytelling?

Digital storytelling has been around for many years and is well established as an educational and assessment activity. There are many tools and approaches that count as digital storytelling, but at it’s simplest, it means bringing together a variety of digital media such as sound, images, text or video to construct a story.

“Traditional” digital storytelling usually involves creating a 2-3 minute video based on a narrated script in the storyteller’s own voice, enhanced with still images that add an extra layer of meaning.

The aim is not to produce something polished, but something that effectively communicates a message in an engaging way and that forms part of the learner journey.

Here’s an example of a personal story by Rupal Patel, a graduate student at Nottingham Uni reflecting on a key moment in her academic development.

Why is storytelling a good learning activity?

Storytelling is a process of sensemaking. When we are faced with a complex situation or an “untidy” series of events, we can create stories as a way of giving these some structure. This then helps us to derive meaning so we can take action or absorb information more easily.

We could be looking at storytelling as a reflective task following a module, project or placement. It could be to describe how a student undertook a difficult task like a lab experiment or field study. It could be analysing primary sources and building a narrative to explain historical events.

Storytelling allows students to develop their communication skills, primarily how to;

  • select and order appropriate information,
  • consider their audience,
  • write with structure to keep people engaged
  • develop an authentic and engaging style.

This example was created by Kirsty Preston, a student at University of Warwick as part of a classical history module.

Can I use it for assessment?

Absolutely! It works well as a formative and summative assessment actitivity although the approach you take will differ depending on which of those outcomes you’re after.

You may think that there’s not much to assess in a 2-3 minute video but even a short pice of media can contain a lot of information.

And remember that it’s as much about the process of creating the story as it is about the output; the story of creating the story! You can ask students to provide analysis of their early script drafts and storyboards. They could even create a commentary (text or audio) where they explain the choices they’ve made. Often, effective storytelling is as much about what you choose to leave out as what you put in.

Digital storyteling is also a good opportunity for peer assessment, providing the assessment criteria are clear.

It’s 10 years old but Martin Jenkins and Phil Gravestock’s analysis of assessment in digital storytelling has lots of useful suggestions.

How do you do it?

This is the format that we follow in Jisc’s digital storytelling workshops. It’s an established process developed and refined over the years, by the Centre for Digital Storytelling and the global DST community. It’s not the only way but we find it to be the most effective introduction for staff or students who haven’t experienced it before.


Forget about technology for a moment. Storytelling is a social prcess so begin by sharing ideas with others, talking things through and giving feedback. Focus on the core purpose of your story and thinking about how to structure it. Write and share a first draft to get early reactions. Redraft until you are happy.


Create a rudimentary storyboard by breaking down the script into chunks and image how to represent those sections visually. Find images (your own or creative commons online) that add that importnat extra layer of meaning.


Use your tool of choice (we use Adobe Spark regularly but even PowerPoint will do the job) to record the narrative and compile and synchronise your images. Go through it a few times, refining as you go until you are happy with the end result.


Now share with whomever you feel comfortable sharing. It doesn’t need to be public, it could just be one person. You can use it as the basis for futher conversations and learning.

Want to dig deeper?

That’s all scratching the surface. There’s much more to consider. If you’d like to know more check out the posts on storytelling in this blog or my more personal takes over here.



By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

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