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Theoretical Framework

The Gift of Non-Violence (3:12)

The story of a son and his father, of beatings, dead weight and social activism.

Digital Storytelling as an Assessment Practice

Review of the Literature

Theoretical Framework

There are many theories that intertwine with the study of digital storytelling as an assessment practice.  For this review the following theories will be discussed: 1) Constructivism, 2) New Literacies Studies, and  3) Experiential Learning. 


Constructivism focuses on how students learn or the way knowledge is assembled in ones’ mind.  In the constructivist framework learning is a process, a way of making sense of knowledge through the addition and synthesizing of new information within an existing knowledge structure (McDrury, 2003).  Chaille and Britian (1991) describe constructivism in the following way:


The learner is actively constructing knowledge rather than passively taking in information.  Learners come to the educational setting with many different experiences, ideas and approaches to learning.  Learners do not acquire knowledge that is transmitted to them: rather, they construct knowledge through their intellectual activity and make it their own (1991, p. 11).


Storytelling is one-way students can construct their knowledge of events or content. They bring to their stories not only the current information, but knowledge from their past experiences.  In socio-cultural constructivism there is more emphasis on the communication processes with the influence of social factors helping to construct knowledge.  Vygotsky stressed the importance of language and dialogue in the social contexts of learning when constructing knowledge.  He recognizes the importance of assisted and unassisted learning within the zone of proximal development (ZPD).  ZPD is that area of learning where a student can problem solve independently to a point, but needs some guidance or collaboration from others to make it to the next level (Vygotsky, 1978).


Digital storytelling aligns with the Vygotskian perspective, as the learning process is social and collaborative.  It also values the prior experience of the student and promotes a reflective dialogue in which meaning is constructed.  One aspect of Vygotsky’s thinking that relates to the digital story paradigm is the importance of culturally situated learning that stresses educational interactions are reflected by the surrounding culture.  Everyone is influenced by the interaction of his or her own social, historical, ideological and cultural contexts.  These factors along with a reflective process are how we go about constructing our world.


In framing the digital storytelling process within the socio-cultural aspect of constructivism the idea of dialogue is central to the learning process and influenced by cultural context.  This is not just a simple contextual framework, but also one that includes process and a complex issue of surrounding influences including the role of discourse (McDrury, 2003).   The learning process for effective digital storytelling includes a meaningful experience, a reflective process, making the experience relevant and a dialogue that promotes deeper thinking. 


Noel Entwistle (2001) divides learning into two separate levels.  There is surface learning, which is just the reproduction of knowledge to cope with certain requirements verses deep learning, which is transformative learning where students understands ideas for themselves.  This becomes a significant theoretical framework for the digital storytelling process as it engages students to dive deeper into the meaning of their experience through the construction of storytelling around their own knowledge. 

New Literacy Studies

New Literacy Studies (NLS) is a label that has been given to research occurring over the past twenty years.  Most of the research has been in the form of ethnography, looking at the movement of literacy from an individual focus towards a collective interactive and social practice (Gee, 1998). 


Brian Street (2003) describes New Literacy Studies as a way to consider the nature of literacy, focusing not so much on acquisition of skills, as in dominant approaches, but rather on what it means to think of literacy as a social practice.  NLS suggest that in practice, literacy varies for one context or culture to another and so do the effects of different literacies in different conditions. NLS also defines literacy as a social practice, not just a technical skill.  It is viewed as being entwined in socially constructed epistemological principles.  Street argues that literacy is always a social act even from the outset.  The way we acquire knowledge is a social practice that affects the nature of literacy held by the teacher and their student in relationship to their position of power.


The larger theory of New Literacy Studies defined by Coiro (2008) includes the following elements:

  1. New skills, strategies, dispositions and social practices required by new technologies for information and communication

  2. Central to full participation in a global community

  3. Regularly changing as technologies changes

  4. Multifaceted and benefits from multiple points of view


Each of these elements fold well into the process of creating digital storytelling for the assessment of learning outcomes both in study abroad programs and in service learning activities. 


Another definition of New Literacy Studies from a broad sense of the term states:

The new literacies of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICB) include the skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to successfully use and adapt to the rapidly changing information and communication technologies and contexts that continuously emerge in our world and influence all areas of our personal and professional lives. These new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other information and communication technologies to identify important questions, locate information, critically evaluate the usefulness of that information, and synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Camack, 2004). 


Where we once used pencil and paper to share information, we now use a multitude of information and communication technology to convey our thoughts and ideas.  What is even more exciting is the spread of communication.  We don’t just write our ideas down to be stuffed into a notebook, we publish them to the world for others to read and make comments.  New literacies is about empowering everyone within the reach of technology to communicate, share ideas and receive feedback. 


As new literacies swirl around us, the practice of digital storytelling can assist in bring them into focus in order to use them to their fullest potential.  There are certain skills, strategies and dispositions that students need to learn to effectively utilized these new literacies.  Students will increasingly encounter new literacies every time they read, write or communicate through the Internet (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Camack, 2004). 


Let’s use the example of a student creating a digital story for an online class.  The student will use the following new literacies to achieve this goal: 1) an Internet browser for uploading digital media and a search engine for finding information; 2) critical thinking skills to evaluate the accuracy of the information found on the Internet; 3) a word processor or presentation tool to create the storyboard; 4) media production software to create the digital story; 5) knowledge on how to submit the assignment to the teacher, class or the world; and 6) the ability to use social media to interface with other students about the digital story.


This is only one dimension that the New Literacy Studies addresses.  There is another view that is even more important to consider, this being the concept of multiliteracies.  The New London Group (2000) defines multiliteracies as a set of open-ended, flexible literacies required to operate in different contexts and within different communities of practice. Students can use these multiliteracies to create meaning and demonstrate learning outcomes with digital storytelling.   When looking at the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies, there is the use of multiple media forms, according to Lemke, students will need to understand how literacies and cultural traditions combine different semiotic modalities to realize that the total experience is more than the parts mean separately (Lemke, 1998).  Students will also need to be proficient contributors to the Internet community adding to this growing body of knowledge. Finally, students will find that they encounter information from various social contexts.  When students start to share information on a global scale there are new challenges that arise, such as how to interpret and respond to others from multiple social and cultural contexts (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Camack, 2004).


One major theme that is very important with New Literacy Studies is to teach students to be critical thinkers and enable them with the ability to analysis the information they will encounter as they are exposed to these various new literacies.  

Experiential Learning

David Kolb, a psychologist who was influenced by John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, proposed the theory of experiential learning.  This theory involves the process of learning through personal experiences. Kolb defined this learning as a “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experiences.” (Kolb, 1984).


Kolb takes a holistic approach by combining both cognitive and behavioral theories together to emphasize how experiences including cognitions, environmental factors and emotions influence the learning process (Kolb, 2000).  This mode of learning is portrayed as a cycle with the following elements. For grasping the experience there is the Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, while transforming the experience has Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation.  Within this cycle, a person has a concrete experience thus providing the information to serve as a basis for reflection.  These reflections help the person to form abstract concepts, and then these concepts assist in developing new beliefs or ideas, which the person then actively tests. Through these tests the person gathers information and the process begins all over again.


There are many connections from this theory to the digital storytelling process.  Digital stories are the product of experiential learning.  As student has an experience, for example an event that takes place in a study abroad program.  Through a reflective practice, the student forms a story around the event and in the process forms an abstract concept of what they learned from the event.  In this case, the creation and sharing of the digital story moves the student to the active experimentation phase, where the discussion can assist the student in moving deeper into learning from the event.  They cycle can continue as the student watches and comment on other student’s digital stories who participated on the same study abroad program.  Students can relate to the other stories, but expand their thinking about the same experience as it is viewed from a different lens or perspective.


The combination of these three theories provides a framework for research with digital storytelling as an assessment practice.  The process of digital storytelling allows for students to construct and demonstrate their knowledge through their own experience with the use of multiliteracies.  The practice of digital storytelling could help to transformation learning and assessment practices in the educational system as it moves more into alignment with the needs of students as they prepare to function in a digital world.  James Gee expresses this view in his book, The Anti-Education Era, when he says, “ Getting smart is now a 24/7 enterprise because intelligence comes from cultivating our lives and all our experiences in the service of learning and growth.  Digital media today can make learning in and out of school engaging, social and life enhancing.” (p. 215)

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