Engaging All Learners, Instructional Continuity, Teaching with Technology

Digital Storytelling as a Pandemic Community-Building Mechanism

by Eric Royer, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center

Since our shift to remote and now dual-mode teaching, students have become more adept at using our course sites to access materials and complete course activities. They’re also more comfortable using Zoom and other tools to collaborate, engage, and meet key learning outcomes. At the same time, countless indicators suggest that they’re feeling more isolated, disconnected, and disengaged from the learning process. Even more sobering, students are finding it difficult to connect with their peers and instructors in a meaningful way that transcends screens and devices.

Storytelling is not a novel technique in the classroom by any means, yet it’s worth being reminded of its pedagogical power for promoting community in the classroom — whatever shape and form that may take today. Sure, stories, as a teaching tool, help us engage students with difficult topics and harness their attention, but, as a community-building mechanism, they also humanize the learning process and allow students to make connections with each other on a deeper level. Through stories, they may develop empathy, encounter different viewpoints, engage in critical self-reflection, and cultivate a shared sense of belonging — all of which are crucial for creating inclusive learning environments.

With many of us currently thinking about course design for spring, it’s time to consider what role digital storytelling can play in our courses. Pandemic teaching, despite its obstacles and challenges, represents an unique opportunity to have students tell and share their stories — all housed in our course sites — in a way that may not have been practical, feasible, and inclusive before. Just like any other effective teaching practice, we must approach digital storytelling assignments and activities intentionally and with learning outcomes in mind. Creating a video-based discussion board activity will help students “see” and “hear” each other, but it may not be as effective as intended if we don’t provide structure and teach students the necessary tools. We also need to think about leveraging different formats for specific reasons. If you want to inject stories as a means of infusing presence, then it might be more feasible to go with video or graphical formats. On the other hand, if you envision stories as a vehicle for students to create shared knowledge or experiences, blogs, journals, portfolios, and interactive webpages might be better suited. Let’s not forget about breakout rooms or shared Google docs, which can provide a valuable space for the exchange of stories in live, small group settings.  

Community-building is a challenge in any learning space, but this is especially true given our current pandemic classroom marked by some of our students attending in-person, online, and anywhere in-between. Stories are not only a powerful mechanism for creating inclusive learning spaces, they also represent a useful strategy for bridging this spatial divide and maintaining community in our classrooms.

To schedule a consultation to talk further about your teaching needs, please contact the Reinert Center at cttl@slu.edu. Please also consider sharing your perspectives on or use of digital storytelling in your own teaching in the comment section below.