Six years ago, when Trent University nursing Professor Kim English found her students weren’t sufficiently engaged in online discussions, she decided to experiment with digital storytelling. As students immersed themselves in researching the communities where they’d been placed for their nursing practicum or rural communities that were familiar to them, engagement increased markedly. Students gained insights into issues facing Indigenous people, inequities and barriers to accessing health care, and the influence a nurse can have on the health of a community. They submitted their findings as narratives using a variety of multimedia, from narrated PowerPoint slide shows to podcasts and videos.
Today, Professor English continues to use digital storytelling as a key activity in her course Nursing 4203 Rural Nursing Practice. Because of this and other teaching innovations, she earned Trent University’s Award for Excellence in Online Teaching (2020).
Focused on a specific topic, student narratives unfold using various digital format combinations, including text, voice, pictures, audio, video and music. Unlike traditional storytelling, digital storytelling can be non-linear and interactive, with readily available and easy-to-use digital tools, which make this approach increasingly popular with educators at all levels.
Professor English asks students to create a digital story that highlights rural nursing issues and the health of rural people. There are few restrictions on format, but students are expected to have a critical perspective. Most write firsthand accounts about their community, while others tell a story from the perspective of a new nurse flying to a remote community for the first time. In one instance, two students from different communities interviewed each other, with one playing the role of a health care provider and the other acting as an outsider seeking information about the community. A few students filmed various aspects of life in a remote community on James Bay.
Students don’t need to use specific technology to tell their digital stories. Recently, one used ArcGIS, a cloud-based geographic information system, which lets students map and comment on, for example, the distance people must travel to receive various health care services.
Benefits and Outcomes
Professor English is impressed with her students’ insights and creativity. Few of them are aware of the challenging realities of remote and rural communities until they begin exploring them in depth, she says, but they come to realize these communities aren’t homogeneous, that they have differences just like any other and that remoteness is not unique to Canada. And digital storytelling is not only engaging for the students. Professor English, too, feels much more engaged than when students use discussion forums only.
Each digital story is assessed with a rubric that has three criteria and three proficiency levels. The assessment process is very time-consuming, but Professor English says it’s time well spent because of the benefits for students. However, she cautions educators that implementing digital storytelling in large classes may not be feasible because of the time commitment required for assessment
On occasion, at the onset of the assignment, some students complain that it’s different to what they’re used to and pushes them outside their comfort zone. Later, these students tend to embrace the activity.
Challenges and Enhancements
Because students’ files typically exceed the limitations of Trent University’s learning management system, they have to upload using Google Drive, which is less convenient.
Occasionally, students lack access to adequate Internet to upload their projects, and this can affect their technology choices. For example, some students tell their stories via podcast, which needs less bandwidth than other media. Students are encouraged to access better Internet access at local hospitals where possible.
Professor English doesn’t plan any major changes to the assignment but is considering minor enhancements, including having students critique each others’ work and finding ways to share digital stores more widely through a repository or website. Placing them in a repository would help new students going to rural and remote communities, as they could learn about their placement by accessing stories written by previous students. Professor English is also interested in having geographic information systems such as ArcGIS used more frequently.
Digital storytelling has considerable potential for many areas of post-secondary education, especially in programs with a hands-on, experiential component. Teacher education and social work are just two examples. Rather than submitting a traditional written report or journal, students can create digital stories to document personal experiences, communicate ideas, raise awareness and inform others. This approach is motivating and appealing because it gives students the opportunity to express their creativity using digital tools.
Trent/Fleming School of Nursing
Peterborough, ON Canada, K9L 0G2