As an advocate for the appropriate use of digital storytelling to support learning inside and outside the classroom, I am constantly on the lookout for educational research which explores not only the ways digital storytelling can be used effectively to support learning, but also the REASONS it SHOULD be used. Last December when I had an opportunity to visit the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, I was intrigued to learn school leaders had emphasized (among other things) the support for instructional strategies emphasizing “nonlinguistic representations” of ideas afforded via digital technologies when they made the case for a 1:1 laptop initiative several years ago. Classroom instructional strategies emphasizing nonlinguistic representations are included in Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock’s 2004 book “Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement.” While teachers and students in 1:1 learning environments certainly do not HAVE to use instructional and learning strategies which include or focus on nonlinguistic representations, the multimedia capabilities of modern computers make those instructional practices more powerful then ever since digital representations can be easily and affordably shared with others separated by space and time.

Dr. Glen Bull’s article “Storytelling in the Web 2.0 Era” in the February 2008 issue of ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology Magazine (unfortunately not published on the open web, it requires a login to the Members Only Area to view it) includes the following observations about why digital storytelling tools (specifically those utilized by Alan Levine in his amazing project, 50 Tools to Tell a Digital Story) can be used in ways well-supported by educational research. Dr. Bull writes:

Employing these new capabilities in ways that enhance learning will require thoughtful integration. Pavio’s dual coding theory suggests that verbal and visual systems coexist in the mind and that employing both visual and verbal information many facilitate learning. The National Reading Panel has cited instructional imaging techniques as among the more promising ways of fostering comprehension development. Emerging Web 2.0 tools will provide new opportunities to do this.

I have not been acquainted previously with dual-coding theory, and appreciate this reference in the context of digital storytelling and learning. The WikiPedia article for dual-coding theory includes a succinct summary of the theory, but also makes suggestions related to multimedia slide presentations which students as well as teachers might want to consider in greater depth. The current article states:

A multimedia presentation that shows multiple visuals such as an image of a speaker as well as the text that the speaker is reading, such as a series of bullet points, could overwhelm the viewer, depending on the person and the situation, because the viewer must now attend to two images.

Dual-coding theory differentiates between “Analogue codes” and “Symbolic codes.” I had not really thought about the difference as I compose slides for my presentations. Symbolic codes include assumptions we make about the background knowledge as well as experiences of our audience. Analog codes are physical stimuli, which I assume includes visual images, which may be interpreted differently by individuals based on their existing schema as well.

According to the 2003 report “Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read” visualization is a key element of understanding and retention. Report authors noted:

Good readers often form mental pictures,or images,as they read. Readers (especially younger readers) who visualize during reading understand and remember what they read better than readers who do not visualize. Help your students learn to form visual images of what they are reading. For example, urge them to picture a setting, character, or event described in the text.

Digital storytelling is not merely fun and engaging. It can be used in powerful ways to support learning, and as Dr. Bull notes, “foster comprehension development.”

Interested in helping your students learn more effectively and transfer their learning into different cognitive domains? Consider integrating digital storytelling into the learning menu which you present to your students this year inside and outside of class.

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  • Thanks for the very interesting post. I think to make a stronger “research-based” case for digital media/storytelling/multimedia we have to do a little bit better linking the evidence on multimedia learning to what we’re doing in the classroom. This post (and dual coding theory) is a good start, but what does it really mean for having kids use digital media to create and share?

    I don’t think dual-coding theory says anything about the effects of creating and sharing media on learning. What it says is that there are certain ways that we as human beings take in visual and audio cues, and learn from those stimuli. I’d take a look at the work of Richard Mayer (psychologist, his book is called Multimedia Learning). He finds that the way multimedia is presented makes a difference in learning… for example, having a picture appear on one side of the screen with text on the opposite side, is less effective than having the picture and text appear in close proximity (because our brains have to work harder to take in both the text and picture when they are far apart)… this is a clear link between digital media and learning… it DOES NOT say however, that kids who create and share media with each other learn better.

    So what about kids creating and sharing media? We’ll need to make better arguments and find (or do) other research, and I think you’re on the right track. I hope my clarification contributes something to the discussion.

  • June: You are absolutely right that the pedagogy or instructional methods make a huge difference in terms of learning. We can’t say “digital storytelling always supports wonderful learning” any more than we should say (or can say with integrity) “computers always support wonderful learning.” I appreciate the reference to Richard Mayer’s work, I will check that out. I haven’t done much reading yet on dual-coding theory, but am interested to learn more from several standpoints– most immediately my own use and design of presentation slides. I think the title of your blog, Praxis Makes Perfect, is a good way of saying this. The WAYS we use technology are really the key. While I do think there are some good things inherent in the process of having students create digital stories, we certainly see many examples in school of PowerPoints as well as videos/movies created by students which reflect little original thought or actual learning. The brain psychology is not the only important issue here in my view, however, the entire challenge of authentically “engaging” students (versus merely enthralling them) fits into this digital storytelling discussion as well. One of the basic things we need to do there is provide students with choices about their learning tasks, and that is a basic idea which many teachers do not embrace yet– and has nothing to do with technology specifically.

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  • I’m actually involved in research surrounding Mayer’s work and dual coding theory. I find it backs up what a good deal of us have known all along. Reading exactly what we put on a PowerPoint word for word, is a service to no one and according to dual coding actually negates itself. (You are so concerned with making the audio match up with the visual you do not process the meaning of the words.) This becomes essential in our teaching strategies, and as more of us take advantage of screencasts for our students, etc. we need to take these into account.

    As far as having our students create digital products. I find that when I want my students to work on a project, I don’t want them to all create something on the same subject. They all need to have their own individual threads, this way my students learn from one another and can grasp a greater understanding of the whole concept, even if they focused heavily on one aspect. In essence I am asking them to teach their peers. I would want them to incorporate the tenants of dual-coding theory in their design so that others can learn and understand their topic area better.

    In the end, good design, no matter what research backs it up, can only facilitate the learning and creating process.

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