Telling timber tales in Higher Education: A reflection on my journey with digital storytelling

By Veronica Barnes, Department of Applied Design, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa



The challenges of the Higher Education landscape are the result of massification and globalisation. The general lack of  preparedness in  students and lack  of academic literacy means that plagiarism is increasingly a challenge in written assignments. In the South African context, this is amplified, as students may be studying in their third or fourth language. Relying on students' affinity for visual learning, digital storytelling was first used as an alternative assessment method (to a written assignment) in 2011. This paper is a reflection on a lecturer's journey with digital storytelling, beginning with the first project in the Industrial Design programme at a University of Technology in South Africa.

The short movie clips, known as digital stories, were created with off-the-shelf equipment and techniques, and any open source software available to the students. By evaluating the project using the lens of Authentic Learning, some of the benefits and challenges of using this alternative means of assessment could be identified. The authentic learning, the polished end products, the engagement of students with the material, the decidedly independent learning, and the collaborative practice were recognised as key benefits. The students also saw the visual orientation of the project, the digital literacy-building, and freedom of creative expression as benefits, and revealed their resourcefulness during the student-led project. This paper also acknowledges the two models of digital storytelling, the growth of communities of practice and the possibilities for further research into this growing area of learning in Higher Education.

Keywords: Digital storytelling, innovative pedagogy, multiliteracies, assessment methods, student engagement, industrial design, Authentic learning


This article details my journey with digital storytelling, as an alternative method of assessment for first year industrial design students at a University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa. The background to this pioneering project, and the subsequent analysis of the results are discussed here. I will also describe the different models of digital storytelling, and the expansion of the community of practice at the University.

Background and challenges of context

My journey starts in Cape Town, South Africa. Like many lecturers in higher education today, I am faced with the challenges that are the result of massification and globalisation. A far larger, more diverse, and seemingly less academically prepared student body is sitting in our classes (Scott, Yeld, and Hendry, 2007). Maintaining success rates in tertiary institutions is increasingly difficult, and in South Africa, with a complex recent history of Apartheid education, there are additional issues. While the language of tuition at our University of Technology [1] is English, there are eleven official South African languages, and many students find themselves studying and writing in their third or fourth language. In addition, many students are still disadvantaged by poor schooling and/or lack of resources, despite twenty years of democracy.

On a micro level, in the Industrial Design programme, in 2011 we were faced with growing classes, and a marked increase in the incidences of plagiarism in written submissions of assignments. The 'movie project' was an experiment born of many hours spent marking assignments from seemingly underprepared students, who had poor academic writing skills. It was clear that we needed a new way to assess the students' knowledge, and to engage the students via their increased affinity towards visual learning resources. Given the new students' leaning towards visual learning (Hull, 2003), amplified by the fact that we were teaching design students (who by their nature are more visually focussed), a movie project seemed a worthwhile experiment.

Digital storytelling

I discovered later that our academic experimental 'movie project' had a name: digital storytelling. According to Lundby (2008), digital stories are usually short movie clips, created with off-the-shelf equipment and techniques, combining text, images, videos, music and narration. There are broadly 2 types of storytelling models – the traditional personal narratives model and the content model.

The traditional digital storytelling model was conceived in the Centre for Digital Storytelling (CDS) at the University of Berkeley in California in the United States (Lambert, 2013), and it focuses on giving a voice to  the disenfranchised/ voiceless, such as refugees and abused women. They developed a distinct model for the process of digital storytelling – focusing on the collaborative development of personal narratives, usually within a workshop setting over a few days. This model focuses on the intention of the story; the end result is not as important as the storyteller's ability to reflect upon and tell their story. Lambert, one of the founders of the Centre for Digital Storytelling asserts that, 'the CDS workshop privileges self-expression and self-awareness over concerns of publication and audience', and prioritises the 'individual's process of authorship' (ibid: 38). Techniques such as the 'River of Life' and 'Community mapping' techniques can be used as part of a workshop for participants to reflect on their life path, their context, and what story they want to tell. Still images are frequently used, either photographs or other images sourced online. They may be quite disparate images, but they are tied together with the voice-over of the story. Because of the personal and sometimes very emotional nature of the story, the author's voice is very important in this model, and the author most often narrates the digital story.

The content-based model of digital storytelling, sometimes called digital narrative (Clarke and Thomas, 2012), stands in contrast to the more traditional digital storytelling model because of its lack of emotional content, and this model is gaining international recognition as a suitable tool for higher education. The approach is focussed on the creation of stories embedded within the content area of study. Because of the nature of this model, being to communicate content/ knowledge to the viewer, there is largely no formal emotional response included in the film. In many ways, this model allows for students to communicate visually in an area of study or interest, and to contribute to libraries of visual resources. The content can be communicated in many ways, such as filming on site, the inclusion of subtitles, diagrams or interviews with subject experts. The link created by the personal voice-over of the author in the more traditional model is not necessary here, as the content  should follow a logical sequence. This content-based model is most similar in structure to our 'movie experiment', as no emotional reflection was required. The learning objectives focussed on the knowledge area within the subject, and an emotional response would have been inappropriate.

Digital storytelling in our context

While much has been written about digital storytelling in well-resourced contexts where students  have  access  to  state-of-the-art  digital  technologies  and  excellent  personal  or university resources, this tool has also been used in under-resourced contexts. The accessible nature of digital storytelling contributes to its success in our developing context. The fact that no special equipment is required, that clips can be filmed on a mobile phone, and that open source editing software is available, means that even financially constrained students can participate in the project. Students would not necessarily need smart phones for editing, as university labs could be used for this purpose. This makes it ideal in the South African higher education context, which is characterised by highly differently positioned students in terms of access to resources. There can even be considerable differences in available resources between the students in different faculties of the same institution (Gachago, Ivala, Barnes, Gill, Felix-Minnaar, Morkel & Vajat, 2014: 969).

Digital storytelling in Industrial Design

My students are first year industrial design students, and Technology 1 is an introductory subject, dealing with material properties and manufacturing processes used in the industry. The subject is a content-practical hybrid subject. It deals with much of the theory behind and the practical applications of material properties - and this application becomes visible within their other subjects, such as Design Studies 1, where students mix design principles with material properties in designing and making models to solve design problems. Thus Technology 1 assessments often include both theoretical and practical aspects within assignments. Because comprehensive writing  skills are important within higher education, these skills are taught and nurtured within several subjects (particularly the completely theoretical subjects such as Business Studies and History of Design). The hybrid nature of Technology 1 therefore allows for a combination of assessment types.

My colleague, Rael Futerman, and I had devised this experiment in the place of a written academic essay, covering research on various aspects of timber properties and processes. We wrote a new project brief [2] that required the students to make a short (2 -3 minutes long) film on a given timber topic, having divided the whole body of content (previously the essay) into 14 areas to be researched. The students were divided randomly into groups of 3 or 4 (the 'film crew') to work on the film. Having scrutinised the essay brief, the new brief covered a similar length of time for the assignment and the weighting of the final mark was the same. The varying levels of digital literacies and access to resources among students were addressed to some degree by making it a group assignment, thereby also allowing opportunities for peer learning.

While both the students and the staff were excited by the project, no one knew what to expect. The students were not prepared in any special way or given any training [3], and we could not advise them on which software to use as we lecturers had no experience either. The brief, while very tight in terms of timing and  topic, was completely open in terms of how the students could do the project – thus giving the group complete control. The students were left entirely to their own devices; to use any cameras/ phones/ software/ tools they felt were appropriate. What we did provide for the students was a tight timeline, with intermediate deadlines for planning phases, filming and editing. They had to discuss their concept with us by a certain date, and thereafter could make an appointment if they needed to further discuss their concept, prop building etc. The final result was to be presented formally at a film premiere in a lecture theatre, with Oscars awarded for excellence in different categories [4]. The films were marked to a tight rubric on the day of the presentation [5].

Figure 1 - an Oscar winning film crew 

Authentic learning through the process and polished end product

The results were surprising on many fronts. We were amazed at the good quality of the final films (polished products), the strong student voice, the levels of engagement with the subject matter, and the high level of ownership and pride in their project. Using surveys and focus groups, we have managed to glean much feedback and reflection on this project from students and staff. The project has now been run with different groups of students over the last 3 years.

From an academic point of view, the students engaged in a much more authentic manner with the course content than in previous essays. They visited factories, sawmills, interviewed experts, found defects in trees in forests, and immersed themselves in the project. I believe that this knowledge gained may stay with them far longer than any written essay, and Clarke and Thomas (2012: 38) suggest that digital narratives facilitate a far deeper learning experience than conventional assignments. In a similar vein, having information available in an exciting visual format (and produced by their classmates) creates a library of accessible technology videos. They were far more invested in the opinion of their peers at the final public screening than they were of the lecturer who would have marked their essays. Jamissen and Skou (2010: 5) assert that the aspect of sharing their product influences  the  production process in a positive way, and is a strong motivator for students. Their pride in their final product can been seen in the importance of the inclusion of their movie in the CPUT stories YouTube channel, a collection of digital stories developed across various disciplines at the institution. This however, highlighted the tension between creativity and copyright that students encountered when re-using digital resources, as YouTube immediately flags third party content.

Engagement across difference and collaboration

The students were randomly assigned to groups in the class. They often found themselves working with students they may not ordinarily have engaged with in a social setting. The engagement across difference in each group in terms of gender, language, race, social background, and digital skills was also a beneficial by-product of the project, as they needed to identify and manage the resources and  workload  of the group in  order to complete the complex task in the allotted time. Non-traditional students are broadly described as students who 'are currently under-represented [in HE]', and this is usually as a result of 'social class and/or ethnicity' (Parliamentary Select Committee on Education and Employment, 2001). For non-traditional students, underrepresentation can be in several areas such as age (aged 24 or older), socio-economic background, from an ethnic or racial minority group, being first generation HE students or language.

In a South African context, while the population may be largely African, this racial group is still underrepresented in Higher Education (Fouche, 2007: 46). Thus, in some institutions or on particular courses, African students would be considered  non-traditional.  Several of these 'non-traditional' students in the Industrial Design class were interviewed when we noticed that they achieved high marks in this project and had either low or failing marks in most other Technology assessments. Their other low marks were a result of a range of factors including: a lack of academic writing skills, language issues (comprehension of what was required), lack of interest and participation, and plagiarism in assessments. Following the interviews and focus group discussions with the students [6], the flexible nature of the digital storytelling project was identified as a key driver for success. In particular, the non-traditional students appreciated that some of the project work and filming was done off campus, and at times negotiated in the group. When considering that the majority of our students could be defined as 'non- traditional', the flexibility of this project could go a long way towards providing a learning environment suitable to these learners' needs and expectations.

Creativity & resourcefulness

The students were given complete freedom to show their creativity in how they conveyed the content of the film. Some consulted experts, some filmed on site in forests or sawmills, some needed to build models and incorporate diagrams into their films. This freedom to express themselves was a feature much enjoyed by the students, and even more so as visually-orientated design students. The students also built networks with those who helped them with acting/interviews/editing/prop building. They showed considerable resourcefulness, even in awkward situations. One group were caught up in a large student protest as they filmed their piece on site, but chose to adapt this and incorporate the protestors as part of their 'newscast'. This digital narrative project made it clear that students can be empowered to take responsibility for their own learning – by trusting their collective resourcefulness and building independent learning. The building of networks, as well as the creativity, resourcefulness and independence required to complete their movie and the digital skills gained, will be of use to the design graduates. These graduates need to be able to navigate and manage the complexity of their working environment, real world problems and clients.

Table 1: Comparing real world workplace requirements with the outcomes of the digital narrative project 

Challenges and Reflective changes

The digital narrative project has now been part of the Technology 1 subject every year since 2011. It was at the time of the 2012 timber project that ethical permission was first obtained for students to fill in questionnaires, as well as to participate in several focus groups and interviews. This provided valuable feedback on student (and lecturer) challenges, creating an opportunity to adjust the project in the future.

a) Differing levels of digital literacies

In the first iteration of the project there was one group that struggled immensely, as all group members had limited digital literacies. Now the aim is to establish who the digital experts are in the class, and to arrange to have one expert per student group. We have also provided software training for students, and ensured that appropriate open source software was loaded onto the computers in the student lab.

b) Lecturers' lack of knowledge

Initially, the staff had no digital storytelling experience, and were thus unable to offer any technical advice or assistance. Before the 2012 project I went to a structured workshop (traditional CDS model) and made my own digital story – on a content subject. This movie has been shown several times to students (subject: the perils of academic plagiarism). As I had then experienced the frustrations with editing etc., I was better able to advise students on their process.

c) Intellectual property issues

Some of the early stories were removed from YouTube, as students had used music that was not open source in their movies. Subsequent students were better informed by staff about intellectual ownership issues – in terms of images and music. It is essential to give author credits where appropriate. We also provided a list of suitable open source libraries for music and images online.

d) Group participation

Although group participation is often controversial among students and staff, in this project it has been less noticeable. Because the students find the assignment so engaging, there have been few instances of slacking. However, we introduced group participation forms, and insist

on assessments for every group. Each group member needs to rate their team members' performance individually. The forms for each group are reviewed by the lecturer, and poor participation has a negative impact on the individual's marks.[7]

e)  Student-generated resources

One of the aims of the project was to build a library of student generated resources. This has been very successful, in that the CPUTstories YouTube channel is an excellent open platform to upload the stories. Links to the YouTube channel are also placed on the Learning management system within the Technology 1 subject. By changing which area of subject matter of the Technology 1 curriculum is used for the movie project each year, this library is expanding.

Storytelling models and the wider CPUT story

Our growing community of practice of staff from different faculties within (and without) the University has enabled the analysis of the different models of digital storytelling that have been used. Beyond the main 2 types of storytelling models – the traditional personal storytelling model and the content model, there are other variables. These include the degree to which the students are trained/ supported by staff, and their level of access to University resources and laboratories. The level of digital literacy is also a factor that varies considerably from course to course, as described by Gachago et al. (2014: 979).

Within our University, the more traditional (CDS) model, focusing on personal narratives of a student's personal reflection on a subject or journey has been used in the Education faculty, as well as in extended curriculum [8] (ECP) courses for architecture and interior design, and nursing. These are models that are highly supported (providing students with extensive training, assistance in planning, and technical and editing support). The level of student support is greater because of the generally lower levels of digital literacy among the students.

Content-based projects have been introduced in Food Technology, Civil Engineering and Accounting. These are predominantly less supported, relying on  students' resourcefulness (providing students with little or no support/ training beyond a timeline of tasks) and often completed in groups of 3 to 5 students.

Table 2: Comparing storytelling models used at CPUT (developed from Gachago et al. 2014). 

From the first digital storytelling pilots, where the Industrial Design digital storytelling project was one of them, this initiative has been incorporated into many different contexts/ subjects. The community of practice that we have built at CPUT now extends beyond our campus borders to other institutions in the area. We have also had representation at a number of International Digital Storytelling Conferences (recently in Athens, 2014), where the content model of storytelling in higher education is gaining prominence. The stories developed by our staff and students are available online, on the CPUTstories channel of YouTube.

Table 3 - links to digital story telling 

Further analysis and research on digital storytelling

My colleague Daniela Gachago (and others) and I have analysed the projects and student learning through many different lenses over the years, one of which is Authentic Learning [9]. The concept of authentic learning is described in response to a common critique: that learning in HE is irrelevant to realworld practice, and thus students struggle to transfer their knowledge from their higher education into the workplace. Authentic learning describes learning where students are exposed to learning activities that are as close as possible to what they will face in their professional lives. This must happen in an authentic environment – one that is guided by professional practices as opposed to pure theory (Herrington & Herrington, 2006). There are nine dimensions of authentic learning: authentic contexts (guided by genuine practice, not theory), authentic activities (complex problems that have real world relevance),  access to expert performances (to see working practice), multiple roles and perspectives (seeing problems from stakeholder perspectives), collaboration (facilitates the social construction of knowledge), opportunities for reflection, opportunities for articulation (tacit knowledge becomes explicit), coaching and scaffolding (by lecturer), and authentic assessment (Herrington & Herrington, 2006). Our 2013 further analysis of a particular digital storytelling project in the industrial design course revealed how well the digital storytelling tool fitted into the nine dimensions of authentic learning, as seen in the table below [10].

Table 4: Characteristics of authentic learning in relation to the digital storytelling project. 

New areas of research in relation to digital storytelling continue to open up as lecturers begin to see the value of this type of project.

Final reflection

Writing this reflection has been an excellent opportunity for me to consider the real value of digital storytelling as a pedagogical tool. What started as an experiment to better manage frustrating academic circumstances has blossomed into an exciting field of research. I remain deeply indebted to my colleague, Daniela Gachago, [11] for her assistance and enthusiasm, and for revealing the possibilities of research in this area. Over the course of the last few digital storytelling projects, it has become clear to me how valuable digital storytelling is to the students: in terms of how they engage with the content material, the enthusiasm with which they approach the medium (84% enjoyed creating their digital story), and the social benefits of the diverse group collaboration and their own workload management (Gachago et al, 2014: 978). Other benefits may also become apparent in the course of continued analysis of my own and other projects at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, much like the uncovering of the true extent of the iceberg.

Appendix A: Rubric for Movie presentations and notes 


 Appendix B: Groupwork Review Form (for student participation)


[1] Our institution is the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

[2] A brief is a document, most often in a design setting, that describes the specific requirements of an assignment/ client/ project, including pertinent deadlines, material specifications and expected final outcomes.

[3] After the first experimental project and student feedback, the next year we arranged for the students to have some open source editing software training in a university computer laboratory.

[4] The Oscar categories were: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Special Effects and Best Movie.

[5] See appendix A for the marking rubric.

[6] For greater detail of the non-traditional student interviews, please refer to Barnes, V., Gachago, D. & Ivala, E. (2014). Digital Storytelling in Industrial Design. In P. C. Layne & P. Lake (Eds.), Global Innovation of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Transgressing Boundaries. Switzerland: Springer.

[7] See Appendix B for an example of the Groupwork Review Form (for student participation).

[8] Extended curriculum courses are common in South African universities, largely due to the continued disparity of educational  levels of students completing school. Within the different programmes, the aim is to improve the academic skills of underprepared students, to ensure success within the Higher Education environment.

[9] Barnes, V., D. Gachago and E. Ivala. (2012). Authentic learning and digital storytelling: A case study in industrial design. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Design, Development and Research, 4–5 September , Cape Town: Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

[10] The 2012 DDR paper forms the basis of the further analysis done in 2013, for the Authentic Learning Colloquium at the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa on 22 March, 2013.

[11] Daniela's doctoral study title is: 'Sense and sentimentality in digital stories from a pedagogy of discomfort perspective - a case of pre-service teacher education in South Africa'. The link to her blog is


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