Digital Storytelling and Online Learning Networks

Singapore-based educator Jabiz Raisdana looks at DS106, a digital storytelling class first offered by the University of Mary Washington that’s become quite the Internet phenomenon, with participation from learners all over the world. Raisdana writes about the ways in which DS106, an open online course that encourages creativity and sharing on the open Web, challenges the ways in which many K12 schools approach the Internet. This articles uses this course as a springboard to talk about learning and building networks online — something he argues that students and teachers and leaders must learn to do.

Imagine a course you could join whenever you like and leave whenever you need. A course free to anyone who wants to become involved, and the only requirements are a computer, an Internet connection, all the creativity you can muster, and enough trust in yourself and the people you might meet online to restore your faith in humanity.

As a school leader, perhaps it is rare and slightly uncomfortable to see the words “trust” and “Internet” written so closely together. Years of paranoia and boogie-man fearmongering have left most school administrators terrified when they think about how many young people spend so much time unsupervised and exposed on the Internet. It is only natural that most administrators actively seek methods to monitor and block student access to the Internet in misguided and often times dangerous attempts to protect students from the web rather than helping them play safely on the World Wide Web.

What if, however, instead of sheltering students and submitting to unsubstantiated fears, school leaders could foster learning environments that allow both teachers and students the ability to develop skills in using technology as a tool for networking, sharing, narrating, and creative self-expression?

What if school leaders would help create schools where all learners could frame a digital identity wherein they become both a practitioner in and interrogator of various new modes of networking in which they can truly use the Internet not only as a place to learn, but a place to create, share, and exist?

To the average principal or district superintendent, a course like DS 106 (the course described above) might appear more of an administrative headache than anything else. How could anyone ever supervise, monitor, or assess such vague objectives, however lofty they may appear to be in their idealism? What possible role could a Digital Storytelling course out of the University of Mary Washington play in a K-12 environment?

Students deserve to be taught how to function in networks, so they too can be prolific and useful members of burgeoning online communities.

The answer does not lie in this particular course necessarily, but more in how we acculturate our students to the dynamic culture(s) being created on the Internet. What courses like DS106 do best is to allow participants the freedom to create and foster a reliance on their own integrity, strength, and ability while learning how to interact with strangers online to build trusted learning communities.

K-12 leaders must look to higher education and real world examples of how adults are using the Internet and networked learning as a model for building  more authentic K-12 learning environments.  Leaders can no longer ignore the power of the network to help all learners gain access to ideas and people on the Internet. Students deserve to be taught how to function in networks so they too can be prolific and useful members of burgeoning online communities.

Where to Begin

Everything begins with trust.  The spaces we create for our classes, the strength of our networks, the health of our relationships – these can only thrive and evolve if there is trust. At the heart of connected learning is trust. But before they can trust others, teachers and students need to trust themselves, and to trust themselves, they need to know who they are. They must trust in their own abilities, their own integrity, and their own capacity to build confidence and know that what they have to say matters.

At the heart of connected learning is trust.

Creating and building identity is a life-long process, and one which schools can no longer afford to ignore. It is the responsibility of school as well as parents to ensure that young people today are able to make the appropriate choices when living and learning online.

The trouble is that too often, schools frighten children into feeling that the Internet is a terrifying place filled with untrustworthy predators. The real crime then is that students are left to navigate the web on their own armed only with a nagging sense of paranoia.

What if schools were filled with networked teachers and principals who understood the power of connected learning? Educators who could model and coach young people on how to use networks to build life-long lasting relationships with other students as well as with mentors from around the world.

But asPrince Edward Island educator Bon Stewart points out, schools tend to do just the opposite:

We tend to try to keep [students] out as much as possible, tell them it’s full of creeps and strangers (it has some, admittedly), and then when they turn thirteen, drop them legally on Main Street with a whole bunch of panicky warnings about not doing anything dangerous or stupid.

Maybe we walk with them awhile, if they’re lucky.

But do we introduce them to our friends? Model for them the positive things that we do in online spaces? Scaffold them into our networks in relatively safe, supported ways so that the picture they get of the social norms of this small town is one of creativity and sharing and humour and being there for each other?

Do we create networks of supportive adults around kids – adults who know them in their day-to-day lives, who know whole groups of friends and can help them navigate the power relations of growing up from a sympathetic supervisory position while modelling humane ways of engaging with each other?

What Does This Look Like

There is no one way this model can look, and that is the beauty of it. There is no one formula that reading an article like this can reveal to school leaders. Trust, vulnerability, community, and authenticity — all unfortunately take time to absorb and adopt. There are no easy steps, but the outcomes are vital.

The following story is about three teachers from three different schools and their ability to involve their students with the networks they use everyday for their own learning. It’s about learners of all ages who are comfortable sharing ideas through creative expression with tools they learned to master from a course like DS106. It’s about people who believe that if you throw enough out there, occasionally something beautiful will come floating back.

The easiest way to understand this story is to look at it from the perspectives of the three people involved:

Zac Chase: I didn’t plan any of the below. All I was doing was looking for some creativity-inspiring journal prompts. What resulted has no lesson or unit plans. I’m not sure where it’s going or what it will become. I am certain, however, that something beautiful started in my classroom Wednesday. Read More.

Bryan Jackson: I sat at my kitchen counter after work on Friday, donned a set of headphones, and spent the better part of an hour adding my own voice to a project spanning both North American coasts that had gained its initial motivation and impetus from an unmet friend in Jakarta, Indonesia. In kind I offer my own addition to the project in the hopes that it inspires others to lend their own creativity, perspective, and voice to collaborative expression that would have unthinkable even five years ago (to me, anyway), but is today the sort of thing that can be accomplished on a Friday afternoon, between work and dinner. Read More.

Jabiz Raisdana: To the Students of Zachary Chase in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (Or any other class whose teacher came across this post and wants to participate.)

A few days ago I shared, on my blog, the fact that I had finished the first month of a yearlong project in which I would take a photo every day for a year. Why did I feel the need to broadcast this information with what we affectionately call the World Wide Web? Not sure. I tend to share anything and everything that leaks from my life. The photos the songs, the tweets, the insights, the rubbish, the random thoughts trickle out and dribble into a vast abyss I am told ends somewhere with you. Well in this case, your teacher Mr. Chase. Read More

A quick exploration of this simple project should yield ample evidence to the power of connected learning. It is important to remember that this is but one of many similar projects happening worldwide every day. Projects like this are made possible by teachers who are flexible enough to reach out and learn on their own, teachers who understand that they are nodes in open networks and that their “expertise” is but one aspect of a larger community of learners. These teachers are not afraid to explore the openness of the Internet. More importantly projects like this are possible because of schools who allow these teachers to take their students along for the ride.

The Bottom Line

If schools strive to remain relevant in the lives of students they must, as institutions, adapt to how most adults learn beyond their K-12 schooling. More and more often, as university students and other adult learners become more connected and better networked learners, they are finding it easier to learn at their own pace.

Teachers must not be afraid to exist online, while school leaders should learn to not discourage the networked teachers from sharing their networks with their students. Indeed, school leaders need to become connected learners themselves.

The successful school today will understand the power of creative expression and community building

The successful school today will understand the power of creative expression and community building. These schools are places in which the line between teacher and learner is provocatively blurred. Leaders should be looking to build an environment which requires all stakeholders to both design and build online identities while narrating the process. Places where teachers and students will be expected to openly frame this process and interact with others as well as engage and interact with the world beyond as a necessary part of their development.

We are all looking for schools that could teach us how to authentically and openly exist on the Internet, ones that teach us how to engage with it and the people and ideas who make it up.

In short, schools that could teach us how to trust each other again.


 Questions for School Leaders

  • What is your policy on teacher/student use of social media?

  • Do your students and teachers create content?

  • Where do your teachers and students share their work?

  • How many teachers at your school consider themselves networked?

  • Could a project like the one mentioned in the article organically spring up in your school? (Here are some of the ways in which K12 educator Ben Rimes has incorporated DS106 into his work.)

Image credits: photophilde

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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