Finding Dialogue

Finding Dialogue: The Story of a Digital Story Project


Traditionally, digital stories are used in higher education to encourage reflective thinking. If considered in the context of Bloom’s taxonomy, they can be categorized as a level five activity: those requiring students to understand content well enough to use it for creation and planning. Digital stories can take significant time and energy, but they have the potential to act as profound capstone activities and stimulate high levels of student satisfaction. They are particularly common in courses involving service learning or other types of experiences that have been linked to transformative learning. In this context, they are also used as means for the students to come to terms with the personal and often emotional aspects of the experience. In my case, the digital story I created for SBHD 636 took time, underwent several iterations, and succeeded in possessing capstone qualities. However, the digital story assignment triggered more emotional learning than the service learning activity itself.

Originally I had difficulties completing this project because of my reaction to what I perceived as conflicting messages about purpose and audience for the project; I had understood this to be a reflective project, which automatically makes the student author the ultimate audience. This sort of reflective work requires the student use their own voice. However we would be viewing the finished products with our community partners, which made them an audience as well. We were told to reflect our community voice as well as our own. We were supposed to show our community partners in a positive light. We were supposed to educate a non-specific community member about community-based participatory research in the context of our service learning project. This is difficult since none of us performed true community-based participatory research in our twenty-hour service learning project. Digital stories and other creative works are my favorite assignments; I was frustrated by what seemed like a high number of externally-imposed parameters, many of which did not seem consistent with my current understanding of the digital storytelling literature.

This internal conflict impacted my first attempt at creating a digital story. I took the many assignment parameters too literally. To educate the audience, I interviewed Erin Brown, the Assistant Director of Service Learning, about the definition of service learning. I defined community-based participatory research in detail. To incorporate community voice, I interviewed Eleanor Sharp, a graduate of the Nonprofit Learning Point (NLP) certificate program, and set up interviews with Rachel Douglas and Valerie Holton, the NLP program director and a former NLP instructor, respectively. I told the chronological story of my service learning experience within the context of the principles of community-based participatory research. I showed how I had previously built trust with my community partner, created sustainability and promoted community involvement in the process of developing a new course evaluation for NLP. The result, however, had too much content and no central message. When I showed it to my husband, he was unable to follow what was happening.

Although I deleted it, I had learned several things. First, by attempting to fulfill all the assignment parameters given in class, I had created too much content. Therefore I decided to prioritize the parameters, keeping only the ones that resonated with me, specifically that storytelling (1) is reflective; (2) uses the author’s voice; and (3) is done in basic language. Second, I had used too many digital enhancements in the first version, probably because I was compensating for underwhelming content. It had videoclips, screencasting, multiple song tracks, sound effects, and twice the recommended number of images. The new version would include only one musical track and about twelve images, many of which I connected with specific concepts. That way, when the idea of “community engagement” emerged it was reinforced with a picture meant to represent it.

 In order to present a compelling story, I needed to identify and describe one area of confusion and subsequent learning that had occurred during my service learning experience.  Because my service learning was very similar to my ordinary activities in the nonprofit sector, I did not initially see anything to discuss. I noticed that in the first version of my story I had conflated the concepts of community participation with student-centered learning. This might be reasonable, given that my community consisted of students, but I decided to seek inspiration from Paulo Freire who is considered a pioneer in both fields.

 Freire’s statement, “If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed,” impacted my second video in several ways. The term dialogue suggests that viewpoints from (at least) two sides of an issue must be represented. It reminded me of my initial questions around defining community. I was so entrenched in the Nonprofit Learning Point organization that I saw it as its own community of different stakeholders. Since much of the Nonprofit Learning Point leadership also takes classes within the organization, it heavily overlaps with the community it serves. This community, their students, serve nonprofit organizations throughout Richmond. Throughout my service learning experience, I had seen four nested communities: Nonprofit Learning Point, Nonprofit Learning Point students, the nonprofit sector, and the Richmond community benefiting from nonprofit organizations.

Freire’s quote, and my subsequent exploration of dialogue made me realize that the question drives which communities need to be involved in the dialogue. A question of individual course evaluations, for example, should probably only involve educational leadership and its students. Evaluating the quality of Nonprofit Learning Point courses in general should probably include the entire nonprofit community. Although not new to me, the importance of identifying the correct stakeholders in any community venture was made more explicit after my service learning experience. Because of its importance to my thought process, the quote plays a prominent role in the last minute of the video. I also tried to convey my message verbally, although I have continued to improve my understanding since I completed the video. That being said, I am happy enough with it to not make a third version.

 Ultimately, I learned several things from the service learning and digital storytelling assignment. First, I grew to appreciate the organic, grassroots feel to the assignment as it was given. I came to understand the assignment as a metaphor for community organization: many connected but different purposes, difficult to protect from mission drift, but exceedingly rich when executed successfully. I, however, opted to prioritize which directives I honored. I acknowledge that the importance of prioritization may have been one of the intended lessons of the project. Second, I learned that student-centered learning and community-based participatory research share the same philosophical roots and practices. Finally, I improved my understanding of identifying appropriate stakeholders in community endeavors.

If you are wondering about the title…I admit I didn’t tie it in the way I normally do.  It’s just I wrote the reflection several days ago and things change.  Today I have a migraine, brought on by rage and pollen, both connected to academe in the springtime at least in my personal experience.  Rage and pollen.  Consider its use to be a pre-quel for my next blog.

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