8 Ways Digital Storytelling Transforms Learning in 21st Century Education: The Research Evidence

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Following the proliferation of technology and multimedia an evolution in making and telling stories has resulted in digital storytelling (DST). 

8 Ways Digital Storytelling Transforms Learning in 21st Century Education: The Research Evidence

Here we get into the basics of DST and how research findings in the past decade suggest it works as a transforming tool for learning in 21st century education. 

What is Digital Storytelling?

Digital storytelling is a constructivist approach to learning that emerged in the late 1980’s at the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in California. This technique is a “modern expression of the ancient art of storytelling” (The Digital Storytelling Association 2011). Storytelling throughout the centuries has been a popular and compelling way to communicate and share knowledge and experiences, and has been used as a pedagogical tool long now. 

In today’s digitized world with teachers entering classrooms with digital natives (Prensky 2001), digital storytelling emerged as a consequence of a more systematic use of educational technology for learning. Although there is not a single definition for the term, the basic understanding is that digital storytelling uses digital tools and means such as video, audio, social media, blogging to share and communicate ideas and information effectively (Robin 2008). 

How Does it Work in the Classroom?

Digital storytelling could be integrated in the curriculum across a number of subjects despite it is seen as more useful in lessons such as Language Arts. Drawing on the principles of “learning by doing” and Dewey’s conceptualisations of education, to implement digital storytelling in the classroom students are actively engaged as creators to make original products that can be shared with their peers and the broader community, allowing for audience interaction and feedback. In other words students are put in the driver’s seat as they navigate their way through the following four phases of the digital storytelling process: 1) Pre-production; 2) Production; 3) Post-production; and 4) Distribution. 

The Center for Digital Storytelling is known for developing and disseminating the Seven Elements of Digital Storytelling: Point, Dramatic Question, Emotional Content, Pacing, Gift of your Voice, Economy and Soundtrack. These are often cited as a useful starting point for effective instructional use of digital stories in the classroom. A more recent adaptation of the Seven Elements is found in Samantha Morra’s (Google certified teacher) explanation and visual on the process of digital storytelling. This process comprises 8 steps (Figure 1):

Begin with an Idea

Research/Explore and Learn



Gather/Create images, Gather/Create Audio, Gather Create Video

Put it all together


Feedback and Reflect 

8 Ways Digital Storytelling Transforms Learning in 21st Century Education: The Research Evidence
Figure 1: Digital Storytelling Process by Samantha Morra

Little empirical research has been conducted to date that investigates the benefits of digital storytelling in the classroom although it has been acknowledged as a technology-integrated approach for meaningful and engaged student learning. In the rather limited research that is available, the overarching agreement is that digital storytelling enhances students’ uptake of essential 21st-century literacy competencies or 4Cs of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity (Partnership for 21st century learning) and enables a deeper understanding in all areas of the curriculum.

How Digital Storytelling Transforms Education: Research Findings 

In the following paragraphs we summarize eight ways that illustrate the transformative impact of digital storytelling for learning based on comparing findings from a number of empirical studies (e.g. Dreon, Kerper, & Landis 2011; Malita & Martin 2010; Robin 2008; Smeda, Dakich & Nalin Sharda 2014; Yang & Wu 2012) that were conducted in the last decade. 

1. Embraces Learning of 21st Literacies 

It is the responsibility of policy makers and educators to design and deliver curriculum that engages students in learning experiences that address the increasing demands of a multicultural, constantly evolving multimedia-based world. Literacy pedagogy and research are incremental towards such a direction: literacy refers to a repertoire of practices learners use to engage in meaning making that derives from spoken, print, and multimedia. Various literacies have been identified such as media, visual, global and digital literacy. Research suggests that students who engage in creating digital stories develop deep understanding of these literacies through the different steps needed to create their digital stories and thus gain knowledge on how to employ literacies in a way that is meaningful and empowers them as learners in a postmodern world.

2. Advances Critical Thinking and Deeper Learning 

Another main learning influence of digital storytelling as the research points out is in advancing students' critical thinking and deeper learning. The research skills needed as students explore their topic to create their digital stories, require higher level thinking skills such as evaluating evidence, editing and curation, and production timelines. Students have to critically reflect on sources by using databases and combine tools in meaningful ways to create their work. Through this process deeper learning is promoted as students master core academic content drawn from the curriculum and learn to solve complex problems that arise during the production of the digital story. In many occasions the research findings suggest, students were able to reach to metacognitive understandings through engagement in digital storytelling. 

3. Enhances Academic Achievement and Student Outcomes

A crucial indication of the impact of digital storytelling is the effect on students’ academic performance or as often stated student outcomes. The findings from evaluation of students’ performance through means of both qualitative and quantitative methods exemplify how digital storytelling in particular is effective for language learning for example for second language learners, as it enhances their writing, communication and listening comprehension skills. Such evidence complies with reports published by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which suggest that the educational uses of technology produce improved student learning outcomes.

4. Boosts Students’ Engagement and Motivation

A definite conclusion for digital storytelling that is found across research findings is how the use of digital media and other tools to engage in creating digital stories, highlight the increased levels of student engagement and motivation. Technology-rich classrooms are in general producing higher levels of engagement amongst students and digital storytelling is one compelling method to achieve such performance. The perceived usefulness students see in digital storytelling as they are challenged to actively participate and complete different tasks, lead to higher levels of learning motivation. The use of appropriate resources and editing tools is instrumental to reach student motivation and possible beneficial effects this can have. 

5. Empowers Students as Creators and Individuals

As creativity is acknowledged to be a critical competence for young learners to survive and succeed in today’s societies, the creative use of technology through means of digital storytelling is of the most significant ways that research posits transform the student learning experience. Students as creators are given the freedom and power to select their own topic and create their digital story from scratch, using an array of tools such as apps and other software. This process allows for their expressive potential to nourish in a number of ways through design, photography, writing their story and presenting it. Students are empowered and feel more confident as they use their own voice and foster a sense of individuality and “owning” their creations. They are encouraged to expose their identity and show features of their personality. 

6. Fosters Collaborative Project Based Learning

Research evidence suggests that digital storytelling can effectively promote collaborative work in the classroom. Students develop team spirit and leadership through actively working in groups to carry out their digital stories. They practice social skills as they organize their ideas together and manage their time and activities while they engage with digital content. Thus digital storytelling is a means to have students meaningfully collaborate and interact as part of an engaged community of learners. 

7. Provides an Alternative Form of Assessment

One other significant indication of the transformative effect of digital storytelling is found in its use as an alternative method of assessment. An issue that has puzzled the education sectors for years and is currently undergoing change, assessment as it is derived from findings in recent research, could benefit significantly from the use of digital storytelling. A natural fit for e-portfolios, digital storytelling could be a powerful tool for a formative form of assessment rather than the mere summative which is interested in measurable skills and scores through a test or essay. Digital storytelling allows students to assemble a meaningful piece of work that is indicative of their understanding or the content they were taught and the competencies they possess. Students demonstrate their learning and growth through presenting their digital story to a real audience in a compelling manner and receive feedback in a way that is interactive and interesting to both themselves and the teachers and their peers.

8. Offers a Personalized and Authentic Learning Experience

The importance of engaging students in meaningful and authentic learning tasks that are personally relevant according to individual needs and background is only recently gaining momentum in formal learning institutions through policy making and relevant instructional approaches. Digital storytelling is such an approach to learning as it provides authentic scenarios for students to work with and accommodates for their needs and personal learning styles and background experiences, making the lesson seem valuable and impactful through concrete products. In this sense digital storytelling caters for the diversity among the student population, whether this results from cultural, linguistic or other difference.


Digital storytelling is seen as a vehicle for implementing innovative teaching and learning practices. In this article we explored how research in particular suggests it works as a powerful pedagogical learning tool for students. However, further investigation is required to establish a more holistic picture of the impact of digital storytelling in education. 

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