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Telling a Story, Web 2.0 Style
by Susan Brooks-Young
Storytelling is one of the oldest and most enjoyable ways to teach and learn. Bring storytelling into the digital age by using Web 2.0 tools to make high-tech slideshows, comics, and more.
Just about everyone appreciates a good story. One of the oldest instructional tools, storytelling is used for a variety of purposes such as teaching history, explaining natural phenomena, or presenting lessons on moral and ethical issues—all while entertaining and engaging the audience. It follows, then, that really good teachers tend to be really good storytellers. Listening to stories helps students make sense of the world around them, but learning how to tell a good story is equally important.

Children who take on the role of storyteller apply skills modeled for them in any good storytelling session. They learn that stories have a beginning, middle, and end and how to sequence events in ways that make sense. They learn how story elements such as plot, character, voice, and setting can be used to develop stories that engage readers or listeners. Finally, they learn ways to express their ideas clearly to an audience. How does instructional technology relate to this?

One of the more challenging aspects of having children tell their stories is inspiring them to do their best work. Providing an audience beyond family, classmates, and the teacher often does the trick; but this is easier said than done. In the past, an audience had to be present to enjoy an oral story. Written stories could be distributed to individuals outside the classroom, but the audience was limited to those who had physical access to a hardcopy of the story. Web 2.0 tools provide platforms through which children may easily share their stories online and even, in some cases, get feedback from their audience.


What Is Web 2.0 Storytelling?

You are probably familiar with the term “digital storytelling.” This approach to storytelling emerged in the 1990s, and referred to use of digital tools like video cameras and editing software to tell a story, usually in the form of a 2-5 minute video. Digital storytelling is a powerful way for students to exercise their creativity and problem-solving skills as they work collaboratively to create a video story. But it is a significant undertaking, and many educators shy away from taking on a project of that scope. The major drawbacks include the cost of the software and equipment, the time needed to learn how to use the software and equipment, and the time required for developing and producing a video. The emergence of Web 2.0 tools offers teachers another option.

Web 2.0 refers to the second generation of the World Wide Web. It is usually defined as the transition away from static Web pages, where users are limited to viewing or printing existing content, to Web pages where viewer interaction is supported, even encouraged. Web 2.0 tools are designed to make it easy for users to work together in a variety of ways ranging from commenting on existing content to full collaboration on all the information presented on a page. Examples run the gamut from blogs, where readers may not change existing text but can add comments about the text, to wikis, where readers are permitted to modify existing text and add their own.

It’s likely that Bryan Alexander (Director of Research at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education) and Alan Levine (Vice President, Community, and Chief Technology Officer for the New Media Consortium) coined the term Web 2.0 storytelling. Like digital storytelling, Web 2.0 storytelling requires use of technology to create stories that use various media, but there are differences—starting with the technology itself. For example, Web 2.0 stories include use of digital images or video and text or audio, but by using media found online, one is able to tell a Web 2.0 story with nothing more than an internet-connected computer. Another difference is the fact that the technology is nearly transparent—authors use free or low-cost online tools that rely on simple menus and professionally designed fill-in-the-blank templates to tell their stories. As a result, the learning curve for even the least experienced novice user can be dealt with in a matter of minutes, shifting focus from how to use the technology to the content of the story.

Finally, Web 2.0 tools are designed to support the social aspect of storytelling by making it easy to share completed stories. Authors can use tag words that increase the odds that a Web 2.0 story will be viewed by readers far removed from the story’s point of origin, and most of these tools instantly generate html code that can be used to embed a story right into a blog post or wiki page. Privacy controls can be used to limit access to a degree and it’s possible to moderate comments and edits before they are made public; however, stories created with Web 2.0 tools are intended to be shared with audiences beyond the classroom.


Getting Started

The initial work for creating a Web 2.0 story is similar to an off-line story writing exercise. Students begin by thinking of an idea for a story and then outlining that idea. Until students have some experience with Web 2.0 storytelling, it’s best to keep it short—a story told in four to six slides or images. Web 2.0 stories are media-based, so it is helpful for students to think of the written text in terms of a script rather than a lengthy narrative and to think about the kinds of images that could be used to illustrate the story. Depending upon the Web 2.0 tool selected, the text of the story may be presented in a variety of ways such as in captions or comic-style dialogue balloons, or as a narration captured in an audio file. Once they have developed the story, students are ready to find media.


Finding Media

A short Web 2.0 story can be built on four to six slides or images. Depending upon the Web 2.0 tool selected, it may also be possible to insert a brief video or audio clip. Students can tackle this task in several ways. The easiest approach is to ask children to create their own media. Some teachers ask students to illustrate their stories on paper. These images are then scanned, saved as JPEG picture files, and uploaded to the selected Web 2.0 tool site. Students who have access to digital cameras can stage photos to illustrate their stories and upload these files to the selected Web 2.0 tool site. The same is true with video and audio clips, assuming students have access to the right equipment to record these files. But it is also possible to use photos, video, and audio clips created and posted online by someone else.
In this case, it’s important to take the time to talk with students about copyright law. It’s easy to find media; but in many cases using the photo, video, or audio clip is illegal because the images or sounds are copyrighted. Prepare a list of sites where students can find royalty-free or public domain images, video, and audio files. If you are not sure where to get started, I have created a short list of links to this type of site which you can access on the Webtools for Educators wiki at bit.ly/68ISTn.

It is also important to insist that students correctly cite media they find online. This means that when they find media they must document the title, website address, and name of the person or organization that created the media. If you are not sure of the proper format for this type of citation, visit Son of Citation Machine (citationmachine.net) to see guidelines for MLA, APA, Turabian, and Chicago style citations for Internet resources.

Some teachers will be concerned about allowing students to search online for media. In these circumstances, teachers can use a classroom website or wiki to prepare an online collection of photos, video, and audio clips for children to choose from. This takes time initially, but it does help students find appropriate media quickly and avoids the possibility of their stumbling across inappropriate media. If you take this approach, remember to provide the information required for proper source citations.


Selecting a Web 2.0 Tool

Prior to using Web 2.0 storytelling tools with students, teachers must explore and experiment with various tools. Because this is a rapidly changing technology, it’s important to be flexible about your choice of tools. New tools are being released on a regular basis and old favorites disappear from time to time. I categorize the tools I work with most frequently into three groups: slideshows, posters, and comics. This helps me find a new tool when one I’ve used becomes unavailable because I know immediately the type of features I’m looking for.

Here are examples of one of each type of tool. Each requires setting up a free account. For classroom use, and depending upon the age of your students, you may want to set up several accounts and have students use these to create their stories. Once you have given these a try, visit the Webtools for Educators wiki (bit.ly/68ISTn) to find links to additional tools.

Slideshow: The simplest format for this type of story combines photos and captions to tell a tale. Upload photos from your computer hard drive, add short captions, select from formatting options provided, and follow the directions to save and share the finished product. Some tools allow you to add an audio file which gives you the option of recording a narration in lieu of using captions. An example of this type of tool is ImageLoop (imageloop.com).

Comic: This format combines photos and dialogue bubbles to tell a story. The example here pulls photos from Flickr accounts, so photos must be uploaded to Flickr before a comic can be created. Students may also use photos posted by other Flickr users (the Creative Commons collection is available for free use) if they make note of the users’ Flickr names. Otherwise, basic Flickr accounts are free, but limited in the number of photos that can be added per day. For management purposes, it may be necessary to set up multiple free accounts for classroom use or upgrade to one Pro account for about $25 per year. Once photos are uploaded, go to the Bubblr site (pimpampum.net/bubblr), enter the username for the Flickr account, select the photos, add text, and follow the directions to publish the comic.

Poster: A poster story consists of one Web page that features photos and text. Poster stories can be enhanced by linking to video and audio clips, even to websites. Glogster for Education (edu.glogster.com) allows teachers to set up free classroom accounts and features a number of examples created by students.

At first it may be best for the teacher to identify the tool students will use, particularly with younger
children. This allows students to develop their stories with specific tool features in mind. However, once students are familiar with several tools, they can be encouraged to select the best tool for telling their story. And remember—although this column has focused on student use of Web 2.0 storytelling tools, they are also useful for teachers and school leaders who want to share stories about the school with the community.


A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is
Teaching with the Tools Kids Really Use (Corwin Press, 2010). Susan invites your comments at SJBrooks@aol.com.


Copyright 2014, Peter Li, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Peter Li, Inc.