An ancient artform meets the digital age

Stories have been part of human culture since humans were, well, human. It goes back as far as cave people scratching images of their lives onto stone, probably further. With storytelling, we recall the past and anticipate the future by weaving events into juicy narratives.

Traditionally, storytelling was a spoken-word or written affair. But with access to computers new ways of sharing stories have emerged — from podcasts and online learning to digital storytelling.

Online storytelling course a first

New Tales for Old: Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults
Adjunct professor and storyteller Gail de Vos is also the author of several books, including New Tales for Old: Folktales as Literary Fictions for Young Adults (1999) with Anna Altmann.

The Faculty of Education’s Gail de Vos ('71 BEd, '88 MLIS) and Margaret Mackey ('70 BA, '91 MLIS, '95 PhD) know the power of storytelling. It’s what they research, write about and practice.

In January 2017 their department, the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), will offer the University of Alberta’s first ever online storytelling course. LIS 510 is a master’s course open to students taking the online SLIS degree, and it examines forms of storytelling, the function of the storyteller and the materials and techniques of telling and listening to stories.

“I’ve been teaching this course since 1988 face-to-face,” de Vos says. “It’s such an important course. Now even if people aren’t on campus, they’ll still have access.”

The course will be offered through Moodle, an online learning platform where students can listen to lectures and seminars on their own time. Students can interact with the material by attaching files and links, viewing recorded lessons, having online discussions and watching each other’s storytelling.

Moodle is secure, so students can share honest observations in a closed environment. Mackey notes that in online classes shyer students who might not normally share in a classroom setting tend to be more open.

“I’m approaching the online course holistically,” says de Vos. “Instead of students telling stories to a camera, they will record them out in their respective communities to an intended audience. Then students send in their work and will see each other’s work. That’s the storytelling part.”

From interpersonal to interactive

de Vos tells stories at the Edmonton Folk Fest, in schools and in libraries, and she was a storyteller at Fort Edmonton Park. “It’s a narrative art usually done face-to-face,” she says. “It’s told from the heart and not memorized.”

A storyteller sharing tales with an audience in person can adjust the cadence of their voice, the length of their story, their body language and other interpersonal factors. But what about when storytelling is done digitally?

Digital storytelling is a relatively new way to share and interpret stories—its origins are traced to around 1994. It uses fairly low-cost digital methods to create short, personal, interactive stories using combinations of still images, narration, text and video.

Watch and listen to “Opening Doors” by Tahira Hussain, a story about education, family and gender roles made in a workshop facilitated by the Center for Digital Storytelling.

“A digital story can be told through the vehicle of any kind of text that can be produced in digital form, and it can be told interactively so readers/viewers/listeners have the opportunity to create their own reading path through the information presented, combining elements much more freely than a documentary film allows,” says Mackey. “Digital storytelling can be more interactive—for example, clicking through to information or media. But it can, they say, lose its aura.”

Although digital storytelling has the ability to reach much larger audiences, de Vos says “online storytellers must channel the personal component in new ways.”

Digital storytelling in the community

It’s a method the Edmonton Public Library is embracing through its Canada 150 Digital Storytelling Kits. The EPL is putting together kits to help the community tell personal stories through digital means. Digital literacy librarian Carla Iacchelli is putting together two types of kits: one will be loaned out to the public and includes an audio recorder and storytelling manual that describes how to do interviews and share stories, and the other is an in-house multimedia kit which includes iPod touches, headphones and a video camera.

“In 2017 our staff will receive training, and we’ll have community programming. The project is aimed at certain key groups: youth, seniors, newcomers, and Indigenous and francophone people. But anyone can participate,” says Iacchelli. “We want people to open up and share their stories. Then, we’ll compile them and create a digital public space for sharing. People can listen and learn from each other. We hope it will build community.”

The digital storytelling Iacchelli foresees could be as simple as having someone digitize family photos with an iPod touch, create a storyboard and record narration, or it could be very involved for those with prior experience.

Digital storytelling instills the structure of literacy in the creator’s mind, says Iacchelli. “In digital storytelling you learn how to put together a narrative, sequencing and story structure. And there are digital literacy elements too—learning to use an iPad, apps, speakers and headphones. People learn because they want to accomplish their own creative endeavour.” She notes that it also promotes communications skills, group work, online ethics and digital citizenship.

Enhancing the freedom to explore

“Storytelling has three aspects,” says Mackey. “Oral, print and media. These aspects deal with narrative using different manifestations. We can’t have literacy without orality. Kids start verbally, then deal with the written word, then gain the power to reshape, edit and share story.”

“To be a good reader you need two things: to know the shape of stories and how to listen. If you can’t listen, you can’t hear what’s being told on the page,” explains de Vos. She calls this a “cognitive merger.” Whether storytelling is done traditionally or digitally, it’s something that helps form mental pathways in readers’ minds.

When asked if digital storytelling is the new normal, both women emphatically say no. “People still need to hear stories face-to-face. When you have a family dinner you tell each other stories. Oral storytelling will never die. It’s our first way of communicating,” says Mackey.

Mackey suggests that those involved in literacy education “foster a love of story and the freedom to explore it in many mediums.”

Feature image: Margaret Mackey and Gail de Vos of the School of Library and Information Studies chat in the Rutherford Humanities & Social Sciences Library.