Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

Engaging problem learners through digital storytelling

South Africa’s educators are severely stressed. In the classroom they face potential violence, dismal working conditions and massive workloads. Cases of educators being assaulted are becoming more commonplace. According to the Sunday Times: “The biggest dilemma facing educators today is how to deal with unruly charges while simultaneously maintaining their sanity, professionalism and dignity.” Hold that thought for a minute.

For the past year I have been involved in digital storytelling projects with youth (in and out of schools) in San Francisco and Cape Town. Digital storytelling involves the creation of short stories using digital media. Examples include simple audio narratives to richer pieces made up of audio, images and even video, for example Cafton’s digital hero story. The tools of the trade include digital cameras, camera phones, microphones and movie-making software, such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie.

A consistent finding among educators is that digital storytelling really engages learners. One only has to look at the success of YouTube to realise that youth simply love creating, watching and sharing digital stories.

Streetside Stories is a San Francisco-based non-profit organisation that has helped more than 7 000 low-income learners share their life stories, and improve their literacy and technology skills. It runs digital storytelling workshops at schools that are not dissimilar to many schools in South Africa in that violence, drugs and crime are rife. Learners at some of these schools pass through metal detectors to ensure that they are gun-free.

Time and again educators have reported that troubled learners — the kids who never finish projects, rarely pass tests and are generally disruptive in the classroom — have had a metamorphosis through a digital storytelling workshop. A teacher at Martin Luther King Jnr middle school said: “All of my students’ grades went up. They even did the homework! My students actually looked forward to class each day.”

I worked closely with the Centre for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, which echoed these findings. An independent, two-year longitudinal study was conducted on the work of Streetside Stories and, when compared with a control group, its students scored higher when it came to: following oral and written directions, listening without interrupting, listening actively, participating appropriately in class, and interacting appropriately with peers and adults. Their technology skills improved too.

Digital storytelling is no panacea and has its challenges. It works best with small groups — about 12 learners — and requires technology know-how on the part of the educator. But a few factors are lowering the barriers to entry: there is an increasing prevalence of the required hardware (I coordinated a collaborative project with youth in San Francisco and Pretoria where they used their camera phones to capture audiovisual material), the learners themselves are becoming more adept at using the technologies (the educator will have to come to terms with playing a more facilitative than instructive role), and our society is becoming more and more media based, making projects that use digital media ever more appealing to learners.

Coming back to the unmanageable classroom situations in South Africa, digital storytelling offers at least one way better to engage, and therefore control, learners. Considering that storytelling is a rich and traditional African phenomenon, digital storytelling is definitely an area worth exploring in education in South Africa today.