October 1, 2023
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Digital storytelling in the classroom: New initiative kicks off in Harpur College

Graduate student of theater Yao Bian films herself for a TikTok video on Aug. 9, 2022, as part of a Digital Storytelling workshop. Graduate student of theater Yao Bian films herself for a TikTok video on Aug. 9, 2022, as part of a Digital Storytelling workshop.
Graduate student of theater Yao Bian films herself for a TikTok video on Aug. 9, 2022, as part of a Digital Storytelling workshop. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

In the sunny courtyard in front of the Glenn G. Bartle Library, instructors and graduate students crouched and posed, squinted and smiled as they angled for the best camera shot.

The goal: to learn about TikTok, a short-form video platform increasingly popular among young audiences. Harpur College’s own “TikTok wizard,” biological sciences graduate student Theresa Kadish, was their ready guide.

TikTok was only one of the digital media platforms explored during the inaugural Digital Storytelling workshop, designed to encourage faculty and others to integrate new technologies in their classroom. The weeklong event included discussions of storytelling as a pedagogical tool, assignment design, interactive software, oral histories, and making and hosting websites, as well as hands-on explorations of podcasting, Twine, TimelineJS, StoryMap and more.

The donor-funded initiative is focused on Harpur College on pedagogy; it will alternate years with the Digital Humanities Research Institute which, as the name implies, is more focused on the use of digital media for research purposes.

“The goal is to integrate new types of digital media into your classrooms,” digital storytelling coordinator Chelsea Gibson told the nearly two dozen participants on the workshop’s opening day. “We want to increase the number of people who are teaching and using these types of techniques. As part of that goal, we would like to create a community of people on campus who can come together to talk about these specific types of media.”

The cohort of 22 participants were evenly split between faculty members and graduate students representing 14 departments in Harpur College, from romance languages to history, biology, chemistry and theatre.

Most of the applicants specifically expressed interest in learning how to make videos or podcasts; the workshop spent a significant amount of time on both. They also learned about web-based technologies that may be more feasible to quickly integrate into a classroom, explained Gibson, director of the Binghamton Codes! Program.

Going forward, the initiative will offer smaller, hands-on workshops on the use of digital media in the classroom. Instructors seeking to use digital storytelling strategies may also be eligible for course development grants or equipment funding.

“It’s really been a remarkable emergence of common interests, and it’s something we’re really excited about as a college,” said Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies Carl Lipo, also associate dean for research and programs at Harpur College.

In the classroom

Workshop participants are asked to used a digital strategy in their classroom during the upcoming year, which may then become part of a digital showcase workshop slated for the spring.

Some already have ideas.

Brian Keeling, a doctoral student in anthropology, teaches an online summer course about human origins. He’s interested in creating animations that help students visualize and better understand concepts they encounter in class. To that end, he has taught himself several Adobe programs, but would like to take his skills to the next level, he said. He’s intrigued by the possibilities of TikTok as well.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time (since the last millennium!), and the world has changed quite a bit in that time. It has been important to me over the years to update my teaching methods to keep up with the changing world,” reflected Associate Professor of Italian and Medieval Studies Dana Stewart. “I’m looking forward to acquiring some new pedagogical tools that will help me update my approaches in the classroom.”

Some of her classes center on medieval and Renaissance Italian literature, which can initially seem remote to students. Digital storytelling projects can give students new, hands-on ways to engage with the material on their own terms.

In fact, they’re doing that already. Students have set up social media pages for authors they study in class, and created TikTok videos about Dante and Machiavelli, for example.

And in her Renaissance literature class, students read a treatise from Petrarch about a mountain climb with his brother; the text concerns what the brothers discovered and discussed on the trip. Two students in her class did their own version, by filming their own trek — accompanied by philosophical discussion — in the Nature Preserve.

“It was a wonderful tribute to the original text, updating it and applying it to their own lives,” Stewart said.

You might not consider narrative part of the average science class, but Kyra Ricci, a doctoral student in biology, has already worked with undergraduate artists to develop a biology-themed graphic novel. She’s on the lookout for other strategies as well.

“I’m really interested in learning more about videos and other media we can use in science communication, and how I can mentor undergraduate students in using some of these tools that they’re interested in,” she said.

A helping hand

Faculty and graduate students interested in digital scholarship can draw on the expertise of guides: Gibson, Assistant Head of Digital Initiatives for Digital Scholarship Amy Gay and digital scholarship librarian Ruth Carpenter, the latter two at the University Libraries. And there’s also Kadish, who recently became a graduate assistant assigned to the initiative.

A biological sciences graduate student since 2015, Kadish focuses on mycology research — in layperson’s terms, the study of fungi — as well as science communication. She started out making videos on YouTube and has since transitioned to TikTok, where she has nearly half a million followers.

“I’ve been making short science communication films for quite some time and figuring out how to incorporate them into the classroom,” she said. “I’ve done a number of projects over the last few years working with faculty to incorporate videos into their curriculum.”

That includes a creating pre-med video series on statistics and teaching an environmental science class to create TikTok videos. She also uses the platform Discord for classroom communication and is eager to share her expertise.

And now, after the conclusion of the workshop, participants have another resource: each other. The goal is to create a community that transcends disciplinary lines to develop and enact creative digital approaches in pedagogy.

“What has brought a lot of you here is a desire for a community, a desire to meet other people who are thinking about these things in the way that you are,” Gibson said. “It can be difficult to find those people across the disciplines and departments.”

Posted in: Campus News, Harpur