Medium and message
Digital storytelling uses innovative tools to transform the classroom experience
The camera points to a grocery store’s produce section, with fruits and vegetables arranged neatly on five rows of shelves.
“Do you ever notice,” the narrator asks, “how most of the produce looks perfect and a lot of it is wrapped in plastic?”
In the next few seconds, the camera pans around a farmers’ market display, and the viewer is told about all the ways local produce vendors have been working to preserve the environment.
One last shot: a hearty display of carrots, pea pods, onions and tomatoes. The screen shares a simple message: “Buy local. Be sustainable,” and the narrator urges viewers to take a trip to their local farmers’ market.
In less than a minute, Alyssa Harris, a sophomore environmental studies major from Dutchess County, N.Y., boiled down the complexities surrounding environmental sustainability and local agriculture into a visually engaging and informative TikTok video.
That’s the challenge she and fellow students in an environmental studies class embraced during the spring 2022 semester as part of a digital storytelling initiative and the new Digital and Data Studies minor within Harpur College of Arts and Sciences. Described by faculty as a new way to communicate research, weaving digital storytelling into classroom projects like these has also helped students find ways to showcase their ideas using platforms already ingrained into their daily lives.
“Most people won’t just sit and read paper upon paper,” Harris says. “But I know so many people who will just sit there and spend a lot of time scrolling through something like TikTok.”
Harris’ professor, Carl Lipo, says adopting new approaches for digital storytelling through platforms like TikTok has motivated students to think more creatively about deeper scientific concepts discussed in his class. It’s also allowed students to get their work in front of a wider audience through social media.
“Environmental studies need people with good communication skills, but we can’t just stick to the old way we did things. It’s a totally different world today,” says Lipo, professor of environmental studies and anthropology, and Harpur’s associate dean for research and programs. “This isn’t about replacing academic work; we’re adding to it by condensing it down into a very distilled message someone can understand and relate to.”
TikTok videos became a centerpiece project in Lipo’s environmental studies course during the spring 2022 semester, with dozens of student videos posted online — many of which generated thousands of views.
A student video with more than 20,000 views on TikTok showed viewers how they could help stop the growth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another video from Lipo’s class, which described the dangers facing coral reefs and the importance of preserving them, drew the most number of likes: 1,132. That video also garnered nearly 17,000 views, according to TikTok.
Harris says coming up with creative ways to present her project not only made it more fun, but also helped her contextualize the material.
“I actually went with some of my friends to the (Broome County Regional) Farmers Market and I talked to some of the different produce vendors there about how their products are more sustainable than what you would find in a grocery store,” Harris says. “When writing a paper for this kind of class, you’re almost lengthening what you’re saying to fit a specific word count. But with these videos, you’ll lose the audience very quickly if you don’t get to the point.”
Exploring digital media
Harpur’s digital storytelling initiative was made possible through donations announced in 2021 from Lisa C. Beck, along with a matching gift from Exxon Mobil Corp. Beck has made other contributions to the University, including a major gift commitment to the. Chemistry Department and the Jeffrey S. Beck Summer Research Grant, established in memory of her husband, Jeffrey S. Beck ’84, a renowned scientist and engineer.
Harpur faculty plan to integrate digital storytelling into courses across the college with the launch of the new minor this year. At the forefront is Theresa Kadish, a biological sciences graduate student and an avid TikTok user; her most popular video on the platform has attracted 11 million views.
Kadish will share her knowledge this summer during a workshop on using digital storytelling platforms to communicate academic work and enhance career goals. One minus: TikTok can delete posts without warning or explanation, likely due to the massive amount of material uploaded daily, she explains.
While TikTok may be familiar to students, it’s not the only method of digital storytelling. Harpur faculty have also explored the use of video ethnographies, animated graphic representations of scientific research, podcast interviews and animated timelines, to name a few projects.
These methods cross disciplinary lines, with skill sets ranging from coding to graphic design. However, they center around a common theme: How can you convey information in a way that the target audience can best relate to and understand?
“You’re really thinking about information literacy and how to attract a specific audience,” explains history lecturer Chelsea Gibson, who was slated to teach the digital storytelling workshop this summer. “If you do a podcast and you want to do a pitch, you have to think about, ‘Who would I want listening to this podcast? What kind of information do I want to convey?’”
A strong proponent of digital storytelling strategies, Gibson encourages faculty to explore and embrace new media tools in their teaching and research. In her own classes, she has her students put together digital interactive timelines using the program Timeline JS in lieu of writing long history papers. While students gain technical skill from the practice, it also helps them develop as historians and researchers.
“By having them do a timeline that’s based on an oral history — oral histories are not linear — it requires you to use a historian’s skills to put it in chronological order,” she says. “It also forces you to find the larger historical context.”
‘We can see the impact’
Rethinking how to convey ideas through digital media — rather than writing papers — hasn’t come easily to every student, says Jaden Beck (no relation to Lisa Beck), a chemistry major and teaching assistant in Lipo’s environmental studies course.
Not everyone easily grasps how to best use platforms like TikTok and some have difficulty thinking creatively about how to present their research. But she says that doesn’t matter as much as a willingness to cultivate those skills.
“The challenge is having the ability to format these subjects using a more creative side and skills that maybe you haven’t used before in this setting,” Beck says. “It’s about looking at a topic in a way that you’re going to get a lot of value out of it, while at the same time making sure people are interested in it.”
Back in Lipo’s classroom, he’s as eager to see his students’ TikTok videos go viral as he is to take stock of the creative approaches they employ with their projects.
“You put in the right hashtags and people anywhere in the world could happen on these videos,” Lipo says. “Write a paper and it would likely be me and maybe a couple of teaching assistants reading it. But with a project like this, we can see the impact.”