Using digital storytelling to teach English Language skills in South African schools

Education standards at some schools in SubSaharan Africa is poor, with mathematics and literacy highlighted as key problem areas. According to the report Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all (2014), published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Education (Unesco), almost half the children in this region had difficulty reading at a basic level.

This issue  is reflected to a large extent in South Africa. The Department of Basic Educations’ National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU), in a 2012 report, highlighted the fact that almost three quarters of scholars at schools evaluated in South African could not read at a normal level. This was attributed to a number of reasons, including a lack of reading content available in classrooms. Where schools did have books, these were often locked away in a store-room or only available for use for short periods in the class. Coupled with this is a large percentage of teachers with limited subject-knowledge and a general “lack of understanding … of what it means to be literate, and the specifications of the official curriculum” (NEEDU, 2014:10). The report concludes that programmes are needed to develop literacy and English proficiency and that for “language and the content subjects scholars should write at least 4 times a week” (NEEDU, 2014:11).

One solution to this problem could be to change teaching methods. In her book A Guide to Authentic E-learning (2010), Jan Herrington, together with fellow authors Thomas C. Reeves and Ron Oliver, proposes an authentic learning approach to engage twenty-first century scholars. Authentic learning is a type of learning that focuses on connecting what is learnt in the classroom with the real world context. The idea behind authentic learning is that scholars will be more motivated to engage with learning material if they can see how it can be applied to their lives and if it is relevant to the environment outside their school. Scholars therefore learn by doing as opposed to rote repetition, interrogating topics with the complexities inherent real life. Authentic learning tasks are generally open-ended, allowing for interpretation by the learner. There is no right or wrong answer, as is the case in traditional teaching methods, but potentially a number of correct responses. This approach is interdisciplinary in nature and teaches a broad range of skills such as, for example, research methods, presentation techniques, writing and the use of technologies. Authentic learning encourages scholars to “think more deeply, raise hard questions, consider multiple forms of evidence, recognise nuances, weigh competing ideas, investigate contradictions, or navigate difficult problems and situations” (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2013). Herrington (2000:26) identified nine authentic learning elements, which can be useful to analyse whether a task is using an authentic learning approach. They are:

  1. Authentic learning tasks provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life
  2. They provide authentic activities
  3. They provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes
  4. They provide multiple roles and perspectives
  5. They support collaborative construction of knowledge
  6. They promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed
  7. They promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit
  8. They provide coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times
  9. They provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks.

The authentic learning approach can be further enhanced through the use of emerging technologies in teaching. Here we can draw on the work of Andrew Churches and his revised Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy (2008), developed as an extension of the original Bloom’s Taxonomy and creating a hierarchy of learning activities in a digital environment. Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom first developed a taxonomy of learning objectives in 1956, as a structure to understand the learning process. Divided into three psychological domains — cognitive (processing information), affective (attitudes and feelings) and psychomotor (physical skills) — his taxonomy progressed from Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS) to Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). The levels he identified were: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Bloom’s Taxonomy followed the thinking process with the logic that you “cannot understand a concept if you do not first remember it, similarly you cannot apply knowledge and concepts if you do not understand them” (Churches, 2008). Forty years later Lorin Anderson and David Karathwohl, former scholars of Bloom’s, revisited Bloom’s Taxonomy, publishing a revised version in 2001 which reordered the sequence of categories and used verbs rather than nouns to describe each category. It is this revised version that Andrew Churches used to develop his digital taxonomy, keeping Anderson and Karathwohl’s categories of remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating, but extending them into the digital environment. The need to develop HOTS is highlighted in the NEEDU report, which states that scholars should be encouraged:

“to write stories about themselves, their families and friends, describing experiences, expressing their feelings, and analysing events. These are the activities which develop the higher cognitive functions of inference, analysis and interpretation and require systematic development from the earliest years of formal schooling.” (2014:11)

While this is undoubtably a good suggestion from NEEDU, schools in South Africa are under-resourced. Although the South African government has a mandate to provide all scholars in South Africa with a textbook for each subject they take, a lack of budget and logistical management means this is yet to happen. Scholars often have to share textbooks and, in some cases, do without. Due to difficult working condition at schools in some provinces of South Africa, teachers are often unmotivated and teacher absenteeism is high. The language of communication and instruction also poses a problem, for some teachers and scholars. Although English is medium of instruction in a large number of schools in South Africa, it is only the fourth most common language in South Africa, with 9.6% of the population speaking it as a first language. Some scholars, who are second-language English-speakers, take the subject English as First Additional Language, which requires them to learn and practice English grammar and language and “express and justify, orally and in writing, their own ideas, views and emotions confidently” in English (The South African Department of Basic Education and Development, ND). However, while some information is provided in class (from teachers and textbooks, when available), there is little opportunity for practical use and analysis of the language. Scholars thus have trouble learning how to structure sentences correctly and, in particular, identify parts of speech, such as nouns, adjectives and verbs, correctly.

One approach to engage scholars in the use of language, and allow them to critically analyse the parts of speech in sentences, is to use a digital storytelling methodology. Digital storytelling is the process of combining digital multimedia, such as images, text and audio, with the act of telling a story. Typically just a few minutes long, the digital story revolves around a particular theme or topic. Digital storytelling as a methodology has been used for a number of different purpose, including educational. In ‘The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling’ (2006), Bernard R. Robin argues that this methodology is an important tool to motivate scholars to engage with learning in a new way. It allows for the development of multiple, unique perspectives and draws on LOTS such as researching and HOTS such as analysing and creation. By learning to organise their ideas and express their opinion through the construction of narratives, scholars develop and enhance their communication skills. Where digital stories are published online, scholars “have the opportunity to share their work with their peers and gain valuable experience in critiquing their own and other scholars’ work, which can promote gains in emotional intelligence and social learning” (Robin,2006:712).

While computer labs are not currently available at all schools in South Africa, a proliferation of mobile phones means that most scholars have access to a mobile phone.  In the African Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Report of the International Telecommunications Union (2008), the phenomenal growth in Africa’s mobile sector is highlighted. Mobile penetration has risen from just one in 50 people at the beginning of this century to almost one-third of the population today. While this statistic may not be representative of large parts of rural Africa, indications are that there is a significant increase in the use of mobile devices in urban, peri-urban and rural areas in South Africa. Mobile technologies are currently being developed for a wide range of applications, with functionalities to allow potential users to interact in areas such as health, financial services and education. Mobile devices are actively being used in education, particularly in the developing world. A recent GSMA mEducation report (2014) highlights how mobile phones have been successfully used to teach English language skills in Tunisia, through the Najja7ni mobile platform. Using USSD technologies, which allows basic feature phones to access the service, Najja7ni provides a curriculum-based teaching and assessment service, to enhance English communication and writing skills.  Another successful project used to develop English language skills through the use of the mobile phones is the BBC Janala service, which allows Bangladeshis to use basic mobile phones to practice their English language skills. Users of the service dial a number from their mobile phones, connecting them to a pre-recorded three minute audio lesson, which uses interactive voice response technology to ensure the scholars are engaged.

Technology exists, in the form of the Com-Phone Storyteller Application, to create digital stories on a standard Android mobile phone. This Application allows the user to create digital stories using their mobile phone. The stories can consist of a combination of audio, images and text and all the media elements can be created using the tools available on the user’s mobile phone. The digital story produced can be exported as a video file and uploaded to the popular online video sharing platform YouTube ( This platform has the facility for comments to be left on a video clip, allowing asynchronous interaction from other scholars and the general public. Scholars will need to create an account on the YouTube platform in order to upload their digital stories and comment on other video clips. For the purposes of this task, scholars will be asked to use both the technology described combined with their existing English writing and language knowledge, utilising content-knowledge developed through their English FAL course. Scholars will be asked to write a creative writing piece based on an open-ended, undefined theme. This creative writing exercise is a curriculum requirement for English as a First Additional Language at the Grade 10 level. Scholars will then use their creative writing pieces as source material to compose individual digital stories using the Com-Phone Storyteller Application on an Android mobile phone. In classes where scholars don’t have access to their own Android phones, these can be shared. The teacher will provide basic training on the use of the digital storytelling Application as well as basic instruction on how to use the YouTube platform. A key part in the creation of the digital story will be a self-reflective analysis of the creative writing pieces by the scholars, deconstructing the sentences into parts of speech. The digital story, constructed in the Application, will consist of an audio soundtrack of the scholar reading their creative writing piece. This can be directly recording into the Application using the mobile phone’s audio recording tool. Images will be created to illustrate the elements of story and the parts of speech will be identified and displayed through the text tool (e.g. an image of a man then the word man and noun, or an image of someone eating then word eating and verb). The images can be created directly from the Application, using the mobile phone’s camera. Once complete, the digital stories will be exported as a video file and uploaded to the learner’s account on YouTube. This can be done from the mobile phone. Other scholars will then assess and critique the digital story, using a rubric provided by the teacher, leaving comments using the comment tool embedded in the YouTube platform. Final assessment of the learning activity will be done by the teacher, who will assess both the digital story created, the scholar’s understanding of the parts of language and the critiques the scholars have made on their colleagues videos.

A proof of concept, to illustrate the processes involved and for further reflection and analysis in this essay, a digital story has been created. Screenshots are provided of the Com-Phone Storyteller Application as well as the digital story on the YouTube platform. I have used the following short excerpt as the creative writing piece:

In this timeless, sleepy village, the goats stood and suckled their young ones on the main road or lay down in the afternoons and slept there. The drivers either stopped for them or turned out of their way. Friedman pushed the bicycle down the winding, sandy path of the village and onto the main road. Then he got onto his bike and began to ride quickly along the road. Out of the comer of his eye he saw a small green truck speeding towards him. In the daring way of all the small boys, he rode right into the path of the truck. He turned his head and smiled up at the driver.

Figures 1 and 2

Figure 1 shows the Com-Phone Storyteller Application interface on an Android mobile phone. The + icon in the top right of the screen allows the user to easily create a new digital story. Clicking on the + icon in the second panel in Figure 1 creates a new frame in your digital story. Figure 2 displays the frame editing window. The interface is simplistic, with an option to create a photograph in the top, green panel, record an audio clip in the middle, blue panel and input text in the bottom, yellow pane. The icons for image, audio and text are intuitive and the Application uses the phone’s touch screen technology so limited digital skills are required. All frames and the media items within can be edited after they have been created. Once the digital story has been created, the Application allows it to be watched on the mobile phone or shared online.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Figure 3 displays the digital story playing on the YouTube platform. The video clip was uploaded directly to YouTube from the mobile phone. This frame shows an image of a man pushing a bicycle up a dirt road. The audio accompanying this video is the reading of the following sentence from the creative writing piece;“Friedman pushed the bicycle down the winding, sandy path of the village and onto the main road”. Underneath the video window is the comment box, with a sample comment critiquing the video.

When reflecting on whether this approach is successful for teaching an understanding of language structure, it is useful to draw on various education models available to us. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) was a United Kingdom government agency (in operation from 1998 until 2011) which promoted the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) in education. As part of their work, Becta developed a model for harnessing technology in education (2010). This model, divided into four parts, allows for easy analysis of the learning taking place, in what context, the mediation that occurred and the agents who were involved. It is a useful tool to use to divide the digital storytelling learning activity into its component parts and to provide a deeper understanding on what is achieved (and how) when scholars engage in this task. Using the criteria provided in Becta’s model, we see that the learning provided in the digital storytelling task falls under the categories of reflective, construction, problem-solving, assessing and networked. The scholars need to reflect on what they have written, create a digital story, upload it to a networked environment and assess each others’ work. Under the context section, the location that this learning takes place is the classroom while the process is both self-managed and peer — the creation process is conducted by the individual scholar while the assessment component relies on peer engagement. The subject is English language. Under mediation, the communication is asynchronous — scholars engage with each other through the YouTube platform by leaving comments —  and the setting is virtual. The communication used is the phone and the representation is text, images and annotations. Lastly, the agents are both students and peers. This combination reflects a potentially strong authentic learning approach and the various elements identified can be used for further analysis using other models.

Educationalist Terry Anderson, in his book Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2008), developed a framework for online learning. He identified four components necessary to design a successful online learning activity — it should be learner-centred, knowledge-centred, assessment-centred and community-centred. Anderson posits that there are six levels of interaction available in a technologically driven learning environment, where interaction is defined as “reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another” (Wagner, 1994:8). The use of a combination of these interactions results in deep and meaningful learning. The first of these interactions is student to student, which allows for collaboration, the development of social skills, and multiple perspectives. Student to content is the use of technology to consume, create or interact with content. The next interaction is teacher to teacher and this revolves around the interaction of teaching professionals and the development of a community of practice and further professional development. The student to teacher interaction revolves around synchronous and asynchronous communication and is a two-way flow, i.e. from teacher to student and student to teacher. Content to content interaction is the (generally) automated process whereby a content item communicates with other content sources, for notification of changes or to provide meta information. The last interaction is teacher to content and this occurs when the teacher creates content to be used in learning activities or task. The digital storytelling task uses four of these interactions. The student to content interaction takes place via the creation of the digital stories; the scholars use their mobile phones to create content in the form of audio clips and images and then construct the digital stories in the Com-Phone Storyteller Application using these content items along with their creative writing piece. A student to student interaction occurs in the assessment component of the task. Scholars critique each others works and, using the comment function in the YouTube platform, communicate these critiques to their fellow scholars. The student to teacher interaction takes place in the coaching and scaffolding phase of the task, with the teacher providing initial training on the use of the technical tools required to complete the task. Lastly, the teacher to content interaction takes place at the end of the task, when the teacher assesses what the scholars have created as well as their interactions with other scholars.

Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy provides the opportunity for a number of different learning activities for scholars, using a variety of digital tools. However, the aim of the taxonomy is not to focus on specific tools but ensure that the scholar progresses through the hierarchy of levels, building on what they have learnt and using these skills as they move from LOTS to HOTS. A successful learning activity should be centred around HOTS. The digital storytelling tasks attempts to do this at three levels; analysing, evaluating and creating.

Analysing is the fourth level in Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy and is where the scholar  learns to process data, dividing it into parts and determining the relationships between these parts and the overall purpose of the project. Utilising the creative writing piece the scholars have produced, they analyse the structure of the sentences, dividing them into the relevant parts of speech. The scholars then assign the identified parts of speech to images created to illustrate their digital story. The skill of analysis is used for both the deconstruction of the sentences and the visual association of the parts of speech. The fifth level in Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy is evaluation. This level requires the scholars to make criteria-based judgements through the processes of critiquing and checking. Through this task the scholars learns to evaluate each others work in YouTube, using the tools provided by the platform and according to a set of criteria. Scholars will examine the content and structure of their colleagues digital stories, providing a critique of the choice of images and whether the parts of speech have been identified correctly. This process reinforces the scholars learning as they will engage in the task of identifying the parts of speech in their colleagues work. Creating is the final level in Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy and is concerned with taking various elements and creating a new, coherent product. This level draws on all other levels, with the student remembering, understanding and applying knowledge, analysing and evaluating outcomes and processes to construct the end product. Through this task, the student learns how to take a number of different elements and create a coherent product. The scholar would have planned the process of content creation and, using the mobile phone APP, created the video clip. During this process the scholar takes text and combines it with multimedia elements such as audio and images to create the digital story. They would have planned which elements were needed and how best to situate them. The final product, a video clip telling a story, is a polished professional product, ready for distribution online.

Authentic learning can successfully use technology to simulate real world environments and take place in the classroom as long as the scholars are involved in a realistic task that encourages scholars to engage with real-world problems. In fact, Herrington has developed an authentic learning matrix to allow researchers to situated their learning activities (Herrington, ND). On one axis Herrington places the authenticity of the task, ranging from authentic to decontextualised. On the other axis is the setting, which moves from classroom to real setting.  The four quadrants created by this matrix allow researchers to locate their task and judge the authenticity of them. Quadrant one is for academic tasks set in an academic settings and would include activities such as teacher-set essays and quizzes. Quadrant two is academic tasks that are conducted in real settings, which includes tasks set by the teacher but completed in a real setting, such as an excursion or field trip. In quadrant three, real tasks are completed in a real workplace. This is mainly internships and pre-service training. The last quadrant, four, consists of realistic and complex tasks that take place in the classroom but allow scholars to think and act like professionals and take part in real-world tasks. It is in this last quadrant that I would place the digital storytelling task. Although taking place in the classroom, the development of the digital story requires the use of professional media creation skills and the use of real-world tools such as mobile phone and the online platform YouTube.

We can further use Herrington’s nine elements of authentic learning as useful set of criteria to judge how authentic a learning activity is. The digital storytelling task does have real-world relevance and uses tools that are actively used in a real-world environment. An understanding on how to use a mobile phone to collect and analyse data is an important skill for a number of professions and the ability to share content online is vital to working in a twenty-first century professional environment. The task can also be considered authentic, in that it is ill-defined. While there were some guidelines and criteria for the scholars to follow, the topic was open-ended and the approach to content creation and choice of visual style was left to the scholar to decide. The digital video clips produced by various scholars would each be a unique solution to the task, i.e. there is no one expected correct artefact but a number of ‘correct’ solutions. The task by it’s very nature provides multiple perspectives with each scholar’s creative writing piece and images chosen to illustrate this being distinct  to the scholar. By engaging with all the digital stories created, scholars also have an opportunity to examine the task from a multitude of perspectives. Scaffolding and coaching is provided by the teacher in the form of initial basic training on the use of the mobile phone application and instruction on how to upload content to the YouTube platform. Although the content creation component of the task is not collaborative, the assessment component, where scholars critique each others digital stories, supports the collaborative construction of knowledge through the creation of combined digital artefact consisting of online videos and comments. Reflection is promoted through the analysis of the creative writing pieces and the deconstruction of these sentences into their parts of speech. Articulation takes place in the construction of the digital stories, with the scholars using their understanding of the English language to create the narrative structure of the video clips. Lastly, authentic assessment is integrated with the task; scholars critique each others work in a public forum using the comment tools provided in YouTube. The task thus fulfils Herrington’s criteria for authentic learning: it is complex and requires a sustained engagement from the scholar; it is interdisciplinary, drawing on English language learning as well as media production and ICT; it allows for multiple responses and solutions from a multiple of perspectives; and results in a polished  end product.

The digital storytelling task, although complex in nature, uses tools that are widely available and that require relatively low levels of digital literacy to operate. The suitability for the context of South African schools, where traditional technology and learning resources are limited, is appropriate. Scholars use digital tools to engage with a subject, English language, that is normally taught in a traditional book-based manner. The use of mobile phones and the Internet add a level of interactivity that should engage scholars and encourage them to use their subject knowledge in a new, innovative manner. Using Becta’s harnessing technology and Anderson’s levels of interactions models allows us to separate the learning activity into distinct technological and pedagogical elements. Once identified, these elements can be analysed with Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy and Herrington’s authentic learning activity. According to Bloom, the learning activity teaches HOTS such as creating, evaluating and analysing while aligning with the Herrington’s authentic learning principles. As a learning activity, the digital storytelling task has been designed in a manner to engage the twenty-first century learner and to impart skills that are transferable to the real-world environment.


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