10 Mobile storytelling: Designing Creative Digital Narratives in Interdisciplinary, Engagement Projects

Dr. Seán McCarthy


The aim of this project is to adapt simple, yet effective media-making methods to engaged, student research projects. Combining digital storytelling and mobile journalism methods, these digital narratives will record students’ research process and outcomes as they unfold, thereby creating an archive of student work, promoting the project and collaborators the students are working with, and providing students with a media-focused form of reflective process. I plan to try these methods in two classes: one is a team-taught, interdisciplinary class in JMU X-Labs in which students design an online archive for the Furious Flower Poetry Center; the other is a team-team-taught course in Ireland over the Summer of 2018 where students will be working on engagement projects with government departments and researchers from University College Cork.

Rationale: What are the instructional problems/opportunities that the proposed project plans to address? To what extent does the project develop deep, meaningful, and reflective learning?

Community engagement projects are typically focused on outcomes for clients. The aim of this project is to adapt simple, yet effective media-making projects to the students’ process as they participate in engagement projects. I have been involved in this kind of project for several years now via courses I team-teach at JMU X-Labs (see this course website for an example of a student website that is produced about the course while it is in session: https://sites.lib.jmu.edu/us4va/).

Applied to the right kind of engagement initiative, students create media about their engagement experience as it is happening affords the following opportunities:

  • It provides an alternative way for students to be reflective about their research process.
  • By articulating their research for online audiences, it prompts students to better understand their research questions and methods;
  • It engages the client and the stakeholders who support them;
  • It promotes engagement teaching and research at JMU;
  • It provides a useful archive for the students that can be added to their professional portfolios.

Given my conversations with practitioners in JMU Libraries, I would like to expand the repertoire of storytelling techniques to include 360 degree video, video shot using drones, and short-form news-style updates on mobile devices that can be shared instantly with users via social media platforms. I plan to develop this method over two courses, one in JMU X-Labs, and one in Ireland on a study abroad initiative. The JMU X-Labs course is called “Innovating the Archives,” where students from across four disciplines will be prototyping a digital archive for the Furious Flower Poetry Center. I want to use engaged, MOJO-oriented storytelling practices outlined above to narrate the process of developing the archive, and engaging with poets of national stature via social media as we prototype our designs.

The second project is a team-taught course (WRTC, Biology, Theatre and Dance) in Ireland, where students will be working on two projects. First, students will be working with a local community (Scariff, Co. Clare) and a government department (Waterways Ireland) to celebrate the aesthetic, spiritual and environmental qualities of a lake close to a small rural town. The second is a collaboration with researchers from University College Cork who will be collaborating with JMU students and local activist organizations to be part of Global Water Dances Day, a biannual event where communities around the world enact a performance that foregrounds water security and water rights (https://globalwaterdances.org). See this page for more information about this study abroad initiative: https://www.jmu.edu/global/abroad/programs/jmu-ireland-steam.shtml)

Instructional design and implementation plan: What are the instructional design principles or previous evidence that you heard or read about that can help the design of proposed project? How will you or your team ensure the implementation process? What instructional design and technology support will you need to implement the project?

From methodological perspective, this project brings to together traditional digital storytelling techniques developed by practitioners such as Joe Lambert (Digital Storytelling, 2012) and the more recent movement in mobile journalism, more commonly known as MOJO (see the Mobile Journalism Handbook: http://www.mojo-manual.org/category/what-is-mobile-journalism/). I have already talked with specialists in JMU libraries about developing methods for teaching augmented reality, 360 degree video, and news-style video clips, and I plan to continue to work with them to develop these storytelling techniques over the Fall and Spring semesters.

Project transferability: How do you envision adapting this project to another class that you or your colleagues teach? How do you envision that the creative teaching methods can be transferrable to other disciplines?

What excites me most about this opportunity is the transferability it affords. The project focuses on teaching students two kinds of digital narrative production that I believe are core skills to learn in an engaged-focus undergraduate liberal arts curriculum: articulating the students’ own research process and faithfully representing the ideas of others. The courses that I hope to try out to implement these ideas are both interdisciplinary by nature but will be adaptable to discipline-specific courses. Part of what I want to learn through this process is understanding how to create simple, yet robust enough storytelling curriculum that can be adapted by instructors and students in engaged courses where media production is a valuable outcome but not the primary focus of the course.

Innovative and creative teaching outcomes: What are the anticipated outcome(s) of the project? What evidence would you collect to measure the outcome(s)? What evidence would you collect to assess the sustainability and transferability of this project?

Outcomes of the project will be:

  • Robust online presences of two engagement-focused courses at JMU;
  • A deeper understanding of how to create process-driven digital storytelling in a variety of teaching and learning contexts;
  • A robust set of methods and tools that can be applied to projects in regular classrooms, field work, and study abroad contexts.

I plan to take out an IRB to gain access to access to student portfolios (where they discuss the media making process) as well as the published storytelling work they publish to web and social media platforms. Further, I would like to survey community partners about the efficacy of this kind of process work.

Result dissemination plan: How will you share the design, implementation and outcomes of this project? What journals, conferences, or other venues might be appropriate spaces for the dissemination of your work? How can your practice offer examples or suggestions for other peer instructors?

I plan to submit the findings of this project to two conferences: Conference on Community Writing (2019) and Computers and Writing (2020), which are the top conferences for my discipline in engagement and digital studies. I would like to publish a multimodal essay on this project to Kairos, which is the longest standing journal in my field that publishes web texts. Also Kairos is an open source publication and is therefore accessible to audiences who do not have access to subscription-based research venues. Also, Kairos is a leader in the field in making web texts accessible according to universal design principles. Finally, I would welcome presenting on this project at JMU through JMU Libraries events or May Symposium.

Professional development, e.g., travel and/or conference. Please specify the semester when the professional development will take place and, if possible, specify the name of the conference(s) you expect to attend.

  • Conference on Community Writing, Philadelphia, PA, October 2019
  • Computers and Writing, May 2020 (No location set yet).

Logistics and resources plan: To what extent does your project depend on additional fiscal, teaching, space, or other resources? What logistical constraints or dependencies might you face in implementing this project, and how do you propose addressing them?

The resources for the first phase of the project, the “Innovating the Archives” project have already been secured. For the “Culture, Community, and Environment” summer abroad program, the itinerary has been approved by CGE, courses have been approved by departments and CGE, and we are actively recruiting students to sign up for the program through email contact, social media updates, in-class promotion and the CGE web page for the course: https://www.jmu.edu/global/abroad/programs/jmuireland-steam.shtml.

Research design and data analysis plan: If you receive the ACT grant, what is the timeline you envision for securing any additional necessary resources, applying for IRB, making the necessary purchases, implementing any pedagogical/scaffolding strategies, collecting data, analyzing data, disseminating the results, and writing up a description of your project for the Pressbook eBook (see below):

  • IRB: Fall 2018.
  • Purchases: Fall 2018.
  • Collecting Data: Spring and Summer 2019
  • Disseminating Results: Fall 2019, Spring 2020

Pressbooks ebook: Whenever suits the publishers; as early as late summer, early Fall 2019. I have already developed several IRB protocols with other faculty to gather student data for JMU XLabs classes. Included in the approved data collection methods in these sanctioned IRB studies are: pre- and post-course surveys, which I intend to adapt to specifically engaged content learning objectives; and permission to collect all student-produced data published to the web, on internal messaging channels on the class Slack space; and any materials uploaded to Canvas. I plan to use sanction this study via IRB protocols. I also look forward to using Pressbooks to provide an account of the project.