Toward a Postmodern Definition of Digital Storytelling

Toward a Postmodern Definition of Digital Storytelling

By Sandy Brown Jensen
The first time I heard the term digital storytelling was at iLane 2011, our Really Big Tech Conference at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Brian Lamb from the University of British Columbia was giving the keynote, and I remember very clearly when he said “digital storytelling” because I felt it zing into my brain like an electric cattle prod.

Lamb told us about DS 106 Internet radio, and seconds later he had the entire room on Internet radio. It was pandemonium. When I got home, I immediately Google searched “digital storytelling,” and there it was — The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in Berkeley, California.

Lamb’s keynote led me to discover the Two Pillars of Hercules in the Digital Storytelling world — the CDS and DS 106. With the benefit of three years of hindsight, I see them as anchoring two ends of Digital Storytelling’s formal presence on the Internet.

The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS)
Curiosity can be a powerful force. As soon as I could arrange it, I hopped a commuter flight from Eugene to Berkeley. I found the CDS folks at that time in not much more than a room full of computers, an open kitchen, a bathroom, and an office that doubled as an audio booth. In this short video, Joe Lambert talks about the history of the CDS.

Center for Digital Storytelling – History from CDS Stories on Vimeo.

The CDS got off the ground in the 1990s as the brainchild of Joseph Lambert and Dana Atchley, who more or less codified the 3 to 5 minute self-narrated digital story video. Students write a script, refine it in a group called Story Circle, then record it as an audio track. The audio gets dropped into the story editor of a video program like Final Cut Pro, iMovie, Movie Maker, or the online video editing site

With their own story playing back in their headphones, students add both video and still images that they have preferably created themselves. The result is usually rough, but each person’s story is inevitably moving in its fresh honesty. The level of sincerity in the stories produced by CDS students is both daunting and beautiful. The production values are not in focus here — storytelling is. These self-narrated videos are an emerging folk art, and each early tiller in the field is a Grandma Moses of the Digital Age.

A good example of a program designed after the CDS model is The Trauma Healing Project in Springfield, Oregon. Survivors make digital stories of their trauma journeys, which are presented at a film festival in a very public but caring and protective atmosphere.

The CDS reaches an arm out to educators like me, and as a result, DST in the classroom as a tool for getting out a whole slew of digital literacies and learning objectives has exploded worldwide. There are graduate and community college Certificates in DST. I finished mine with University of Colorado Denver. One of the best repositories of DST Ed Tech is at the University of Houston.

I want to note, though, that Joe Lambert and the CDS are primarily interested in partnering with social service groups and projects. For more stories, access their YouTube channel Center of the Story.

DS 106
And now for something completely different, yet strangely compelling. I introduce to you DS 106. DS 106 is to CDS what Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism is to John Dos Passo’s immersive social justice novels.

DS means “digital storytelling”; 106 is a class designator from the University of Mary Washington; together “DS 106” has an iconic glow for those of us who circle daily around the website jumping at the chance to have some fun.

Ask me on any given day what I’m doing in DS 106, and I might say, “I’m making a video, writing a poem, and collaborating with people in Tunisia and Germany to produce a 30-minute radio show,” or I might be following a DS 106 speaker at a conference on Twitter, commenting on a gif sequence being created by DS 106-ers and posted on Google+, or reading and commenting on a students’ photography or fanfic. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

DS 106 began at the University of Mary Washington in Spring of 2010 when edugeek Jim Groom re-imagined the ways his Computer Science Course in Digital Storytelling, CPSC 106, might be taught. Currently, digital raconteur and former vice president of the NMC, Alan Levine is its driving force. The core of DS 106 an “assignment bank”  with projects in ten different categories that students can choose from: writing, video, mashups, fanfic, 3D printing, and photography, among others.

The result is electrifying with everyone inside the DS 106 website learning new multimedia skills and meeting like-minded folks from all over the world. The fun of it was and is the constant opportunity to create, learn, and interact. In addition to the assignment bank, there is The Daily Create  – a daily creative challenge in a variety of media. At the end of each day, all our creative efforts are posted together on the website.

Another interesting element of DS 106 is DS 106 Radio. It is a free form live streaming station that was created for the original course. It is used as a platform to broadcast work created in the class, as well as a space for both live broadcasts and programmed shows. Two or three times a year, students working their way through the actual syllabus team up and create 30 minute radio shows.

Together, the CDS and DS 106 are the Pillars of Hercules, upholding the promise of digital media to convey the heart, soul, and indelible spark of human creativity. Between them the definition of digital storytelling stretches and twists together on the taffy-pulling machine of human imagination.

I choose not to choose between the CDS and DS 106. Both of them are invaluable to both me and my students. I don’t want one to be more like the other; the Internet treats us all to The Greatest Show on Earth: now, pass the taffy, please!

Sandy Brown Jensen is on the Lane Community College Writing Faculty. She is also a Faculty Technology Specialist cultivating student success and faculty professional development through digital storytelling. She is a published poet and essayist. She maintains an active digital storytelling blog at She is on Twitter and Instagram @sandramardene

Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

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Sandy Brown Jensen

I am a retired writing instructor and faculty tech specialist from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. I still teach and am also a photographer, poet, blogger and digital storyteller (short videos).

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