Down the Rabbit Hole: In Search of the Best Digital Storytelling Web Tools

By Sandy Brown Jensen

“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

Where you might see another rabbit hole, I am like Alice in Wonderland, trying out all all the weird digital storytelling apps so you don’t have to, and like Alice, I’m easily dazzled by every Mad Hatter who can throw an app on the table. While I embrace the new and the weird, my ultimate goal is to track down apps I can reliably serve up to my students in order to satisfy Common Core standards or digital literacy outcomes.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

So where to begin, you ask? Criteria, criteria, criteria! Here are my three standards for useful digital storytelling tools:

Free — It must be free for individuals and not cost very much for a site license.
Reliable — It has to work reliably with easily taught skills.
Accessible — It needs to be available to any student who can find a computer with access to the web; this means they can create on the web and publish it on the web without a tablet or phone.

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

First stop on our tour of Wonderland is WeVideo is a full-featured, easy-to-learn online video editor, and it’s free to individuals. Teachers can create walled gardens for their classes. There is a WeVideo Education Channel, which is a free resource that provides free, curriculum-aligned Film Fests, as well as free video clips, examples and tutorials. Have I mentioned that it’s free?

WeVideo has three levels of video editing and a drag and drop interface, so it’s easy to use for grade school kids as well as university students. Its features support collaborative projects, and the narration can be recorded inside of the video. The coolness factor is enhanced with the availability of free themes to give stories everything from a noir moodiness to that “Sixties Super 8” look. Final video processing is done in the cloud, and projects are easily posted to your classroom blog or LMS.

This is my first digital story on WeVideo, which was a poetry class assignment that combined a poem with a personal narrative:

Missed Star Two from Sandy Brown Jensen on Vimeo.

“Well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense.”

PowerPoint-type presentations never were any good for digital storytelling, and I include the nausea-inducing Prezi. Yet there was potential for a cross-over application that could deliver a polished look along with features that lead one deeper into the digital storytelling Wonderland.

The aesthetically minded designers over at Haiku Deck fulfilled this need for presentation software that would lend itself to “old school” styles (yeah, Mr. Bullet Points and Ms. Text-Heavy Slides, I’m talking to you!) as well as to the up-and-coming storytelling generation.

What you need to know about Haiku Deck, other than it’s free, and it’s on the web, is that it’s beautiful. While you understand “free” and “on the web,” I think “beautiful” bears some elaboration. What is beautiful is the simplicity of Haiku Deck. Posting a Haiku Deck in an LMS can be done effortlessly; for example, I created a Haiku Deck to give an overview of my online writing class and posted it in my Moodle classroom:

Haiku Decks are very simple to construct. I can use my own photos or choose from an online selection of copyright-free pictures, and there are a variety of themes, fonts, and slide layouts. If you look at a Haiku Deck on a tablet, you’ll see and feel the smooth, sliding interface—not clicking, but sliding! Haiku Deck started as an iPad native app designed to look spectacular on the Retina display, and this aesthetic has carried over to their open web presence.

I also use it to provide assignment overviews, such as this “How to Write a Criteria/Match Definition Essay.”

“It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—…”

If you’re getting a little wistful about your rabbit hole days, let me show you the way to Wonderland from here. What you want is Alan Levine’s famous site called “50+ Web Ways to Tell a Story.”

Levine has cleverly taken one story about his dog Dominoe, who was lost and then found, and retold it fifty ways using fifty different free, web-based tools as he evaluated them all. This exercise was nerdy but highly instructional for some quick comparisons and contrasts. It’s also useful for helping you locate a favorite tool you’ve lost mental track of, such as xtranormal, a web-based animation application.

It was free, on the web, and xtranormal made it easy to be funny. However, there were glitches; users reported losing the movie maker, access to their characters, and the movies they made. A trip to Levine’s “Island of Lost Tools” showed me that xtranormal has been purchased by and is currently being re-designed, which is good to know.

“She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it).”

Now more than ever before, Web Wonderland is available to anyone who wants to tell a story. Just remember when you go shopping that what you want is free, reliable, and accessible. If anyone tells you otherwise, remember what the Dormouse said:

“But what did the Dormouse say?” one of the jury asked.
“That I can’t remember,” said the Hatter.

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, you did something with the story of the murdered girl for another assignment sometime ago, in which if I recall you showed pictures of a girl as you read the story. This was very different with the fire images taking center stage, but very effective (perhaps there were fire images then too but I can’t remember). How quickly we move on and place emphasis on what is directly in front of us, especially something as dramatic as a killing fire. However, something gets lost in translation, and the excitement and horror of the moment overshadows what we would otherwise give our attention to, like the death of a schoolmate and what we could offer to those who loved her. Our perspective changes as we mature and reevaluate what is important and commands our attention and heart even in the face of fascinating momentous events…also, am I glad you’ve elected to play with all these apps that leave me staggering, so I and many other can benefit from your knowledge…thanks, xoxo

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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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