Beyond Essays: Digital Stories, New Media Narrative and the Emerging Nature of Literacy with Jason Ohler

Tapping the Power of Discovery

Dr. Jason Ohler, author of Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning, and Creativity, is the Discovery Educator Network’s PETE&C Pre-Conference Keynote. Matt Monjon, now responsible for one-half of the nation’s state DENs, moderating the days’ events, welcomed the Leadership Council members, DEN STARS, and Keystone Technology Integrators joining us for a state-famous Day of Discovery.

Speaker, writer, teacher, researcher and life-long digital humanist, Ohler‘s presentation focuses on transforming learning through digital creativity, and his introduction welcomed us to multi-task on our PLNs. His acknowledgements included kudos to his second grade teacher, who inspired his early storytelling, and a tenth grade teacher of music theory who inspired his intuition and skill. Both of these teachers “opened the door” and let him into a world that otherwise might have been denied to him. He salutes the teachers who have that magical quality of opening doors to their students. Ohler believes that our digital natives are banging on a different door, one with iPhones, digital stories, gadgets, and we need to listen to where they are knocking and let them in with their new tools, new ways of expression. WE are the gatekeepers, and we need to let them in.

Ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago, to see a mobile phone with an originally-created ring tone, we would have been watching Star Trek. A screasel (screen + easel) is everywhere, and students use many of them simultaneously: mobile phone, television, laptop, Second Life, Web 2.0. Screasels are everywhere and it’s where students go to paint with digital tools with the media of the day. Students need to be able to write whatever they read. And they will do it with screasels, and they will create whatever they consume. They have to write what they read.

Earlier generations had words; today’s generation have metaliteracy and we need to help them learn how to manage them. We are testing for a different literacy than what students create. They create thoughtful literacy in digital media, but the read-only to write-time is shrinking. Moving pictures change literacy with the read-write web, but now we write the read-write web. We are creators and consumers, and as new media arrives, we expect students to write them. tEcosystem in 1975 in home media included vinyl albums and 8-tracks; today we are moving from WEb 1.0 (old) to Web 2.0 (clients and creators) to Web 3.0 (read-write-paint-think). Web 3.0 says we move beyond print statements to tagging information ontonologies. In Web 3.0 will come a coalescence of multi-media information that is intelligent to machines, and it’s coming in 3-5 years.

Nine Points of Dig Lit Action:

  1. Shift from text-centrism to new media collage;
  2. Value writing more than ever! What we need is new forms of grammar in visually differentiated text (VDT) rather than essay form;
  3. Adopt art as 4th, next R; the WWW Esperanto: The next art is the ability to form aesthetically challenged real work. Students are innovators with creativity, and copyright goes away when students create their own work;
  4. Follow DAOW of literacy: Digital Art Oral Written in Digital Storytelling;
  5. Attitude is the aptitude: intelligence used to be right now and forever; today intelligence in the digital age is a function of lifelong synthesized learning, inputting new and unlearning old; intelligence is a function of being able to learn, not what we have learned;
  6. Practice private and social literacy: literacy in isolation doesn’t work; we need to edit each other’s writing and collaborate with strangers and contribute and create;
  7. Develop literacy about digital tools: be selective in harnessing powerful tools; have students write what they read to understand the power of the web;
  8. Fluency, not just literacy: a digitally-fluent person is not the technician magician; fluency = pulling the best out of people and leveraging it; not the best techie but the best leverager;
  9. Harness both report and story…embrace story! Kids start school wired for storytelling and get it; stories have structure, tension, resolution…(read Story Proof, story as genetic construct) but in school get a list structure different than their internal structure; we lose the story and then lose the engagement.

Ohler does much of his digital storytelling with green screen “on the cheap,” quickly. You don’t need money to do these things; just do it. Reality is a limited investment will get the job done; a good story will survive a lack of budget. The rule of 80/20 for project completion: 80 done with 20 percent on resources. Ohler says to forget the 20% because it eats time with tweaking, so let it go and take it as is in the 80%. Story first, technology second. Giving a bad guitar player a bigger sound system doesn’t make the guitar player better.


  1. Leave clicks, tricks to kids with time;
  2. Deputize: guide on side not techician magician;
  3. Create the learning communities and talent banks, validate and use it;
  4. Quality, wisdom is where teachers are needed; student-created new media should not give an A for anything that moves because we do not understand “how they did it”; we need to be the critic with wisdom to assess quality; grade everything that leads up to the digital storytelling (what we do in IP); the meta message in the digital age is that everyone gets to tell his own story in his own way (read Then What); the blue screen of death = a creator’s inability to see the digital story; a teacher’s inability to see that students know more digitally than we do.

As teachers begin to use new media, where on the continuum do we want the transformation to fall: at the story line or report line? Where is the story?

* Levels of Transformation:

  1. Physical and kinesthetic: strenght, dexterity, realizing potential
  2. Inner Sstrength
  3. Emotional
  4. Moral
  5. Psychological
  6. Social
  7. Intellectual/creative
  8. Spiritual.

Can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to test how good a digital story really is and how the media literacy skills are used. If students are bored, they know the story. Give students a Q/A if they are watching media. What intersects a digital story that takes it from report to story? In the sample story we saw, what took the film from report (how to move a beach ball) to story, from math problem to story, was the problem they had making the ball roll. Stories lodge in your memory; problem-solving turn a report into a story. The changes in music holds the viewer, plus they locate the audience in the story and use props.

Ohler recommends that you use a story map to chart the emotional elements of the story core within, rather than a more static storyboarding. Story mapping lets you know up front where the story is and how it will engage. Arcs of transformation of events shows the problem and how transformation brings the story to a solution and ending. VPS, detailed shows a digital plot triangle that grounds and shows the media development process as well as content process. The PM session will offer the video creation process. A good story hypnotizes but where is hypnosis in critical thinking? The new pedagogical frontier: immersing story + critical thinking together. Final advice: don’t rule by concern; turn concerns into goals! A concern is just a negatively stated goal. Turn the concern into a goal! Don’t let concerns stop you with good ideas. Parting comment: Go Tell Your Story!

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