Storify for Composition: Some Successes and Some Epic Fails

This semester I elected to use Storify for my beginning composition classes for their first two writing projects. My pedagogical justification for using the site was two-fold.  First, as a social media site, Storify provides an opportunity to integrate multimedia into text-based writing.  Since multimedia writing, social networking, and internet savvy are important for a lot of jobs now, ranging from marketing to administrative work, I thought it would be good to introduce my students to this format. Multimedia writing is both familiar and frightening for my students because while most of them regularly use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, Storify was an unfamiliar medium to them.  My second pedagogical reason was related to Storify’s format.  Because the site lets you collect different types of information and visual material from around the web, I felt that the site would introduce my students organically to the process of integrating research into their writing.  Where you would slide a link or a photo into your story, you would use an academic source in a more traditional research paper.  To my mind, the evolution from story to research was more natural than jumping feet first into the world of databases, academic monographs, and bibliographies.  Also, my students have three options for the final research unit (made up of 3 mini-assignments and two major writing projects): an informative report, report and analysis of a fictional book, and a creative option with a written prospectus “selling” their work.  Because I allow not only for the traditional informative report, but also for the creative option and the literature option, I felt like the creativity emphasized by using Storify and in my writing prompts would ease the transition and encourage my students to embrace non-traditional types of research assignments.  Combining web-based multimedia writing on a social networking site with traditional research assignments–making a “hybrid” course–seemed like a great example of my digital pedagogy.

For the most part, my dreams of digital pedagogy and student learning were realized by using Storify to compose essays.  The bulk of my students liked being able to integrate “their” stuff, Facebook photos, songs, or Youtube videos, into their essays, which included a personal narrative and a definition essay.  The use of the site also gave us the opportunity to talk about public writing, privacy and social media, trolling, FERPA, internet copyright, and a host of other issues facing writers in the digital age.  My students all used code names to post their stories so that their names were not attached to their graded writing in public, which to my mind complies with the letter of FERPA.  Our course management software, Canvas, also allows for the use of URLs as assignment submissions, so it was fairly easy for me to grade their essays without compromising their privacy.  Most of my students really thought using Storify was easier than writing traditional essays and were happy to experiment with the site. {One non-traditional student, coming back to college after 30 years in the workforce, was hesitant when we first started using the site, but by the end of our second writing project he was voluntarily using it to create presentations for other classes!}  I was extremely lenient about due dates, missed work, and potential technology problems.  My assessment of the projects was also different from the way I assess traditional research projects in that what I was looking for was effort, thorough engagement of the medium, and experimentation, rather than argument, research, or grammar and mechanics, which are standards I normally use to assess traditional assignments.  Overall, I got some really great submissions that made wonderful use of the medium, and I also found that the writing was better on their first few projects than it has been in past courses where I only assigned traditional writing.

But there were also some failures, and I made quite a few mistakes in this experiment.  There is a lot of discussion of our current students as “digital natives” who are radically different from students even a generation past.  I find this assessment to be true, in part.  First, teaching at a college that serves both traditional and non-traditional students, I have a wide range of technological literacy among different age groups, but I also encountered a variety of technological experience along other lines including socioeconomics, gender, and geography.  I found that most of my 18 to 22-year-old students were quite familiar with specific technologies and media they use on a daily basis, including Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Snapchat, Youtube, and others.  Since I do not ban the use of phones, tablets, or computers (no, I don’t even ban texting in class), I see many of my students regularly using technology in the classroom to aid their learning.  Didn’t understand what I said? I mentioned a funny blog? They just Google it then and there.  I also had the benefit this semester of teaching entirely in computer classrooms, which facilitated the use of Storify more than it would have if we had been in a traditional classroom.  For me, the computer classroom is absolutely key in asking my students to experiment with me digitally.  While many of my students are familiar with a lot of different types of digital media and many adapted very quickly to new ones in our computer classroom, there was also a gap between knowing how to use one social media site, like Facebook, and being asked to use another social media site, Storify, to write an essay.  The challenge was less lack of familiarity with the interface than it was putting a familiar thing, social media, into a different, potentially higher stakes context.  I think my students needed more guidance transitioning between recreational and academic use of social media.

Another issue I encountered was entirely my own fault for not having enough foresight.  I created a single account for the entire class, gave everyone the log in and password, and had everyone create their stories right there on the class page. In my mind, this facilitated collaborative writing and editing, and allowed me to go in and troubleshoot if ever there were any issues.  However, sharing the site also resulted in confusion for students when searching for their own essays.  Because there were so many stories and elements (two writing projects worth for two classes, about 80 stories total), locating their own writing became cumbersome towards the end of the two projects. Also, there were some accidental deletions of other people’s work, as well as a few cases of group editing gone wrong.  Because Canvas allows URLs for assignment submissions and peer review, the shared site would have been largely unnecessary  and I could have asked students to submit their usernames and passwords to me individually if they were having trouble with the site.  More familiarity with Canvas’s submission formats prior to the start of the semester would have prevented some of the confusion and error.

So, lessons learned, both good and bad:

  • Using a social media site to write multimedia essays actually resulted in better writing from the beginning of the course and on the first few writing projects than I have ever seen in traditional writing assignments I’ve assigned in the past. I think this is because using Storify allowed them to think of themselves as already being writers and so therefore lessened their anxiety about graded writing and being “perfect” for the professor.
  • In the future, I’ll ask each student to sign up for and manage their own Storify account since they are free. I think this will cause less mass confusion and encourage more consistent use of the site and experimentation because they will be able to create as many stories as they want without fear of being seen by me or other students.  Having their own accounts will give them more control over their data, a pedagogical principle I highly value.
  • Multimedia writing feels more organic to most of my students than writing traditional papers, thus it seemed that multimedia writing also encouraged more experimentation from them in terms of the genre of their writing. I was also encouraged to experiment with and rethink what I have normally valued in assessing “good” writing.
  • My students need more guidance in transitioning between using social media for recreational purposes, and using social media for academic writing and discussion.  I think I provided enough instruction about how to use the site itself, as well as allowed ample class time for supervised experimentation and troubleshooting.  However, I should have spent more time making my pedagogical goals transparent and helping them through the anxiety of being first-time college writers in an unfamiliar medium. One goal when I use this assignment in future courses is to devote an entire week of class to the site itself, talking about what it can do for them personally and academically, making my pedagogy transparent, discussing the similarities and differences between academic and non-academic essay composition, and acknowledging anxiety about using a familiar thing-social media-in an unfamiliar context.
  • Using Storify made the majority of my students feel like they were better writers and made me feel like a better teacher.  Because of the way Storify works as a visual and textual medium that can be both personal and professional, I assigned different kinds of writing than I have in the past, including a critical personal narrative.  Normally, I have not used personal narrative in my composition classes because I think it invites a level of sharing that is not suited to academic writing and I think it makes students feel like they are being graded on themselves and the value of their experiences, not on their writing.  Some professors are very good at negotiating this issue; I do not consider myself one of them.  Most writing course outcomes (often dictated by the state, school, or department) do not allow for a pedagogical philosophy or assessment method that adequately addresses personal narrative.  Storify, however, allowed me to emphasize the critical skills of making and “curation”, which led to more productive personal narratives about what inspires my students to be in college and to improve their writing.  By assigning these types of writing, I also felt like a better teacher because the change in my methods and emphases of assessment were more closely aligned with what I understand to be my pedagogical values.
  • In the past, I have managed my courses in a pretty traditional way, where there are daily course readings, weekly writing assignments, and larger writing projects.  This semester, in part because I was using Storify for the first two essays, I changed the format of my entire course and made one of our class days (about half of our class time) into a day dedicated to discussion, workshopping, troubleshooting, peer-to-peer teaching/evaluation, and more one-on-one interaction.  On this day each week, students are not assigned readings or writing, and how we use class time is mostly directed by student need and interest.

For those interested, I’m also including my writing prompts for the Storify essays.  Feel free to yack, hack, fork, reject, critique, and suggest.  I thought about including some good examples of my students’ work, but I was hesitant to do so because of the fact that some of the stories were fairly personal, and though they put the story up on a public site, they had an expectation of personal privacy with their code names, and linking them to my professional blog might, to them, feel like I compromised their anonymity.  I did however, include the example I shared with them in class.

Critical Inspiration: Writing Project I

Exploring Definitions: Writing Project II

Instructor Example: Critical Inspiration

Instructor Example: Definition Essay


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