Digital Storytelling in Graduate Curricula: Innovation in Student Affairs Preparatory Programs


Student affairs professionals must be able to engage with technology in their pedagogy and practice (Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education [CAS], 2012; ACPA & NASPA, 2010). Faculty in student affairs graduate preparatory programs should therefore provide graduate students with knowledge, perspectives, and skills to identify and utilize appropriate technology and media resources for use in their daily practice. Digital storytelling is a pedagogical tool that can not only develop graduate students’ technological competence, but also facilitate greater understanding of student development and learning.

Digital stories are short vignettes that combine storytelling with multimedia (Rossiter & Garcia, 2010). Digital stories require students to discover and compile unique narratives using voice, image, and/or music through innovative technology (Gazarian, 2010). According to Barrett (2006), digital storytelling facilitates student engagement, reflection, project-based learning, and effective integration of technology into instruction. Digital storytelling is a social pedagogy in that it has the potential to create community and facilitate dialogue (Bass & Elmendorf, 2007). It is a powerful tool for practitioner-scholars because digital stories have the potential to change the ways others do their work (Meadows, 2003). In graduate education, digital stories enable students to understand and apply classroom knowledge in a practical manner while also developing their competence with technology.

The purpose of this article is to explore the utility of digital storytelling in graduate curricula through the experiences of one graduate preparatory program. Through this assignment, students developed technological competence, enhanced their understanding of theory and its application to practice, and fostered partnerships with student affairs professionals. This article describes the content of the course and digital story assignment, as well as lessons learned from both student and instructor perspectives.


The Higher Education program at The University of Alabama (UA) offers MA, Ed.D, and Ph.D programs for students interested in developing their knowledge and understanding of higher education. The program promotes professional development and critical thinking skills to help students identify and address problems at the institutional level as well as the field of higher education as a whole, and implement effective policies and practices based on sound research and educational theory.

Student Development Theory I (SDTI) is a required course in UA’s Higher Education program and is designed to introduce students to various families of student development theories. In fall 2013, Dr. Jason C. Garvey and Louis Shedd co-taught SDTI to help students learn and apply student development theory in their professional practice. Throughout the manuscript, both provide their perspectives and experiences through a unified instructor voice. To supplement the instructors’ perspectives, the manuscript also contains insights from former students who took SDTI in fall 2013. The student perspective is provided by Elizabeth McDonald, Kelsey Taylor, and John Tilley, representing all students’ voices to the best of their abilities.

Assignment Overview

The major assignment for SDTI was Student Reflection through Digital Storytelling. The purpose of this assignment was to learn the stories of a particular group of students and then generate student development theories grounded in these stories. SDTI students were placed in groups of two or three, and each group selected a population of students who shared similar qualities with each other, like a social identity (e.g., race or religion) or an experience (e.g., Honors College or international students). There were five components to this assignment: group contract and rubric, data collection, theory development, theory critique, and digital story. Each assigned group developed a contract and rubric that outlined general guidelines for their assignment collaboration. Groups developed a list of interview questions based upon experience and theoretical foundations learned in SDTI, and each member was required to interview at least two students who fit into the population they chose. In addition, group members each attended and observed at least one social event or organization meeting that targeted members of their chosen group.

Once students completed their interviews, each group developed a summary of information they observed and began to develop an emerging theory of development for their student population. Next, groups organized their themes into a core development story, using data to explain and support the themes they presented. Groups then considered the similarities and differences between their emerging theory and student development theories studied in class.

Groups were required to present their findings in digital story format in an interactive and creative manner. Each story was approximately 5-7 minutes and included multimedia such as video clips, images, and audio files. The project culminated in a public viewing and discussion of all digital stories, characteristic of academic and professional conferences. Several key stakeholders at UA attended the digital story premiere event, including College of Education faculty and students, Division of Student Affairs staff, interviewees, and students’ supervisors and colleagues.

Students were evaluated using a rubric across nine dimensions: achieved learning outcomes, performed data collection, learned students’ stories, demonstrated understanding of content, developed complexity of thought and creativity, generated student development theory, achieved depth of critical analysis, created digital story, and utilized teamwork. Portions of the syllabus were adopted from the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE Rubrics (2013) and from Dr. John Dugan (2009) at Loyola University in Chicago.

Findings and Lessons Learned

Both the students and instructors learned a great deal from the digital story assignment experience. The following section provides an overview of important lessons learned, each from a unique perspective.

Student Perspective

Students agreed that the digital story assignment helped them to delve into existing student development theories and understand how these theories apply to students on a college campus. By interviewing students on campus and comparing findings with existing student development theories, SDTI students were able to make connections between the unique experiences of their chosen student populations and the developmental trajectories outlined in existing theories. Throughout her experience, Elizabeth McDonald recalled feeling overwhelmed at the number of theories to utilize, but found clarity in brainstorming sessions with her group members and listening to participants’ narratives. Ultimately, the assignment helped breathe life into the theories learned in class and helped students reflect on ways they might use their knowledge of theory to facilitate student development in their practice.

Although a goal of the assignment was to strengthen the partnership between the Higher Education program and the Division of Student Affairs, some groups utilized departments in academic affairs or reached out to student organizations via informal networks to identify students to interview, which translated into a broader campus audience at the digital story premiere event. Students noted that the project helped them better understand classmates’ professional roles on campus. They also became more aware of campus resources and how students can utilize them more effectively. For example, throughout the assignment John Tilley learned more about Veteran and Military Affairs and the Crimson Secular Student Alliance as resources for students. In general, students were less concerned with larger goal of interdepartmental collaboration and more concerned with navigating the theory and technology pieces of the assignment.

Based on student feedback, the most difficult part of the assignment involved technological aspects of the digital stories. A majority of the class only had experience with Prezi and Microsoft PowerPoint and little experience with more advanced software. Kelsey Taylor recalled feeling slightly overwhelmed with Final Cut X, but utilized the Sanford Media Center (SMC) employees for guidance. Other students received help from staff at the SMC and they were able to quickly learn how to better use applications such as iMovie and Final Cut X. Upon completing the assignment, students felt that the required technology components were difficult but effective tools for better understanding student development theories.

Instructor Perspective

From the instructors’ perspectives, the three main objectives for the assignment were to develop technological competency, enhance students’ understanding of student development theory, and facilitate stronger partnerships with the Division of Student Affairs. Neither instructor had a strong understanding of digital media production, which presented a number of challenges. The most notable challenges included creating a realistic set of assignment requirements and goals, clearly articulating requirements and expectations of the assignment, and being prepared to address questions and concerns in an informed and helpful manner. Fortunately, the instructors were able to partner with the Director of the SMC to expand their knowledge of digital storytelling, learn about resources at the university for students, create realistic expectations for students, and develop a general timeframe for how long the different aspects of the assignment might take. Following advice from the SMC Director and reflecting upon prior experiences, the instructors embedded the digital story assignment with multiple, modular components to provide a framework for timeliness and frequent feedback.

Technological skills were the main hindrance to students’ successes throughout the assignment. Few students had any multimedia experience and although the instructors actively tried placing at least one student with multimedia experience in each group, some students felt overwhelmed with the technology components. Although the technological aspects of the assignment were difficult, the instructors felt that it was important to challenge students to broaden their multimedia skills in order to prepare them for entry-level jobs in student affairs and higher education. The instructors envisioned these skills as not only beneficial to their job candidacy, but as an increasingly imperative skill for all student affairs practitioners.

Additionally, students had difficulty translating components of a standard research assignment into a 5-7 minute digital story. The digital story assignment was significantly different than the types of assignments to which the students were accustomed. For first-year master’s students, the scope and depth of the assignment was much greater than what they had experienced as undergraduates but they were enthused with the potential creativity of the project. Doctoral students struggled with understanding how the digital story could enhance their academic writing and were therefore reluctant to pursue a final project that did not adhere to the typical doctoral-level course research assignment for the program.

In particular, students had trouble beginning the assignment, understanding the role and expectations of traditional research, and envisioning the final product. At the beginning of the semester, some groups were slow to make serious efforts on the assignment due to their unfamiliarity with creating a digital story and a mild sense of intimidation. Many of the students’ questions and concerns were addressed by an in-class presentation from the SMC Director and examples of digital stories shared by the instructors. However, students still felt overwhelmed by the projected time required to create and edit the video. As students moved on to the editing phase of the digital story, groups struggled to find a compelling way to visually represent the information outside of their interview portions, particularly their emerging theory, within the video. The instructors attempted to assist groups during class discussions, but ultimately the groups who utilized the SMC lab and staff found greater success than groups that chose to work outside of the SMC lab.

Pedagogically, the instructors recognized the opportunity for the digital story assignment to have impact on the graduate students and the campus community beyond the SDTI classroom experience. As such, they created a movie premiere night to invite College of Education faculty and staff from the Division of Student Affairs, including students’ supervisors and senior administrators. The movie premiere opened new opportunities for collaborations with the Division of Student Affairs and the Higher Education program. Sharing intimate undergraduate student narratives facilitated an openness and commonality between movie premiere attendees and the graduate student creators. In creating the digital stories, students became more aware of the processes and complexity of student development. Upon viewing the digital stories, attendees became intrinsically connected to the digital story participants and creators. The narratives also enabled practitioners to view student learning and development from a unique vantage point, possibly shifting perceptions on their collective work in student affairs.


From student and instructor perspectives, the digital story assignment was an innovative and pedagogically interesting approach to learning student development theory. Much of the assignment directly addressed both CAS (2012) standards for Masters-Level Student Affairs Professional Preparation Programs and the ACPA & NASPA (2010) Student Learning and Development professional competencies. By demonstrating the utility of digital storytelling, the instructors provided graduate students with additional technological skills to design and implement unique tools in their future professional practice in an applied and contextualized way (ACPA & NASPA, 2010).

CAS (2012) standards and ACPA & NASPA (2010) professional competencies encourage interaction with student affairs functional areas in order to gain an understanding of institutional cultures and develop effective practice. Through both the digital story interviews and public movie premiere, the digital story assignment actively facilitated partnerships with student affairs professionals on campus. Bass and Elmendorf (2007) describe digital storytelling as a social pedagogy that builds community. Students sharing their digital story narratives initiated a “process of bonding and cross-cultural alliance” (Benmayor, 2008, p. 199) between Division of Student Affairs staff, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. The audiovisual narratives facilitated an empowering and relatable space whereby all attendees felt affirmed and connected to the social realities of undergraduate student experiences. Digital storytelling audiences are viewed not only as viewers but also as learners who can interact and shape the narrative and creative space (Dorner, Grimm, & Abawi, 2002). In their essence, digital stories spark creativity and innovations with practice (Meadows, 2003), thereby potentially impacting the cultural perceptions of divisional staff.

It is critical for future student affairs practitioners to be competent and confident with multimedia technology for their work in promoting student learning and development. Digital storytelling is a unique approach that not only enhances students’ learning and development, but also helps foster an appreciation for technology among student affairs practitioners.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can faculty best use digital storytelling to promote effective professional practice among graduate students?
  2. In what ways can digital storytelling be used to facilitate graduate student learning and development outside of the classroom context?
  3. In what other ways might digital storytelling be used to facilitate partnerships between academic departments and student affairs departments, or between multiple student affairs departments?
  4. How might digital storytelling be used in student affairs beyond the realm of graduate student development?


ACPA: College Student Educators International & NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (2010). Professional competency areas for student affairs practitioners. Retrieved from

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2013). VALUE: Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education. Retrieved from

Barrett, H. (2006). Researching and evaluating digital storytelling as a deep learning tool. In C. Crawford, et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education International Conference 2006 (pp. 647–654). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Bass, R., & Elmendorf, H. (2007). Social pedagogies framework. Retrieved from…

Benmayor, R. (2008). Digital storytelling as a signature pedagogy for the new humanities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 7, 188-204.

Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (2012). CAS professional standards for higher education (8th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Dorner, R., Grimm, P., & Abawi, D. (2002). Synergies between interactive training simulations and digital storytelling: A component-based framework. Computers & Graphics, 26, 45-55.

Dugan, J. (2009). ELPS 433 (001): Student Development in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gazarian, P. K. (2010). Digital stories: Incorporating narrative pedagogy. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(5), 287-290.

Meadows, D. (2003). Digital storytelling; Research-based practice in new media. Visual Communication, 2, 189-193.

Rossiter, M., & Garcia, P. A. (2010). Digital storytelling: A new player on the narrative field. In M. Rossiter & C. Clark (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: Narrative perspectives on adult education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Dr. Jason C. Garvey is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Technology Studies at The University of Alabama. Jay’s research examines the experiences of diverse individuals in higher education and student affairs primarily through the use of quantitative methodologies, with specific focus on LGBTQ students, faculty, and alumni. Jay’s teaching philosophy emphasizes social justice reflection and action through relationship development and student self-discovery, utilizing technology and assessment purposefully and innovatively. He has taught both graduate and undergraduate courses in student development theory, assessment and evaluation, counseling, research methods, diversity and social justice, and student affairs, among others. Jay’s national service is primarily within ACPA: College Student Educators International where he served as Director of Education for the Standing Committee for LGBT Awareness and is on the Commission for Professional Preparation Directorate.

Louis Shedd is a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education program at The University of Alabama. He serves as a Research Associate for The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center.

Elizabeth McDonald is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

Kelsey Taylor is a Graduate Community Director in Housing and Residential Communities at The University of Alabama. She is a second year master’s student in The University of Alabama’s Higher Education program.

John Tilley is a Community Director at Clemson University. He is a recent graduate of The University of Alabama’s Higher Education master’s program.

Please e-mail inquiries to Jason C. Garvey.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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