Last week I delivered an afternoon session on mobile digital storytelling for about 30 people at Preston Montford Field Studies Centre (FSC). The attendees were mostly tutors from various FSCs around the UK who had come together for a week of training of which my bit was only a small part.
They were a merry bunch (literally, not figuratively!) and really got stuck into the impossible task I gave them to write, shoot and edit a digital story in about 2 hours. (For the record, I’d never suggest doing digital storytelling activities with students in such a short space of time.)
Thoughts about storytelling
Fieldwork is quite often about data collection which, you might think, doesn’t leave much room for storytelling. I think most fieldwork practitioners would agree, that’s not really true.
Essentisally, stories are tools for describing change. I remember most of the fieldwork I undertook as a geography student was about looking at changes in human and physical landscapes. Gathering and analysing data will give you one way of looking at changes but it’s just as important to be able to put some form of interpretation on that data; to give the data “soul” as Brene Brown might say.
And the fact is we experience places on an emotional level too. So why not encourage students to tell stories about the places they visit in addition to the data collection to help them develop a more nuanced appreciation of landscapes and processes?
There’s another, more personal reason for thinking about stories of fieldwork.
For many students of subjects that involve some form of location study, the fieldwork experience can be one of the most personally transformative. It’s a chance for them to move from learning about their subject to becoming a practitioner of their discipline.
The reflective practice involved in capturing those stories of changing identity is as much a part of learning about a subject as absorbing new knowledge and skills.
Thoughts about the technology
I still get a thrill thinking that it’s possible now to shoot, edit and publish a video just using a phone! Using apps like iMovie or Splice (the one we used on this session) you can quickly and simply produce something that looks quite slick without having been near a desktop or laptop. In my experience, most of the nastiest problems with video editing occur when transferring files between devices, so being able to manage the whole workflow on one device removes most of those at a stroke.
Most of the groups used iPads for the task but Splice works just as well on the smaller devices too. For the moment it seems that iOS devices are getting most of the love when it comes to video editing apps, although one of the attendees using a Samsung Galaxy Tab pointed out that that device came with an editing app already installed. Also, AndroMedia might be worth a look – I haven’t tried it yet.
None of these apps are ideal for movie-making. Mobile devices are a bundle of technical compromises when it comes to the camera and editing capabilities but any flaws are forgivable when you think how much easier it is to capture fieldwork experiences.
The actual technical training they required was minimal. Splice is easy to get your head around so we were able to focus much more on ideas for constructing stories, which is the bit that is hardest to get right.
Putting it into practice
The most satisfying thing about running this session was seeing the creativity of the groups really coming to the fore. They had a basic title to work from but other than that I was able to take a step back, letting them come up with their own ideas and learn through the experience.
After the showcase of their, in many cases hilarious, films I asked them for their initial impressions of the experience. It had been troublesome for most groups; fiddly, frustrating, a bit restrictive. But it had also been fun, some had really appreciated being able to use their creativity and could see the potential for using the approach with students.
The piece of advice I left them with was to practice telling their own stories. For one thing, it gives you chance to play with the technology and experiment safely. For another, it makes it an awful lot easier to encourage others to do the same when you’re talking from your own personal experience.
But the most important thing is always to focus on the story and not the technology you’re using to tell it.
Lastly, something you might want to consider; if a mobile storytelling approach suits fieldwork, can’t the same be said for lab work? Or what about work-based learning placements?