The River in the Classroom: Digital Storytelling that Fosters Community, Deepens Engagement, and Cultivates Global Awareness

Linda Buturian

Upstream – the Past
Six years ago I designed a writing intensive seminar that introduces undergraduates to water resource issues from disciplines representing both the sciences and the humanities. I developed a curriculum that scaffolds toward the digital story as the capstone. Each of the initial 15 seminar students chose water resource topics, used cameras my department purchased to film interviews with relevant specialists, and integrated video, research, music, and voiceover in order to develop a 5-7 minute digital story, which we posted to a public website we created.

Navigating that first seminar of digital stories brings to mind the Old Testament verse, “Gird yourselves, yet be shattered” (Interlinear). The technical problems were hydra-headed due to students’ different operating systems and lack of media development support at that time at the University. Due to my own lack of experience and fear of technology, I could only pinch hit between students and my technical support person. As one seminar student described the story-making process, “It was like climbing Mount Everest blind-folded. I never knew where I was, or what to do next, but the view at the top was worth it all.”

On the Mississippi River. First class of water seminar students to create digital stories. Spring 2008. Photo by Linda Buturian. To view their digital stories:

Those initial students’ perseverance points to the main reasons I went on to integrate digital media into all of my classes--the level of student ownership of and engagement with the subject matter are unparalleled in my fifteen years of teaching (Sadik 2008). Added to that is the degree to which students work collaboratively, which is a central component of my pedagogy.

Several seminars later, I’ve come to understand why the digital story is so enduringly powerful: for students to effectively communicate their findings in this multimedia genre, it requires of them a deep integration of knowledge. They must absorb, for example, the concept of virtual water as it applies to consumer goods, or how nitrogen run-off from Midwest agriculture contributes to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and then utilize the elements of technology—still shots, audio, transitions, text—in order to make the topic accessible and engaging to a public audience.  

But the digital story assignment is only as meaningful as the context shaping the assignment. Earlier in the seminar I bring in guest speakers including Ram Krishnan, who works with water-scarce communities from Africa to India, helping villagers build water catchment ponds.  Field trips include walking along the Mississippi River to practice taking photographs, and to experience the ecology in the urban ecology of their campus. Students complete assignments that isolate narrative writing and analytical writing that incorporates primary sources—both of which help them to create the script for the digital story. Through discussions of ethos, arc, and audience, we analyze the story in digital storytelling. In the context of the seminar experience, students’ process of creating their digital stories for a public audience about the environmental impact of the bottled water phenomenon or rainwater harvesting in rural India connects their lives to global communities.

Sharing stories on a public website helps students understand that their academic work is efficacious beyond the confines of the classroom. This repository also serves as examples for current seminar students. In individual conferences, I suggest, “Watch how Peter addresses a complex issue like endocrine disruption due to chemicals in the water,” or “For a good example of culturally sensitive choice of music and images, check out Clare’s story on microloans and water and women in India.”  I am also harnessing the positive element of competition.  Students watch earlier stories, imagine their own classmates, family, friends, and instructors watching their video, and strive to do better.

“Lead with your pedagogy. The choice of technology will flow from that,” my first technical support person repeated to me. Easier said than done. Collaborations with colleagues and technical staff are essential, in my experience. Shortly after that first seminar, I began collaborating with the Smart Learning Commons, which the University created to support students’ media projects.  Over time I’ve evolved a winnowing process for selecting appropriate technology informed by my pedagogy, answering these questions: 1) Does the technology foster community? 2) Does it assist students in deepening their engagement with subject matter, and 3) Does the device or software provide a unique way of learning that will familiarize students with technologies that may help them thrive in their futures?

For example, in my literature courses, in order to facilitate an awareness of students’ own cultural traditions so they could then appreciate and analyze cultural components in literary texts, I created a digital assignment asking students to communicate a cultural tradition they take part in and what it means to them (Theodore 2010). For more information and examples, see the Mobile Learning Site. I required them to integrate the digital media in a presentation to facilitate discourse rather than replace it. For an art analysis course that is part of the college’s iPad initiative, where all incoming freshmen are given iPads, I brought the class to the Weisman Museum in part to help educate them on the aesthetic and cultural assumptions inherent in image-creating. When faculty ask students to integrate images as part of their academic work, the onus is on us to help students engage in critical media analysis so they don’t unwittingly perpetuate cultural stereotypes, and so they can understand images as visual texts. This is not to limit the multivalent power of images, but rather to help students become aware of their signifying power.

When I chose to integrate technology for the students, what I didn’t realize is how it would transform my own teaching. Recently I collaborated with a colleague, and we developed a digital story for use in the classroom. With funding from the University, we traveled to the northern stretch of the Mekong River in Thailand, and interviewed community members, organizers and educators about the impact of globalization and development on their cultural traditions and daily lives. When we returned to campus we worked with our college to develop the digital story, Mekong Mosaic (Buturian, Solheim 2012).

Downstream – the Future
I anticipate I will see more graphic stories, like the first one I’ve just received from a seminar student addressing Pakistan’s water challenges, as it turns out graphic stories are an effective medium for expressing complex issues in an efficient, engaging manner. I am also turning to eBooks, which allows for more textual emphasis. This time around I am working on developing one myself first, and then I look forward to helping students create an eBook they all contribute to.

Increasingly, the discussion of technology will enter the discourse of my classes. The moment we turn on our mobile devices, our lives are bound up with peoples and ecosystems throughout the globe. In the water seminar we calculate the virtual water of goods; for example, a pair of blue jeans requires 1,100 liters (2,910 gallons) of water to produce (Allan 2011).  If you calculate the virtual water needed to manufacture, transport, package, power, and dispose of our mobile devices-- (setting aside worker’s rights and extraction of rare metals to make them smaller and faster)--just the water used in the life cycle of our mobile devices, the role of technology in our living belongs in our discourse.

The dialectical nature of technology, as it has evolved in western capitalist society, is hard for us to accept. Many share a tacit belief that technology is neutral, benign, even benevolent. On the one hand, technology gives voice to collectives such as Syria and Egypt, while it has caused extreme misery for others. Consider the recent drone strikes in Pakistan that killed members of a gathering of tribal elders (“Eye of Drone” 2012).  Higher learning institutions like the University of Minnesota are essential forums to grapple with these at times Gordian questions, from complex issues such as the wise use of technology in light of resource scarcity, to linguistic matters, including helping us think through the implications of the terms we use to describe our tech-bound lives. For instance, the reality of data storage?  Large temperature-controlled structures often built close to powerful rivers to harness energy. “Water-gobbling-data-storing-monoliths” doesn’t roll off the tongue or assuage the user as does the term “cloud.” 

In closing, the story, essentially, is why I ushered in technology to my classroom six years ago. Though I’ve been with the students each step of the way as they choose and research topics, find and interview experts, develop storyboards, and navigate technology, when I view students’ digital stories for the first time, I feel a sharp sense of wonder. I am seeing the many stories of water, shaped by the students’ unique personalities, all bearing an imprint of hope, and hope is a resource we as a university have a responsibility to kindle. The digital story harnesses students’ desire to make a positive difference, and helps them to experience how to actualize that difference. These students will be shaping our future challenges with water.
Digital storytelling, when done well, contains the mythic, primeval power of the story, which has been with us from the origins of civilization, and has evolved with us in caves, around fires, in the hearths of homes, and schools, and is now beamed throughout the globe. The story contains the silence of lost species, the sound of water coursing through its ancient cycle, the shuffle of environmental refugees, and the surging pulse of hope. The story includes the river of students that runs through our classes, and the river of technology that connects our lives with people and resources across the globe, and the story includes you.

PsTL1906W, “Water, Water, Everywhere? Investigating & Protecting Our Life Source” Screen shot by Linda Buturian. Website can be viewed at

Allan, Tony. Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource. I.B. Tauris.
August 2011.

Buturian, L., and Solheim, C. (2012). “Mekong Mosaic” College of Education and Human Development.

“Eye of the Drone” Harper’s Magazine. June 2012, p. 17.

Interlinear Bible. Isaiah 8:9.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A.J. (nd).  Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century.

Sadik, A. (2008).  Digital storytelling: A meaningful technology-integrated approach for engaged student learning.  Education Technology Research Development, 56, 487-506.   DOI: 10.1007/s11423-008- 9091-8

Theodore, P.A., & Afolayan, M.O. (2010).  Facilitating cultural competence in teacher education students with digital storytelling: Implications for urban educators.  Multicultural Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 98–108.  DOI: 10.2202/2161-2412.1070.


Linda Buturian <>
Linda Buturian is a Senior Teaching Specialist in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning in the College of Education and Human Development. She teaches the humanities and is the author of World Gone Beautiful: Life Along the Rum River (Cathedral Hill Press 2008). Buturian gives presentations on innovative uses of digital media for teaching and learning, and is currently at work collaborating on an eBook with colleague Catherine Solheim, which addresses their work with communities along the Mekong River in Thailand.