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Once upon a time: hearing student stories

The dominance of metrics in higher education policy is undoubtable - but what do we miss? Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam on hearing student stories
This article is more than 5 years old

Liz Austen is Head of Evaluation and Research at Sheffield Hallam University

The dominance of quantitative metrics in higher education, both across the sector and within institutions, is undoubtable.

Such is this ‘ethos of measurement‘ that qualitative data is often labelled as alternative, additional, creative or innovative. Without dwelling on the history of epistemological paradigms wars, it has now become increasingly important to draw attention to some of the ways in which qualitative data can be used to triangulate and add weight to our metrics, or simply stand alone as authentic measures of student experience and engagement.

“In a faraway land……”

Digital storytelling is a multimodal qualitative research method. Its foundation can be traced back to Berkley’s Centre for Digital Storytelling, now named StoryCenter, founded in 1993. Promoters of digital storytelling aim to cultivate a methodology which will empower and give voice to individuals or groups who are often marginalised. Digital storytelling involves developing personal narratives based on certain life experiences, and various approaches can be used to support storytellers with this process. Stories are curated and then produced using a combination of text, audio/narration recordings, images, music and animations to create short films, typically 2 to 5 minutes long.

The adoption of this approach in higher education is not new or uncommon. There are national and international examples of digital storytelling which explore hidden voices, provide inclusive and reflexive assessments, and build relationships within learning communities. I would argue that there is a need to re surface and champion this approach within higher education policy and practice and re-examine its potential to develop student agency within a complex data landscape.


It is advisable to produce your own digital story before embarking on teaching others. There are accessible software packages that make the ‘digital’ bit effortless. The most difficult part is choosing and developing the story you want to tell. There are excellent training opportunities from JISC that will walk you through this process. Alternatively, watch and critique digital stories that are publicly accessible.

Following an exploratory project with a Yorkshire Universities network, we began to develop student digital storytelling at Sheffield Hallam, most recently with the support of our Widening Participation Team. When the Director of Fair Access Chris Millward visited Hallam, we sent student digital stories to him in advance to provide institutional context. These powerful student stories detailed complex journeys to enrolment and the barriers to engagement for some students – mental health, first generation access, care experience, care giving and disability were examples of some of the emotive content our students narrated.

Student digital stories have also been viewed by senior leaders to add context to strategic discussions. Digital storytelling has also been adopted by Module Leaders and stories have been created by whole module cohorts as reflective assessments – transition, belonging, anxiety, and the importance of friendship were some of the emerging cohort themes, alongside reflections on course design and curriculum, pedagogy and student support. Once consent to analyse was obtained, these stories also served the dual purpose of providing rich evidence for module and course enhancement.

A library of student digital stories is available which includes a selection of these stories. All storytellers have given their consent for these stories to be publicly available. Some stories remain personal to the storyteller and are not to be shared. For these students, the process of storytelling is more important than the digital product.

“And then one day…..”

Digital storytelling has become a mechanism for amplifying student (and staff) voices at Sheffield Hallam University and is contextualised as an institutional research methodology. We have produced a collection of resources with sector colleagues which could help others to do the same. These include a webinar, a ‘How to Produce Digital Stories Guide’ and an ethical checklist produced for the QAA Scotland Enhancement Theme ‘Evidence for Enhancement’. We have also produced a Digital Practice Guide, funded by an AdvanceHE small development grant, for using storytelling techniques to facilitate difficult conversations and a methodological discussion piece, produced for the Social Research Association journal, which covers the practicalities of recruiting student samples, the use of digital images and considerations for ethical scrutiny.

These stories do take an investment of time and energy to produce. They are valuable artefacts to be treated with care, often highly emotive and potentially triggering. However, they can challenge dominant metric driven narratives by raising awareness of the range of student experiences and particularly those that might not be heard through normalised institutional research practices i.e. the overused survey. It is important that these stories have impact and they are used to facilitate reflections, discussions and eventual change at local or organisational level. They are to be respected as complete stories, whilst also providing thematic evidence of collective voices. There may be a desire to use student digital stories as marketing tool but this intention must be stated before production, and this may change the authenticity of the content.

“….happily ever after.”

The (further) utility of digital storytelling in higher education is worth exploring. Is this approach of use in personal tutoring/academic advising scenarios? With student mental health high on the policy agenda this could be a strategy which helps build relationships between staff and students. Can students return to their digital stories after a period of time and analyse their own personal and professional development and learning gain? As the sector moves away from standardised measures of leaning gain and focuses more directly on contextual learning, digital stories could provide an accessible tool for reflection. Can student stories be used to evaluate the effectiveness of learning and teaching approaches? The use of digital storytelling as an evaluative method is certainly under-explored.

And for those who will immediately critique this methodology as unrepresentative, ungeneralisable and lacking validity, you may want to look again at how meaningful our NSS data is before passing judgement.

5 responses to “Once upon a time: hearing student stories

  1. I’ve been working with Digital Storytelling (DS) since 2004 and established the research company DigiTales at Goldsmiths when I was there. I also led the biennial International Conference on DS – called Untold – when I was at UEL – it was the first time it had been hosted in England and drew people from across the world including the StoryCenter team. We’ve been using DS as a formative and summative evaluation tool with different groups over a number of years and have successfully incorporated the practice into undergraduate and postgraduate programme. I’d be very interested in exploring a reflective, longitudinal use of DS with student groups. Agree there is huge potential in this and we need to find a way to shift from an overdependence on survey data. I can be reached on contact details below or via and DigiTales can be seen here .

  2. I think we can find out so much more about the student experience through storytelling rather than quantitative data! I’ve recently been looking into story completion which is not new to the sector, but it may allow students to find some relation to scenarios or offer guidance that perhaps Universities need to consider

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