Digital Storytelling: Telling the Same “Stories” in New Ways and with New Tools

Concurrent Session 3

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

From large lecture halls to small seminars, faculty often teach with storytelling. This session aims to inspire faculty to tap into the stories they already know and reconceive them for an online format. Because, as e-learning tools and technologies evolve, good storytelling remains integral to our most successful online courses.

***Please note:  this session was live webcast, but the on-demand recording file was corrupted and is unavailable for viewing.  We apologize for the inconvenience.***



Sharon is an educational designer with a focus on public health, bioethics, and special video projects. Since arriving at NYU, she has worked closely with faculty to conceptualize and design curriculum for online and hybrid teaching environments. Prior to working in educational design, Sharon was a journalist and documentary filmmaker for NOVA, the American Museum of Natural History, and ABC News among others. She was awarded a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT from 2000-2001. She earned an MA in Journalism from NYU, and a BA in Russian and East European Studies from the University of Michigan.

Extended Abstract


Anecdotes and stories introduce the universal themes we want to communicate to our students. From large lecture halls to small seminars, faculty often teach with storytelling. But what happens when you create an online course and your well-honed lecture skills need to transfer to a virtual environment? How do you use digital storytelling, and how do you encourage your students to apply their own storytelling in their assignments?

This presentation aims to share what we have learned about best practices for teaching online and telling “stories” across subjects and disciplines.  We will delve into techniques and examples that make educational videos and learning management system (LMS) pages more engaging and effective by applying principles of storytelling. We will focus on digital storytelling examples from fully online New York University (NYU) courses, with a particular emphasis on a Global HIV/AIDS course created in Fall 2017, and taught online and remotely to students in both the U.S. and at NYU’s four-year campus in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Perhaps most importantly, we will stress that good storytelling does not require advanced tools and resources.  

I. Active Learning Exercise

The presentation will open with an active learning exercise demonstrating diverse educational videos and asking the audience to respond to a series of questions. One sample video is well-produced, but not necessarily an effective as tool for teaching and learning. Another is visually stimulating, but not easy to absorb. Another is a simple “talking head” with little to no editing, where an instructor is telling a story that is engaging and illustrative of a larger problem outlined in a lesson. The audience will be asked to offer comments on these videos, and think about their teaching and learning value as we delve into the rest of the presentation.

II. Storytelling with documentary videos and role play

In the next portion of the presentation, I will present segments of a 14-week fully online introduction to bioethics course titled Bioethical Issues in Society. This course relied heavily on educational, documentary style videos. The instructor, renowned bioethicist Arthur Caplan, and I decided to break out what would typically be a 75-minute lecture into a handful of stories that every student should absorb and retain to truly understand the lesson topic. Professor Caplan posed a fundamental question about the topic and proceeded to answer the question through storytelling. Topics ranged from the origin of bioethics during the Holocaust, to the bioethics of reproductive technology, to the bioethics of assisted dying. The students, who participated in the course across multiple time zones, were required to answer knowledge-check questions before continuing to the next section of content in the LMS. They were often asked to refer to the videos in online discussion forums.

In the tenth lesson of the course, we paused from video instruction to involve students in a more active learning exercise --  an online role-play. After engaging with so many stories in prior lessons, students were now asked to step into a story, play a role, and work within groups to make ethical decisions and determine health outcomes.  

III. The growth of two storytellers and one online course

In the third section of the presentation, I will present a different form of storytelling and examples of another fully online semester course. The course, which is titled HIV/AIDS from a Global Perspective, was offered for the first time to College of Global Public Health students in both the U.S. and Abu-Dhabi as part the Global Public Health masters program. This course demonstrates how I, a former journalist/documentary filmmaker, and now educational design technologist, and Danielle Ompad, Associate Professor of Public Health, have evolved as a storytellers through the experience of producing online courses together.

Storytelling takes many forms in this course. Rather than devote time and resources to producing multiple documentary style videos, we judiciously selected a few topics that would truly benefit from the resources necessary to create this style of video. Topics included the early years of AIDS, and videos were presented by a faculty member who had first-hand experience with early AIDS activism.

We also produced a series of interactive, illustrated timelines with the Storyline e-learning tool. At the end of each chronological section that covered the history of AIDS over a span of nearly 40 years, the timelines reinforced the diverse events, people, and the evolution of AIDS stories covered.

The majority of videos in each lesson were narrated by the instructor and produced with slides in NYU’s Instructional Video Module (IVM) studio. The studio requires no post-production or editing. Instead, faculty must prepare and rehearse their presentations, much as they would for a lecture, but in short segments that deliver content, data, and images to meet the attention span of an online audience. Short videos produced by outside sources such as Khan Academy, were carefully selected and included in the course along with videos that had already been produced by our faculty.

The pages of content within the course LMS are richly illustrated with contextual images and captions along with tables and figures. Together, they illustrate the stories of the science, the history, the politics, the prevention and the treatments for HIV/AIDS in the last four decades. As students read through the pages, they encounter news headlines and images, health posters, and infographics. These all bring the stories and facts to life as students weave through this large, complex and global story of a pandemic.

Finally, students are have the opportunity to engage in their own digital storytelling in the form of final presentations where they are encouraged to use video, graphics and images.


Creating engaging content delivered by expert faculty in a way that students can explore, grasp, and use, remains the best way to apply storytelling both online and in the classroom. Indeed, faculty who create online courses say that the experience has taught them to be better instructors in the classroom, and to write more concisely and visually. This session aims to inspire faculty to tap into the stories they already know and reconceive them in the form of digital video, images, and interactive tools. As NYU’s Teaching and Learning with Technology Team (TLT) continues to evolve and use a variety of the latest e-learning tools and technologies, good storytelling remains integral to our most successful courses.