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Published February 6, 2017 | Multidisciplinary

Experiential Learning and Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Duo

Experiential learning is a means of moving from theory to application which allows for a fair amount of student discovery and serendipity to take place. Digital storytelling is a way for students to record, report or even be evaluated on their learning using modern technologies. The millennials, who are sometimes referred to as Generation C (and have a penchant for Creating, Collaborating and Communicating) seem enthusiastic about using mobile devices and technology. When students share what they learn through multimedia, they can even transport us to remote First Nations communities, providing us insight on places that we may never have the privilege to visit within our lifetimes. The result of combining their experiential learning with digital storytelling is most inspiring!

During the Fall Semester of 2016, I interviewed Jeffrey Barnes and Julia de Montigny, 2 teachers at Dawson College who organize field trips and have accompanied students to Cree communities, like Waskaganish. These trips take place after the end of the spring semester and are not included within the formal evaluation of students who participate. While the bricks, mortar and equipment within a college provide a space and context for learning, they are not the exclusive domain for personal advancement and reflection for students, as the following interview will show.

Julia de Montigny and Jeffrey Barnes take pause with an historical figure during the Waskaganish trip (Photo courtesy of Etienne Capacchione, Anacrusis Photography).

Can you provide a brief history of the Waskaganish trip? Which nation is visited?

Julia: Jeffrey started the Waskaganish project and got it off the ground about 6 years ago. There was a desire for a trip component in Environmental Studies as a means for students to apply their knowledge in the field. After the Paix des Braves agreement and local referendums, water from the Rupert River would be diverted away from the community of Waskaganish, while the Broadback River and Nottaway River would not be developed by Hydro-Quebec. This trip was interesting for Social Services and Professional Photography students as well.

Jeffrey: The original field trip came about since Environmental Studies wanted to get out of the classroom and to do something more applied.

I met a colleague who was working on development projects in Cree communities. We met for brunch and began building something. It started as a wish list, turned into phone conversations, and it became a long-term relationship. Before the first trip, I hadn’t yet visited Waskaganish. The students collaborated in the itinerary, trying to figure out who else we should meet in the community. It was a good way to get the students creatively involved in the trip.

On an institutional level, I had to talk to the college and I found out about the required permissions, guidelines, and available funding. I should mention that I had a lot of support from the college to do this. The earlier field trips were organized before Dawson had a First Peoples’ Centre. Our first field trip was in 2011. Dawson College’s Academic Dean (who was an Associate Dean at the time) was a strong ally in our efforts, and was also very involved with Kiuna. [Editor’s Note: Kiuna is a collegial institute for First Nations students that has an affiliation with the Cégep de l’Abitibi-Temiscamingue and Dawson College that offers programs with content relative to Native culture and heritage.]

A video report on the 2014 Waskaganish Trip.

How are students selected for the field trip?

Julia: Every student in Environmental Studies is informed about the possibility through presentations by the teachers. The students need to provide a letter of intent which is followed by a meeting to explore their compatibility on such an intensive trip. The students also meet each other and get to know each other as a group.

Jeffrey: The first field trip was open to everyone, but they still had to provide a letter of application as part of the process. In a field trip where there is no coursework, you need to have buy-in. Students think about why they really want to do this. We have a conversation to see how people ‘gel’ with each other. Social Service students accompanied us on the trip this year. The Social Services department reached out and asked if they could participate. Many of these students will likely work in Northern communities one day. One student is now working at the Native Friendship Centre in Montreal. The field trip was life-changing for her. The Photography student applicants are scrutinized, and they are trained about ethics and consent prior to their visit. Meanwhile, the other students don't take photos of the community while they are there.

How do students react to the fact that the field trip doesn't figure into their evaluation?

Julia: The field trip is not part of a credited course (they are volunteering to do it) and it lasts for about 10 days. The fact that there is no credit is not an issue. It has benefits and drawbacks. Those who go on the trip are very motivated self-learners. It also takes pressure off since there isn't pressure to perform. There are different benefits for the students depending on their discipline

  • Photography students develop their portfolio
  • Social Services benefit from the experience
  • Environmental Studies students see their coursework materialize into reality

Jeffrey: All of the students consider it as a cherry on top of their education. It is a relief for them to learn for the sake of learning, and not for an evaluation per se. There is a humane perspective that is very much based on exchange and interaction. It might be interesting as a course for recognition of the valid academic experience, but it becomes a different beast when it is a course.

The project has used digital storytelling in the form of an edited video report on the field trip. How did this idea come about?

Julia: The creation of a digital video report is something of a natural progression, with the Photography students who are interested in documenting the process.

Jeffrey: In the initial recruitment of Professional Photography students there was a desire to produce something from this trip that would then motivate people to have sensitivity towards First Peoples’ communities and to become involved in the trip in itself. In this way, Professional Photography students get to build their portfolio, while producing a multimedia product that will encourage others to reflect on the trip. One unexpected result from the creation of the digital media was that a grade 3 elementary class in Ontario contacted me for an interview. They had a unit on Cree peoples, and they used Skype to bring me into an interactive classroom. It was a moving experience for me since they had such great questions, like “Why is it important for students to see Cree communities?” and “Why did governments forget the Cree people in the Hydro project?” It was both challenging and rewarding for me to answer their questions.

What do you feel are the benefits of having used a video report/digital storytelling approach for students and teachers?

Julia: Many students might express themselves better in this creative format. I would like to evaluate from this perspective and involve more students - especially the students that have problems articulating themselves. Perhaps both means of evaluation - traditional and digital storytelling - can coexist.

Jeffrey: There is a buy-in aspect, both institutionally and outside of institution. Just because you have done something once, it doesn't mean it will happen again. Video is a very accessible medium that allows people to remember on a yearly basis.

We are in a digital media age where people like to consume media in this way. I can write 30-page reports all I want, but if no one reads them, they won’t appreciate the impact of what we have done. It’s also powerful since it is the students that are doing it. They want to share what they’ve done with others. It all comes through crystal clear for the people watching. The digital storytelling also makes students responsible for the things they do and witness. They give seminar presentations at Dawson about what they’ve learnt. On one occasion, a Youth Grand Chief for the Cree Nation showed up to a presentation, and on another occasion Cree community members came to a Photo exhibit in Dawson’s Warren G. Flowers art gallery, created by 2 student photographers (Clarisa Mendoza and Margaret Thompson) who were exhibiting their work from the trip. Lots of people from the Cree Nation in Montreal attended as well. A really great moment!

Oral tradition and storytelling have played an important role in the culture and traditions of First Nations, could digital storytelling be an extension of this tradition in the future?

Jeffrey: I think this is possible. In Oujé-Bougoumou, there is a beautiful cultural institute, which is in an architectural version of a teepee with video screens everywhere, where you can see a the faces of elders elders pop onto screens that are organized in a circle. Students are a living link between oral history and new mediums. Even though the students are generally good listeners, sometimes we have to remind them to leave space for silence, as this doesn’t indicate a lack of something to say.

Did you have a chance to speak to any of the communities about their educational institutions? Does technology factor into their curriculum?

Jeffrey: I’ve noticed that the use of social media is very strong. Everything happens on Facebook. Feasts and gatherings are organized on Facebook, and many comment on the activities, which are often crowd-sourced.

Some educators believe that digital storytelling should be sanctioned/admissible as an option for evaluations for millennials given their desire to create, communicate and collaborate. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Julia: Yes, I see the day that digital storytelling may replace more traditional evaluation in some disciplines. Practical demands at the institutional level continue to exist though. Many students might express themselves better in this creative format.

Jeffrey: I see this as a possibility. As the Coordinator of North South Studies, I also bring students on a one month trip to Nicaragua. The production of media is part of their Integrative Seminar course. The perennial difficulty is the differing levels of digital media knowledge and ability among students. It is difficult to evaluate aptitude in terms of media creation. You need to develop tools that seek structure in the creation of content. The users of digital media want to feel that the end result is good and legitimate. The amount of work that goes into group creations (and not everyone comes to these projects at the same level) and evaluation of the result is onerous, since individual contributions can vary so substantially. In group work you also have to watch for the free riders. Ultimately, I’ve found it best to evaluate the process rather than the final product.

A video report on the 2012 Waskaganish Trip

Reflecting on the outcomes of the Waskaganish trip, what was the impact of this experiential learning on students?

Julia: This approach is one of the most successful ways to teach and learn. Even I am learning in the process. Taking students on a field trip, they are learning practically about Hydro-Quebec, Cree culture, the Quebec environment, as well as developing communication skills and autonomy. The students have to make meals, set up camp, get to places. We use talking circles as a means of conflict resolution. Space is provided to students to learn in multiple ways. There isn't usually space for that type of thing in a traditional classroom. You get to know each person on the trip individually. For me it's really incredible, I have moments mid-way through where I say to myself “they are actually learning!”

Jeffrey: The students come back feeling like they had met a long lost brother or sister, and wondering why they had been so disconnected. By sharing our humanity with one another and being present, it breaks down a lot of structural barriers that we have between us. Ultimately the experience leads to open-minded, caring, thoughtful assumptions about other people. In all our trips, we focus on breaking the concept of “others,” since there is no such thing.

Final Thoughts

There are many pre-conceived notions about the millennials and what characterizes their generation. Amongst their values, we have heard anecdotally that they like to Create, Communicate and Collaborate (and have been called Generation C for this reason). It is refreshing to see that there is so much interest from students to participate in an experiential learning activity, even if no formal evaluation is attached to their participation.

In closing, I would like to thank Jeffrey Barnes and Julia de Montigny for sharing their inspiring activities, and wish them all the best for the organization of their future trips!

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