Digital Storytelling with Free Software

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A Free Software Case Study from seed.

Keywords: Digital storytelling, social integration, informal learning, Croatia, non-profit.


Historical & organisational context

Digital storytelling and integration

Expressing emotions and experiences is a key step in personal development. Expression means giving shape to what is personal, and allows communication and sharing with others, which is the beginning of reflection and learning from experience. Expressing oneself, and telling our experiences is also a key competence for social integration, and is part of an attitude that should be learned starting at an early age.

While learning to express personal experience is important for children of any age, it is even more important for children from disadvantaged areas or communities. Difficult experiences, or experiences that are perceived as unusual by the mainstreaming culture, are more difficult to tell and share, and finally to make sense. It is the case of home violence, of migration, of parental loss of living in a war environment, or simply of poverty. Limitations in communication can generate anger and frustration, and finally hinder learning and development, creating a negative looping effect. Identifying and removing such barriers is therefore one of the main goals of education in both formal and informal settings, and a key step towards effective integration.

Digital technologies can be powerful tools for tackling such issues and providing constructive environments for the development of expressive and communicative skills. This case study focuses on a project methodology developed by seed, a Swiss non-profit organization, which exploits Free Software for implementing training activities based on digital storytelling. In this project, seed worked with Društvo Naša Djeca (DND), a Croatian non-profit organization that provides informal educational activities for children up to 15 years old throughout the country.


Croatia is one of the Eastern European countries with faster development rates, and has recently being removed from official lists of developing countries. However, a large part of its rural areas still bear the scares of the long war that changed the face of the Balcan Region in the early ’90. The strong – but still initial and not steady – development process, and the low-entrepreneurship heritage from the Soviet block, make Croatia a country where opportunities for young people are few, and where education, especially informal education, still has a large margin for improvement.

Društvo Naša Djeca means Association Our Children, and its mission is providing education and development opportunities for Croatian Children throughout the nation. DND is a Croatian non-profit organization, which started its activities in the ’50 and is now active in about 70 locations nationwide, where “DND societies” have their seats. Local DND societies provide education and training activities for children of different age groups, ranging from creative and performing arts to study support programs. Educators and trainers at DND sites are usually volunteers, teachers or social workers, who engage in specific labs with DND children. Local societies are coordinated by the mother DND organization, located in Zagreb.

In order to comply with its mission, DND is always looking for new stimuli and ideas. At the outset of this project, in 2008, DND still had very little labs and activities that exploited digital technologies. This depended on both costs for purchasing and maintaining the infrastructure (computers, internet connection), and on the lack of staff skills. When DND met seed, the idea of a project based on storytelling with the use of digital technologies immediately appealed to educators and managers: the project at the same time capitalized on available competencies (visual arts, acting, music) and introduced new skills and tools (digital media and storytelling), providing a powerful lever for innovation and human capital development.

The learning through digital storytelling method, implemented in this project, brings together visual arts, and digital media to make a difference in the communicative development of children in disadvantaged areas. The method features high interdisciplinarity, integrating writing skills, figurative arts, and technologies, and involves stakeholders at multiple levels, namely DND managers, educators and, of course, children and their families.

Technological context

In order to understand the project, its technological context should be analysed under two respects: (a) digital equipment available at DND local seats and (b) digital technology skills of DND educators.

The digital technology equipment available at local DND seats is on average rather poor. Most seats only have a few computers: in most cases PC donated by local administration or companies, with old Windows operating systems. An Internet connection is usually present, but not necessarily available in all rooms and for all computers. Some educators, especially younger ones, have their own laptop computers, which are usually in a better shape and which they are willing to make available for working at DND.

The digital technology skills of DND educators are highly varied. Young ones, recently graduated, are usually digitally fluent users: they can browse the Internet, download and install programs, and quickly learn to use new applications. Older ones (usually over 40) are usually intimidated by digital technologies: they can type and save files, but nothing more, and think that learning to master a new application will require a huge effort.

On the other hand, at the outset of the project, DND as a whole – and especially its young and dynamic management – was very keen on starting a progressive integration of digital technologies in its core activities. This was translated in readiness to look for funds and donations to expand or enhance the infrastructure, and in the willingness to engage in training activities.



Given its organizational and technological context, the project had to find technological solutions that suited to a smooth integration of digital tools in the informal education environment provided by DND societies.

For this reason, seed decided to work with Free Software only. Major requirements in fact included sustainability (ability to continue the project in its original location) and replicability (ability to replicate the project at a new location). This translated in (a) the need to use available infrastructure, i.e., quite old Windows computers that cannot support applications requiring large computation and memory space; and (b) to have virtually no direct costs for software.

Moreover, training was an issue: while the institutional training space for DND educators was limited, all of the expressed the intention to devote time for personal development. Using Free Software means allowing them to take applications home and practice in their free time, integrating new skills also in their personal activities – a key learning transformation in innovation processes.

Implementation strategy

The challenge of this project was supporting a powerful and complex learning strategy with a relatively simple but effective technological infrastructure. This section briefly presents the rationale behind the method and then explains how this was supported with Free Software.

The basic idea behind the project is that communication starts from the desire of expressing experience, that is, to share with others our personal encounter with reality. In its basic form, sharing experiences takes the form of stories, as their narrative structure corresponds to our perception of our own life, as it flows in everyday life. Life as we experience it, is not a time line of events, rather a sequence of meaningful events that expand and collapse time perception.

Stories are also a basic form of teaching: they are easy to understand and generate high level of engagement. Entertainment professionals know this, and actually shape many products as stories, from blockbuster movies to music video clips.

But the magic of stories has two sides: hearers and storytellers. Stories are not only an effective way to transmit content, but also a powerful outlet of personal expression. Learning to tell stories, that is, to master storytelling, is an opportunity to enhance personal communication competencies. In particular, expression through stories is important for the development of imagination. Much more than the ability to entertain fancy thoughts, imagination is the core ability to imagine reality, to virtually try out actions, and to generate visions to guide experience. Imagination is therefore necessary for thinking about the future and for generating new possibilities, even for daring to think “out of the box”. In a country on the verge of development such as Croatia, imagination represents a core competency for its youth.

Mastering storytelling means two different sets of skills: (a) understanding narrative structures, and (b) being able to give them a shape, verbally or visually and with the aid of different media. Such skills allow the valorisation of the expressive potential of each child, the enhancement of their relational skills and the reinforcement of self-confidence.

The role of technologies

In the learning through digital storytelling method, digital technologies stay in the background, acquiring the vital role of catalyst and enabler of complex learning, in a playful and highly social environment. They serve as instruments with a double purpose: (a) motivating children, who are attracted by technologies; and (b) expanding children’s expressive palette. In this project, digital technologies, and Free Software in particular, were part of a learning environment designed for nurturing personal development.

As already mentioned, the project went for Free Software, and after an extensive review of available applications, the project selected the following ones:

  1. Audacity, an open source audio editing tool;
  2. ArtWeaver, a free image editing tool, or GIMP!, an open source image editing tool;
  3. Windows Moviemaker, a native but free Windows application for basic video editing;
  4. OpenOffice Writer and Presenter as basic office applications.

Training activities

Project activities were designed along three main topic areas:

  1. Storytelling, that is, creative writing;
  2. Illustration of stories, mainly through hand drawing but also through digital pictures;
  3. Digital media, i.e., using the three applications mentioned above, in particular digitising voice (the story narration), music, and drawings, in order to generate short movies.

While focusing on children, the project selected a waterfall model, so that adult training became the key point in its strategy: at the organizational level, the project aimed to generating new knowledge and practices within DND, and not only to conduct a nice but not sustainable experience.

12 educators took part in the training, along with 12 children. The main action in the project was developed over a single week, which included a 24-hour training program for educators and a 24-hour workshop with children. This was followed by the work of educators at their home locations, where they set up independent storytelling workshops.

Educators training

The training of educators started on the first full day of the project (Monday), and followed during all mornings of the week, including Saturday for a total of 24 hours.

Basically, educators were led through the same process of digital storytelling that they were to implement with children later on: understanding the structure of stories, writing a story, illustrating a story, narrating and animating a story in a digital short movie.

Additionally, they were asked to reflect on the activities and products, and to improve their designs. For example, they were asked to reflect upon different aspects and patterns of stories, starting from observation or traditional stories, then moving on to the creation of their own stories. In the process, they were able to select the right stories for their particular kids, and to improve collective writing methods so that they fit better to their specific class environment.

At each step in the training, educators learned to use the software applications required: writing the story with Writer, editing images with GIMP! and audio with Audacity, in a project-based and strongly situated learning environment.

Workshop with children

One of the tenets of this project was providing educators with a direct outlet for practice. For this reasons, 12 children were invited to take part in a pilot workshop on storytelling, and joined the educators in the afternoons: right after training, educators went to the groups and worked with children to their stories.

In order to do that, educators developed a short “beginning of the story” for each group, focusing on a specific and relevant topic: friendship, family, violence, etc. The beginning of the story presented the main character, the setting and an “inciting event” that opened the conflict space of the story. Children were assigned the task of carrying the story forward to its end, and then to develop it into a multimedia product.

Working with children, educators took on the role they had seen the trainer to play with them during the training session. The first step was guiding children to complete the story, that is, working as a “dungeon master” in a Dungeons&Dragons session: setting the rules, putting forward events, and finally helping children identifying relevant elements for the construction of the story by asking the right questions.

At this stage, technology appeared in the simple form of a word processor for writing the story. This simple step allowed educators to identify technology leaders and particular skills and attitudes on the children’s side – useful information to organize the rest of the group work. The written story was then used for sharing stories with other groups.

Once the story was ready, production started – again, technologies served here as motivator and creativity booster. The main phases in production were the following:

  1. Storyboarding: the first step in production was transforming the story into a storyboard, i.e. a timely sequence of frames and text units. This was simply sketched on paper, and allowed identifying all the items required for production in terms of required pictures, drawings, music, etc.
  2. Digital illustration: visual frames were illustrated with hand drawings of characters and objects on a digital picture background.
    1. Children went on the web looking for pictures to use as backgrounds in their illustrations. In order to make sure of licensing, they were instructed only to get pictures with Creative Commons Licenses.
    2. Children then draw the main characters and objects in the story. The drawings were then digitized (with a simple digital camera) and edited.
    3. Using OpenOffice. Presenter, children could place characters on backgrounds, resize them, finally creating their visual frames which were then exported as individual digital images.
  3. Audio: the audio track of stories was composed by a narration of the story with a musical background.
    1. Music was again downloaded from the web from copyright-free sources (mainly Jamendo).
    2. The narration was recorded with Audacity.
    3. Audacity was then used again to mix voice and music in order to produce the final audio track.
  4. Final editing: the final step was bringing together visual frames and the audio track, which was done in a very simple way with MovieMaker. Children discovered effects and transitions and used them to give some special features to their products.

While doing the project, each phase was an opportunity to reflect on the specific languages of images, audio and video, which introduced an interesting media education component in the program.

The output of the project was surprising: in 6 days, a DVD with 4 stories and over 20 minutes of animated digital stories was presented to an audience of 60 friends and relatives of children during a special event organized on purpose.


Educator training received very high evaluations both in terms of formative and confirmative evaluation. In particular, all the three topic areas (storytelling, illustration, digital technologies) were assessed as relevant, and all participants indicated a strong perception of high learning and high transferability to their regular activities. The possibility to use Free Software applications beyond the limited scope of the project provided a longer-term personal development opportunity.

But while explicit assessment reflected the satisfaction for reaching the end of the project, the evaluation went beyond, trying to assess learning outcomes for children and educators, and contributions to organizational change.

The evaluation carried out in this pilot project consisted in educators’ assessment of the progress made by children on (a) expressive skills (b) social abilities including group work, and (c) project working skills. The outcomes reported clearly indicate that the method developed in this pilot project has a good potential.

Teachers reported that children participating in the project engaged much more than expected, activating previously untapped resources. The reasons indicated for this included the novelty of the proposal, the charm of technologies, but also the possibility to express feelings and values in a different way. Children were stimulated with a challenge that most of them had never had before: doing something “real”, i.e., not just an exercise for school. They clearly perceived that stories were for others, for a real audience: their parents, their friends, people outside DND. This apparently little thing represented a huge stimulus for these children, used to live within a special education school, where they rarely meet children from other schools.

This untapping dynamic was tracked and guided by educators, who enjoyed the opportunity of individualizing learning paths that the project provided. Supported by the project staff, educators were able to identify individual learning goals, and to integrate them into an interdisciplinary project that provided opportunities for everyone: using one’s voice, writing, drawing, using a computer, etc. All different tasks were then integrated into the final product, which was everyone’s product. The balance between individualization and a common final output, was highly appreciated and served as a reference model for future activities.

Educators also appreciated the update in their teaching skills, not only from a technical and technological point of view, but also in terms of instructional design (individualized learning paths, finding a common output as instructional focus, etc.).

Organizational transformation

Learning to work together was the most visible project outcome related to organizational change. Educators started the project as individual class leaders, and ended it as a team.

While the project started as a small pilot, the activity proposed were soon recognized as an important place where educators could reflect on their role and practice. From this perspective, educational technologies have been the opportunity and the challenge for unravelling old ideas and for starting a process of re-thinking at an organizational level. For DND, this took the shape of new laboratories and workshop to include in their regular activities, possibly in collaboration with the local radio for recording voice, or with local TV stations for broadcasting the animations.

In a previous experience in a special education school, the process of organizational transformation moved forward thanks to the attention of the direction, that, after seeing the beneficial effects of the first phase of teacher training, decided to make the project the main institutional project, and to support the organizational change with additional resources invested in mentoring and evaluation, with a plan that extended also to the following school year.

Future prospects

The learning through digital storytelling method, developed by seed, has so far been applied in different settings: a special education school, a primary school in an integration project with children with special needs, in development contexts such as in Croatia and in Mexico, where a new project is planned.

The strengths of this method can be found on three levels: (a) its originality and interdisciplinarity, that is, its blending different disciplines and activities (b) its flexibility and adaptability to different situations and environments, including the possibility to identify specific learning and production tasks for children with different attitudes, skills and learning needs; and finally (c) the fact that it only requires free software, which makes it “light” in terms of costs and infrastructure requirements.

The learning through digital storytelling method is currently being further developed, assessed and documented within the P.I.N.O.K.I.O. project, funded by the European Commission under the Lifelong Learning Program and by the indirect participation funds of the Swiss Secretariate for Education and Research.

Relevant references

Useful books

Egan, K. (1996). Teaching as Story Telling. An Alternative Approach to Teaching and Curriculum in the Elementary School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McKee, R. (1997). Story. Substance, Structure Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: Harper Collins.

OECD (2001). What Schools for the Future. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

Useful papers

Botturi, L., Bramani, C., & Corbino, S. (2010). Stories, Drawings and Digital Storytelling: a Voice for Children with Special Education Needs. In the 9th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children, Barcelona, Spain, June 9 – 12, 2010.

Gils, F. (2005). Potential applications of digital storytelling in education. In 3rd Twente Student Conference on IT, University of Twente, Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, Enschede, February 17–18.

McCrary, N. E. (2002). Investigating the use of narrative in affective learning on issues of social justice. Theory and Research in Social Education, 30(2), 255–273.

Sadik, A. (2008). Digital storytelling: a meaningful technology-integrated approach for engaged student learning. Educational Technology, 56(4), 487-506.

Useful web sites

  • ArtWeaver
  • GIMP!
  • MovieMaker
  • Audacity
  • Jamendo
  • Creative Commons
  • LLP program


Collaborating Organisations: