Digital Story Best Practices for Higher Education

By Haleigh Morgan and Kelsey Peters
Students in NMS 509: Digital Storytelling, Summer 2015

The rising cost of higher education paired with a difficult economy has many students and parents wondering whether college is still a worthy investment. To answer this question, several schools and nonprofit organizations are turning to forms of digital storytelling. The stories vary among institutions, but all share an underlying message – that college is worth it.

Before analyzing some top examples with regard to message, voice and mode, it is critical to first define digital storytelling. While concrete parameters do not exist today, the medium primarily emphasizes a personal experience narrative conveyed with photo, audio and/or video. In our research, we came across many success stories presented as third-person text essays littered with key messages and mission statements. These may serve as a first step, but they do not reflect the inherently raw and engaging spirit of the digital storytelling practice.

Rather than picking apart what does not fit digital storytelling criteria, we will focus on shining examples from the higher education community. With these examples, we will also present four best practices for your consideration in the planning and production phases.


Appeal to Diversity

Examples: UCLA We, The OptimistsProvidence Vantage Pointsucla

One of the great things about the college experience is exposure to diversity. However, many institutions struggle with articulating diversity in an authentic way. Personal narrative collections allow viewers to hear a range of perspectives – from the first-generation student to the single mom to the college athlete to the barrier-breaking alum. Many appeal to the idea that you may have a difficult road to starting – or completing – college, but you’re not the only one. Digital storytelling encourages identification with the subject or narrator.

Along with diverse voices, it’s also important to consider a range of story topics. Most prospective students are looking for more than just academics from a higher ed institution. Explore your school’s ties to the arts, sports, medicine, civic causes, community work, religion and study abroad opportunities. How do all of these experiences add value to one’s education?

UCLA’s We, The Optimists tells stories of people from all walks of life who have changed the world through science, civil rights, music and the list goes on. The one common denominator? A tie to UCLA. The school is inspiring prospective students by saying “Together, anything is possible.”

Speak in an Authentic Voice

Examples: Kaplan Success StoriesUND What They Say

During our review, it quickly became clear that a story was more engaging when it was told in the first-person. In this case, students speaking directly to students, donors talking to donors and so on. It was even better if the story branched beyond the institution to cover biographical details. This contributes to plot development and shows the subject’s growth rather than blatantly stating it. A great example of this is Kaplan Higher Education’s Success Stories, which are individual YouTube videos that focus more on the student’s life decisions rather than isolated views of the school experience.

Along with having the subject tell their story, encourage a conversational tone and avoid jargon. Specifically looking at financial aid, which can be a dry and complex topic, it’s easier to understand requirements and process when they are described in layman’s terms. The University of Notre Dame illustrates this technique with the What They Say story collection.


Leverage Available Resources

Examples: Cornell Life on the HillOberlin Stories ProjectLifeonthehill-homepage
Several institutions have put in the time and funds to create high quality videos, which is great for viewers but not necessary per digital storytelling criteria. In fact, digital storytelling encourages production using personal, engaging photos and low-cost software like WeVideo. In addition, you do not need to hire writing staff if you are able to tap organization staff or clients for stories. Cornell University created “Life on the Hill,” a collection of uncensored student blogs, to share the Cornell experience with prospective students and parents. Cornell provides a small monthly stipend for a select group of students to post regularly via their chosen blog platform.

Oftentimes, creating a storytelling community doesn’t even require a stipend. You will see online buttons and portals encouraging readers to “submit your story.” As for driving traffic to stories, simply leverage your institutions channels. Demonstrate your organization’s value of stories by placing a link on the website’s home page and calling out the effort in social channels and newsletters.

Consider the Viewer

Examples: USC Financial Aid, SNHU Success Stories
Boiling down to the basic goal, higher ed institutions are focused on increasing enrollment, and most are targeting high school juniors and seniors. These 17- and 18-year-olds are not accessing websites on a desktop computer, but rather a phone or tablet. For optimal accessibility, it’s important your digital stories are presented in a mobile-friendly format, like USC’s Who Receives Financial Aid.

Along those same lines, attention spans are shortening so it’s important to keep stories and videos brief but interesting. Some of the best examples we found offer different styles of storytelling all in one place. For example, University of Notre Dame’s What They Say stories also include pulled quotes – the main highlights of the videos – next to the video imbed. That way if someone doesn’t want to or can’t watch the video, they can still find value in the page.

Finally, the content of the digital story is likely encouraging action, but give viewers an easy way to take that next step. Add share buttons, a comments area and links to additional resources (like program information or how to apply).

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but these four best practices will help you initiate necessary conversations as well as progress your storytelling strategies.