7 Student-Tested Digital Storytelling Tools

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 8.48.22 PMLast month, in my classroom version of DIY BYOD, my fifth-graders dove into the world of digital storytelling. I gave them two prompts: they could write about “going down the rabbit hole” (in honor of our reading of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), in other words, about the day everything changed; or they could write about “life lessons from the fifth grade.”
Learning by Doing
In the process, students bravely explored apps and tools they have never tried before. I introduced them to tools I was fairly familiar with, a few I had only tinkered with, and many I had only seen recommended by other educators. Some students mastered new apps with little trouble, while others tried and discarded several before we had finished our work – and even then, ended up with work that was less satisfying than what we had hoped for. My intrepid students (and supportive parents) persevered, however, and learned they could produce something in which they could take enormous pride.
The admonition of a fellow educator to “know your tool” rings in my ears as excellent advice when taking on a project like this. Yet, despite some frustrations and disappointments, our work with the unfamiliar was closer to true-life experience, and we all learned to explore, adapt, and adjust a result of this project.
I commend my students for their willingness to try out apps to find the ones that suited their personal style and story needs. I’m pleased to hear from some of their parents that their children have never been so excited about a school project as they have with our digital stories. We learned as much from our failures as we did from our successes and can offer this critique of our tools as a result. Because we were willing to test these applications together, we were able to collect information that may be helpful to other storytellers in the future.
StoryRobe ($.99): iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone
Despite my warning to my students that I knew nothing about this tool, several had great success with it on their own. It produced smooth integrations of images and voice-overs. Our only difficulty came with trying to share the videos, especially over weak wireless Internet connections. Because their files were too large to share, some videos were viewed only on the devices that created them. Others, however, arrived safely in my email inbox as MP4 attachments that could be uploaded elsewhere.
StoryKit (free): iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone
Only one student used this tool I’d had on my phone for a while, but not really played with much. She was happy with it. Her story was produced as a series of slides, with attached audio files, each of which required a button click to hear the voice-over. A link led me to the story, which looked something like the “print” page of a PowerPoint presentation.
VoiceThread (free: laptop, iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone, A ndroid)
This tool is an old friend, though I had not used it as a mobile app. It turned out to be the most reliable and easy to use, as well as the one that produced the most polished results. Students can easily upload images, record their voice-overs in sections (an advantage when the need arises for do-overs) and share their work via email link, embed code, or downloadable MP4 (the latter is an extra cost). I did have some difficulty using the phone app for Voicethread, which only allows for six seconds of audio with each slide, but we solved this problem easily by switching over to the web tool. One concern is the ease with which students can add images directly from the Internet (as with Educreations below), without using a filter for copyright-free or Creative Commons licensed images. However, this is offset by the opportunity to directly access images from the New York Public Library Gallery of “free and open images.” Also, the slide automatically links to the original source on the web, so that students can easily collect information for a photo credits page.

Animoto: (free, upgrade at a higher cost recommended): iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone, Google; laptop
I had hoped to set up an educator’s account to give my students more options and to allow students more time for video clips of them reading their stories, but the education program was discontinued just before we started production. Some students still chose Animoto, however, though they faced many difficulties in creating their digital stories. This is the only tool, other than iMovie, that included musical backgrounds, a highly attractive feature for students. On the other hand, my students had to use video to intersperse with their images (no voice-over feature seemed to be available), and these videos cut off after 10 seconds (even with a Plus account and $30 per year), so their stories came out nonsensical and sometimes out of order.
iMovie ($4.99, recommended for advanced users): iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone
Having worked with Apple’s iLife products in the past, I knew first-hand the power and versatility of these tools. Students can produce amazing videos with musical backgrounds and a range of transitions from slide to slide. However, I also knew how much time this tool can suck up, so I only recommended it to advanced users who were already familiar with it. (Besides, my classroom device is a PC.) The final result can be converted to MP4 format.
Photostory 3 (free with Windows, recommended for advanced users): PCs with Windows.
From what people tell me, this application compares favorably with iMovie for those who have PCs. I had one geeky student use this tool, with good results and no problems. My student shared his movie with me via USB drive, so I had to view it on my classroom PC, since I’m an Apple user at home.
Screenchomp (free): iPad
This iPad screencasting and virtual whiteboard tool allows users to upload images as background and add audio. It seems to be limited to one slide per recording, so this forces students to submit their slides as a group of what might be considered chapters. This simplicity might be nice for beginning storytellers – allowing for one image and one brief story – but it is limiting for longer, more complex works. Stories can be shared via email link or Tweet.
Educreations (free): iPad
Educreations works as a screencasting and virtual whiteboard tool, similar to Screenchomp. But it allows the storyteller to use more than one slide. I had one student even discover how to use his finger to create some nice animation effects. The problem with Educreations, however, is that you cannot create separate audio for each visual image – in other words, recording just continues as you move from one slide to the next. This means you have to get your audio right in one “shot,” so to speak, or you have to start over. A pause button helps, however. Many of my students chose this tool and loved the results, though they (and their parents) were frustrated with having to do the story over in many takes to get it just right. One other detail involves the ability to insert pictures directly from the Internet. Students might find this very convenient, but because I want my students to use copyright-free or Creative Commons licensed images, I worry that this might encourage them to overlook this step. A copyright-free or Creative Commons search filter would be a terrific addition to this tool. Otherwise, teachers will need to remind students to search for their pictures the old-fashioned way so that they can determine copyright eligibility and collect information for photo credits in the process.

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Lisa Noble

You rock, Susan! thanks so much for the hands-on, kid-tested reviews. this is much appreciated! My students are also fans of Storybird, but the images are provided for them there. Haikudeck is another iPad app that's free, and incredibly easy, although it's slides only.

Cynthia Slotten

Wow, great work and thank you for sharing Susan! I really enjoyed the Chihuahua Chase digital story. Your students inspire me (late Baby Boomer) to utilize digital storytelling in my communications work.

David Hochheiser

My kids love Sock Puppets, Toontastic, My Story, and Brainstormer.

Tamas Szakal

Hey Susan, Please try out tool too! Students and teachers just love it! Thanks!

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