Digital Stories in Leadership Education: Centering on the Voices of Students

By Natasha H. Chapman and Naliyah Kaya

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Natasha ChapmanNatasha Chapman has served as a leadership educator, practitioner, and administrator in higher education collectively for 15 years. As the Coordinator for Leadership Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, she provides direction and support to the design and delivery of undergraduate leadership courses and the Leadership Studies Minor and Certificate. Her scholarly interests include critical perspectives in leadership education, leadership educator identity, and transformative learning. She received her B.S. in Human Services from Black Hills State University, a M.A. in Educational Administration, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Higher Education, both from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Naliyah KayaNaliyah Kaya is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Montgomery College. Prior to her current position she served as the Coordinator for Multiracial & Native American Indian/Indigenous Student Involvement at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she also created a multiracial leadership course and facilitated TOTUS Spoken Word Experience — a social justice arts-based program. Her teaching and research interests are centered on the intersections of art and activism. She holds an A.A.S. from Shoreline Community College, a B.A. in Sociology from Hampton University, and an M.A. & Ph.D. in Sociology from George Mason University.


Digital storytelling is a multimodal approach to learning that promotes critical reflection, meaning-making, and perspective-taking. Digital stories encourage students to use personal narrative and lived experiences to explore, examine, and communicate beliefs and assumptions about leadership. Student voice is the vessel in which agency is given to examine and interrogate leadership constructs. This article shares the intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of introducing digital stories in the leadership classroom and provides an overview of a digital story assignment utilized in an identity-based leadership course.


The emergence of digital storytelling in education is attributed to the creative use of visual and textual images to enhance learning and foster critical inquiry and reflection (McClellan, 2006). Digital stories, which take the form of different learning modalities such as personal narratives, historical documentaries, and critical incident analyses, distinctly enable students to use their own “voice” not only to communicate their ideas to others, but also as the site for self-analysis and meaning-making (Chapman & McShay, 2018). Students choose a variety of sources to create a product that expresses how their thoughts, emotions, and subjective experiences compare to theory (Chapman & McShay, 2018; Kelly & Sihite, 2018), through a reflection process that, “grounds not only our actions but also our sense of who we are as leaders in an examined reality” (Preskill & Brookfield, 2009, p. 45).

Faculty who teach Leadership Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, utilize digital stories as a tool for critical reflection in several undergraduate courses. While assignments differ across courses, a shared outcome is that students use audio visual methods to analyze leadership phenomena by situating their own experience at the center. In digital storytelling, students are given agency to articulate, creatively represent, and critique how their lived experiences are shaped by history, social beliefs, and institutional systems; their stories become powerful learning platforms that support critical inquiry around identity (Chapman & McShay, 2018). The storyteller is required to make all the choices in an intentional, persistent, reflective process. Students carefully choose digital artifacts and re-evaluate their choices in a way that promotes deeper learning and understanding of the self (JISC, 2012; Sandars, Murray, & Pello, 2008).

For example, in a capstone course, students develop a digital story to describe their working definition of leadership and, more importantly, to demonstrate, through the use of audio, imagery, and narration, how they have come to this definition. Through carefully sequenced activities, students are asked to use this medium to document their own socialization and examine personal assumptions about leadership. Students apply their personal experiences and acquired knowledge to critique leadership concepts with the digital story serving as an avenue for reconstructing normative ideas. See Chapman and McShay (2018) for a full description of this assignment.

Digital stories also portray the lived experiences of students in ways that allow for acquisition of academic knowledge and engagement in dialogue about issues of diversity, leadership, and social justice (Chapman & McShay, 2018). Creating and sharing digital stories can foster social-cultural conversations that allow for honest and authentic conversations across differences and help to facilitate students’ capacities for socially responsible leadership (Dugan, Kodama, Correia, & Associates, 2013; Pendakur & Furr, 2016). These conversations allow students to practice essential interpersonal skills by suspending personal judgment, demonstrating openness to new ideas, and question-posing in an effort to broaden their own understanding about a particular condition or circumstance.

In an identity-based leadership course, the Cultural Self Portrait: Your Story-Your Truth digital story assignment was adapted from other digital and multimedia assignments (McShay, 2011; Jenkins, 2011) that highlights the benefits of digital storytelling described above. Through the assignment students are expected to:

  • Develop the active listening and communications skills necessary for engaging in critical dialogues across difference;
  • Become more aware of their salient identities and the intersections of those identities;
  • Identify and express their core values and beliefs and how they inform their attitudes and behaviors;
  • Conceptualize their own definition of leadership and articulate their leadership style(s); and
  • Demonstrate an understanding of how culture, family, community, and critical incidents have influenced their understanding and enactment of leadership.

The cultural self portrait was designed to emphasize the role of context, culture, history, and socialization as extremely powerful factors in shaping our views of self, others, and the world, specifically as it relates to leadership. Students are given the following prompts to develop the assignment:

  • Reflect upon your life experiences through the lenses of race and ethnicity, culture, nationality, language, gender, sexual orientation and sexual identity, social class, ability and disability, religion and spirituality, and any other lens you wish to include.
  • Consider the ways in which you define and conceptualize leadership and who you consider to be a leader and why.
  • Identify 2-4 critical incidents that have influenced your self-identity and views on leadership. These may be positive or negative experiences. You are encouraged to select an incident that made you aware of the intersection of multiple identities (e.g., gender, race, and class…). When recounting the critical incidents, you should situate the audience by addressing the questions of: when and where the incident took place; why you believe it took place; how it made you feel; and how it affected you, your relationships with others (e.g., family members, members of a particular racial category…), and your notions of leadership.

A necessary aspect of the digital story experience is in the presentation of stories, providing a space where peers can critique, discuss, and co-construct knowledge. It is essential to prepare and challenge students to be curious, seek clarity, and to apply a critical lens to have deep, meaningful outcomes. Participating in the complete storytelling experience engages students and their peers in developing competencies helpful in the practice of leadership as it facilitates social learning, fosters perspective taking, encourages sharing and receiving of feedback, and promotes emotional intelligence (Robin, 2008; Rossiter & Garcia, 2010).

When presenting cultural self-portraits, students are given 10-15 minutes followed by a five-minute question and answer period with classmates. Originally the assignment was designed as a final project. Student feedback suggested that they frequently found points of commonality and shared experience that could have enhanced their interactions and understanding of one other. Now, presentations begin mid-semester with one or two portraits presented at the beginning of each class.

Student evaluations of this assignment further communicated that self-efficacy to engage in difficult conversations, understanding of diverse viewpoints, and ability to identify points of commonality across difference had improved. The following quotes convey these sentiments:

I will most remember the cultural self portraits and the discussions that we had in class. I have learned so much… about race and I feel more comfortable… joining the conversation… to speak up and ask questions even when [I] feel ignorant about an issue.
…it was important to see so many people from so many different places come together and share their experiences and hold different opinions without any form of conflict.
I think this is the most important takeaway: no matter how different we look or seem to be or how different our upbringings may be, we all have something in common and we’re all human. There is always a way to connect with someone…

As evident in the student reflections, the sharing component of digital storytelling spurs dialogue that inspires further reflection for the creator while stimulating reflection for the audience. When intentionally framed, story time can foster opportunities to interrogate who is leader or what is leadership, co-construct knowledge, and promote empathy. For example, when presenting his cultural self portrait, a student shared that his parent was the greatest leader he knew, citing their unwavering support and presence, in spite of having an alcohol addiction. Although classmates and close friends communicated surprise when learning this information, it demonstrates how the assignment can provide students with the space to be authentic, deepen peer-to-peer relationships, and help students understand one another as complex individuals.

It is helpful to remember that the purpose of digital storytelling is to facilitate reflection and deeper learning (Sandars, et al., 2008). While the final deliverable provides an avenue for sharing one’s leadership ideas, it is the processes of creating and sharing in response to big leadership questions that is most important (Chapman & McShay, 2018). Below are additional considerations to enhance the digital story experience:

  • Establish rapport and trust prior to sharing digital stories. This takes time and intention on behalf of all participants, but a good place to start is through the creation of a community learning agreement — a document of shared expectations such as, what’s shared in the class stays in the class unless given explicit permission to share outside the community. Prepare students to ask provocative questions and productively give and receive peer feedback.
  • Students’ level of digital literacy and access may vary. Sharing resources with students that encourage a high-quality end product (e.g., access to software, specific assignment parameters, tutorials), while giving more weight to one’s clarity of voice and choice of content, may help minimize the stress placed on technical rather than content-related aspects of the assignment. Providing both high tech and low tech options is another approach.
  • Provide students with opportunities to organize ideas. The iteration process initiates the reflection cycle. Creating scripts or storyboards allows students to arrange their imagery, audio, and other story elements in chronological order. Incorporate in-class work time. This promotes co-learning and provides opportunities for classmates to collaborate on the creative process and assist those who are unfamiliar with software.

Owen (2015) posed the question, “how might leadership educators embrace deliberative dialogue and the collective creation of knowledge?” (p. 15). Digital stories are useful learning tools because they build metacognitive skills through critical reflection, empower students as knowledge keepers, and affirm one’s lived experience as valuable. Digital stories serve as critical platforms that highlight authenticity, realism, and diversity of experience, priming classrooms for complex and dynamic conversations around leadership (McShay, 2010).


Chapman, N. H., & McShay, J. C. (2018). Digital Stories: A Critical Pedagogical Tool in Leadership Education. In B. T. Kelly & C. A. Kortegast (Eds.), Engaging Images: Utilizing Visuals to Understand and Promote Student Development Research, Pedagogy, and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Dugan, J. P., Kodama, C., Correia, B., & Associates. (2013). Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership Insight Report: Leadership Program Delivery. College Park, MD: National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

Jenkins, T. (2011). Cultural Leadership [Syllabus]. Fairfax, VA: Syllabus for Cultural Leadership. Higher Education & Integrative Studies, George Mason University.

Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), Leeds Metropolitan University, and the University of Leeds. (2012). Digital Approaches to Academic Reflection. Retrieved from http://content.yudu.com/Library/A1pi1i/Digitalapproachestoa/resources/1.htm

Kelly, B. T., & Sihite, E. U. (2018). Overview of the Use of Visual Methods in Pedagogy. In B.T. Kelly & C.A. Kortegast (Eds.), Engaging Images: Utilizing Visuals to Understand and Promote Student Development Research, Pedagogy, and Practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

McClellan, H. (2006). Digital Storytelling in Higher Education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(1), 65–79.

McShay, J. (2011). Multicultural Practice In Student Affairs: Self, Education, and Society. [Syllabus]. College Park, MD: Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park.

McShay, J. (2010). Digital Stories for Critical Multicultural Education: A Freireian Approach. In S. May & C. Sleeter (Eds.), Critical Multiculturalism: Theory and Praxis (pp. 139–150). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Owen, J. E. (2015). Transforming Leadership Development for Significant Learning. New Directions for Student Leadership, 145, 7–17.

Pendakur, V., & Furr, S. C. (2016). Critical Leadership Pedagogy: Engaging Power, Identity, and Culture in Leadership Education for College Students of Color. New Directions for Higher Education, 174, 45–55.

Preskill S., & Brookfield, S. D. (2009). Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons From the Struggle for Social Justice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Robin, B. (2008). Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the 21st Century Classroom. Theory Into Practice, 47, 220–228.

Rossiter, M., & Garcia, P. A. (2010). Digital Storytelling: A New Player on the Narrative Field. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 126, 37–48.

Sandars, J., Murray, C., & Pellow, A. (2008). Twelve Tips for Using Digital Storytelling to Promote Reflective Learning by Medical Students. Medical Teacher, 30(8), 774–777.

About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at pauseforpedagogy@ila-net.com

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at lmendersby@gmail.com.

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