Sharing love: stories, multimodal communication & virtual learning environments

Embracing Multimodality: Experiencing Stories in Virtual Learning Environments

Storytelling can be performed through different media and with different purposes and is considered the oldest form of education. Similarly, virtual learning experiences  can be performed through different media and with different purposes, and it is regarded as the newest form of education. Nowadays, thanks to the unlimited possibilities at our disposal for communicating, we can develop, share and co-create storytelling on a multitude of online platforms. (Gomez-Diago, 2016) Storytelling and virtual learning experiences share commonalities including roots in the pursuit of social-emotional connection, building knowledge & understanding, entertaining, and creating that are informed by and experienced through multiple literacies. The inquiry questions guiding this literature review are: 

  • What are the possibilities for actively experiencing stories? 
  • In what ways do young children demonstrate their competency, curiosity and desire for connection in virtual learning contexts? How can educators and families support this?
  • How do issues of equitable access to technology & technological skills, and teacher training impact children’s experiences with stories and virtual learning environments?

Positionality Statement

I am a 39 year-old white, able-bodied,  English-speaking, middle class, heterosexual, cis-gender female. I am a Yoga practitioner influenced by the natural world, along with spiritual and physical practices and stories rooted in Yogic traditions. In a professional capacity, I identify as an independent virtual early childhood educator, Yoga instructor, graduate student, small business owner and artist.  My professional identity as an educator is rooted in curiosity, creativity and compassion; these are qualities that also make up my personal identity. I believe that stories, in all forms, are valuable tools for nurturing connections with people and ideas. My privileges- particularly around socio-economic status, physical ability, job classification and education- provide a safe space to participate in opportunities for growth and reflection. This feeling of safety affords me the ability to focus and freely experiment with new approaches and ideas- things that are crucial in my teaching practice.  In my action research I’m exploring ways of realizing Reggio-inspired teaching practices in the all-virtual learning environment of Outschool. Within this exploration I am observing how children ages 3-6 naturally engage in storytelling and story acting, and how these activities utilize and enhance multiple literacies.

Review of Literature

The review of literature presented in this paper explores connections between stories and virtual learning environments, through the lens of multimodality, while considering the ways in which nurturing multiple literacies fosters active, empowered engagement with stories and tech-enabled learning environments. Research indicates a growing awareness in the field of Early Childhood Education (ECE) of the role of multiple literacies in young children’s learning, yet there appears to be a divide in how literacies beyond reading and writing are valued and encountered in early childhood contexts. Although virtual ECE learning environments are an emerging subfield of ECE and largely under-researched, this paper offers an exploration of media, technological and digital literacies as it relates to children, family and educator engagement with technology-enabled learning environments. 

Multimodality in Early Childhood Education

According to the Oxford Reference, multimodality is the use of more than one semiotic mode in meaning-making, communication, and representation generally, or in a specific situation. Such modes include all forms of verbal, nonverbal, and contextual communication. Multimodal literacy refers to awareness and effective use of this range of modalities. This research paper examines multimodality as it relates to building connections- cognitively, socially and emotionally- through active participation in exploration of stories and virtual learning experiences.

Historically, literacy has meant giving meaning to and getting meaning from printed text. However, sociocultural research has emphasized action and multimodality (Kress, 2011), when considering literacy skills and the ways we make meaning through sensory modes like image, gaze, talk, movement, sound, and sound effects. (Wessel-Powell, Kargin & Wohlwend, 2016). In spite of this, in many learning contexts, children’s literacy abilities are assessed solely based on what they can write on paper, overlooking the dynamic ways children convey meaning through multiple communication modes like sound effects, gesture, movement, images, and language in their storytelling.

The literature also recognizes play as an important literacy and suggests  that a multimodal emphasis in teaching and assessment more closely matches the ways children learn and make meaning in their everyday lives. (Wessel-Powell,Kargin,& Wohlwend 2016)  

Research indicates that the shift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired more ECE educators to focus attention on multimodal communication; namely in the actions of children that occur during live video conferences including  sound, gesture, movement and images. For some educators this meant honoring children’s desire  to move away from the screen during interactive virtual sessions, similar to the way they honor a child’s decision to choose a certain area to explore in the physical classroom.  The sudden shift to online learning also illuminated challenges faced by families who did not have prior knowledge or training in ways of effectively supporting children’s multimodal communication and multiple literacies at home.

Active, Multimodal Engagement with Stories and Learning Environments

Children’s flexibility in using different semiotic modes in their meaning-making process facilitates social, emotional, and cognitive development (Dooley and Matthews 2009; Kress 2009). When considering factors within and contributing to children’s learning experiences it is vital to acknowledge that children are far from passive recipients, or that only one ‘literacy’ exists (Daniels 2016). This directly relates to the quality of children’s experiences with stories and virtual learning. The literature suggests the  importance  of  valuing  young children’s voices as storytellers and creating a fluid and dynamic literacy atmosphere where young children explore their voice in exciting, intriguing, and multimodal ways (Jung Kim, Hachey 2020). Storytelling and story acting exist in both physical and virtual learning contexts; in both contexts experiences with these are enhanced when  educators recognize the value of children’s multimodal strategies for expression and meaning making.

Critical literacy practices such as counter storytelling offer one such path to active multimodal engagement with stories. In Kim and Hachey’s 2020 study on the topic of engaging preschoolers with critical literacy through counter‐storytelling they note, 

By having children participate in guided discussion and creation of their own stories, early childhood teachers can help children expand perspectives to allow the viewing of typical events in atypical ways. Thus, it is important that, when early childhood teachers involve young children in counter-storytelling activities, they create a fluid and multifaceted space where young children freely share their ideas. It is also crucial that they understand the transformative power of telling a story that reflects one’s own experiences, and acknowledge the “funds of knowledge” that preschoolers bring to a literacy learning experience [i.e., the prior knowledge young children already have because of their roles in their families, communities, and cultures] (Gonzalez et al. 2005).(p.643)

Digital Literacy and Stories

Another path to active, multimodal engagement with stories is the practice of creating and/or experiencing digital stories. This path can also be successfully realized in a physical or virtual learning environment with the support of technology and related literacies.  Children have the capacity to be active, empowered protagonists in their relationships with modern technologies. In my action research, alongside children ages 3-6 in the virtual classroom, children engage with stories in the following ways: drawing and verbalizing details related to the action and/or characters within the drawing; telling stories about events, people or things; discussing books or stories through a critical literacy lens; and contributing ideas, words and drawings to class story projects.

 In this era of technology-enabled communication through smartphones, tablets, computers, video conferencing and the internet, considering the ways in which young children naturally engage in multimodal communication is perhaps more important than ever. Skills under the umbrella of digital literacy, a phrase sometimes employed to encompass both technology and media literacy, are of particular interest within this research.  Many thinkers regard digital, media and technological literacies,  along with social-emotional literacies, among the most necessary skills for successful communication and understanding  in contemporary personal, professional and academic relationships. Couros (2021) states, “If technology was used to encourage social learning, foster collaboration, and nurture creativity in the classroom, I believe more people would be excited about and supportive of technology in education.” As noted in the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC ) and Fred Rogers Center Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media in Early Childhood Programs, “When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development.” 

With greater availability and accessibility of digital technology, the screen now takes a central place in public communications and increasingly in educational settings, changing the ways in which reading and writing are understood. (Bearne 2009) Even before the global shift to virtual learning,  trends indicated that digital technologies are changing the literacy practices being developed by children. By employing sophisticated transmedia navigation skills, learners of all ages are able to create digital texts that feature drawing, writing, animation, and sound. (Husbye, Buchholz,Coggin, Powell & Wohlwend 2012)  Jenkins (2006) explains transmedia navigation as ‘the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities… Transmedia stories at the most basic level are stories told across multiple media’.

Malaguzzi emphasized the symbolic, haptic and emotional potential for building relationships through technological play and viewed computer literacy as just another of the hundred languages of children. He saw potential for children’s self-awareness, pleasure and gratification in learning how to manipulate, respond to and communicate with computers (Malaguzzi 2012).  

Along with an increasing role of digital technology in children’s lives, comes the call for literacy development that extends beyond the traditional areas of reading and writing. Digital literacy involves a complex set of component skills that include the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, and communicate texts that are written, printed and digital (Eshet 2012).

The digital tools needed for digital storytelling—computers, smart phones, audio capture devices—have become more accessible (Maureen, van der Meij & de Jong, 2020) for many; the combination of oral storytelling with audio, images, and various digital tools has led to what is now called digital storytelling (Barber 2016). Robin (2008) asserts:.

Digital storytelling means using technology properly to tell a story. To create a digitized story, designers should pay special attention to personalization. Digital storytelling should adopt a specific point of view, contain a dramatic question, and have emotional content to personalize the content of the story. Moreover, in digital storytelling the gift of voice, power of soundtrack, economy, and pacing need to be attended to in design to personalize the delivery of the story. All together, these make up the seven elements or features of digital storytelling.

Play and Stories

When storytelling is combined with play-based activities, it has the potential to nurture multiple literacies, including digital. The literature shows that frameworks offering a blend of structured instruction with storytelling and play-based activities, both in oral and digital forms, effectively support children’s literacy and digital literacy development (Maureen, van der Meij & de Jong, 2020). 

Virtual Learning Environments

In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic moved thousands of children and educators to virtual learning environments, largely guided by schools and educators without defined plans for presentation of content or strategies for engagement. While this is an emerging area of research, the literature indicates that during this time many educators embraced the opportunity to innovate and transform existing ECE strategies, including exploration of stories and consideration of multiple literacies, for the virtual space. 

It is important to note that many educators and families struggle to find harmony and empowered engagement  in virtual learning environments. Research indicates this primarily relates to issues of access to functional technological tools and/or skills, and reliable internet for children, families and teachers; as well as issues of access to technical skills training and online teaching experience for teachers (Szente 2020, Hu 2021) and social-emotional concerns for children and adults. Szente’s 2020 study of live Zoom instructional lessons with toddlers and preschoolers resulted in findings related to the quality of engagement, noting the effects of  group size,  “When there were more than 10-15 students in the preschool meeting, children had fewer turns, were less actively engaged, and seemed to be losing their interest in the activities sooner.”

Play and Technology

The literature recognizes that the separation of play and technologies in ECE persists despite rapid advances in the pace of digitisation in post-industrial societies (Hobbs 2010) and the consequent need for young children to develop ‘new’ skills in reading, navigating and participating in highly digitally-mediated environments (Bittman et al. 2011). Current questions around the quality of virtual ECE learning experiences suggests that new ways of thinking about play and technology are needed to address the gap between pedagogical perspectives on play and the use of technologies in ECE so that ECE is better equipped to support children’s learning.

Considering the evolution of technology, along with the evolution of learning environments, the historically-dynamic relationship between knowledge, tools and development means that generational knowledge creates tools that result in different developmental contexts for the enactment of children’s play  (Rogoff 2003).  Edwards (2013) relates this the digital revolution, and adaptation of scientific knowledge serving  to reconfigure available cultural tools, including the availability of digital technologies, media and different forms of communication for young children. Edwards (2013) notes how this potentially necessitated new forms of development and hence newly emerging types of play. 

Children’s literacies evolve alongside the dynamic relationships between knowledge, tools and development and their play is an indication of this evolution. Contemporary research illuminates this by noting how children play technology-enabled learning environments, such as Zoom, in ways that include exuberantly experimenting with 1.) the camera on their Zoom device in ways that include altering the angle & placement, their distance from it & their placement in the frame, modifying the distance between it and objects, turning camera on & off  2.) the microphone on their Zoom devices including distance from it, volume, capturing the sound of objects 3.) annotation functions including text, emoji and drawing tools 4.) virtual backgrounds.

The quality of experiences in any learning environment correlates with how the space is designed and met by the participants.  Educational space has been recognized as highly impactful on learning outcomes. Burnett (2013) suggests that teachers’ and learners’ experience of space, the activities they engage in, and the discourses that pattern those activities all help to create the quality of those spaces. Space here is seen as socially produced by the people that inhabit that space (Daniels 2016). Tech-enabled learning environments exist in physical and virtual spaces, including synchronous and asynchronous interaction, and all depend heavily on the skills of educators and accessibility considerations for children and families. 

The literature indicates that, regardless of the quality or style of experience, in all iterations of virtual learning environments the goals of building multiple literacy skills and community are present, and stories are often at the core of these efforts. (Szente 2020, Hatch 2021, Hu 2021) 

Social-emotional Literacy and Stories

Healthy social-emotional development is promoted by building a safe, secure and respectful environment in an early childhood setting with positive and consistent relationships among adults, children, and their peers (Wright, Diener,  & Kemp 2013). These relationships exist in virtual and in-person learning environments  and hold deep value, regardless of the spatial characteristics of the context.

Stories function as tools for fostering connections with people, concepts, place and skills; studies indicate that  storytelling dramas provide opportunities to build community within the context of early childhood classrooms. Results from one such study showed that the storytelling drama activity provided opportunities to promote community building through four emerging themes: (1) individual roles, (2) group membership, (3) inclusion, and (4) relationship building. (Wright, Diener,  & Kemp 2013) Karjalainen (2019) explores the connections between social-emotional literacies and stories, centering the reflection around shared experiences of joy:

 Joyful moments in ECE settings are considered to be relationally lived and co-narrated everyday narratives connected to broader cultural, social, familial and institutional narratives. Everyday narratives offer multiple insights into the shared moments of joy among teachers and children in ECE settings. Everyday narratives do not emerge from nowhere; instead, teachers and children actively narrate joy in multiple ways and in relationship with each other.(p.141)

Equitable Access and Empowered Engagement

Similar barriers exist around opportunities for empowered engagement with stories and virtual learning, apparently stemming from how multimodal communication strategies are embraced or excluded by teachers, or adults connected to these learning experiences. Research suggests that some early childhood teachers do not incorporate opportunities that encourage active, empowered participation, such as counter-storytelling, as a literacy instruction resource in their classrooms, primarily due to their own lack of experience and knowledge of counter-storytelling strategies (Kim, Hachey 2021). Similarly,  lack of experience and knowledge along with barriers to access to technology,  also drives  why some educators feel uncomfortable implementing virtual learning experiences.  

The benefits of using technology, for children and society, include opportunities for innovation, creativity, and conceptual and social connection. When technology is intentionally included in learning experiences, these opportunities emerge and expand. Intention includes an openness to experimentation, as Vecchi (2012) states, “The digital experience is much too often exhausted simply in its functional and technical form. However, in addition to its technical aspect, if it is also used in creative and imaginative ways, it reveals a high level of expressive cognitive, and social potentials as well as great possibilities for evolution.”

Considering the above-mentioned realities within the question of how can educators embrace multimodality as it relates to experiencing stories in virtual learning environments, it seems the bigger question is how can schools support educators in their understanding of and relationship with digital literacies? 

According to NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center’s 2012 position statement, “Early childhood educators need training, professional development opportunities, and examples of successful practice to develop the technology and media knowledge, skills, and experience needed to meet the expectations set forth in this statement.” This remains true in 2021. The 2012 position statement offers guidance around technology and interactive media as tools for children from birth through age eight; “When the integration of technology and interactive media in early childhood programs is built upon solid developmental foundations, and early childhood professionals are aware of both the challenges and the opportunities, educators are positioned to improve program quality by intentionally leveraging the potential of technology and media for the benefit of every child.”

 The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) released  Technology Standards for Students in 2016 that emphasizes the ways technology can be used to enhance and transform learning and teaching. ISTE champions  teacher education and recently offered a free resource for online k-12 educators that includes guidance for “making learning accessible, using tech tools to teach online, exploring issues such as equity, digital literacy, and more.” These offerings are flanked by sections that encourage “creativity, well-being and Mindfulness.” The guidebook notes,. “Digital storytelling offers a way for students to make something unique and authentic to represent their understanding of the content material. Empowering today’s learners to make decisions about the means to communicate this information back to us is important for them in developing critical future-ready skills. Relatedly, digital storytelling provides opportunities to address such ISTE Standards for Students as Creative Communicator, Computational Thinker, and Innovative Designer.” (McNamara p.101)

Conclusion

There are notable similarities between stories and virtual learning; namely the implications for learning related to the quality of engagement, and potential to foster connections and nurture multimodal communication and multiple literacies. In relation to engagement and empowered use of technology Courous notes, “There is a strong difference between “engaging” a student and “empowering” them.  “Engagement” to me, seems like something that we often try to provide for our students, yet “empowerment” seems to be focusing on having students provide for themselves.” Courous goes on to assert the importance of the role of the educator in this equation, “ If we can develop meaningful learning opportunities that empower our students to make a difference, our impact will go beyond their time they spent in our classrooms.  Technology alone will never provide this.  We need great educators that think differently about the opportunities we now have in our world and will take advantage of what we have in front of us, and help to create these experiences for our students to do something powerful.”

The literature on the topics of active engagement with multimodal communication strategies in relation to stories and virtual learning  indicates that learning experiences are impacted by issues of equitable access to technology (including devices, related skills, internet access), teacher proficiencies and teacher training. “Children are both consumers, creators and distributors of media, tools and technology. As such, very young children are not becoming people – they are people.” (Alper 2011 p.188) As people, young children have a right to engage in contemporary literacies, and thus the right to be supported by educators who are capable and competent in these skills. 

Although preschools historically had barriers to integrating technologies into their teaching due to the insufficient technological resources, school support,personal experience and pedagogical skills (Hu & Yelland, 2017; Plowman et al.,2010) the online teaching experiences stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic may change school vision of technology integration for young children based on experience and feedback (Hu 2021). This intensive period of adopting technologies in preschools has forced changes in the preschool culture and technology integration approaches and EC educators answered the call while keeping children’s wellbeing and learning at heart (Hu 2021, Mahoney 2021). Hence, the consideration of children’s active learning and support for parents, educators and schools  is essential for creating viable online and technology-enabled learning experiences. (Hu 2021) 

Literature indicates that when virtual learning experiences are presented by educators who maintain a positive, encouraging, supportive and solution-oriented mindset; and when children have a strong support network, young children are able to interact, articulate their ideas and thoughts, make suggestions, develop preferences, and participate in decision-making virtually (Mahoney 2021). 

Considering the abundance of existing demands on educators, further research is needed to determine what type of training is best for supporting early childhood educators’ learning about  integrating practices that encourage empowered engagement, particularly as it relates to digital literacies and critical literacy. Furthermore, what are the possibilities for incorporating interactive virtual learning tools in ECE moving forward?

The ‘democratization of documentation’ described by Forman (2012) speaks to positive impacts of technology on society.  The enhanced visibility of children’s learning and the work being done by Early Childhood Educators, including supporting empowered engagement with multiple literacies, is more easily shared because of technology. When educators model and facilitate active, empowered use of technology and related literacies this has the potential to carry into the children’s home lives, and hopefully inspire an empowered, lifelong learner mindset for all.

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Published by Andrea Dupree

I'm a Graduate student (MA Innovative ECE), RYT/ Children's Yoga Teacher & Reggio-inspired educator facilitating classes on Outschool & artist ✨✌️

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