03 March 2020 | Story Michelle Nöthling | Photo Supplied
Digital Storytelling
Universities, non-profit organisations, and community members collaborated in the recent symposium, Scholarship of Engagement through Digital Storytelling for the Common Good, hosted by the UFS. From the left, are Julie Adair (Glasgow Caledonian University), Prof Puleng LenkaBula (UFS), Prof Lesley Wood (NWU), and Prof Boiphelo Marilyn Setlalentoa (NWU).

A symposium that bridges the divide between academics and the community? This may sound like a contradiction in terms. However, this is exactly what the Directorate: Community Engagement and the Centre for Development Support at the University of the Free State (UFS) recently achieved. For the symposium, Scholarship of Engagement through Digital Storytelling for the Common Good, these two units at the UFS partnered to host a truly collaborative forum between international and local academics, NPOs, government officials, and Bloemfontein community members. For two days, from 26 to 27 February 2020, ideas and knowledge were exchanged on how to initiate and sustain social innovation and change.

Speaking on the topic of engaged scholarship, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Vice-Rector: Institutional Change, Student Affairs, and Community Engagement at the UFS, remarked that “universities are not ivory towers that are disengaged in the lives and the well-being of their societies”. It is for this reason, therefore, that this symposium offered the opportunity to investigate the area of overlap between community involvement, social innovation, and digital storytelling in order to enhance engaged scholarship. 

Communities sharing knowledge

Karen Venter, Assistant Director: Community Engagement at the UFS, explained that ‘community’ not only refers to a group of people in a certain geographic location, but that communities are also formed on the basis of shared knowledge, values, experiences, or traditions. Engagement requires academics and students to build lasting relationships with people in the various communities in order to accomplish shared goals. These shared goals commonly include learning and research but should also span boundaries to cultivate multi-directional knowledge-sharing and even creating new courses with the input of the community. Ultimately, these interactions should enhance and benefit all participants equally in a relationship of shared power – a learning together through true reciprocity.

The second pillar of the symposium – the concept of social innovation – was introduced by Adelaide Sheik from the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Social Economy. Social innovation refers to those products, services, models, markets, and processes that offer effective and sustainable solutions for social and environmental problems. “The concept of social innovation,” Sheik said, “focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value.” It is through partnering with institutions such as universities that these social solutions and values can find a bedrock in which to flourish through the sharing of skills and expertise.

Enhancing digital skills, informing scholarship, and sharing ideas 

Perhaps the golden thread that tied all the elements of the symposium together was digital storytelling. Julie Adair, Director of Digital Collaboration at Glasgow Caledonian University, and leader of the Common Good First project, underscored the great potential of digital storytelling – especially in higher education. Essentially, digital storytelling is a first-person narrative created by means of recorded voice, images, music, and sounds. Participants come together in a small facilitated story circle and share their experiences in an emotionally safe environment. Within these circles, participants then co-collaborate to shape and develop each other’s stories into personal scripts. Each participant is guided in the process to record and edit their script into a digital story, which is then shared among the group, or subsequently with even bigger audiences. In support of this initiative, the UFS Centre for Development Support recently opened a digital storytelling lab. As a methodology, digital storytelling is greatly adaptable to different contexts, giving voice to lived experiences. It is for this reason that digital storytelling is an excellent tool for identifying community needs, enhancing digital skills, informing scholarship, and sharing ideas. 

The success of the symposium can surely be measured against the response of the participants. In a mutually supportive environment, new networks were fostered between academics, community members, and NPOs, with renewed hope of finding solutions together.

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