This assignment was created for a First Year Writing Inquiry Seminar (FIQWS) at City College of New York. FIQWS is based on the principles and pedagogy of the learning community. Students are enrolled simultaneously in a topic course in which they learn about a specific subject, in this case “Truth, Fiction and Photography,” and a composition course in which they learn and practice composition skills. This assignment for the composition section asks students to apply what they are learning in the topic section to their personal experiences through a personal photograph and compose a digital story.
Based on Amy Robillard’s (2003) argument that composition instructors should teach the ways narrative and argument are interdependent, and Deborah Mutnick’s (1998) claim that drawing boundaries between academic and personal writing limits development, this assignment asks students share a personal narrative and analysis through a specific lens. In academia, “We ask our students to accept meaning that has already been created” (Robillard 2003, 76). The meaning I ask students to accept in this assignment is that photographs do not always document “truth.” Photography is subjective despite often being passed off as documentary evidence of a truth. The personal narrative in this assignment gives students agency by asking them to “create their own meanings from their own histories” (Robillard 2003, 76).
Breaking boundaries even further, this assignment links the creative and the intellectual (Benmayor 2008). The multimodality of the project gives even more agency to the students (Kitalong and Miner 2017). Not only are they empowered to tell their own stories, but also to choose music and images that help them tell that story, rather than being limited to a formal academic essay. This assignment gives students who are non-native English speakers, or whose learning style does not align with the traditional essay, a chance to shine and “to inscribe emerging social and cultural identities and challenge unified cultural discourses in a new and exciting way” (Benmayor 2008, 200).
The multimodality of this assignment requires more scaffolding than a traditional essay with each step encouraging students to think critically about the rhetorical choices they make. The project was broken down into four progressive parts over four weeks: a written narrative draft for peer review, the final narrative recorded, a storyboard, lastly a video incorporating all audio and visual components.
This class was held in an active learning classroom, and laptops were provided for all students. On the day the narrative recording and storyboard were due, I devoted the full class period to creating the videos so I could help if students had questions regarding the video editing software.
Since one of the main concerns with this project was technology access, I instructed students to use the free version of WeVideo, a cloud-based editor, ensuring students could work on their projects from any computer outside of class.
By scheduling this as the first assignment of the semester, it both utilized their writing skills and knowledge gained from the topic section, while also building community. As students were asked to analyze a personal photograph, they chose what aspect about themselves they wished to share with the instructor and the class. Students connected with each other based on common experiences. I, in turn, learned more about my students’ interests and challenges they face.
One student, often quiet in class, shared a picture of themself on a trip with a large group of people, narrating:
Many people may think I am such an outgoing person to go on the trip with a group of strangers. In reality, that is not true. I am a reserved and introverted person… Ever since I can remember I had a problem with making real friends.
I suddenly had context for this student’s reserved nature and was able to work with them from a new and pedagogically advantageous perspective.
Addressing the “fiction” of photography
The final products did an excellent job showcasing the “fiction” a photograph might portray in contrast to the truth behind the image. One student chose a photograph of themself at a dance studio, mid-dance move, highlighting:
Some might say that dance was easy due to the position I am holding … One of the things this photograph does not showcase is the amount of blood, sweat and tears I had to go through in order to be valued as a professional dancer.
Throughout the narration, the student used other verbal reminders like “in reality” or “one might assume” to demonstrate the idea of subjectivity in photographs. These were common phrases in many students’ narratives.
One student chose to write about their experiences with competitive fitness noting in the picture they looked happy and fit. They explained how open they were about sharing the positive aspects of their lifestyle when asked about how they achieved such incredible fitness goals. The tone of the narrative changed when the student wrote:
I was becoming a new person, but change is not always welcome if it affects how others interact with you. So eventually, many friends stopped calling me to go out and to eat or have drinks, since I would always say no; I missed out on a few family celebrations because I didn’t want to be around any food that I wasn’t allowed to have so I became very isolated.
With this shift in narrative tone, the music also shifted from an energetic song one might hear at the gym, to a more dramatic and serious song; the pictures also became more serious in nature, demonstrating rhetorical awareness in “[synthesizing] modes, genres, ideas, and skills” and practicing “more fluid and flexible” composition (Kitalong and Miner 2017, 40).
Many of the rough drafts of the narrations focused solely on telling the story behind the photograph rather than incorporating the analysis of truth versus fiction. I theorize the students leaned in this direction because personal narrative is familiar to them while the concepts of analyzing truth and fiction in photography were new. Much of my feedback consisted of asking questions to encourage students to apply this lens to their personal story and engage with their personal stories as though they were strangers to it. Most students skillfully incorporated this into the final project, though the concept proved challenging to some.
As these stories were being shared to the student’s digital writing portfolios on the CUNY Academic Commons, they were limited to using sound effects, music and supplemental images with creative commons licensing. Several envisioned their videos with a soundtrack of their favorite music, but instead spent a significant amount of time sifting through creative commons music to find what closely approximated the mood they were trying to create. Additionally, the stock photographs they used to supplement their personal photography did not always fit with what they were trying to convey.
This assignment can be adjusted to fit nearly any theme or topic, though it lent itself especially well to the visual medium of photography. Merging the personal and academic can bring to life any number of subjects for our students allowing them to engage with material in a way traditional composition simply cannot match on its own.
For your reference, here is the original assignment sheet used for this assignment.
Benmayor, Rina. 2008. “Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagogy for the New Humanities.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 7 (2): 188–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022208088648
Kitalong, Karla Saari, and Rebecca L. Miner. 2017. “Multimodal Composition Pedagogy Designed to Enhance Author’s Personal Agency: Lessons from Non-academic and Academic Composing Environments.” Computers and Composition 46 (December): 39–55. https://doi.org/10.1016.j.compcom.2017.09.007
Mutnick, Deborah. 1998. “Rethinking the Personal Narrative: Life-Writing and Composition Pedagogy.” In Under Construction, edited by Christine Farris and Chris M. Anson, 79–92. Louisville: University Press of Colorado.
Robillard, Amy. 2003. “It’s Time for Class: Toward a More Complex Pedagogy of Narrative.” College English 66 (1): 74–92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3594235
About the Author
Julia Brown has her Master’s degree in English with a writing studies emphasis and a minor in medical humanities from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is currently teaching writing and literature at Queensborough Community College and City College of New York. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at City College where she mentors faculty in digital pedagogy.
USC Annenberg School for Communication
In an effort to increase the local sustainability of a digital storytelling program in Indian public schools, the author piloted a professional development program to train young Muslim women and employ them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in Hyderabad. Drawing on this experience, and on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers, this article discusses the elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outlines the potential benefits of such locally sustainable training programs. The article concludes by presenting a set of best practices and lessons learned, which will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.
Before starting my doctoral studies, I worked in Hyderabad, India, as the field coordinator of The Modern Story (TMS), a non-profit organization that teaches digital storytelling to children of daily wageworkers from traditionally underserved religious and caste minorities. Through extensive fundraising, TMS donates cameras, computers, and multimedia equipment to public schools in India, and places young college graduates from all over the world as digital storytelling instructors in these classrooms. The young instructors – called TMS fellows – teach these students (aged 12-14) how to use photography and video to create and share stories of personal, social, and environmental relevance. The students select the topics themselves; past topics for these video projects have included educational opportunities for women, healthy nutrition, child labor, traffic safety, marriage and life choices, pollution, and other various issues that affect the students and their communities.
Figure 1. The Modern Story digital storytelling program, in the words of its students, fellows and teachers
In order to increase the local sustainability of the project – which was one of my main objectives as field coordinator – I piloted a professional development program whereby we recruited disempowered young Muslim women from the Hyderabad slums, trained them in digital media-making and, upon completion of the training process, employed them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in the city. Drawing on this training experience, as well as on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers in the pilot stage of the program, this article explores the social and cultural complexities associated with implementing such technology-based pedagogical initiatives for women in Indian Muslim communities. I will discuss the socio-cultural and economic elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outline the benefits that such tech-based training and employment interventions bring to the various social groups involved in the educational process. Finally, I will devote the last part of the article to presenting a set of best practices – as well as challenges, or lessons learned – that will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of future digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.
The Digital Training Process
Rationale and Genesis
Henry Jenkins (2006) identifies the “participation gap” as a principal challenge to the acquisition of digital skills and new media literacies, noting that this problem is particularly acute in economically or socially disempowered communities. Indeed, the participation gap goes beyond the scope of the oft-cited digital divide, and is described as the inequality of access to the full range of “opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow” (Jenkins et al. 2006, xii). In this research community, we most often talk about the participation gap in terms of the students’ acquisition of digital and information communication technology (ICT) skills, and yet, in my personal experience working in education in developing countries, I have found that it similarly applies to teachers as well, and especially to female educators coming from disempowered or underprivileged communities. Indeed, young female educators like our TMS trainees are subject to the same inequality of access that characterizes their students, and are most often denied the professional development opportunities that would allow them to take part in meaningful communities – digital and non-digital alike – and to cultivate the digital skills that they hope to pass on to their students.
Our initiative focused on Muslim communities at the expense of other social groups in Hyderabad, because of our understanding that women in these communities face a much wider array of obstacles in their personal and professional development. We believed that these women would thus benefit to a greater extent from a boost in self-efficacy and empowerment, as well as mastering practical ICT skills that would enhance their autonomy, social participation and future job marketability. Due to cultural restrictions limiting their mobility and their interactions with men, young Muslim women in the impoverished inner-city areas of Hyderabad do not usually get to benefit from ICT training programs or professional development opportunities. Instead of pursuing further studies or specializations, the vast majority of these young women take up full-time domestic work and handicrafts such as silk embroidery or jewelry-making, usually within the confines of their homes.
Since TMS had not worked with these Muslim communities before and thus had no direct experience with this group nor established relations of trust with the larger community, we were fortunate in finding an early partner in Technology for the People (TFTP), a Hyderabad-based NGO with a long track record of working with young women in inner-city Muslim areas. A paragon of social innovation, TFTP showcases the potential of capitalizing on the target population’s existing practical skills in order to help them gain new media literacies and digital skills. The organization taps into the creative potential of young Muslim women (aged 16 to 22), who are skilled in Henna tattooing and silk embroidery, by using this propensity for visual creativity and design to train them in multimedia software, digital design, and animation as a strategy of social and economic empowerment. Identifying our strikingly similar core values and objectives, TMS and TFTP collaborated to devise a symbiotic training and employment program that simultaneously aided two underserved population segments (young Muslim women and, respectively, female public school students), with a focus on education and job placement as closely linked processes.
The intensive month-long training module was designed to accomplish two main goals: the mastering of digital production skills (which included both hardware and software) and, respectively, the acquisition of pedagogical skills that would allow the young women to function as successful digital storytelling instructors in public schools.
Our first task was made considerably easier by the fact that TFTP had already offered these women practical training in graphic design, animation, and web design basics. As such, in terms of software, the young women were comfortable working in CorelDraw (for graphic design), 3DSMax (for 3D modeling), Flash (for animation), and basic HTML (for web design). Their experience with these programs translated, importantly, into an overall familiarity and intuitiveness with multimedia software in general, which could then be channeled into the specific area of digital storytelling production. Therefore, in addition to these extant skills, during their month-long TMS training they learned how to operate audiovisual hardware (specifically: digital cameras, video cameras, tripods, microphones, and other multimedia accessories), and how to use relevant software (primarily, Photoshop and PowerPoint for photography projects, and Windows Movie Maker for video storytelling).
The other key objective of the training module was to address the pedagogy of implementing such curricula in secondary schools. None of the trainees had any pedagogical experience, and our aim was to make them feel confident and comfortable in their role as teachers. We discussed the cornerstones of successful teaching – such as mutual respect, patience, and investment in students’ interests – that can be applied across disciplines and subject areas, but we also addressed, in more specific terms, the pedagogical requirements of digital storytelling programs. We talked about the elements of a good story and the transformation of narratives into digital stories; we discussed what makes an effective assignment, and how to encourage and guide students to convey the stories and topics that they find relevant in an audiovisual format.
Perhaps the most significant challenge during the training process was the language barrier: the training module was in English because the digital storytelling program that they would be teaching is in English as well, and is meant to simultaneously hone the students’ English-language proficiency in addition to their digital skills. However, at the beginning, the young women felt highly self-conscious about their English abilities, especially in front of me, a foreign trainer. Thus, a considerable amount of effort was devoted to encouraging them to express themselves assertively in English, and, by the end of the training, most of them had overcome their shyness with the language and were speaking it confidently.
To assess the effectiveness of the training program and to gauge their comfort as digital storytelling instructors, I designed two final assignments that all trainees completed. The first assignment was to create a digital story, using their newly acquired hardware and software skills. The young women chose to focus this digital story on the educational activities of TFTP and their training in graphic design at the TFTP center. The resulting video story – conceived, written, filmed, and edited entirely by the trainees – is embedded below:
Figure 2. The young women’s first digital assignment: A video introduction to Technology for the People (TFTP)
The second assignment was meant to assess their pedagogical skills, and determine whether they felt confident in teaching these skills to younger students. For this assignment, we identified a local orphanage that was in need of volunteer instructors and whose children would benefit from an introductory course in digital media-making. The young women then did a week of practical training at this orphanage, teaching an abbreviated digital storytelling course to a cohort of around twenty children. They taught the children the basics of using digital cameras and video cameras, although time did not allow for an in-depth video editing tutorial. The novice teachers really enjoyed working with these children, and the feeling was certainly mutual: when the women left, on their last day of teaching, the children were mischievously blocking their way out, saying “Don’t go, sisters, teach us more!”
Figure 3. The TMS trainees showing the children how to use digital cameras, as part of their practical training at a local orphanage
Throughout the training process, the young women proved to have a deep yearning for learning and self-betterment and often had to overcome substantial obstacles to attend the TFTP and TMS training sessions: many of them commuted for hours by bus to reach the center, and many had to defy their families in order to continue with the professional development program. But in spite of the women’s desire and drive, we had a difficult time recruiting trainees in these patriarchal communities, and convincing their families to allow them to commit to a year of employment as teachers proved to be an even harder task. Therefore, following the training phase, we selected two young women – Asma (age 19) and Neha (age 20) – to participate in the pilot employment program at the secondary schools, on the basis of their commitment to the training, their heightened interest in teaching, and, last but not least, their families’ willingness to let them follow through with a year of employment in public secondary schools. Following the procurement of written permissions from their families, Asma and Neha signed a one-year contract – which, given their enthusiasm and excellent performance, has since been renewed every academic year – and were placed in an all-female public school to work as digital storytelling instructors alongside our own TMS foreign teachers.
Together with the foreign TMS fellows, the young Muslim women teach a digital storytelling curriculum focused on the acquisition of ICT and multimedia skills, as well as English language proficiency and an understanding of social justice issues affecting the students’ communities. The course begins with a theoretical exploration of storytelling (oral, written and digital) and of the elements of a story. Once this foundation is laid, the students are taught how to use digital cameras, upload and manipulate photographs, and use these pictures to create stories, primarily in Microsoft PowerPoint. After they master the photography module, the remainder of the course focuses on using the video camera to create and share more complex narratives around topics of personal, social or environmental significance. Some of the practical video skills they learn are: conducting interviews, recording voiceovers, filming via specific camera angles, editing sound and video, uploading footage, publishing and sharing digital stories. As an illustration of their work, the video below, produced under the supervision of Asma and Neha, addresses the topic of what it feels like to be a young girl in today’s India:
Figure 4. “Who We Are: Being a Girl in Modern India”: A digital story produced by the students of Railway Girls High School, Hyderabad.
Benefits for All
Teaching these young Muslim women how to use technologies of such current relevance and to hone their digital skills is an enormous step forward in their individual empowerment, professional development, and economic independence. However, the manner in which the training and employment program is designed extends the range of social benefits to the other groups involved in the process as well, enhancing the potential for positive change at a variety of levels. Thus, the women’s involvement in this program also benefits, as I shall explain in this section, the young secondary school students, the TMS fellows, and – through a significant ripple effect – the women’s Muslim communities as a whole.
For the young teachers themselves, perhaps the greatest benefit that comes out of this experience is the newfound feeling of self-efficacy and empowerment that they derive from meaningful employment. According to Bandura (2009), self-efficacy is an individual’s needed confidence in his or her own skills and abilities to implement specific prosocial behaviors. In the case of these young women, it emerges from the confidence and fulfillment they derive out of putting their new skills to practical use in the classroom and beyond, and succeeding in this endeavor. Given their lack of pedagogical experience and their young ages (at 19 and, respectively, 20, Asma and Neha are by far the youngest teachers at the school), they were initially quiet and subservient, refraining from contributing to lesson planning or making conceptual suggestions and, instead, merely offering to help translate for the foreign teachers and to provide technical assistance to the students in the computer lab. Soon enough, however, Asma’s and Neha’s increased sense of confidence in their abilities as teachers became apparent both in their general manner and speech in the classroom, but also in their desire to take on more and more responsibilities as their first semester went on. They began by teaching sections of the class, and then moved on to crafting original lesson plans and providing feedback and instruction entirely on their own.
Participating in the training program and then pursuing regular employment made these young women fully aware of their own capabilities, while encouraging them to dream bigger, and have greater aspirations for their future. Kara and Ilana, the two American TMS fellows who first worked with Asma and Neha in the classroom, had a first-hand perception of this gradual transformation. “Their ambition, already high, seemed to find a footing that reached out, as well as inwards,” said Ilana (Millner 2011). And Kara agreed: “Asma and Neha are both strong women to start with, but their work with TMS creates a particular role to identify themselves in. They very much recognize themselves as capable and experienced teachers, which only increases their strength and drive to build fulfilling lives for themselves while also supporting their families” (Newhouse 2011). Neha now wants to stay in the teaching field and continue as a computer studies instructor in public schools, while Asma wants to work in IT and animation.
By participating in this training and employment program, the young Muslim women gained digital skills and English language proficiency, two essential ingredients enhancing their future perspectives and career marketability. It is important to note that these women understand the relevance and necessity of new technologies and digital media, both on a personal level and in terms of regional and national development. They also understand the value of educational initiatives promoting these skills and knowledge. Speaking about digital media education, Neha considers it to be “very important for the future of our country,” and wants to avoid falling into the participation gap: “in a few years, everything will be done on the computer and if you don’t know how to do it, you will have a big challenge….When I will have children, I will of course teach them about computers and media, because I want them to be successful and creative,” she adds, and this is perhaps the greatest indication of the value she places on this educational current (Nuzhath 2011).
However, there is a risk of overemphasizing these practical skills at the expense of other consequential changes in their personal development and social behavior. As such, one must not underestimate the significance of the social and emotional learning (SEL) they underwent as a result of their exposure to this program. The SEL framework is based around the development of five core social and emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Durlak et al. 2011). Because of the conservative nature of their communities, these young Muslim women in Hyderabad had lived sheltered lives, where interaction with men, foreigners, and representatives of other religions, castes, and social classes was limited. Working for TMS, they came into contact, in a safe and culturally respectful setting, with male teachers, foreigners from Europe and the United States, young Indians from other cities and provinces, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, and many other cultural and religious varieties. By interacting with these diverse groups, Asma and Neha gained relationship skills – in Asma’s own words, “learning how to communicate with others” (Allaudin 2011) – as well as an important sense of social awareness and self-awareness, including a better understanding of themselves and their own social roles and potential. This inter- and intra-cultural exposure is vital for their empowerment; by being exposed to different lifestyles and outlooks beyond their immediate community, the women gain a wider perspective and eclectic knowledge.
The financial aspect of this opportunity is also consequential, facilitating an enhanced sense of empowerment and personal autonomy. Specifically, by pursuing this type of employment, which brings a secure monthly income, they can contribute to their families’ welfare in ways other than performing domestic chores and craftwork. And, as the foreign TMS fellows observed, while in Western cultures, success is often associated with breaking the financial ties with one’s parents and extended family, in these women’s communities, success is measured in the ability to contribute to the family’s economic welfare (Millner 2011; Newhouse 2011). Neha, for instance, says she uses most of her paycheck to help out with her younger brother’s tuition and her nephew’s educational needs. The rest, she saves up in order to buy a laptop for herself. Beyond direct contributions to their household welfare, having a sustainable personal income offers them a further degree of economic freedom, confidence, and social independence within their communities, and also allows them to have a greater say in their households regarding issues such as pursuing higher education or postponing arranged marriages. In addition, holding a regular job and administering their own money also teaches them the vital SEL skill of self-management, all the more valuable for their development since these women had never been employed before and seldom traveled alone across the city.
Because of the patriarchal norms that characterize these young women’s conservative Muslim environment, their families often prohibit them from working in the commercial media and animation industries, as that would require being in public spaces around men. Our project aimed to work around this social prohibition by providing the young women with jobs that are seen as highly respectable for women: teaching in all-girls government schools. Thus, beyond their vocational and professional development, the training greatly enhanced their social status in their communities, as they learned to act as role models to the younger generation of girls in these traditional Muslim neighborhoods. “In my community and my family, this has changed everything,” says Asma. “Before, they were behaving with me like a regular person. But now, they are behaving differently and respecting me more, for being a teacher and teaching at a public girls school, especially in a foreign organization. They say, ‘she is something now, she is a teacher!’” (Allaudin 2011).
The collaboration with these local Muslim women had significant benefits for the foreign TMS fellows as well, both inside the classroom and outside of it. In the classroom, the presence of local instructors like Asma and Neha proved to be an enormous help for the TMS instructors, who could now share teaching and supervision responsibilities with these women. Because of the technology-intensive digital storytelling curriculum, instruction worked best when the class could be broken down into three or four smaller groups or stations, each led by one teacher: thus, while one group is researching on the Internet, another can be filming an interview, while yet another group can be editing the footage recorded the previous day.
It is clear, furthermore, that these young women have specific skills and attributes that the foreign teachers do not possess. Beyond the obvious language skills – helping to translate tricky words and concepts from English to Hindi and vice-versa – that often facilitate the students’ comprehension and their interaction with the foreign teachers, local instructors like Asma and Neha also have a consequential sense of cultural understanding and are able to contribute culturally-specific ideas for homework, projects, and class activities. For instance, being familiar with the annual calendar of Indian festivals and holidays, they can ask the students to draw parallels between class themes and upcoming cultural rituals and celebrations; or, using examples from the girls’ favorite Bollywood films, they can launch an important discussion about female body consciousness that the students can understand and relate to. Finally, their ability to engage the girls and to joke with them is really useful in helping make the classroom a comfortable, safe space for the students, especially in the first weeks of the digital storytelling course.
The benefits of this collaboration for the TMS fellows extended outside of the classroom as well, as the friendship with the young Muslim women enhanced their cultural immersion and facilitated their adjustment in this new and unfamiliar environment. “They were really eager to be our friends, and we were eager to be theirs, so our relationship was mutually beneficial,” said Ilana, the American TMS fellow working with Asma and Neha. She adds, “Working with these young women was a key part of my experience in Hyderabad, and definitely a huge reason why Kara and I were successful teachers at [the school]” (Millner 2011). Kara, her fellow teacher, agrees. “Seeing Asma and Neha build engaged and fun relationships with the students (in ways that I couldn’t because they shared a language and culture) as they themselves learned non-traditional educational methods was one of the most inspiring aspects of the fellowship” (Newhouse 2011).
What is more, these local women proved to be an important point of support for the foreign teachers in Hyderabad. They were eager to show the TMS fellows around, and to make sure that they are safe and comfortable in Hyderabad; in Neha’s words, “we are all part of the TMS team and we have to take care of each other” (Nuzhath 2011). They were also instrumental in providing continuity and an established support system for each batch of new teachers – since the TMS fellowship consists of only one school year, and new fellows are selected annually. In addition, TMS will be working with these “veteran” local teachers to recruit and train more local staff from these Muslim communities. As such, Asma and Neha are a great resource in identifying future digital storytelling teachers from their own social circles and training them in the curriculum, by sharing their technical knowledge and pedagogical experience gained thus far in the program.
For the students they are teaching at the all-girls school, the involvement of these young women from the Hyderabadi Muslim communities was a defining aspect of the digital storytelling program. In addition to making the classroom environment more comfortable through their familiar presence, they serve as role models for the young girls, in a social milieu where women coming from their disadvantaged backgrounds do not have many training or employment opportunities of this type. Their ambition and eagerness to learn is an inspiration for these 12- to 14-year-old girls, and the women’s personal experiences can make a significant and positive impact on their students’ future life choices. For instance, when Asma and Neha led a class debate on arranged marriage, it was a profoundly significant moment for the girls, and a lesson that could not have been achieved with the same efficiency and emotional impact by the foreign teachers, who are outsiders to this practice. Furthermore, unlike the TMS fellows, who come and go every academic year, these local teachers, who live in Hyderabad on a permanent basis, represent a stable support system and provide lasting mentorship, maintaining a close relationship with their students and encouraging them, beyond secondary school, to make responsible decisions and to continue their education.
The same role-modeling process is taking place in these young women’s Muslim communities as well, albeit in a more indirect manner. Asma and Neha, for instance, are the only young women in their immediate community who have a regular job that does not involve domestic work or handicrafts. Their involvement with digital technologies and their mastery of these skills is seen as extraordinary and unique; they report receiving a lot of questions from the other girls in their neighborhoods about the experience of employment and of working with computers, multimedia and new technologies. Asma says, “The girls on my street always ask me about my job, and they say ‘Sister, how is it to work?’ and ‘Sister, what kind of job do you have? …Are you working in a government school? …How can we learn computers?” (Allaudin 2011). By setting a positive example in their community and sharing their experiences with their peers, these young women can be a powerful force for change and, in time, stimulate a feeling of collective efficacy in these communities. According to Bandura (2009), collective efficacy is the degree to which individuals within a system believe that they can effectively organize and carry out courses of action in order to achieve collective goals. While collective efficacy is a systemic change that happens in a longer timeframe and with more difficulty than self-efficacy does, the ripple effect of these women’s behavioral and attitudinal modeling in their communities is a promising first step toward a significant communal change.
Challenges and Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy Training with Muslim Women
These young women’s experiences have the potential to teach us some critical lessons about the implementation of ICT training programs in Muslim communities, so this final section will focus on discussing the challenges and lessons that can be drawn from this initial experience. First, what this example demonstrates is the need for professional development programs in underprivileged Muslim communities to be preceded by a comprehensive preliminary research process that properly identifies the causes of the participation gap, and then works to address these specific factors. If we are to analyze the root causes of the participation gap in the case of our initial batch of trainees, three principal factors emerge: socioeconomic status, gender, and cultural restrictions. The latter two, however, are intertwined, given the patriarchal nature of traditional Muslim communities. Indeed, one of the most pronounced themes in conversations with Neha and Asma was their difficulties in reconciling their own aspirations with the traditionalism of their families and community. During the initial TFTP training, for instance, one of the women was so determined, that she even went on a two-day hunger strike when her father forbade her from continuing with the training. While the decision to go to such extreme measures in order to reach their educational goals adds further testimony to these women’s strength and dedication, such actions simultaneously represent a worrisome threat to their wellbeing. Therefore, knowing that cultural restrictions play such a critical part in these women’s ability to follow through with the training, it is important to involve their families in the training process and to speak to the parents, brothers, or husbands personally, providing them with detailed information and assurances about the nature of the program, so that the women will not have to face this obstacle alone. Given our own hardships concerning the reticence of the families to allow them to pursue employment, this experience has taught us that there is a consequential need for programs like ours to work with the young women’s families and make sure they understand the safe, culturally respectful nature of the program and the significant benefits that it brings to their futures.
It should be clear that training must always be free of cost and feasibly accessible via available means of transportation. Moreover, when employing the women in official teaching positions in the aftermath of the training, it is important, even when funds are limited, to offer some kind of recompense. This recompense can take the form of a regular salary, or some other kind of material incentive, such as meals, IT/digital equipment, etc., in order to boost the young women’s independence and self-efficacy and to ensure that the families will let them pursue this employment opportunity in lieu of domestic work. Similarly, special care must be taken in order to ensure that both the training circumstances and the work environment are culturally respectful and in line with the behavioral requirements of the target population. For instance, the presence of male teachers or male students may be seen as culturally inappropriate, threatening or intimidating; thus, an all-girls school may be more desirable as an ideal working environment than a co-ed school, since this choice would be respected by the women’s families and would also enable them to act as role-models for the younger girls.
Another critical function of the formative research process is to identify potential community partners that can facilitate in the recruitment of the trainees and the establishment of trust relations with the target population. This is especially important in cases where the training organization has not worked before with Muslim communities in that area and therefore has limited knowledge of the specific obstacles that may prevent their participation in the program. By finding the right community partners and developing clear terms of collaboration, both for the short term and the long term, the training organization can thus use this formative research stage to develop flexible, cause-tailored solutions that will help ensure the sustainable success of the program.
Prior to the start of the training process, the organizers should also identify the baseline skills that the participants need to bring to the table, in order to better build on these existing competencies, passions, and inclinations. Once the TFTP trainers found out, for instance, that Asma is very visually-inclined and talented at drawing and design – as a result of her work with silk embroidery and henna tattoos – they decided to start with animation and 3D modeling, since these activities would be more enjoyable and also more accessible to her as a starting point. It is also vital to make the learning process highly transparent: when they made this decision about animation and 3D design, the trainers explained this rationale to Asma and she therefore understood this progression.
Once the training is over and the trainees successfully complete their final requirements, in order to fully facilitate their sense of self-efficacy, they should be allowed to have a high degree of autonomy in the classroom, as long as support systems are in place. The fact that Asma and Neha were trusted with coming up with their own ideas for projects or lesson plans, but could always call on the TMS instructors for help, gave them an immense amount of encouragement and self-efficacy. And while their young age seemed to be an obstacle in the beginning, it proved that it could actually facilitate collegial pedagogy – a non-hierarchical, participatory mode of learning – in the context of a digital storytelling classroom (Soep and Chavez 2010).
In terms of professional growth, however, Asma’s and Neha’s example – as well as my daily experiences working in education in India – certainly point to the need to move away from the foreign model of centralized, nonprofit educational programs and toward more locally sustainable professional development programs that allow these young people to craft a rewarding, and autonomous career path leading to an independent future. Therefore, training local educators in underprivileged or disempowered communities to learn and teach digital skills can alleviate the participation gap that is hindering their personal and professional development, while simultaneously building local sustainability and ensuring a scalable implementation of the program in the future that avoids overreliance on foreign management and coordination.
Ultimately, what Asma’s and Neha’s case best illustrates is the concept of empowerment, and the relationship between the ICT training, self-efficacy, and collective efficacy. Their sense of empowerment and newfound confidence is apparent in their very words; they really did find their “voices,” and I am not only referring to their new style of “talking like a teacher.” During their training, I got to know these young women well, and I am simply in awe of their strength, ambition, and dedication. They are exceptional young women: unconventional, stubborn, witty, and the most knowledgeable cricket fans you’ll ever meet. But what also sets them apart is their desire to transcend the barriers stifling their development, and their having found the courage and the drive to be, simultaneously, learners and educators, and role-models for an entire community.
For the next multimedia project in their digital storytelling portfolio, Asma and Neha want to make a video report about “differences between girls’ education and boys’ education in Muslim culture.” “We raised this point in our community, asking why people think education is important for the boys but not for the girls, and why the girls can’t work in a job. We would like to ask this to the elders in my community” (Nuzhath 2011). Asma’s and Neha’s strength and self-efficacy will hopefully inspire other women in their community to follow their example and transcend the various obstacles that are stifling their personal and professional growth. With the digital storytelling program in Hyderabad currently expanding as a result of these young women’s initial success, we sincerely hope that the ICT training of more women in the Muslim inner-city areas will bring about a lasting improvement in their future prospects and act as a catalyst of development in their communities and beyond. When asked whether she will continue teaching after she gets married, Neha becomes pensive. “I will have to convince my husband to allow me,” she says. “How will you do that?” I ask. “I will take him with me into the classroom, and show him that I am doing nothing wrong, just teaching children.” She pauses, then smiles. “If I am not able to continue teaching, I will feel something is missing in my life” (Nuzhath 2011).
Allaudin, Asma. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).
Bandura, Albert. 2009. “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 121-154. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. OCLC 878705231.
Durlak, Joseph A., Roger P. Weissberg, Allison B. Dymnicki, Rebecca D.Taylor, and Kriston B. Schellinger. 2011. “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” Child Development 82: 405–432. OCLC 704625500.
Millner, Ilana. August 2011. Personal communication(e-mail interview).
Newhouse, Kara. August 2011. Personal communication (e-mail interview).
Nuzhath, Neha. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).
Soep, Elisabeth, and Vivian Chavez. 2010. Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. OCLC 340961369.
 Windows Movie Maker was selected at the expense of more powerful video editing software like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier, because – due to limited financial and technological resources – it is the most common editing software available in Indian public schools.
About the Author
Ioana Literat is a PhD Candidate and Provost Fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her research explores the educational, cultural and transnational aspects of digital participation, with a current focus on crowdsourced art and online creativity. Ioana’s background is in media education. Before coming to USC, she worked as the field coordinator of The Modern Story in India, designing and teaching digital storytelling courses to underserved youth in public schools.