Immersive Storytelling with 5th Graders: Documenting A Field Trip to Levi’s Stadium

A couple of months ago I volunteered to teach “a crash course on digital storytelling” to a class of 5th graders at our neighborhood school, the Barron Park Elementary School in Palo Alto. Their teacher, Mr. Wong, had mentioned earlier that it would be interesting to see if a new kind of documentation project would help students to better focus during the actual field trip.

Our practical goal was to create an interactive 360 degree documentary from their field trip to the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. I would be a visiting expert and a supporting parent, and coordinate the immersive storytelling process from data collection to editing with the students.

My personal goal was to get a real first-hand experience of creating a virtual tour in a group of 20+ students, who are “sometimes a bit out of control”, as my son put it.

This is a brief summary of the project focusing on organizing the students’ work; setting goals, planning, data collection, and editing. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what more could we do to support the development of the 4Cs through digital — or immersive — storytelling.

Interactive image creation in the middle of digital storytelling and the development of 21st century learning skills

Phasing the project: introduction, data collection, editing

  1. Introduction: What kind of media expert do you want to be?

A week before the field trip, I gave the classroom a brief introduction to digital storytelling, sharing examples of virtual tours created by media companies such as ABC Local news, BBC, and Dallas Morning News. After sharing the examples, I told the class that their project would be as good as any of the professional examples we had just seen. Or maybe, it would be even better…

Now that I got their attention, we moved on to talk about the project organization. There were three main constraints we had to take into account:

  • Time: The field trip had a set schedule consisting of various developmental activities at the Levi’s Stadium. There would be no free time for the students to wander around, which meant any photographic, audio, or video documentation would need to happen during the guided tour.
  • Devices: Between 20 students divided into 4 groups, we had only 3 smartphones and one 360 camera. This meant the students would need to stay focused and ask for the devices when they needed it. After using the device, they would quickly return it to the teacher, who could give it to the next person.
  • Previous experience: Neither the teacher nor the class had any previous experience of using a 360 camera. Since the schedule on the field trip was extremely tight, we agreed that I would shoot the base 360 images while students would focus on the specific documentation tasks given to their group.

In order to convey the idea of a non-disruptive but efficient working style, we talked about how journalists sometimes have to work “undercover”, and what that would mean in this case.

Next, we talked about media production and how it requires seamless collaboration between various kinds of media professionals; researchers, journalists, sound engineers, photographers and videographers. At this point, I asked students to think which expertise group they would like to sign up for. The options were: research, photography, audio, and video.

Grouping students into sub teams was a practical experiment to see if most of the students would immediately identify themselves with one of the four expertise areas, or if there were students who could not find a group they wanted to sign up to. I had printed out a form for each group with space for max five students.

On teacher’s mark, students launched themselves towards the signup table to make sure they got in the group they wanted. Out of 20, there was one student who did not want to sign up to any group because his first group choice was already full. Note that participation in this project was not obligatory.

2. Before the field trip: planning

A couple of days before the field trip, the students were asked to gather with their group for 20 minutes and write down ideas for data collection. The orienting questions were:

- Research team: What kind of facts will help you introduce Levi’s Stadium to someone who has never heard of it?

- Photo team: What kind of photos will help you tell about the field trip? What kind of details can be captured at the stadium?

- Video team: What kind of video material and interviews would complement the story?

- Audio team: What kind of sounds you could capture at the stadium? Write down ideas for ambient audio or narration.

The idea was that a tentative plan of the data collection would guide the use of the mobile devices during the field trip. Here is how the plan for the photo team looked like.

The photo team’s data collection plan

At this point, all the planning and preparation was done, and we were ready to get on the bus and hit the road!

3. During the field trip: Data collection

In full transparency, I was a bit nervous about this part. How could we manage the data collection with 20 students and only three phones without causing a disruption? On the bus, I gave the students color-coded ribbons that they could wrap around their wrist. This made it possible to easily see who belonged to which group:

Research team — blue

Photo team — green

Audio team — yellow

Video team — red

To my great surprise, the field trip went great. There was no problem whatsoever managing the group or the data collection. One at a time, students from the audio, photo, and video teams took turns borrowing the smartphones when they needed them, and returned them right after. The documentation did not disrupt the agenda, and the students got great closeup images and audio clips from the museum, the field, and the hall of fame. Most likely the person who was most stressed during the trip was myself, because my Ricoh Theta camera crashed more than once (never happened before), and I had to delete and reload the app several times to be able to take the base 360 images. I was incredibly happy nobody else had to deal with it.

4. Editing

Before we started the editing process, I spent some time uploading the students’ photo, audio, and video materials on a shared Google Drive. This part of the process would have been faster if the students had used their own iPads for closeup photos, audio, and video recording and saved them directly on a shared folder.

Collected field trip materials on Google Drive

To save time, I had also uploaded all the 360 images to the teacher’s ThingLink account previous to the editing session. Otherwise, we would be spending at least an hour transferring the 360 images from the Ricoh Theta camera first to email and from there to ThingLink. This part of the process (image transfer) should definitely be made easier for the user.

Since our goal in this first project was to get 20 students to contribute to one 360 tour (instead of creating multiple tours), we had decided to edit the documentary in small groups, using one laptop and one ThingLink account as the master account. This way we worked with one type of “media experts” at a time and made sure everyone would get to participate in the editing process including:

  • Choosing background and close-up images process
  • Suggesting, commenting, and writing descriptions for each image
  • Commenting on the position of the tags
  • Rotating the master editor so that each student got to add at least one tag in the base 360 image

In total, after the field trip we had three one-hour editing sessions with the different media groups — and the final presentation.

1st session: Adding photos and descriptions

First, I invited the research and photo teams to select the 360 photos for our documentary. Selection criteria included camera position, lighting, and the overall atmosphere in the photo. I also asked the photo team to label all the closeup images in the shared Google Drive folder. This would make the actual editing faster later on. After this was done, students started adding 3–4 closeup images and descriptions to each 360 image.

The 49ers museum at the stadium was a great source of historical information

2nd session: Uploading sound effects and narration

During the field trip, students in the audio team were able to record some ambient sounds and sound effects from the stadium. During our editing session, each of the team members used a voice memo app to record a brief narration for each of the base 360 images. Some wrote down their sentences on a piece of paper before recording, while others went freestyle improvisation. Each students got to retake their recording until they were happy with it.

On the field the audio team recorded planes passing by and a golf car driving round

3rd session: Embedding videos

In the video team we were lucky to have one student who wanted to be in front of the camera, and another who wanted to record and edit the video. During our editing session, the students were able to record a good video commentary about the highlights of the field trip, but we did not have time or permission to upload it to YouTube, and the video file itself became too heavy to be uploaded to ThingLink. Realizing this is not going to work in the timeframe we had, students were able to find some historical videos about the San Francisco 49ers, the home team of the Levi’s Stadium, which they embedded in the final documentary.

The team managed to find embeddable videos about 49ers on YouTube

Finally, after all the materials had been added to the four individual 360 photos, one of the students linked them into a tour.

5. Final presentation: when it all comes together

As we had chosen to work in small teams that each focused on one type of media, presenting the ready tour to the entire classroom was a special moment. The miscellaneous materials that did not make much sense on their own, had now (thanks to this wonderful teamwork!) come together into an informative and engaging 360 documentary! Teacher Mr. Wong was very happy with the result. “Wow, you guys sound so professional!”, he exclaimed. “Next, we must make a tour of our school!”

The first scene of the tour

Notes and learnings

Looking back, this was an ambitious project because the schedule was so tight, but it did give some valuable insights into how teachers (and technology developers) can best support immersive storytelling in the classroom. Below are some tips I wrote down right after the field trip. Next, I would love to hear what are yours!

  1. Practice using the 360 camera or app beforehand. Something unexpected may happen, and if so, it is good to know how to fix it.
  2. Work with another teacher. If you can. This way one of you can focus on device and tech support during the field trip while the other can help students focus on their learning goals.
  3. Create a tentative storyline. This is for the editing phase, and helps students to understand how their contribution impacts the overall production.
  4. Make 360 image sharing easier. Ideally, one should be able to send 360 images directly from the camera to the editor.
  5. Work in small groups. This gives students a better opportunity to collaborate with others during the editing phase.

Founder & CEO of ThingLink, education technology company for building visual learning environments in the cloud. Winner of UNESCO ICT in Education Prize.