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Digital storytelling as participatory pedagogy for sustainability education

Our European network of university teachers and researchers wanted to do something innovative to break the routine and combat Zoom fatigue in our digital classrooms. We set out to make higher education learning and teaching more engaging and participatory – through university-industry collaboration and digital storytelling aiming at sustainable change.

Published : 08.12.2023

To improve European universities’ digital readiness and digital innovation capacities, the Erasmus+ programme launched a special “Corona call” immediately after the emergency remote teaching period of spring 2020. As universities were at the time actively looking for more varied and engaging ways to collaborate online, the call received a record number of 44 project applications in Finland. Out of these, eight projects were funded, among them Haaga-Helia’s project Learn to Change – Collaborative Digital Storytelling for Sustainable Change.

During the project, five higher education institutions from around Europe created a pedagogical framework and open educational resources for learning through digital storytelling. Our aim was to develop digital collaboration across cultures and foster students’ transversal competences in sustainable development.

As our project team had members representing marketing and communication, tourism and hospitality, ICT, education, and languages, we co-created digital learning solutions suitable for multidisciplinary purposes, focusing on industry-university collaboration projects promoting sustainable travel and lifestyles.

Research into digital and sustainability competence developments

As desired learning outcomes for our digital storytelling pedagogy and projects, we listed developments in eight transversal skills and competences.

  1. systemic understanding of sustainability
  2. values-thinking and ethics
  3. collaboration and teamwork
  4. co-creation of digital content based on audience needs
  5. digital literacy
  6. flexibility and adaptability
  7. critical thinking and reflective learning
  8. intercultural communication

Based on our background research into digital storytelling (Heinänen 2021), we felt confident that collaborative digital storytelling would be an effective pedagogical approach to train students in transversal skills critical to their future personal and professional success.

Our diary studies during the project confirmed that digital storytelling experiments helped students develop their skills of using English for cross-cultural interaction; systemic understanding and sustainability storytelling; team collaboration; digitally enhanced learning; and critical thinking (Morgado & Vesala-Varttala 2023). Furthermore, students showed developments in sustainability competences related to values-thinking and self-awareness; empathy and adaptability; shared leadership; inclusive decision-making, and reflective learning (Vesala-Varttala, Pal & Koris forthcoming).

Multi-stakeholder teamwork and learning across cultures

Our sustainability projects, stakeholder workshops, dissemination events, and academic conferences encouraged active multidisciplinary collaboration within and across the Learn to Change partner universities from Finland, Hungary, Portugal, Czechia, and the Netherlands. Our project also engaged more than 40 public and private industry partners and 50 university partners external to the partnership.

One key skill all stakeholders got to practice during our digital storytelling experiments was uncertainty tolerance. When engaging in creative work such as storytelling, stakeholders literally plan and co-create something that does not yet exist. People tend to feel intolerant towards what they do not know and what they cannot fully envision at the outset.

Our digital storytelling framework and open educational resources help students, teachers, and industry partners structure their collaboration projects step by step. Such scaffolding does not take away the element of uncertainty – it is part and parcel of creativity – but it alleviates the anxiety. Developments in students’ reflective learning and critical thinking competences further help them tolerate uncertainty.

Both students and teachers learned a lot about teamwork across national, educational, and disciplinary cultures. As a teacher, you need to develop intercultural sensitivity to monitor and support students’ teamwork appropriately, inspiring them when they feel hopeless and at a loss, actively encouraging them to reconsider and improve their creative ideas and concepts, and if they experience friction or conflicts, you must be there to help them negotiate and move forward.

The Learn to Change project received a “Good practice” label from the funding programme, signifying high-quality results, project management, dissemination, and impact. As coordinator, Haaga-Helia would like to express full gratitude to our excellent project partners: Budapest Business University, Polytechnic Institute of Castelo Branco, University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague and Saxion University of Applied Sciences.


Heinänen, N. 2021. Digital storytelling to inspire and engage students in educational settings. Bachelor Thesis. Haaga-Helia UAS.

Morgado., M. & Vesala-Varttala, T. 2023. Digital storytelling as practice-based participatory pedagogy for English for specific purposes. Language Learning in Higher Education, 13(1), 175-200.

Vesala-Varttala, T., Pal, Á., & Koris, R. (forthcoming). Fostering sustainability competences through co-creation of digital storytelling – Effects of COVID-19 on higher education students’ reflective learning. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice (JUTLP). [Special issue: Sustainability in learning and teaching during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic]

Editing: Marianne Wegmüller

Picture: Haaga-Helia