DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Carmen Santos grew up hearing legends about the Chamorro people of her native Mariana Islands, but she didn't know she could use those stories in a career.
That changed when she was a student in the University of North Texas College of Information's distance education program for the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands. Last summer, Santos took an online class, SLIS 5440, Storytelling for Information Professionals, as part of her master of library science degree and certificate in youth services in libraries and information settings.
"I was not aware that storytelling in the classroom can be such an important way to help keep native culture vibrant and relevant for youth today," said Santos, who received her degree last July and has been teaching with plans to become a librarian for the 2014-15 academic year. "Our island oral traditions were usually taught at home. In our modern times, when both parents work, it is often difficult to find the time to retell the stories of childhood. Why not retell these stories in the classroom?"
The class is taught by Elizabeth Figa, associate professor of library and information sciences, who recently received an award from the Web-based Information Science Education Consortium, or WISE. The consortium allows students from colleges and universities that are consortium members to take online courses in library and information science offered by other consortium members.
Figa was nominated for her WISE Excellence in Online Teaching by anonymous students who attended universities other than UNT and took the course through the consortium.
"Five students from other schools can take the course at any given time, but, other than that, there is no enrollment limitation for the class," Figa said. "It's taught during the fall and spring semesters and also during the summer, and enrollment is high every single time it's offered."
She received an Outstanding Online Teacher and Outstanding Online Course Award for the class, which she first began teaching in a traditional classroom in 2001 and began teaching online in 2005.
The class is required for students earning master's degrees in library science and information science and the graduate academic certificates in storytelling and youth services in libraries and information settings. Many of these students are enrolled in the College of Information's distance education programs in seven other locations across the U.S.
Figa said UNT students from outside of the College of Information, including students in the College of Education, the Mayborn School of Journalism and the Department of English, also take the course for elective credit.
SLIS 5440 is divided into units that focus on fairy tales, family stories, stories from ethnic traditions, urban legends, oral tradition, personal storytelling and digital storytelling. Students view videos from nationally known storytellers and from students who have taken the class in the past, and must create several of their own videos of themselves telling stories.
Tony Sams, project manager for the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Utah's Marriott Library, created a video of himself telling how he started Storyrobe, a mobile digital storytelling application for iOS systems developed and distributed by Apple Inc. Sams is earning his master's degree in information science and the graduate certificate in storytelling through the College of Information's Utah-Nevada distance education program.
"I also did an urban legend story and also one that played off the coyote trickster Native American legend," said Sams, who took SLIS 5440 during the fall 2013 semester and will graduate this December. "I learned confidence in telling a story, and, academic-wise, what makes a good story, how to perform it and how you can use stories in academic settings."
Sams plans to earn a doctoral degree in communications and teach at a university. He calls Figa's class "a breath of fresh air."
"Even though I invented an application for podcasting, I learned that podcasting doesn't compare with video in capturing others' attention," he said.
Santos said she enjoyed trying to tell her stories "so that the audience could appreciate the tale as much as I did."
"Everyone in the class had great stories. It so much fun to watch how others did their assignments, and find that we all chose unique and interesting ways to portray our tales," she said.
Figa, who says she was a performer of stories as a child, said she wants students who take the course to primarily discover their love of stories.
"Texas has a long tradition of storytelling, and whether the stories are about your family or your job, every story is a bundle of knowledge," she said.