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“The Kids Get It, Even If You Don’t”: Transmedia Storytelling in the Classroom

Editorial by Ian Harper

MINNEAPOLIS: The National Education Technology Plan in the US has prescribed a wholesale technological transformation for education. Yet, adults — parents and teachers alike — often fear what’s “out there” on the Internet, whether “they” are bullies, predatory stalkers or pornography. This has made educators reluctant to embrace sharing technologies in the classroom. As a result, open environments are not in widespread use in elementary and middle school education.

Despite concerns –- and school-imposed protection measures -– many teachers are keenly interested in sharing, learning and collaborating. Of course, the kids get “technology,” even if the teachers don’t.

I believe, based on my own experience as producer of the transmedia storytelling project Inanimate Alice (which I described earlier this year on Publishing Perspectives), transmedia storytelling is the perfect bridge from conventional- to technology-based learning.

Inanimate Alice offers just one example of how technology -– and all the interconnected, interactivity that implies — can be safely and effectively incorporated into the classroom.

Of course, the key starts with having a title that people are enthusiastic about. To recap Alice is a story about a young girl growing up in the early years of the 21st century. Hers is a nomadic life. Homeschooled and traveling the world with her parents, she has no friends save for Brad, the character she has created on her computer. This story, resonating with many whose experiences it reflects, has captured the imagination of teachers in need of a stimulus for the reluctant learner and inspiration for the gifted.

In the past year, I’ve seen numerous examples of how teachers are using Alice as a jumping off point for a variety of classroom based learning experiences.

In its simplest form, it encourages the development of social media skills. Kerry McDonald, a seventh-grade teacher in Peterborough, Canada, told me she wanted her students “to know that the digital world has real world applications.” After discovering Inanimate Alice and presenting it in her classroom, she encouraged her entire class to post comments to a blog to which I responded with posts both to the blog and on Alice’s Facebook page .

Others have found the combination of visual and interactive elements perfect for learning language skills. Mayus Chavez, principal of the Jules Verne School in Mexico City, set up a literacy program for sixth and seventh graders, learning to read in both English and Spanish, using Alice as one of its core components.

That said, transmedia development is a painfully slow, and often expensive process. As such, teachers are forced consider how do to get the most out of what limited resources may be available.

Laura Fleming, a librarian and school media specialist in New Jersey, is a thought leader in using transmedia in the classroom. Laura’s methodology requires ever deeper investigation into the text, seeking meaning from short sequences and even single screenshots from the series. “What is going on here?” she asks her 11-year-olds as they focus on Alice staring out of the window of the Jeep. “What is she thinking about?” By deconstructing the episodes, a few minutes of on-screen time becomes many hours of classwork. “And they are never bored” she told me.

Dr. Gloria Latham, at the RMIT school of education in Australia explained why this works. “I think what makes Alice so special is the strong narrative that allows for deep reading, conversations that move into critical reading, prediction, a shared experience between readers who are anticipating what might happen next,” she said.

In fact, having students create their own versions and extensions of Alice have proven to be among the most rewarding and engaging of all classroom projects. Shaun Wood’s class in New Zealand has done some fantastic work with Alice and produced their own episode, which has been shortlisted for a Best Class Blog Award at the Edublog Awards.

In Argentina, students of Lucila Blazquiz have been hard at work on new stories for Alice, taking her to age 18 and up (where we as producers have yet to go) and sending her off to Amsterdam.

Schools of education are developing courses around how to use transmedia in the classroom. Jess Laccetti who runs a “teachers-in-training” program in Edmonton has included several lessons on transmedia in the classroom focusing on Alice.

Knowing this, we created “Alice’s School Report,” a magazine style channel that opens the doors for teachers to tell their stories, while providing a place to showcase the best of the creative work that the students deliver. Available on the website homepage it is a great incentive for budding digital storytellers to know that their work will be seen by many thousands via Alice’s site.

Transmedia, as Inanimate Alice demonstrates, suggests that the issues for teachers extend beyond technology and towards the medium, the content. It is high quality content, much of it interactive, that will provide the drivers for the technology. Technology without appropriate content creates a vacuum –- interactive white boards gathering dust in closets pay testament to the technology/content gap.

And change -– especially technological change -– is not always easy. Teacher Hilery Williams told us she “loathed” Alice on first meeting her. She admitted, however, that “11-year-old students who will be helping [me] to make more sense of all this transmedia stuff.”

In the case of transmedia, an old cliché often rings true: the students become the teachers and the teachers become students.

As Inanimate Alice unfolds in this era of educational transformation, we hear loud and clear that the kids get it. They are fully engaged. By pushing aside their own prejudices, teachers receptive to such developments with text can reap rewards we are only beginning to grasp.

At the tender age of 50 and with a raw idea in his head Ian Harper attended the UK’s National Film and Television School to learn how to write for the screen. With two screenplays under his belt he has created the role of digital novel producer developing plans for a studio to complete the Inanimate Alice series while producing five further titles in a similar vein.

DISCUSS: Tell us about Your Favorite Transmedia Projects

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  1. Posted December 17, 2010 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    It is true I loathed ‘Alice’ on first (and 2nd) viewing. I have, however, overcome my initial prejudices and am now committed to using Alice with some youngsters in the new year because I do grasp the importance of us all – student and teacher – engaging with the new literacies. Our definition of literacy in Scotland is ‘the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful’.
    We teachers sometimes fall into the trap of believing that just because we learn in a certain way, others do too.
    Change is threatening and hard. I don’t fear ‘what’s out there’ but I do find having my pre-conceptions about literacy challenging; but very stimulating and exciting too!
    I’m looking forward to the experience. Thank you for all your hard work!

  2. Lucila Blazquiz
    Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I agree that it will take some time for open environments to become widespread, as, of course, when you decide to open the door of the classroom to the world, you do think about the risks this may entail. But, I think that technology has brought about a radical change in the way students engage with the subjects they study at school. We cannot deny the fact that the average teenage student spends many hours of his/her day online, connected to social networks, playing interactive games, etc. Then that student goes to school, and he/she has the feeling that that place belongs somewhere in the past. As educators, we need to adapt to this social change, and try to integrate the contents of traditional curricula with the contents brought about by this technogolical revolution.
    I think that a transmedia project such as Inanimate Alice is a perfect opportunity to explore new literacies, as both teachers and studetns can learn from each other. Opening up to the world provides great motivation and it brings about a feeling of reward. It would be great if IA could be further developed, or if there were more projects such as this. Congratulations!

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