Jen Begeal


On Transmedia and Education: A Conversation With Robot Heart Stories’ Jen Begeal and Inanimate Alice’s Laura Fleming (Part Two)

Originally posted on January 27, 2012 by Henry Jenkins on “Confessions of an ACA Fan”

Some transmedia properties are entirely top-down, deploying fairly conventional models of authorship, despite their deployment across multiple media platforms. Others include strong elements of participatory culture. How central is youth participation in the production and circulation of media to your visions for transmedia education?

Jen: Youth participation is very important In production and circulation as many Transmedia projects are aimed at young people, and the ones aimed at adults require that the adults have some prior knowledge of media which leads us back to teaching media literacy at a young age. Specific youth aimed projects, like Robot Heart Stories, require that the students create their own videos, write collaborative stories and construct and color their own paper robots (called “heart packs”) which were pdf downloads from the website. The theory behind transmedia education is that user generated content (i.e. created by the students themselves) should be at the core of these projects.

Laura: Story-driven user-generated content is a powerful piece of the transmedia experience and in my opinion is an essential consideration for any educational property. Technology tools allow for new forms of participation and learners inevitably seek out those opportunities. Even just the notion of creating transmedia experiences for specific groups or demographics is something we need to consider carefully. Learners themselves should be immersed in the creative process to ensure that they are not mere consumers of the experience.

What are the implications of teaching a generation not only how to read but also how to write across media?

Jen: There are several implications to this, for one there will be a larger population of active consumers, prior to the “digital generation” most media consumers were passive with little choice in what they were sold or presented with. This new generation now has the choice to decide what to watch, who to interact with and decide which brands can target them. This likewise poses a challenge for brands to be smarter and more engaging with their target audience. I also foresee a higher literacy rate as well as lower drop-out rates as students will have to have certain levels of education to compete in the working world, which will be heavily media driven.

Laura: One of my personal goals has been to blend the theory of transmedia with the implications from entertainment and business and layer it in a discussion about reading, writing, and learning for even our youngest learners. Children will read and write across platforms, whether they are taught to or not. As an educator, I feel I have a personal responsibility to teach my students how to read and write across media by providing a learning environment that allows for freedoms to think about story in less conventional ways. Transmedia storytelling techniques enable us to expand the definition of literacy and allow for new opportunities to experience both reading, writing, and publishing in a transmedia environment and students should be taught to do so responsibly and effectively.

One potential implication of the use of transmedia for education is that it might help students to experience the same story or events through multiple points of view. How might such practices contribute to young people’s capacity to explore different perspectives?

Jen: Exploring different perspectives allows for students to filter the facts of a story and sift through the evidence presented to determine the truth. As was the case with RHS, French speaking students in a Montreal classroom had to convey their stories through video, music, and images to their sister classroom of English speaking students in Los Angles. This presented a problem that the students themselves needed to solve, one which involved telling a narrative which could be understood across language. The global initiative of the project prompted our collaborators to translate the initial French/ English curriculum into other languages including Swedish and German.

Laura: Transmedia by nature promotes multiple points of view which fosters a dialogue within global reach that can connect technologies, languages, cultures, generations, and curricula. The dynamic experiences transmedia storytelling helps to provide allows for the proliferation of information and knowledge, as well as ensures that young people will learn together and from each other. Ultimately, transmedia practices have the power to shape and possibly even alter beliefs or interpretations offering mutually beneficial solutions for all. This power makes it all the more critical that learners themselves are instrumental components of transmedia learning worlds.

I have used the metaphor of “hunting and gathering” to describe the activities of consumers engaging with a transmedia narrative. What connections do you see between these modes of active consumption and the kinds of research processes which have long been central to education?

Jen: Research requires actively searching out information and can be as involved as your project requires. Likewise transmedia storytelling allows you to be as little or as much engaged with the project as you desire. The students who participated in Robot Heart Stories had a specific curriculum presented to them, however what they chose to do with the information provided was up to them. In the end they chose to tell the story of the robot across multiple platforms including videos, e-mails and through song.

Laura: There is no problem with the notion of ‘consuming’ transmedia, but its true educational value will come in our definition of ‘active’– its definition has to be about more than mere ‘thinking about the content’, it has to stray knowingly into the creative and the immersive aspects too. In the case of Inanimate Alice, students around the world have been motivated to create their own next episodes of the series. Learners have used critical literacy skills to deconstruct the digital text as readers, and have used the knowledge they gained to write and create. They have become producers of content, shaping new narrative possibilities. Students have developed episodes of their own, either filling in the gaps or developing new strands of the narrative. In addition, students have created interstitial episodes that fill in the gaps in Alice’s story.

Inanimate Alice has created an active virtual circle of storytelling where transmedia meets co-creation inspiring many learners to write and create. Creators looking to build a market here will succeed best where they can find a path between ‘delivering’ transmedia experiences which can then be consumed, and building transmedia platforms/landscapes/immersive experiences that empower the learner to create (and live!) their own stories.

How might we reconcile calls for transmedia education with ongoing concerns raised by the Kaiser Foundation and others about the amount of time young people spend engaging with “screens.” Does transmedia education compound the concerns others have raised around multitasking and divided attention or might it foster a higher level of media literacy?

Jen: For some, transmedia may be seen as technology overload, however not all transmedia projects take place completely on screens. For instance with Robot Heart Stories part of the project involved students physically cutting out paper robot heart-packs and either drawing pictures or pasting photos on the robots stomachs as a way to “fuel” the robot. The students also had to create videos which meant they had to engage in face to face collaboration.

Another transmedia project that focuses on youth culture is Socks, inc. asks participants to create a physical sock-puppet then photograph or video the puppet interacting in the real world. This type of teaching, which requires a cross-pollination of digital and real world problem solving, should be the core theory behind all transmedia education. We are already a society of information overload but now we need to learn how to examine the world around us and learn how to engage with it through digital media and hands on activities.

Laura : When considering the amount of time young people spend engaging with “screens”, it is important to differentiate effectively between the many uses to which screens are put- playing an immersive and complex computer game is not the same as watching television. In the case of transmedia each screen facilitates the manifestation of the whole storyworld.

One promise of transmedia education is that it responds to research about multiple intelligences — that is, the idea that different young people might learn more effectively through different media channels. Should the model of transmedia education focus on multiple paths to the same knowledge or on the ability of any given learner to synthesize information across multiple channels?

Jen: The model of transmedia education should focus on the ability of the learner to synthesize information across multiple channels as students need this skill in the real world. Content is continually being dispersed across multiple channels and as more content becomes available it will be up to us to teach young people how to curate this content and synthesize the constant stream of information.

Laura: To me, neither of these models are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, only the learner is really in control (for a concise exposition of this position, see I am Learner) Teachers can influence, guide, and facilitate, but what is taught is rarely if ever what is actually learned- so while learners focus on synthesizing information across multiple channels, they will also, naturally, when they are allowed to, take multiple paths to knowledge. The most powerful transemdia education will therefore try to combine both models into one more persistent model.

Pottermore has been a highly publicized attempt to connect multimedia and participatory elements to children’s literature. What are your hopes or concerns about Pottermore as a model for transmedia entertainment and education?

Jen: Pottermore has the ability to connect children globally, to teach them how to learn from different cultures, to understand how to connect with one another and be more accepting of each other. I foresee projects like these with such a broad scope and community to reduce prejudices, stereotyping and encourage collaborative learning.

Laura: JK Rowling has done a fascinating thing with Pottermore. She has taken her linear novels and created a non-linear experience around them. Her fans have been wanting to get close to her for years and through Pottermore they will feel like they have gotten that chance and that they now have the opportunity to contribute to the story world. The loyalty this will foster should not be underestimated and should serve as a model for future transmedia properties. In the case of education, these strategies will empower learners to share, contribute, and create by making discoveries through their own interpretations, which encourages passion and responsibility for their own learning.

Both of you have placed strong emphasis on the value of stories as a means of capturing and communicating human wisdom and knowledge. How do we decide which stories or themes should form the basis for these kinds of grassroots storytelling activities?

Jen: Stories should have personal meaning, and they should have an overriding theme. We had learned that for primary and secondary education topics that deal with social good, passion and personal responsibility (anti-bullying) campaigns are the easiest for students to tackle. There are many themes which can be explored or addressed, however the theme itself should be easy to understand and engage with, and be meaningful to the students learning the curriculum.

Laura: Storytelling activities should have the power to offer multiple perspectives and different ways of communicating ideas. Authentic, meaningful, genuine narratives that engage learners through their intent will naturally capture them and enhance the depth of their knowledge.

Our culture has historically reified the concept of authorship, suggesting that only special people have the capacity to create meaningful stories. What techniques have we discovered that help young people overcome their own insecurities and resistances to becoming authors?

Jen: By allowing students to tell their stories across multiple platforms we have given them the chance to be authors without making them self conscious. Some students tell stories visually, others through music and some even through short form dialogues, transmedia embraces the telling of stories across multiple channels, thereby giving everyone a chance to be a storyteller or author. In the case of Pottermore, these same young people are encouraged by a community to pick and choose how little or how much they want to involve themselves into the stories. It gives them the chance to become immersive creators and to actually play instead of write. This is especially helpful to those kids with learning disabilities as they can engage with others in their own way and at their own pace. By breaking down traditional barriers of storytelling we build a world of creators who can tell a story and synthesize information more effectively than ever before.

Laura: Transparency, connecting learners directly to the storytellers allows for powerful opportunities for co-creation. Learners themselves become multiplatform producers by mashing-up commercial content or by creating their own original content that extends the overarching narrative. Once embraced, contributing to the story world will provide satisfaction and a sense of achievement. In addition, celebrating the participation of the learner is validating and will lead to further engagement with the content and will make them feel empowered.