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

This week, I want to showcase two innovative projects which seek to explore the intersections between transmedia storytelling, participatory culture, and education — Robot Heart Stories and Inanimate Alice. Here’s some background on the two projects, taken from their respective home pages:

Robot Hearts Stories is an experiential learning project that uses collaboration and creative problem solving to put education directly in the hands of students. This fall, two classrooms, a continent apart, will work together to get a lost robot home, and they will need your help… The experience begins when a robot crash lands in Montreal and must make her way to LA in order to find her space craft and return home. Two class rooms in underprivileged neighborhoods, one in Montreal (French speaking) and the other in LA (English speaking), will use math, science, history, geography and creative writing to help the robot make her way across North America. At the same time, Robot Hearts Stories extends beyond the classroom, as the project welcomes involvement from a global audience. We need participants of all ages to share their own passions in the form of a creative act involving a robot they can print, customize and document. For each photo or piece of art featuring the robot that is submitted, the “signal strength” of the robot grows stronger and helps her to get back home. Robot Heart Stories is the first in a trilogy of experiential learning projects from award winning storytelling pioneer Lance Weiler and creative producer Janine Saunders.

Robot Heart Stories from WorkBook Project on Vimeo.

Set in the early years of the 21st century and told through text, sound, images, music and games, Inanimate Alice is the story of Alice and her imaginary digital friend Brad. nanimate Alice is Transmedia – designed from the outset as a story that unfolds over time and on multiple platforms, the episodes are available on all devices capable of running Adobe’s Flash Player. Alice connects technologies, languages, cultures, generations and curricula within a sweeping narrative accessible by all. As Alice’s journey progresses, new storylines appear elsewhere providing more details and insights, enriching the tale through surprising developments. Students are encouraged to co-create developing episodes of their own, either filling in the gaps or developing new strands. Designed originally as entertainment, ‘Inanimate Alice’ has been adopted by teachers eager to connect with students through media they inherently understand. Created around a high-quality robust text, the content is suitable for the deep-reading and re-reading necessary for academic investigation.

My desire to learn more about these imaginative and groundbreaking projects led me to two women (Robot Heart Stories‘ Jen Begeal and Inanimate Alice‘s Laura Fleming) who have been heavily involved in their development and deployment. What follows is an online conversation between the two of them which describes not only their work on these projects, but also dig deeper into their underlying philosophies concerning the value of transmedia and participatory learning. (For my own thoughts on these topics, see this blog post.) My hope is that this exchange will help spark similar discussions across projects, across entertainment companies, nonprofits, educators, and schools, about how we can tap in the power of new forms of storytelling experiences to enhance the opportunities students have to learn and grow.

You have both been involved in recent projects to create transmedia experiences for young people. Can you describe these projects and your participation in them?

Jen: I have recently been involved with Robot Heart Stories (RHS), an experiential education project that used collaboration and creative problem solving to put education directly in the hands of students. The experience begins when a robot crash landed in Montreal and must make her way to LA in order to find her space craft and return home. Two class rooms in underprivileged neighborhoods, one in Montreal (French speaking) and the other in LA (English speaking), will use math, science, history, geography and creative writing to help the robot make her way across North America.

At the same time, Robot Hearts Stories extends beyond the classroom, as the project welcomes involvement from a global audience. We need participants of all ages to share their own passions in the form of a creative act involving a robot they can print, customize and document. For each photo or piece of art featuring the robot that is submitted, the “signal strength” of the robot grows stronger and helps her to get back home.

Robot Heart Stories was created by award winning transmedia storytelling pioneer, Lance Weiler and creative producer Janine Saunders. My role with the project is as social media strategist, I helped build the social media strategy for the twitter feed and the blogger outreach campaign.

Laura: I have been working on Inanimate Alice , a series of interactive, multimedia, episodes that uses a combination of text, sound, images, and games to tell the story of Alice, a young girl growing up with technology as her best and sometimes only friend. During my time with the project, I have been able to work closely with the producer of the series advising on the educational media attributes of the story and helping devise intriguing new ways to navigate the transmedia experience that is just starting to unfold.

In addition, I was a collaborator for Robot Heart Stories, a project in which transmedia strategies were used to engage students from across the world. I also implemented pieces of the project within my own classroom.

What lessons have you taken from your experiments so far in deploying transmedia practices for education?

Jen: You need to understand your audience, and know that what works for each grade level will be different. Also, you must make the project easy to understand, curate and showcase for educators and students. Another lesson we learned from RHS is that you need an open line of communication between collaborators which may include needing an administrator to oversee discussions to you ensure that goals are made and met.

Laura: When thinking about transmedia and the affordances it provides for learning, the most important lesson I have taken away is that transmedia properties designed for education must be pedagogically sound, by shifting the locus of control firmly away from the teacher towards the learner. In the case of Inanimate Alice, I have seen learners become producers of content in the widest transliterate sense- teachers and learners learning together, shaping new narrative possibilities has enabled learners to participate, grow and be an integral part of the story. Transmedia practices for education must allow room for freedom, flexibility, and creativity while at the same time being practical and addressing standards, objectives and the needs of learners.

While transmedia has long been a property of commercial franchises aimed at young people, we are just now beginning to explore the implications of transmedia for education. What lessons do you think educators might take from commercial transmedia aimed at children? In what ways does educational use of transmedia require different underlying models and assumptions?

Jen: Some lessons that educators may take away from commercial transmedia aimed at children are the social communities built around the project, and how these communities encourage each participant to have a voice. Some examples of commercial properties which have accomplished this include: Inanimate Alice and the eagerly anticipated Pottermore, currently in Beta, but which allowed one million early testers to join in the summer of 2011.

Transmedia projects are about being actively engaged with a story and “playing.” Educators must understand that there is no right or wrong way to tell a transmedia story because the landscape and communities are continuously changing and evolving. Digital technologies are in a constant state of flux therefor we can no longer rely on “standards” for teaching as educators will face a harder time connecting with students who are becoming more accustomed to shifting technologies.

Laura: Successful commercial franchises have proven that transmedia narrative techniques create intense loyalty, interaction, and engagement. Educators can use these same techniques to create anytime, anywhere learning that is fully integrated and embedded into learner’s lives. Spanning educational content across varying platforms and incorporating varying forms of media meets the needs of all of our learners, while at the same time creates an emotional connection to content. Transmedia techniques create a totality of learning experiences that encompass learning both in school, in the community, and at home. Ultimately, I feel educators and indeed learners, increasingly, need to be an integral part of the creation process

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Jen Begeal is a social media strategist and transmedia producer. Her recent projects include developing a social media strategy for the experiential education project, Robot Heart Stories, developed by The Workbook Project and producing the transmedia campaign for the film, Zenith. She currently works at Umami.TV and can be found tweeting at @jlbhart and @umamitv Jen has spoken at leading conferences including the Film & History Conference for the University of Wisconsin and Mobility Shifts Conference at The New School on the subjects of film theory and media literacy. As a writer her works have been featured on the Tribeca Film: Future of Film blog and on Huffington Post‘s blog. Jen received her BFA from The State University of New York at Purchase in film directing and her MA from The New School in media studies. She is a co-organizer of the Transmedia NYC meetup group and an active member in the New York Film community.

Laura Fleming has served the children of New Jersey as an educator for the past fifteen years as both a media specialist and a teacher. In recent years she has taken a professional interest in developments in new media and in vanguard techniques in interactive and transmedia (multi-platform) storytelling. In this context, she has been able to draw powerful connections between transmedia and education. She blogs on these issues at www.edtechinsight.blogspot.com and is a regular contributor to other outlets, including the Huffington Post. Laura is currently playing a lead consultative role with the BradField Company, the developers of the innovative and popular transmedia story, Inanimate Alice. She has played a major role in growing and sustaining a thriving and vibrant global community around Inanimate Alice. She has consulted on several transmedia properties, working with producers to help maximise the value of their creations and toolsets for teachers and students as well as for the corporations themselves. Laura is currently co-authoring a book on Transmedia LearningWorlds, due for publication in Autumn 2012, and has spoken at a number of prestigious education, publishing and media events on the significance of transmedia for teaching and learning.

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