Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices (part 2)


The Journal of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) published a long article by me in 2013 entitled “Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices: Inanimate Alice as an Exemplar”. I have decided to convert the article into readable chunks and serialize it here on my blog, particularly in light of this new wave of digital assessments that require our learners to think and communicate effectively across all forms of media.

The inherently interactive nature of the Internet, in tandem with its capacity to meet our learners where they are ready to learn, can lead to groundbreaking pedagogies in media-rich environments. The pedagogical practice of transmedia storytelling offers some compelling possibilities for education.

Transmedia storytelling exemplifies learning in the twenty-first century by merging the concept of storytelling with that of the listener-learner and the resulting emotional engagement with the pervasiveness of media. We might define transmedia learning as: the application of storytelling techniques combined with the use of multiple platforms to create an immersive learning landscape which enables multivarious entry and exit points for learning and teaching.

It is the unifying concept of the learning environment that is important since that can become a landscape for learning that has few, if any, boundaries. With philosophical underpinnings in constructivist and connectivist theories, a transmedia pedagogy uses technology in an integrated way that allows learners and content to flow seamlessly across media platforms. Education across multiple media allows for great continuity in learning. Every piece of the puzzle works to engage the learner. Transmedia techniques, when responsibly and effectively applied in an educational context, immerse students in their own learning and, as a happy corollary, advance media literacy education for all.

At the same time, we can view transmedia learning as a spearhead. Traditional learning models today struggle to meet our learners where they are ready and willing to learn. As Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Gabel 1999, par. 2). Transmedia techniques in particular are helping to propel the traditional educational model into the twenty-first century by reaching out to learners on their own terms, creating, enhancing and spreading content in a rich and fruitful way, and creating opportunities for exploration, interpretation, and expansion. When we combine transmedia with a pedagogy that is transformative, that shifts the locus of control in learning firmly from the teacher towards the learner, we begin to morph the concept of StoryWorld, familiar to transmedia producers, into something that is powerful for learning in the digital age, the Transmedia LearningWorld (TLW). This new model of learning goes beyond the confines of a classroom, and instead creates a TLW that allows content to flow fluidly across the curriculum and from one media to the next. If, for example, we take the pedagogical principles from constructivist and connectivist learning theories, we can start to build frameworks for transmedia narratives that enable the learner to take charge of the narrative and then to shape it to their own learning needs.

A TLW is a paradigm for learning that combines the capabilities of ubiquitous technologies, real-life experiences, and learner-focused pedagogies, making for profoundly productive and powerful learning experiences. This dynamic ecosystem allows for the creation of a synergy between varieties of learning models and a range of pedagogies that will take students and teachers around the world into new realms.

The United States Department of Education (2011) has recognized the power of using a transmedia approach in learning by declaring that it presents children with multiple entry points to learning, and that it enables educators to use individual media for the functions for which they are best suited. (https://www.ed.gov/oii-news/why-use-transmedia-early-learning). In 2007, then MIT studies professor, Henry Jenkins, developed the concept of transmedia storytelling as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience” (par. 3).

Although transmedia can claim considerable success in the entertainment world, as well as in aspects of business generally, it can be argued that the real roots of transmedia in fact lie in education, as teachers have long sought out diverse resources and strategies to reach and engage their students. But what has simply been a long-held practice for teachers is at the forefront of discussion because of the all-pervasive knowledge-building and collaborative possibilities that come with the ever-expanding digital technologies. Transmedia learning combines the capabilities of ubiquitous technologies, real life experiences, and learner-focused pedagogy drawn from a rich ecology of content and media. As Marshall McLuhan said, “Anyone who tries to make the distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first things about either” (Prensky 2002, 7).

No matter the particular mix of media deployed, transmedia storytelling is a learning tool that possesses the power to motivate, persuade, entertain, and educate. In partnership with the United States Department of Education, PBS and their work has offered a fascinating perspective on the benefits of transmedia and learning. PBS immerses children in their favorite entertainment content by proliferating it across different media platforms and has managed to bridge entertainment and education. Through a “Ready to Learn” grant, PBS has been the perfect capstone to demonstrate that children’s learning is enhanced by educational media, particularly when it is used in combination with one another. As PBS itself says:
PBS and our member stations are America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world. In addition, PBS’s educational media helps prepare children for success in school and opens up the world to them in an age-appropriate way. (par. 1)

School Librarians, such as myself, have been among the first educators within the school system to recognize the shifting nature of knowledge and literacy, and have been at the forefront of attempts to leverage most effectively the new technologies to reach students. Librarians have created a Transliteracy Group to extend conversations, receive support and resources, improve practice, and increase learning opportunities for learners through the development of transliteracy skills and the effective use of transmedia techniques. This group encourages all educators to continue to strive to find the most effective techniques to pull in existing and emerging educational technologies to forward learning and instruction. The high level objective is to develop a strategy that will give teachers and librarians the tools and the confidence to create teaching opportunities that enable each layer of instruction to reach students at multiple touchpoints, drawing them deeper into their own learning. As educators, we cannot and must not be fooled by the technology-readiness our students show us—the fact is that young people, while they are natural and instinctive users of digital technologies, are by no means inherently expert at using them. The digital native is real, but the accepted definition of a digital native is wrong. So we need to be able to equip them with the skills they need to be effective users and consumers of content and information across all media platforms, while providing for them participatory learning experiences that meet them where they are ready to learn. This is a set of skills and competencies that, as yet, too few teachers can claim to have, but it is an area of teacher development that is by now no longer optional. Our young people need these skills, and we as teachers have a responsibility to see that they are able to develop them with our support.