Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices (part 5)


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 Common Core Standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. The standards have been developed with a number of purposes in mind, one of which is to seek something fundamentally different from education than has been sought in the past in order to prepare all students for success in a complex and hard-to-predict future. With the global economy increasingly becoming a knowledge economy, creating the need for a skilled workforce able to transform information into meaningful and useful knowledge, and to apply that knowledge effectively, the US education system needs to make some meaningful and robust changes to what has gone before. As educators, we must grapple with questions of appropriate and relevant curriculum content, material, and resources that better prepare students to be competent, lifelong learners and therefore good and productive citizens in the digital age.

Digital learning is an essential preparation for the kinds of college and career readiness mentioned above. More and more, teachers are seeking out high quality, digital literacy materials that address their specific curricular objectives. Teachers need tools that allow them to reach each child and to provide rich, relevant learning opportunities that meet each student’s needs and ensure that all students have the opportunity to drive their own learning. The digital novel Inanimate Alice (2005) exemplifies reading in this era of participatory and collaborative learning. This born-digital, transmedia story, when I first came across it, made me think anew what it means to be an educator in the twenty-first century. Inanimate Alice is an aggregate of micro-learning experiences that marry literature, learning, and personal development. This new form of media agglomeration and augmentation immerses students in their learning like never before by offering a truly holistic learning experience.

Inanimate Alice creates an experience for a learner that is akin to a digitally-induced synesthesia, the sound and vision combining to assail all the senses, immersing the reader in the complexity and the emotional journey of the story. Combining digital and multimedia elements, Inanimate Alice is a non-linear story that is connected across different media platforms.

Navigating through Inanimate Alice is like a puzzle. This is partly deliberate, of course, but it is also partly due to the complexity of the multilayered story itself as well as the transmedia outreach aspects. The core narrative of increasingly complex and interactive episodes grow the story from a solid foundation on the home website, while further adventures appear as outreach experiences elsewhere. As Alice’s journey progresses, new storylines appear elsewhere providing more details and insights, enriching the tale through surprising developments. Available in English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, and with a following in over one hundred countries, this multi-lingual story connects technologies, languages, cultures, generations, and curricula within a sweeping narrative accessible by all. This new form of storytelling has redefined what it means to have a digitally literate classroom and it sets the benchmark for all future trasmedia properties to match and surpass in education.

The power of Inanimate Alice lies in the organic connection that is made between the story and the medium along with the innovative use of design and structure. The story unfolds in a game-like world that makes readers direct participants in helping the story to unfold across multiple platforms. With hours of interactive audio-visual experience built in, a gripping mesh of games, puzzles, sights, and sounds embellish and enhance the storyline. The interactivity and narrative are not distinct from one another. In the case of Inanimate Alice, the interactive elements simply cannot be separated from the story. Whether it is controlling Alice’s Baxi (her handheld gaming device) or communicating with Brad (her virtual friend on the Baxi), the embedded technology enhances the narrative and helps it to unfold in manifold directions under the reader’s impulse. It is this that makes Alice a truly unique digital reading experience.

The Common Core State Standards are designed around a model derived from the concept of the spiral curriculum, espoused by Jerome Bruner (1960), who wrote that the spiral curriculum: “as it develops should revisit this basic ideas repeatedly, building upon them until the student has grasped the full formal apparatus that goes with them” (13). The concept promotes the notion of deploying instructional content that has been encountered previously but at the same time increasing the depth and complexity of this content. Inanimate Alice uses the same fundamental concept. Each episode in the series increases in complexity, enabling learners to visit and revisit with the story at appropriate times and places within their learning development. The goal is for teachers to work with the title over the years and to collaborate with other teachers who teach different subjects and ages.

Offering a curriculum driven approach to media literacy, Inanimate Alice is aligned impeccably with the Common Core and fully supported by lessons that include connecting the story with its multimedia components as well as lessons that allow the series to be used on an interactive whiteboard, offering real, hands-on experiences. After experiencing Inanimate Alice, my own fifth grade students were connected and engaged with text like never before as demonstrated by their standing ovation at the end of episode one.