Schools, by and large, have tamed the canon. They have made it into the stuff of tests, multiple-choice answers, and standardized responses. Everyone now, finally, has access to the canon at a time when schools have rendered it toothless. Young people today have access to far more texts, images, and diverse media of far more kinds than in the past.
- James Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us (p. 204)
We are all now familiar with the phenomenon of the YouTube video that goes viral, the funny or sad or tragic or bizarre snippet that suddenly erupts onto our collective consciousness and is viewed millions of times. From the clip of bunnies in a cup to the celebrity-fuelled Kony explosion, the viral sensation is now well recognized.
In education, it is possible sometimes to see something similar happen, but in a much more constructive and substantial way than we see with the viral video clip. For a piece of learning content to go viral in this way, we must consider some key questions:
- Do learners need to feel especially connected to the content?
- Will it evoke some kind of emotional response from them?
- Will they feel motivated to share it with other learners within their social networks?
- And what is required if that viral effect is to be more than merely ephemeral and the
content is to have a lasting appeal and continuing utility to the learner?
I believe we might glean some answers to these questions when we look at the phenomenon of Inanimate Alice. Picked up initially by a few innovative teachers in different parts of the world, it is now a global sensation comprised of a learning community across more than 100 countries, with more than 10 million hits to the website since its inception, and with more than 1000 episodes downloaded daily.
How can we typify the viral phenomenon in the educational setting?
The learning community that has grown up around Inanimate Alice has taken advantage of its born-digital origins and its open structure, where students are placed at the center of the learning process through collaboration, interaction, and co-creation. This transmedia approach entails immersing learners in a world where fragmented content converges and allows for information to flow effortlessly from one medium to the next, as well as across the curriculum. Far from viewing transmedia as just another content delivery system, we must understand how it drives learning, seamlessly, to extend beyond schools and into the community (in its widest sense), and indeed further by allowing those who participate to grasp and enjoy their own stake in the learning process.
Along with presenting critical parts of the story across multiple story spaces, transmedia storytelling also requires active participation, and the Alice community is a perfect example of how that can grow and flourish around the story itself. Indeed, the broad, deep and rich learning that goes on in and around the Inanimate Alice community is an illustration of the blurred boundaries between formal and informal learning. Henry Jenkins got it just right when he coined the term “participatory culture” and noted how new literacies such as transmedia storytelling push on our existing cultural norms, putting readers and writers of such stories in new roles as content designers and consumers.
The inspiration of Inanimate Alice has motivated students around the world to want to create their own next episodes of the series. Learners have used critical literacy skills to deconstruct the digital text as readers, and they have used the knowledge they have gained to write and create. They have become producers of content in the widest transliterate sense, shaping new narrative possibilities. Students are encouraged to co-create developing episodes of their own, either filling in the gaps or developing new strands of the narrative. These further episodes have taken Alice all over the world and on some extraordinary adventures. In addition, students have created interstitial episodes that fill in the gaps in Alice’s story. Inanimate Alice has created a virtual circle of storytelling where transmedia meets co-creation inspiring many learners to write and create.
So, this is a learning community genuinely built around user-generated content, with Alice as the key inspiration — it has enabled learners to participate, grow and be an integral part of the story. And, of course, the story of Alice as a phenomenon continues to grow too – with its transmedia outreach just beginning to unfold.
Cross-platform educational benefits
Learners are taking Alice on new adventures and are seeing them featured on Promethean Planet, showcased in a gallery for parents, teachers, and learners from around the world to see, experience, and admire. Students continue to be challenged to create their own “what happens next” episodes, and it has been thrilling to watch Alice travel the world and to see how inspired learners are taking her on new adventures all the time.
After years of concentrating on the needs of teachers, for the first time now, the creators of Inanimate Alice has opened up a directly kids-facing adventure. And now Alice is on Everloop, the wonderful social network for the under-13s, where an eight-page, interactive flip-magazine will be posted monthly.The Alice Loop will feature a monthly geographic “Wander” theme linked to the core story of the magazine, with Australia being Alice’s first port of call.
In addition, a set of new narratives will be delivered on a simple authoring tool for Education Services Australia. By using this tool, students will be able to mash-up and remix the Alice episodes, in turn creating their own.
Transmedia storytelling techniques are blurring the lines between commercial and non-commercial content, as well as blurring the boundaries between the roles of creator, producer, and consumer. Young learners, through the cross-platform proliferation of properties such as Inanimate Alice, are being inspired to repurpose content and to generate their own. The results can be seen in the passion, creativity, and innovation that is realized daily in learners around the world.