Once in a blue moon something comes along that stops us short, tests our assumptions, and forces us to think anew about something we thought we already knew well. One such is Inanimate Alice.
These are the words of a young learner encountering the story of Alice:
“After [the first episode] I was burning with curiosity to see and read the other episodes in the series. Finally….I finished episode 4 and I felt like I had just nearly fallen off the building like Alice. Inanimate Alice is heart-pounding, exciting, and adventurous and I enjoyed them. You should watch Inanimate Alice, NOW.”
An Emerging Literary- and Content-Experience Phenomenon
Inanimate Alice is a remarkable literary and digital phenomenon – a ‘born digital’ text, authored by Kate Pullinger, an award-winning Canadian novelist, that deploys text, video, images, sound and gaming components to deliver a compelling and powerful tale of a young girl, Alice, who travels the world with her parents. To date, the story develops over four episodes (there are six more in the pipeline) and the narrative increases in complexity as Alice herself grows older through the story. Like many who have met Alice, the young reader above has been completely gripped by her tale.Unlike most digital content being used in education today, Inanimate Alice has not been adapted from another medium. It is not a traditional text-only story which has then been re-created and enhanced in digital form. Rather Alice was conceived, written and created entirely within the digital domain. The producer (Ian Harper, of the Brad-Field company), the storyteller (Kate Pullinger) and the artist (Chris Joseph), the key movers behind Alice, all wanted to create something that was authentically and wholly digital, and not something derived opportunistically from other, more traditional, domains.
The name given to this kind of literature is transmedia.
Transmedia is storytelling across multiple media platforms, usually digital media, as is the case with Inanimate Alice, but we can see no reason why transmedia should not also include within its gamut traditional print and other analogue material. Additionally, some transmedia projects are also building participation into their stories – direct physical participation by the ‘readers’. The experience in the classroom, from those teachers already using such materials, tells us that transmedia storytelling is able to take what might otherwise be a one-dimensional task for some learners and turn it into a fully immersive and multi-dimensional experience.
Digital Literacy: An Essential Part of Teaching and Learning
We are in an age, a developing culture, in which our relationship with text is shifting – Marshall McLuhan calls it ‘a moment of interplay’. Our students are growing up in a digital world. The reading patterns and habits of young and old are changing as reading extends from the printed page to the computer screen and to myriad diverse devices now available. Digital novels can help our students be connected to, engaged with, and increase their ability to make meaning from, text. As educators, we have a responsibility to embrace innovative reading forms and recognize that they are increasingly critical pedagogical tools. More than just a creative approach to literacy, electronic, multimedia, and transmedia texts should now be recognized as an essential part of literacy teaching and learning.
So, why the need to change our understanding and definition of literacy?
The Nature of the Transmedia Experience and Student-centered Learning
Transmedia is intrinsically a non-linear way of storytelling and has the power to bring seemingly fragmented content and experiences – textual, visual, auditory, kinesthetic – together holistically. Transmedia provides the opportunity for learners to have stories built around them while exposing them to ideas, experiences, community, culture and the broader aspects of our global society. Learners are encouraged to form relationships between concepts, information and facts from multivarious sources, both from inside and outside the classroom.
Transmedia will allow educators to put the student at the center of the learning process by allowing for a highly participative and creative kind of learning. It is a form of storytelling (like the best storytelling that has existed since human history began) that enables the learner to move on to create their own stories, or to shape existing stories in unique and individual ways.
Transmedia can offer teachers a coherent hierarchy of experiences and concepts to offer their learners, a collaborative ladder of increasingly complex skills that can be applied to children as they learn (indeed that the children can apply for themselves as their own knowledge and skills develop). And the truly transformational aspects of transmedia will be found in the capacity for teacher and learner to learn together through this exciting combination of media. The greatest respect that teachers today can pay their students is to say, ‘We are all learners now, let’s learn together.’ Resources such as Inanimate Alice make that shift to a more holistic form of teaching and learning a natural one.
But, as we have noted, Inanimate Alice also makes manifest the critical debate raging in education today on the nature of literacy, a debate that has implications for some of the fundamental assumptions we have taken for granted for a long time. The young learner’s words above will tend to provoke two extreme reactions within the confines of this particular debate: at one end, there is the purist who defines literacy very firmly in terms of the written or printed word; at the other extreme, we find those who believe that ‘print is dead’.
Of course, neither extreme makes any sense. Those who take the more traditional stance will tell you that literacy is simply the ability to read and write; however, as Bill Boyd has written:
…‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’ The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive.
At the other extreme though you will find those who tell us that digital literacy is what is critically important today, replacing any notion of traditional literacy. But while digital ‘texts’ are increasingly significant in our lives today, and may already have reached a position of primacy in some areas, they are still fundamentally augmenting traditional texts; they are not entirely supplanting them. So, while it makes no sense to throw the baby out with the bathwater, we do have to accept a notion of literacy that is becoming vastly more complex, immensely more layered, as we strive to understand how these new storytelling platforms can be used in education.
Every educator now needs to ask himself or herself where they stand in this debate. We should accept that digital texts and digital content generally are transforming the way that learners are able to interact with and consume information; but they are also transforming the relationship between teacher and learner, and therefore changing how teachers prepare lessons, engage learners and foster student achievement.
Inanimate Alice, we believe, is a gamechanger in this shift towards the transmedia universe. What do you think?
Post jointly authored by Laura Fleming and John Connell.