We have told stories to each other since the dawn of human history. We instinctively organize our thoughts as stories. Well-crafted stories engage us, inform us, inspire us and – long after first hearing them – resonate with us. Stories have always carried messages and meaning for us long before writing, radio, film, television, or the internet helped us tell them. The core elements of story never change – character, plot, settings and obstacles to be overcome – but the ways in which we tell stories continue to evolve. The new media that surrounds us as educators and as learners has forced us to pay attention to, and to change, how education is conceived. One significant change to ‘Learning in the 21st Century’ comes in the form of “transmedia storytelling,” a process of writing and reading stories that invites participants into stories in ways that they have been unable to do before digital technologies and the internet allowed us to connect in so many ways, so quickly. It is this changing face of storytelling that sits at the core of this collection.
What’s the (Transmedia) Story?
In 1999, when movie-goers first encountered Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity, many could hardly conceive of the story they were about to be immersed in, and not because of it’s dystopian vision of society. Instead, viewers were being drawn into a new vision of storytelling, one that would span three movies, animated films, comics, and video games, let alone countless discussion forums. According to Henry Jenkins, in his book Convergence Culture, transmedia stories unfold across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. Jenkins highlights The Matrix as transmedia property, and elaborates on how it works: While a reader or viewer could enjoy any one of these media alone, the combined experience of reading, viewing, and playing games provides much greater insight into the overarching storyline behind The Matrix. Along with presenting critical parts of the story across multiple story spaces, transmedia storytelling also requires active participation. Jenkins has also coined the term “participatory culture,” and noted how new literacies such as transmedia storytelling pushes on our existing cultural norms, putting readers and writers of such stories in new roles as content designers and consumers.
Another transmedia pioneer, Jeff Gomez, the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, describes the power of creating a story franchise around a brand that can be told through books, comics, video-games, Web shorts, feature films and virtual worlds. Effectively implemented, transmedia stories are pervasive, and can be profitable for the companies that have the resources to produce them. The art of storytelling has undoubtedly been resurgent in recent times in commerce and in media. Marketers, for instance, have recognized the power that narrative has in engaging and informing us about a product or a brand. Consumers have not only had to analyze text, but have had to develop critical literacy skills needed to uncover underlying messages and hidden biases.
Yet, transmedia stories are not just media properties, as anyone with a personal computer, mobile device, or tablet PC can create one. In education, these same techniques can be used to create a powerful emotional connection with curricular content. Transmedia storytelling speaks to learners in a way that they inherently understand, and when purposefully designed, it can be an effective tool for all age groups and in all learning environments. Developing a narrative over multiple platforms while interweaving learning outcomes will create transformational learning experiences. They engage, inform and inspire participants (who are more than mere ‘readers’) to connect with and collaborate over content. Quality transmedia narratives are written with an openness that allows opportunities for extension using varying platforms that enable different entry points into the environment they have helped create. Understanding the affordances of transmedia storytelling, both as writers and readers, can help us see possibilities for use in the classroom.
Production of Transmedia as a Writer
Whatever the media that are employed, the root of all transmedia stories are the characters, conflict, settings, and plot that comprise the stories themselves. Transmedia storytelling allows us to build environments and worlds to connect technologies, languages, cultures, generations, and curricula while urging our learners to thrive. Students will make connections to themselves and to the world that surrounds them. Such scenarios provide all learners with a voice, with everyone listening together poised to add to a common theme or storyline. Each part of the story is discrete and plays to the strengths of media platforms, classroom practices, and resources while cohesively linking them together. Transparency, connecting learners directly to the storytellers allows for powerful opportunities for co-creation. Learners themselves become multiplatform producers by mashing-up commercial content or by creating their own original content that helps to extend the overarching narrative. In order to be successful, students need to have a strong understanding of the theme or message of the story and the characters. Once embraced, contributing to the story world will provide satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
Writing instruction in school these days has become formulaic. Students are accustomed to writing linear stories- stories told in order from beginning, to middle to end. Producing transmedia means that the writer must have certain freedoms to think about the story they would like to tell in a non-linear fashion and decide which platforms would be best suited to relating it. Students need to think bigger than a flat story on one platform and build a world for their plot, characters, and setting, and theme to exist. The object of writing in a transmedia space isn’t just to recreate the original story on various platforms; it is to say something new, using the existing themes and characters. A writer needs to feel empowered to make a choice as to how their story should unfold. Stories do not have to be limited to just static text that tells the story in order. Transmedia writing allows for a flexible approach allowing for each platform to be a vehicle for the narrative. For example, in additional to traditional text, a writer may choose to extend their story through audio recorded dialogue or a website with links. Stories can also be extended into the real world. Students may choose to have situations in which participants interact with their narrative in a very real way. For example, a game or an activity can be designed that helps the story to unfold.
Consumption of Transmedia as a Reader
We inhabit a culture that is changing our relationship with text, and shaping our future reading patterns. In a recent keynote address, Karen Cator, Director of the United States Department of Educational Technology referred to this transition from a print based classroom to digital media as a ‘digital inflection point’ where we have the opportunity to build powerful new learning environments. This transition from old to new media provides new opportunities and changes the way we think about literacy. Being transmedia literate means being able to comprehend, understand and consume stories told across multiple media platforms, which includes traditional print and other analogue material as well as the internet, audio, and video.
As Jeff Gomez suggests, in today’s interconnected world, young audiences have become so comfortable with media technology that they flip from one platform to the next, sometimes literally using their finger to flip from one media to another on the same (often mobile) device. Traditional stories are normally consumed in a sequential order. With transmedia, the use of varying platforms allows for multiple entry points into a non-linear narrative, and as a result, reaches all types of learners. Innovations in digital reading and extending stories onto multiple platforms will continue to enhance instruction ensuring that students will become more connected to, engaged with, and make meaning from the content they are reading. The non-linear structure of a transmedia narrative allows opportunities for learners to enter the storyworld in ways that they find attractive and approachable. This immersive experience makes story elements come alive. Moreover, as the devices we use to access and participate transmedia stories continue to become more mobile and user-friendly, we will be immersed in these stories in increasingly interwoven patterns of reading and writing, viewing and responding. Transmedia narrative authors may have stories conceived in their mind, yet it is the responsibility of the readers to discern information pertinent to them.
Potential for Educators and Learners
While there are critics who claim that this is the “dumbest generation,” or that we are wallowing in “the shallows,” transmedia storytelling speaks to many learners in a way that they understand and, when purposefully designed, can be an effective tool for all age groups and all learning environments. Being transmedia literate goes beyond traditional reading and writing and includes literacies such as finding, locating, organizing, using, understanding, summarizing, evaluating, and analyzing information. Students are placed at the center of the learning process by collaborating, interacting, and co-creating content. This approach immerses learners into a world where fragmented content converges and allows for information to flow fluidly from one media to the next, as well as across the curriculum. In addition to transmedia being a content delivery system, it seamlessly drives learning to extend beyond schools and into the community and beyond by allowing those who participate to enjoy having a stake in the learning process. Students and teachers communicate and learn from each other fostering a sense of community in which they feel personally invested.
Weaving together learning outcomes and objectives will create a transmedia universe within education where learning is immersive, innovative, and transformational. Content is important but the real power of transmedia is giving each and every child a place to share their stories with the world. Careful implementation of such techniques will provide an immersive and authentic learning experience from which all learners are sure to benefit.