ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Playing with Transmedia: An interview with Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper

By Ashley Yeo

The market for children’s education products has seen everything from interactive adventure books to video games about math. What about learning through a combination of both media types? The USC Annenberg School recently released a report titled “T is for Transmedia” to illustrate informal learning through transmedia. While a concept that was previously largely untapped, transmedia  is now becoming a regular practice within the media industry. With transmedia learning, children engage in recursive participation across different media platforms, providing different opportunities for stories to have more depth. For example, children can provide feedback and see how these stories change over the course of time. Eventually, informal transmedia learning aims to encourage out-of-the-box creativity as well as critical thinking.

In this interview, the authors of the project also talk about their USC Annenberg School’s transmedia project; Flotsam, a picture book that evolved into explorer game cards and a dynamic book on the iPad featuring a Meville camera app; and how their experience has given greater insights into creating an informal transmedia learning experience for children.

While “transmedia” is not a new term, what inspired you to come up with this report to encourage teachers and game creators to start taking advantage of transmedia? Would you say it has anything to do with your background of study?

As researchers interested in children’s media, we’ve watched more and more children’s media producers start experimenting with transmedia narratives built around books, TV shows, and interactive media like games. While there are many examples of very good transmedia for children out there (we describe many of them in the report), it seems like transmedia as a strategy for children’s media is still being defined and refined, and we wanted to help with that process and encourage producers to think about the teaching potential of the media they create. Second, we decided to write this report to help meet a need we see in the areas of learning and education. Across the US, school districts and organizations supporting informal learning (like afterschool programs and summer camps) are looking to media and technology for tools to help support students’ diverse learning needs.  We believe that transmedia has the potential to be a valuable tool for learning—both in in schools and in informal spaces—and wanted to write this report as a first step in outlining the expanded role we’d like to see transmedia play in supporting children’s learning.

Our backgrounds of study have certainly influenced the shape and goals of the report. While all of us (Becky, Meryl, Erin, and Henry) are affiliated in various ways with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC, we each bring different interdisciplinary interests and strengths to the project, ranging from popular culture to special education; media production to urban education. What brought us all together in the fall of 2011 was the establishment of a working group on children’s transmedia at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. This working group provided a forum for conversations related to transmedia and children—many, but not all focused on learning with transmedia.

What do you think is the key to creating a good transmedia learning experience for children?

Magic.

In all seriousness, there is a “magical” quality to every good transmedia experience we describe in the report. This magic is a combination of attention to the features we outline—places to play, play partners, and paradigm-shifting play—respect for the audience’s participation, and expert leveraging of technology platforms that facilitate bringing together the involvement of a group of people (who are often geographically dispersed). It also involves both creativity and resilience—the ability to quickly and fluidly adapt the experience based on how the participants respond at each stage.

The report focuses a lot on deeper learning that transmedia can achieve. Could you give a simple example to illustrate how different learning would have been if the value of transmedia were not being tapped into?

A great example is the Harry Potter series, as it has evolved as a transmedia experience since its launch. As we describe in the report, Potter was not “natively” a transmedia property. We’ve all heard the stories of J.K. Rowling sending the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to hundreds of publishers before getting an acceptance. Although she always had a series of seven books in mind, it was just that—a series of books. Had the Potter series been limited to the books, it would still have been a very rich reading experience, as the stories themselves are rich and complex. However, the transmedia elements—those professionally produced by Scholastic, Warner Brothers, and others (e.g. Lego, Mattel, Universal Studios, etc.) as well as those created by fans—allow readers to play inside of the world of Harry Potter. These avenues for play have led to a huge body of fan-produced media from fan fiction to Wizard Rock.  They have even contributed to the formation of an international, grassroots, social justice organization, The Harry Potter Alliance, which brings children and adults together to do good in the world in Harry’s name. The transmedia elements are what allow people to explore more deeply, experiment and investigate through play, and take action on their own or in conjunction with others.

If there were one core objective that you would want transmedia learning to achieve, what would it be, and why?

Because transmedia crosses formats, platforms, and ways of telling stories, we think that it has great potential to help close some of the troubling gaps in achievement that plague education today. It offers multiple opportunities to participate at different levels.  Using different resources, transmedia designed for learning can invite and support participation by diverse students. To us, this should be the goal of all transmedia projects designed for learning.

Let’s talk a little bit about Flotsam. While the project appears to be well thought-of, how difficult is it in real-life, when it comes to properly trying to balance the use of each type of media to ensure a well-rounded transmedia learning experience?

We encountered a great number of challenges while designing the Flotsam Transmedia Experience. In regards to creating a balanced, well-rounded transmedia experience, there were probably three key “sticky issues” with which we needed to contend.

First, there is the issue of access. The transmedia experience extends the story of Flotsam from a highly accessible picture book to a dynamic book (d-book) for iPad and a card game using collectable “Explorer Cards,” which adds economic and technological barriers to access. Further, Flotsam is a wordless picture book, meaning that reading it (in print version or through the transmedia experience) is a different challenge than reading a book with words. When we were designing the transmedia experience, we were keenly aware of the fact that many children would not have access to all of the extensions and therefore worked to make sure that a uniquely valuable experience could be had regardless of level of access.

Secondly, there was the issue of embedding curriculum in the transmedia experience. While we decided early on to build a curriculum that encompassed marine science, storytelling, and social studies (geography and world cultures), how to distribute curricular elements across the transmedia extensions, as well as how to embed educational content in ways that prompted exploration rather than lecturing to users, were more difficult questions to answer. The team was committed to creating an experience that supported discovery, experimentation, and creative play. In order to meet these commitments, we drew upon team members’ experiences as educational consultants on traditional children’s media, consultations with teachers who were expert in constructivist and Reggio Emilia instructional strategies, and sought feedback from families in order to help us find a balance for the curricular piece.

Finally, early on in the project we came up against the realities of creating media for children that meets current standards and expectations for privacy, safety, and security. For adults and mixed-age groups, one of the compelling features of transmedia play is the social connection and sharing that takes place around a transmedia experience. For products designed specifically for children, COPPA rules and concerns about privacy and safety make many transmedia practices difficult, if not impossible. For example, we thought about creating an online, user-generated photo gallery for children to share the photos they take with the “Melville camera” app embedded in the Flotsam d-book; however, concerns about privacy forced us to manage sharing in a different way.  

How do you think transmedia learning will evolve in the next 10 years? What impacts do you think such a learning method would have on our future generation?

Transmedia has become de rigueur in mainstream media in a very short period of time. In the next ten years, we expect that it will have a much greater presence in learning and education. There is a lot of excitement and support coming from foundations, technology and media companies, and educational institutions themselves around instructional technology, personalization of learning, and scaling instruction. It is likely that transmedia will become a key strategy for many of these goals.

If children have access from an early age to good transmedia that has been designed with learning in mind, it’s possible that we will see a future generation with literacy skills we have never seen or even imagined. Transmedia requires critical thinking and problem solving that is not always a part of reading or watching traditional forms of media—if this becomes the standard, we may (hopefully) see people across demographics who are engaged, active, and critical participants in the media they create and consume. 

Can we expect a new transmedia project from the USC Annenberg School soon?

The Lab’s current work on transmedia is related to transmedia branding and corporate communication. You can keep tabs on what’s going on at the lab by visiting the website: http://www.annenberglab.com.

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