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T is for Transmedia: Learning through Transmedia Play

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Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper with Erin Reilly and introduction by Henry Jenkins

Publication Date

March 16, 2013

"While transmedia does not have to privilege new media technologies, leveraging new media in creative and accessible ways in order to facilitate sharing and communication among participants or to provide frequent and personalized formative feedback can be valuable for enhancing the learning environment."

Transmedia means "across media" and describes any combination of relationships that might exist between the various texts (analog or digital) that constitute a contemporary entertainment media experience. Produced by the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, this report focuses on transmedia in the lives of children aged 5 to 11 and its applications to storytelling, play, and learning. Building off of a review of existing popular and scholarly literature about transmedia and children, it identifies key links between transmedia and learning, highlights key characteristics of transmedia play, and presents core principles for and extended case studies of transmedia play experiences.

The report notes that some transmedia experiences for children are designed with learning objectives in mind; for others, learning is not an explicit goal. However, even without overt "educational content", transmedia is decribed here as offering numerous opportunities for learning. "The complex, interconnected, and dynamic narratives and vibrant story worlds characteristic of transmedia provide fertile sites for children to explore, experiment, and oftentimes contribute as story worlds unfold across media. The multi-modal, multi-sited nature of many transmedia productions challenge children to use varied textual, visual, and media literacy skills to decode and remix media elements."

One example of transmedia described in an introduction by Henry Jenkins is that of Sesame Street's book The Monster at the End of this Book, written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollen, released in 1971. Though the concept of transmedia did not exist at that time, the muppet who is the star of this book, Grover, emerged as an early fan favorite on Sesame Street as his personality took shape across platforms (from television to records, stuffed toys, public performances, feature films, etc.). In the book, "Grover tries to do everything he can to block us from turning the pages, from tying knots to constructing brick walls, from begging to haranguing us, yet the desire to read overcomes all of the walls he might try to erect. The children's book has long been a site for domestic performance, as parents and children alike try out different voices, make sound effects, and respond with mock emotions, to the pictures on the page." In recent years, the book has evolved into a digital book, an interactive experience children have on their iPad. Along similar lines, Jenkins references The Putamayo Kids Presents Sesame Street Playground, a CD/DVD set that shares with children songs from the many versions of the programme that have been localised to languages and cultures around the world, as well as video clips featuring the original casts in India, Mexico, Russia, and South Africa.

The report identifies the following key links between transmedia and learning:

  • Transmedia play can promote new approaches to reading, as children must learn to read both written and multimedia texts broadly (across multiple media) and deeply (digging into details of the narrative).
  • Transmedia play can encourage learning through joint media engagement, providing opportunities for families to experience transmedia together.
  • Transmedia play can support constructivist learning goals in that it involves exploration, experimentation, and remix, which emphasise the active role of the learner in creating knowledge by working to make connections among information in a specific context.

It highlights 5 characteristics of transmedia play that make it useful for learning:

  1. Resourceful: The ability to act with/react to diverse, challenging situations by thinking creatively about solutions that leverage any and all available tools and materials.
  2. Social: Conversations with others who may be co-located or linked through media/technology, as in the case of social media or virtual worlds.
  3. Mobile: Use of mobile technologies, movement between platforms/media, and the act of causing movement within media themselves.
  4. Accessible: The ability to jump in from a variety of starting points and define a trajectory that takes into account people's own unique contexts and types of access.
  5. Replayable: Enticement to revisit, explore, and investigate worlds so intensive that they require multiple "visits".

Following 3 extended examples of transmedia play experiences that support the core principles outlined in the report, the concluding section explores future directions for research and development in this area. One issue raised is that of access: There is a need for research into how transmedia is used for learning under diverse conditions so that designers can create transmedia experiences that incorporate low-, no-, and high-tech opportunities for participation. "By designing transmedia experiences that take into account the differences in access available to children and families at varying income levels, in different communities, and in diverse parts of the world, transmedia has the potential to be a powerful tool for addressing stubborn achievement and participation gaps." Amongst the other points raised in this section is the importance of collaboration among diverse stakeholders when it comes to creating transmedia for learning. It is noted that work could be done to examine how to best build partnerships between public and private entities, including the role of alternative models for funding (for example, Indiegogo or Kickstarter).

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