Participatory Culture in Education

As a transmedia storyteller, I am not only interested in creating properties that are entertaining, but interactive and involve participation of varying depth, including discussion and social media interaction, but also co-authorship and fan immersion and collaboration. There are many ways to skin a cat (and to design a transmedia property and its media extensions), but we have to remember that while our target market for a given property may be this-or-that, we are also in the process of evolving the way fans consume, interact with, and even collaboratively author content.

While adults are beginning to participate with media as more than passive viewers, the ones who will totally “get it” will be the kids of today. Collaboration, live interactive play, and virtual connectivity around story worlds are at the core of their experience. They are growing up with this shifting paradigm, and they have access to new media platforms and means of creating community that we never experienced ourselves as children. As media creators, we need to harness this, not only for the sake of profit, but also as a means of educating tomorrow’s leaders and teaching them valuable skills in co-authorship, teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.

An interesting article on the Huffington Post titled From Generation X to Generation Me got me thinking a lot about how parenting and education have changed over the last several decades. It provided a good argument about how we as a society, have a long way to go as far as evolving the next generation into self-driven independent thinkers and doers. The essence of the article (and this is my paraphrasing), is that parents today are holding their children’s’ hands too tightly, making decisions for them, and not allowing them to learn through their own self-initiated successes and failures.

As Second Gen Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers (way back in the day), if we wanted something, we got off our butts and sold cookies, Easter candy, tickets, etc. to reap the rewards – a school trip, a pizza party, etc. In high school, we got jobs – in my case several at a time. This DIY mentality evolved for many of us into a drive for success through self-motivated change efforts both socially and technologically. We became goal-oriented and perhaps a bit perfectionistic. Some of us, myself included,  even had to learn to delegate tasks rather than do it all on our own, and build communities through traditional networking. But the rules have changed, even for us, and eventually the social networking phenomenon forced us to become adopters of the new technologies that are reframing the way we work and play today.

I’d attribute a lot of the mutual need/request for “hand holding” to a two way problem:

1. kids have too many choices today – and hence an info overload of culture, politics, media, etc. that they are not yet “trained” to filter, digest, and consider in a focused manner

2. Disparate child psychology and education theories being misappropriated by neurotic parents who still carry a DIY attitude. Many parents think “I must effect change in my child’s future” rather than thinking “I need to foster independent growth and thought, problemsolving skills, and interactivity in my child.”

The world is a different place for our youth, who are growing up with social media and entertainment that extends across platforms and media outlets. We should see this as an opportunity to encourage experimentation, rather than curate our children’s development and learning.

I am a transmedia producer by trade, and while my company Witchfactory’s primary mission is to create exciting, original properties that entertain and encourage participation with the narrative content, entertainment is only part of the picture. As producers of cross-media content, an important bi-product – perhaps even a driving force behind our endeavors – is also to educate future generations to become more than passive viewers of media, but to interact, think for themselves, contribute in an openly collaborative manner, and even co-author content with creators – in entertainment media, political and news media, technology, and beyond. We need to provide them with the tools and the freedom to become informed visionaries that will shape the future of our work force at large.

In a best case scenario, we can encourage kids to initiate their own learning objectives and active participatory processes through familiarizing them with a wealth of tools to understand media and technology and hence, the world around them. We will best accomplish this by entertaining them through cross-platform participatory means.

By marrying transmedia storytelling practices with expanding platforms and technologies, we can teach kids to build and participate in communities both in the virtual and “real” worlds and actively seek advice/guidance from both mentors and their peers, while still relying on a healthy relationship with parents to guide them along the way.

If you look at some of the educational initiatives taken worldwide, these new multi-media entertainment paradigms are working their way into a prominent place in contemporary education theory.  The Harry Potter property was perhaps the most pivotal case study. Its wide reach as a discursive topic, media coverage, and the actual organic nature by which children took the initiative to make the story world their own, and engage with it in countless ways, was one of the front runners in shedding light on the educational value of fan fiction and cooperative media. Children and teens themselves created websites dedicated to fan fiction, posted blogs, created conversation and actively participated in this rich fantasy world.

The media industry accidentally stumbled onto something new and challenging with HP, which had a profound effect on kids and their desire to learn. Many schools began to harness the enthusiasm for Harry Potter, and other children’s properties, as a jumping off point to spice up traditional lessons and curriculum. Kids were encouraged to write fan fiction, solve mathematical problems, engage in science experiments, and learn technology through a veil of the magic and mystery provided by Harry Potter and the Hogwart School. This early example (and by early, I mean early post-millennial) has shown us that kids CAN take their own passionate initiative to both learn collaboratively and stand up for their own right to interact with and augment the media they love so much.

Other educational initiatives have broken the educational mold in order to overcome kids’ reluctance to learn, and hence foster enthusiasm for knowledge:

Robot Heart Stories – A groundbreaking educational transmedia project that has gained international attention is Lance Weiler’s Robot Heart Stories. RHS is an experiential learning project that uses collaboration and creative problem solving to put education directly in the hands of students. Starting in fall 2011, two classrooms, a continent apart, worked together to get a lost robot home. The experience began when a robot crash landed in Montreal and must make her way to LA in order to find her space craft and return home. Two class rooms in underprivileged neighborhoods, one in Montreal (French speaking) and the other in LA (English speaking), make use of math, science, history, geography and creative writing to help the robot make her way across North America.

Weiler has cited his inspiration as such:

When my 3 1/2 year old son and my mom (aka Grammy) get together to read stories it is often via our iPad. What I found inspiring is that while “Grammy” was teaching her grandson to read, he was teaching her how to use the iPad.

Interestingly, this raises another important point. Our children today, who have grown up with the technology that “grams” did not, can collaboratively educate their parents, grandparents and community elders to use new media platforms, while simultaneously learning important early education skills like reading, math, and science.

Seekers Unlimited – Using Live Action Role Playing (LARP) has become increasingly popular and relevant in educational initiatives, as seen in the case study Seekers Unlimited, a cutting-edge educational program created by Aaron Vanek of Live Game Labs, that uses the oldest art form–play pretend–to create a unique and thoroughly engaging classroom experience. Intended as an entertaining interactive aid to support a teacher’s lesson plan, it begins with a narrative designed with multiple outcomes and trajectories with the teacher overseeing the process, the students work together in differentiated groups to overcome the challenges presented to them and complete the game. Their first campaign curriculum, entitled Star Seekers, is designed around a science fiction theme to promote math and science standards.

There are many other examples out there that illustrate the power of participatory culture on educational initiatives, many dealing with the use of entertainment, technology and gamification in lesson plans and curriculum. Here are some resources that explore these new initiatives: Gamifying Education , Edutainment (wikipedia article) , Think Transmedia

The simple fact is, if learning is fun, then it doesn’t feel like learning. Transmedia storytelling initiatives, Live Action Role Playing (LARP), Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG), and other forms of cross-media entertainment provide the perfect framework for creating both an original and fun means to deliver an engaging curriculum that engages all students in a class environment.

The more entertaining content available across platforms and media to augment lesson plans, the better off we will be as a society (and let’s face it, fostering participation and a sense of creative ownership and invested interest in a property is key for companies producing properties to foster lifelong fanship).

That said, a secondary effect of these initiatives taken by storytellers, educators and students themselves, is that it has opened our eyes to see that kids have a massive ability to effect change in the way companies view the boundaries and control issues around their own intellectual properties – but that’s another topic for another post…

In short, combining fun and learning is a win-win situation. I only wish I were a kid again…but then don’t we all..? 

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