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  • Writer's pictureScott Russell

Transmedia in Education: A Powerful Tool for Engagement and Learning

Outside my role as Associate Dean at a college of Art & Design, I identify as a Transmedia Producer. While I could be labeled a writer, photographer, filmmaker, or game designer, I prefer Transmedia Producer. I believe that telling a story across multiple platforms is the most effective way to create a rich narrative that captivates and retains an audience.


Let's start with a basic definition. Transmedia is not simply adaptation. It's not about retelling the same story on different media. Transmedia unfolds different facets of the same story across various platforms, each adding a unique layer to a larger narrative.


Consider my time as Creative Director at Fox Kids in the '90s. We expanded the Fox Kids universe through comics, games, and articles in Fox Kids Magazine. We had a vibrant interactive community with Fox Kids Online, and Fox Kids Radio was available 24/7, each medium contributing its piece to a broader story, keeping our audience engaged beyond our Saturday morning slots.


Perhaps no example illustrates this better than Star Wars. The saga began with the 1977 film and grew into a vast universe including novels, comics, TV series, and games—each exploring different periods and characters within the Star Wars lore. This multi-platform narrative kept fans engaged, even during the sixteen-year hiatus between movie trilogies.


Why do we do this? You mean, aside from the money? Every media has its strengths and weaknesses. Film can tell a beautiful story, novels can tell an insightful story, video games can tell an engaging story, websites and social media can invite the audience into the story… and while a good story could be told in any medium, it can’t be told I the same way. Powerful Transmedia storytelling comes from taking advantage of the strengths of the various media to tell the types of story that work best within it. This approach not only broadens the audience but deepens their engagement.


But I think the biggest reason to tell a story…  transmedially(?), is for the engagement and retention of your audience. It was sixteen years between Star Wars trilogies. But there wasn’t just a giant empty void in those sixteen years. If there had been, the second trilogy would have seemed like a joke from the onset (instead of seeming like a joke later?). True fans had been kept engaged in the Universe through a variety of stories in a plethora of media. Children, who weren’t alive when the original series came out, were excited about the new trilogy, not because their parents showed them the VHS and got them pumped, but because they had been engaged and retained in the characters and the universe through the aforementioned cartoons, comics, games, etc.


Now, is it possible to teach transmedia? That's the good news... we're already doing it. At my College, we don't have a specific transmedia course; instead, we integrate elements of web design, video production, graphic design, social media, and marketing across various disciplines. The key is to help students understand the benefits of cross-pollination among these areas.


Using transmedia in education is not much different from the way we differentiate our teaching. Asking students to get up and move, work in groups to solve even simple puzzles, showing short video clips and playing music. Blogging additions to your lecture, message boards for out-of-class discussion threads, and tweeting tips, etc. But if you’re a good teacher, I’m probably telling you things you already know.

 

What you may not know is that some schools are using transmedia outside the classroom to help students assimilate to the culture of the institution, make friends, and learn extracurricularly


At USC, for instance, the "Reality Ends Here" game immerses freshmen in an Alternative Reality Game that helps them engage with the campus community and learn outside traditional classroom settings. It encourages, sometimes demands, that students meet and work with various faculty and administration, utilize school resources, and meet new people. It’s a very cleverly designed learning experience to enhance the Freshman experience


We're planning something similar at Westwood with our upcoming ARG, "Unmasked" which will, with luck, be a new, engrossing experience for incoming students and upperclassmen alike. To start the game, students will have to scan and follow a certain QR Code on posters around campus, which will deliver them to a web site.

 

More obscure clues will lead them to understand that they are in the middle of a game. They have been tapped by a recruiting arm of a secret superhero organization, Blackfisk Unlimited. Students will create their own alter-ego heroes, complete with powers, abilities, and weaknesses.

 

 And they’ll have to work in teams to solve puzzles, and earn achievements. There will be message boards where they can share ideas on solutions, video events on campus televisions, and they will be exposed to all the different people and services around campus. They will even, if all goes according to plan, be lured into the habit of regularly checking their student e-mail account. This will culminate in a social mixer where the student heroes will save the school, and ready the test for the next group of incoming recruits.


The takeaway from this is that by diversifying our media message, we can make it stronger, like a rope woven of many different materials. By exposing our audience to interweaving components of a larger narrative, we can build a stronger connection to them, keep them more fully engaged, and retain them from one milestone to the next. Whether that milestone is the next feature film, midterm exams, or graduation.

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