Immersive Education for a Digital Generation

I've read a few articles in the last couple of weeks about using transmedia in education, and about the need to change (fix) education in the broader sense. I don't think it's a radical thought that the education system has problems. Many people have written about it, probably for years. One article I read recently hit the nail on the head regarding the need to teach kids to think critically, not just memorize data. This TED talk by Dan Meyer expands on that idea:


Laura Fleming, who I've started to follow recently, has a lot to say about education and using transmedia in education. She also pointed me towards this article on transmedia story Inanimate Alice, and how kids get this stuff.

I had the thought some time ago that transmedia could be a fantastic way of encouraging kids and teens in their education, of exciting them and making them interested in learning.

(Please note: I'm not a teacher or educator, and though a friend of mine is taking her B.Ed. and I've talked with teachers and read rhetoric about education, I am certainly no expert. These are thoughts and opinions only. I would love comments/discussion from people with more authority than I.)

Digital Age

We live in a digital age, now, and I think the facts that all of the above-mentioned articles are available online (often solely online) and that I came across them via things like Twitter, speak to that. I read them on my computer screen or on my iPhone on my way somewhere. I retweeted, emailed to friends, and am now blogging about them.

And though a huge amount of the population hasn't adopted some of these things as much as I have (and likely you, if you're reading this), and though it's still very new and people are still trying to understand it all, kids get it.

Kids are growing up with computers and the internet and iPads. Their minds pick up how these things work as they're developing. They say kids learn new languages far easier than adults -- I'd believe understanding intuitively the workings of a digital device happens the exact same way.

I've seen it in action. 8-year-old kids know how to navigate an app store, find what they want, download it, and play it.

But most schools still sit them at desks with paper textbooks and a chalkboard and try to teach them the overly simplified, formulaic, no-real-thinking-required numbers behind what they do every day they play Angry Birds (addition and subtraction, angles, velocity...).

I've heard that people's memories aren't as good these days as they "used to be." In the middle ages, ordinary people in Europe would have the entirety of the Bible memorized, word for word. That doesn't happen anymore.

But these days, it doesn't need to. The memorization of facts forced by schools is a useless skill in a time when that information can be looked up instantly on a pocketed cell phone. And there's way too much information out there to bother with memorization -- the Bible isn't the only literature, religion not the only thing worth knowing about. Memorization shouldn't be touted as the be-all and end-all of knowledge.

What's required is comprehension. What's required are the skills necessary to find the information needed and then use it in a meaningful way.

Tests shouldn't ask you to recall the dates of the War of 1812. They should stick you in front of the internet, ask you to find out (and verify that information, because the internet can be wrong) and then apply it to answer a deeper question.

Because that's how things work these days. It's about using the technology available to make informed decisions and opinions, curating knowledge and knowing what to believe or not, of connecting with real people all around the world to share in a larger human discourse.

Kids already understand this better than most adults. That's where education needs to focus if we hope to actually educate.


If education needs to look to the digital world to be more relevant to kids' needs, then it should turn to transmedia to be more engaging. Engagement is one of the pillars of transmedia -- pulling an audience in, involving them, making them care about the property and want to get more. If kids in school are increasingly less engaged in their learning, maybe this is how it can be helped.

Turning a lesson into a transmedia experience -- like Inanimate Alice -- pulls the students in, makes them care about the lesson and makes them actually think about what they're learning, makes them want to learn more.

This seems to me the Holy Grail of education. Whenever you hear of the teachers that really made a difference to someone, it was the one that engaged that student, that did something different from the standard textbook-and-chalkboard routine, the ones that found some way to connect to the student and her learning.

A good friend of mine is starting her practicum for her B.Ed., teaching math to an elementary school class for the next few months. She wanted to make it interesting for them, so she concocted this story where a mutual friend of ours was "going on a trip" and wanted the class to help him plan it. She could teach distances and volume of suitcases and speed and all sorts of (practical!) things based on the curriculum. Furthermore, she'd have our friend Skype into the class occasionally for updates or the next assignment.

Boom -- transmedia. As she was telling me about this, I got excited, because this was exactly what I'd been thinking about. We brainstormed for the next hour.

The guy taking the trip could have a blog talking about his plans. The kids could comment and discuss ideas. Partway through, his plans could change and they'd have to change all their equations -- same structure, different numbers, to see if they could apply the skills they'd learned again. They could have to research stuff on the internet to make the plans.

There could be a language arts tie-in where they write about their experiences, or their own planned trip. The stories could be published on a blog for them all to see and show their families and comment.

What if the same lesson plan was extended to a few different classes across the country? Penpals 2.0. What if you connected to kids from the trip destination? Each class blogging and commenting. Skyping. They'r rewarded by seeing their work online, by seeing their efforts pay off.

Getting it Done

Something like that, in one classroom, is something a single teacher could actually accomplish with a bit of planning, and a good story. It wouldn't even require a budget.

But what about bigger initiatives? Could something like that be extended to a bunch of schools across the country? Would that be done through school boards and government, or could it be accomplished by individual teachers, a small combined budget (how much do teachers have to work with in a given year?) and a small transmedia production company? (token self-promotion)

Certainly something like Inanimate Alice can make its way into many classrooms. What we need are more like it--

--And more teachers who want it.

We have the will. Let's find the way.