My Transmedia Education, Part 1

Since I hatched this idea for Transmedia Indiana with my cohort Prof. Jennifer George-Palilonis last year, I’ve been asked to explain the project in several different venues. Most recently I gave the keynote address at Colorado University’s Spring Symposium entitled “Transmedia Storytelling: Group Think Teaching in a Networked World.”

People aren’t necessarily interested in the project; instead, they are intrigued by the notion of how the project works because they are looking to create interesting class experiences. Unfortunately, I can’t really explain the how it all works just now for two reasons:

  1. we haven’t done the project; and
  2. we haven’t finished the research on how it worked.

Certainly my colleague Dr. Brian McNely is working on preliminary research around how transmedia narratives work in a teaching environment. He’s studying my work last summer at The Soho Theater in London with Nina Steiger, the Writing Center director who hatched this idea with me, to find out what worked and what didn’t work in terms of what we built.

However, it’s just too early to give anything specific about it. What I can do, though, is explain how I came to the conclusion that we needed to take the principles of transmedia storytelling and incorporate those into the classroom in order to develop a more rigorous model of learning.

To do that, I have three stories to tell:

Part 1: The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki

In 2005, Surowiecki wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, a non-fiction book that examined the science behind crowd-based knowledge. The point: there are times when groups are much better at making decisions than any single expert.

Once we understand how these groups can make better decisions, we can begin to understand the rules that are necessary to create such an environment.

The book was revelatory for me because I began to see within its pages the description of every class I’ve ever taught. Each semester, I set about gathering a group of distributed strangers, pulling them together into one cohesive group, and pushing them to build a frame of applied knowledge based on data points I give them.

To explain the point, I tell the story Surowiecki wrote about: the search for the U.S.S. Scorpion.

What came from this particular story (and there is some dispute about how influential the Wisdom of Crowds was in finding the sunken submarine), was the idea that there are four basic principles for creating an environment that creates the opportunity to build knowledge from a crowd:

  1. diversity of private opinion: you must have people with different educational and knowledge-acquiring backgrounds, otherwise you get too narrow a view;
  2. independent thought: you can’t have people locked in a room together, else group-think begins to take over and you get too narrow a view;
  3. decentralized knowledge acquisition: people must have the ability to search out information on their own, not in a group, otherwise you get too narrow a view; and
  4. aggregation: you must have a mathematical or logical way to extract information from the data points.

As I read Surowiecki’s book (and this was before I became a full-time professor), I realized that if I was going to create meaningful classroom experiences in the digital age, I was going to need to utilize this idea within my classroom. For me, that meant deploying Wiki software and group Google Documents to enable students to collect, shape, and deliver information in a group format.

(Author’s Note: I’ve written a chapter about how I specifically used this in my Media Ethics class for a forthcoming textbook on E-Learning. You can also watch my talk at Colorado University, where I explain in detail how I used these systems.)

Part 2 and Part 3 to come.