Friday, March 23, 2012

Transmedia Storytelling, ARIS Game Tool, and K12 Education

The act of storytelling has been around as long as people have been on earth, first as verbal exchanges and later as books and media. In schools we emphasize the fact that all students need to be able to communicate effectively. One mode of communication that we expect students to be proficient in, is the area of writing. In the past we have spent lots of time educating students on the proper use of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

The skills of writing such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, are still very important skills for writing. Modern technology has helped us in these areas, but most people would agree it is still important for students to have good handle on these skills in order to be effective communicators.  However, just as important as the mechanical skills of writing, our current world needs students who are creative, inventive, understand procedural logic, can collaborate, evaluate, and contribute to one another to foster better outcomes. These skills in writing are just as important as the skills of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, some would argue maybe a little more important.

ARIS, and other tools like it,  allow students to practice their writing skills, but at the same time expose them to ideas of writing that the traditional tools have not as easily provided. The ARIS tool allows students to construct stories/games, that incorporate multiple elements. It requires students to think logically, be creative, and gives them an opportunity to try out each other’s work, becoming a part of the story, while at the same time providing critique and feedback to the authors.

In one example, middle school students working in a team of 4-5 students create multidimensional stories using the ARIS game engine. Students create stories (games) for an audience of their peers who then participate in the actual stories/games. Student players provide feedback to the development team authors via rubrics, and culminate in a shared assessment of each others completed games. These games are developed with the web based ARIS game development engine (OpenSource) created by the Instructional Technology Departments of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of New Mexico (

This model requires tools beyond the traditional classroom materials. Computers are needed to run the free opensource ARIS development software and students are required to use an Apple iOS device, such as an iPod or iPhone. If iPods are utilized, students will need to use a GPS receivers on their iPod touches as the stories/games are geolocation based. In addition, students participating in this activity will need network access while out in the field, away from the classroom. If the student developed games take place around the school campus, available wifi might be able to support them. However, if they are out of range of wifi, personal hotspots, such as the T-Mobile Personal WiFi hotspot will solve these issues. Ultimately, for approximately $1,000 a teacher could create a class set of two iPod touches, two Emprum Ultimate GPS Receivers for iPod Touch, a T-Mobile Personal Hotspot WiFi Access Point, Pelican 1170 Carrying Case, and three T-Mobile G4 refills for monthly 1GB WiFi access.

So what skills does this type of “writing” activity address beyond the familiar? This idea addresses narrative writing, specifically transmedia story telling skills ( . These skills include three main concepts. The first is procedural logic and include: interactive multi linear storytelling; the ability of students to plan and design requirements or story elements; debugging skills (problem solving); and systems thinking. The second is creativity and includes: independence of thought, exploration, and imagination. The third main concept is collaboration and include the concepts of: feedback and assessment; sharing of ideas; and making an effective contribution to one's peers. Obviously more traditional skills in writing will be addressed such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation. These too will be incorporated into the project and in the evaluation process. I don’t mean to say that this model is the only way students can explore these writing concepts. However the environment, in my opinion promotes the ability to look at writing in a different light, fostering these concepts and ideas a little easier in students and teachers.

Thinking about writing in this process is important because it address skills and concepts that are found in all areas of the curriculum: procedural logic, creativity, and collaboration. In this model, student writing becomes geo specific, students actually become a part of their peers stories. The process of them “playing” the “game” incorporates them into the story. Using the ARIS game engine students construct a story that takes place in time and space, utilizing GPS coordinates to discover story components including multimedia resources, dialog, characters, and other clues, culminating in a solution, or hypothesis, or ending.

With the explosion of mobile technology, research to support the strategies described above is becoming more frequent. James Mathews at the University of Wisconsin published a paper titled, Using a studio-based pedagogy to engage students in the design of mobile-based media, In it he describes the central components of what it means to be literate in the 21st century. In addition, Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California writes and researches on the topics of transmedia storytelling and its place in education. One of his recent artilces, On Transmedia and Education: A Conversation With Robot Heart Stories’ Jen Begeal and Inanimate Alice’s Laura Fleming (Part One), can be found here: This method and strategy could be used to teach many different concepts in our schools. It teaches skills and ideas and at the same time addresses the necessary disciplines that our current world demands of future generations. Tools such as ARIS blur the line related to what school can be, where school can happen, and who leads the learning.