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Transmedia Teaching

The very first series of posts on our Teaching Thursday blog revolved around the idea of EduPunk which represented a combination of outside-the-box educational thinking, the widespread use of digital technologies, and the DIY attitude associated closely with punk rock (check them out here and here).  While EduPunk appears to have been a flash in the pan, the ideas at the core of the movement probably possess more staying power.  In particular, I have noticed a resonance between some of the ideas around EduPunk (whatever they precisely were!) and the notion of transmedia teaching.  

Transmedia teaching is a term that describes teaching and pedagogical techniques that work to create an immersive learning environment which extends beyond the limits of the classroom through the use of multiple, typically digital, media. The idea derives most specifically from the work of Henry Jenkins on fan culture, convergence culture, and transmedia experiences.  Jenkins has recently summarized his ideas on transmedia culture in a pair of blog posts (here and here).  In these posts, he identifies 7 key characteristics of transmedia, or convergence, culture which center on how new and user generated digital media has come to transform the relationship between the original content provider and groups who were once imagined to be consumers of content.  The emergence of a whole series of new media platforms and technologies (such as YouTube, blogging platforms, audio and video mash-ups, wikis and other collaborative environments of various descriptions, et c.) has encouraged both the “authorized” groups of content producers as well as groups of fans to create, manipulate, modify, and expand original content in ways that extended these franchises across a wide array of narratives and into different media environments.  For example, action movies often spawn a whole set of related, authorized video games, a range of sequels and “prequels”, books, music videos, toys as well as “unauthorized” fan-fiction, blogs, and even various forms of adaptation in user-generated environments like YouTube.  The proliferation of related content across platforms represents the core of the transmedia phenomenon as both an aspect of contemporary multimedia marketing strategies, but also as a far more de-centered phenomenon engaging a wide range of fans whose commitment and interest in a storyline, cast of characters, or imaginary world manifest itself in highly dynamic and creative ways.  The interaction between the “original” content producers and the committed fan community can be either sequential – that is fans responding to a creative franchise after it is imagined as, say, a major motion picture – or simultaneous – as is manifest in reality TV shows like American Idol where the “audience” co-authors the outcome of the narrative by voting or otherwise actively participating in the creation of the story.  You can read his original postings here.  

My goal in this short essay is to consider how Jenkins’ ideas could be applied to a notion of transmedia teaching.  Our goals as teachers are largely the same as those of content providers in any media franchise.  We hope that our students become committed to the ideas, stories, methods, and worlds that we create in the classroom.  We hope that the commitment on the part of our students manifest itself at least in being able to model certain behaviors and methods on their own (in, say, a laboratory assignment or as a paper or test) and ideally in our students willingness to internalize the lessons of the classroom (broadly construed) and commit to producing their own content.  We measure student success in generating content by how closely it relates to the rules that we identified as governing the thought worlds of our discipline or a particular method.  What a creative franchise might regard as the best examples of “fan fiction”, we as teachers regard as evidence for learning, a familiarity with content, and the ability to internalize certain methods   These goals, of course, are not exclusive to transmedia teaching, but they do suggest a certain similarity in the best-case scenario outcomes of a transmedia franchise in the sense that Henry Jenkins studies.  

What I’d like to suggest here is that Jenkins’ study of transmedia phenomenon can provide teachers with another way of thinking about how we present and articulate content to our students.  It is worth noting that when I am referring to content here, I mean both formal content (for a historian like myself this would be names, dates, events, places, et c.) as well as methods which are just as often the goal of a classroom environment.  We often teach methods in such a way that makes them a kind of content which is particularly susceptible to transmedia expression.  Media, in this analysis, refers to both the context and the physical (or technical) environment in which students deploy various the various skill sets.  I regularly repeat that the core aspects of the historical method, for example, represent transferable skills; I far less frequently articulate either where I imagine students transferring these skills or, perhaps more significantly, how these skills are to be transferred (much less modeling the process!).  Transmedia teaching foregrounds the idea that skills are transferable by encouraging from the very start the transfer of skills from one media to the next.  Digital media are particularly useful in this regard in that they are ubiquitous in our 21st century world and increasingly geared toward the production and dissemination of “user generated content”.  In other words, digital media provide an almost perfect environment for the easy transfer of skills (or more traditional content) from one medium to the next.  There are clear analogies between taking the critical analysis skills central to historical interpretation from the realm of “historic” texts to realm of critically reading a piece of popular journalism or the creation of a compelling corporate memo and the creation of a plausible argument using the historical method in the context of a blog, YouTube video, podcast, or Wikipedia entry.  Transferring a historical argument across differing media requires an understanding of the basic historical method as well as the commitment to the notion of the historical method (or even well established historical coordinates) as an immersive environment replete with a kind of internal coherence and continuity that makes the creation of multiple storylines, perspectives, and even performative expression not just possible, but desirable (most of these terms derive from Jenkins).  

The work of transmedia teaching, however, is more than just the use of digital space to encourage students to produce their own interpretation of, say, a historical narrative or method, but rather a method of teaching that prioritizes convincing students to internalize an immersive world with particular rules, tropes, characters, relationships, and even events.  By taking a transmedia approach to the pedagogical process from the start, we foreground the transferable nature of the content presented within the classroom environment by modeling its spreadability across different platforms, genres, and media readily available to students in their everyday, increasingly digital lives.  We can also note the attendant benefit of this method is encouraging students to become familiar with the basic digital tools and techniques necessary to manipulate digital media and to imagine these media
as sharing common boundaries and limitations of particular worlds of content or method.  

At the same time (and perhaps more importantly!), transmedia teaching would realize that differing media will react differently to different content (whether this content is specific bits of data, content, or methods).   Thus, we would explicitly reject any perspective that regarded media as merely vessels or tools for the dissemination of specific content or the execution of methods presented in laboratory environments, but as active participants in the transference of one skill set or body of knowledge to another context.  In other words, the notion of user generated content at the core of transmedia phenomena requires a knowledge of both the content and the processes whereby the user actually generates content.  In the end, we encourage our students to see digital technologies (and creative places) less as inert tools and more as active participants who produce knowledge, narrative, and methodology.  This move toward viewing media as central to the creation of knowledge is long established and coincides well with the methods that scholars in the humanities employ every day.  We would never read an inscription on an ancient stone block the same way that we would read an ancient text or piece of architecture.  The same process is, of course, true for disseminating knowledge in a transmedia world: the world created in the classroom takes on different manifestations across different media.  By foregrounding this process, we’re emphasizing the transferable nature of skills.

This is all relatively abstract, I realize; so a case-study is perhaps in order.  Over the past several years, I have worked with a wide range of collaborators to present my archaeological research in Cyprus as a kind of transmedia experiment.  Our project has employed a wide range of media and techniques to communicate our discoveries, methods, and experiences to a wider audience.  Our goal has consistently been to create an immersive environment for a wide range of end-users (from students, interested onlookers, fellow scholars, donors et c.) by extending our work across a number of platforms and media.  Over the past 5 years we have produced documentaries in digital video, released series of podcasts interviews with students and staff, created interactive maps, supported the work of a landscape photographer, “tweeted” our day-to-day life across social media applications, reflected on our work and life together across student and staff generated blogs, written reflective essays, documented the site through a series of regular forms and procedures in the field, and published a constant stream of formal reports and articles in academic journals.  The result has been a deepening understanding of the performative aspects of site (that is specific geographical and chronological content) and archaeology (that is as a method and set of regular procedures).  Describing the site to a small digital recorder for a broad “non-expert audience” is different from recording stratigraphic layers in an official field notebook.  Reflecting on the experience of working at the site on a blog is different from preparing a final budget of expenses. Taking systematic photographs of an object or archaeological context is different from taking photographs of the site in such a way to communicate the sense of place to a broader audience.  The different techniques and modes of expression required of these significant shifts in how we present our site and method force us to consider how various different media function within a larger cultural context.  In short, even this rather simple example of the transmedia representation of an archaeological project encouraged participants to model archaeological knowledge as a transferable skill.

Categories: Teaching, The New Media
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