In my attempts to encourage teachers to embrace new forms of narrative in their choice of texts for use in the classroom, the example I keep returning to is Inanimate Alice, a multimedia phenomenon which is surely ahead of its time, and teachers never fail to be excited by the possibilities it opens up for transforming learning and literacy in their classrooms.
I first met Alice about a year ago, and it was more or less love at first sight -something about her vulnerability, the edgy soundtrack and the modest but stunning good looks – of her virtual environment. Alice herself you cleverly don’t get to see for the moment. In the words of her creator Ian Harper, an exiled Scot now living in Minneapolis, Alice was ‘born digital’, and Harper describes himself as a ‘digital first, trans-media storyteller.’ In other words, this is not an adaptation of something which appeared originally in print, nor is it an e-book in the now commonly accepted understanding of the term, but a genuinely new concept in reading which combines elements of the written word, digital still photography, moving image, drawing, painting, puzzles, music, sound effects and elements of computer gaming. Unlike a computer game, however, it does have the linear progression of a book, and the reader ‘turns the page’ when he or she is ready to move on.
Over ten increasingly complex and interactive episodes planned for the story – four of them are already online – we accompany Alice from the age of eight in China, where her father works in the oil industry and has just mysteriously disappeared, to her maturity at twenty-something as the ultimate games designer on a mission to save the world. How she comes to be the ‘inanimate’ Alice of the title is still to be revealed, although there is the beginning of a clue in Episode Four when her friends first call her ‘the animator’.
Working with the prize-winning Canadian novelist Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph, Harper and his team created these fictional adventures of a young woman growing up in the early years of the twentieth century, as the back-story for the main character in his 2003-2004 screenplay E/Mission, a Matrix-like sci-fi thriller set in the not-too-distant future, where votes are cast and decisions made through playing online computer games, governments are powerless to control either the corporations or the populace, and the world is under threat. Only Alice and her virtual creation, the supercool Brad, can save the planet from destruction.
In educational terms, Inanimate Alice provides a hugely rich context for learners and teachers, with as many opportunities to stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect of the most academic student, as it does to engage reluctant readers at the other end of the educational spectrum. Put simply, from a literacy teacher’s point of view, the text can be (and has been) used in a number of different ways, in a range of subject contexts, and on a number of different levels, with students from kindergarten to university. Julie Call, a Middle School Reading specialist at Green Central Park in Minneapolis sums up what many teachers in different parts of the world are discovering about the power of Alice when she says, ‘It was so wonderful seeing some of my most challenging students and struggling readers completely engaged with this text.’
Already Alice is having a global impact, especially in the international schools and language learning schools of the Asia-Pacific countries, and the early episodes were translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish for the European Commission’s Intercultural Dialogue initiative. Increasingly it is appearing in teacher training institutions such as the Queensland University of Technology, where Alice enthusiast Kelli McGraw describes it as ‘a powerful tool for getting students to think deeply about how meaning is made using multiple language modes’, and claims that ‘it really pushes kids to challenge the boundaries they have constructed about concepts such as language, genre and medium.’ The Pedagogy Project, a collection of worksheets and resources which is downloadable free from the Inanimate Alice website, was developed around the series by Jess Laccetti, New Media Masters Course Creator and Leader at the University of Alberta, and is used to prepare future teachers for teaching in the digital age. ‘For younger students or those developing their transliteracy skills’, says Laccetti, ‘the early episodes of Inanimate Alice make the transition from offline reading to online manageable.’
Like many of the more progressive curricula around the world, the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence -drawn up coincidentally around the time of Alice’s ‘birth’- includes a broad definition of ‘text’, fit for the 21st Century, as ‘the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.’ Overwhelmingly, the type of text which the young people entering nursery schools today will engage with in their lifetimes will be moving image and multimedia texts such as this one. If they are to be considered literate, we have a responsibility to equip them with the critical skill necessary for them to be able to interpret and create the kinds of narratives with which they will be surrounded.
In the consultation draft of the first ever pan-Australian curriculum, and in what appears to be a breakthrough into the mainstream, Inanimate Alice merits a place on the illustrative list of ‘literary texts’ (interestingly under ‘fiction’ rather than ‘multimodal/digital’), the only interactive online text to do so.
Almost halfway through what its creators describe as ‘the story arc’, Alice is at a crucial stage of development, with Ian Harper and his Bradfield Company seeking to attract a major sponsor/publisher/distributor who ‘gets’ the digital narrative, and which will enable them, in his words, ‘to shift gears’ in the development of the remaining episodes, ‘to achieve a racier, grittier feel through digital video’, and culminate in using a 3-D game engine to immerse the reader completely in Alice’s extraordinary world. Here’s hoping they are successful. The first four episodes of Alice’s adventures have already given us much entertainment, food for thought, the perfect context for developing literacy skills and, to quote John Warren, Marketing Director of the RAND Corporation’s Publications Department, ‘a glimpse of the future of electronic texts’.