Alice Through the Looking Glass

Regular readers of the blog will know of my admiration for Inanimate Alice, the digital novel which has captured the imagination of teachers and young readers around the world, and many of you have already introduced your own students to the story, as well as making full use of the literacy resources which accompany the four episodes currently on the website. (You can catch up with my previous posts on Alice here, here and here). After reading about Alice and her travels, young people love to write their own version of the next episode, setting it in their own locations and introducing new characters, but their most frequently asked question is, When are we going to see Episode 5? Recently I caught up with producer Ian Harper of The Bradfield Company at his Vancouver Island base and asked him that very question, as well as what readers might expect as our eponymous heroine develops into young adulthood.

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TLA. It has been a long time since Episode 4 appeared online. When can fans expect to see Episode 5 and can you give us any clues as to what it might look like?

Ian Harper. Yes it has been a while since Episode 4 appeared. Way too long in fact. We haven’t been entirely idle in the meantime and have been concentrating our efforts on establishing relationships with partnerships that will grow the title for the long term. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the relationship we have established with Education Services Australia, the government organisation that has been responsible for the development of the curriculum across the country. We are delighted that Inanimate Alice was the first digital text chosen to be adopted into that national curriculum. That feels like a landmark moment. Education Services Australia has invested in both the development of new content and in the title’s discoverability across all of the nations education platforms and websites. Quite a commitment. It has certainly put Australia firmly on Alice’s map. This year we are developing interactive journals and translating the first four episodes of the series into Japanese and Indonesian for ESA’s Language Learning Space. We must be doing something right!

I digress. These developments, though, have encouraged our creative team to proceed with the development of that long-awaited Episode 5. It is in production now with a planned completion date of the end of May 2014. We are seeking promotion of the episode in similar way to the launch of Episode 3 in the Guardian newspaper. Readers of the series will see familiar scenes in Episode 5 as this episode is set in the same town, the same school as Episode 4. However, Alice is two years older and trying out her storytelling skills using the Unity game engine for the very first time. So those readers may well be surprised to see 3D effects within a 2D linear storyline. This episode provides the transition to the full-on 3D explorable environment we are anticipating for Episode 6 when Alice is “off to college.”

I’m hopeful that long-standing friends of Alice will be pleasantly surprised by developments. There has been much more going on behind the scenes than can be gained from viewing the website. For example, the new Australian project will form part of Season 5: Gap Year where Alice takes up travelling once again, this time without her parents or the Aunt who accompanies her around Europe as part of Season 4. With Japan and Indonesia on the itinerary it is shaping up to be quite a year. Tasters, at least, of each of these Seasons will appear during the year and we will open up windows on Japanese and Indonesian culture in the same way that we have done with Alice’s Australian adventures. Expect to hit the ‘Japan’ button and find yourself in Hiroshima. ‘Indonesia’ will lead to Jakarta and the gateway to a country that doesn’t know how many islands it comprises.

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Work in Progress. A screenshot from Inanimate Alice episode 5. The bird silhouettes, like the cat and the nightclub in the following two shots, are animated and move gently, creating a sense of depth.

TLA. You have said often that IA was written as entertainment rather than education. Have you been surprised by the uptake from teachers around the world, and how do you account for its tremendous popularity in classrooms?
Ian Harper. For sure, teachers have taken us by surprise on many occasions and continue to do so, after all this time. The first surprise came quite early on when we noticed, from the website statistics, that most of the site users were teachers and, importantly, they represented almost all of those returning to the site time after time. It was then we decided to switch tactics and actively support teachers in their endeavours.
As the numbers grew, we were able to detect trends in usage and saw that in addition to literacy objectives teachers were using it right across the curriculum with high-spots naturally in literacy and ICT education. What was at first a surprise and continues to be a joy is the uptake in the language learning community. Around the world, British Council teachers of English are among the title’s strongest supporters. We see usage at international schools particularly across the Pacific Rim. The translations, too, have served to widen uptake with Spanish being by far the most popular at this time. This interest is from the Spanish speaking Americas as much as Spain itself. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to its popularity, the strongest of which must surely come under the heading of engagement. Students are immediately gripped by the dramatic storyline and teachers can rely on having the attention of everyone in the classroom. This is a primary consideration whether students are high performers or reluctant learners. It has turned into a bit of a mantra but one of the beauties of the title is that is suitable for deep-reading and re-reading, The story bears revisiting and viewers are often delighted when they experience something fresh on each occasion.
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TLA. How many episodes are planned in total, and how fully developed are they?

Ian Harper. We have long held on to the vision that there will be ten episodes in all, spanning Alice’s life from an 8 year old through to her mid-twenties, when we see that she has achieved her ambition to work as a computer game designer. One of the first tasks undertaken, by the writers Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, was to develop a story bible that not only described the arc of the narrative but also delved into the multimedia guidance we needed to understand her circumstances at each juncture. This document keeps us generally on track in managing her ever-improving skills as a digital creative, yet affords the flexibility for us to learn both from feedback gained and the improving technologies that help us better present the story. Beyond Episode 6 which has an established format, we have not developed the later episodes in any detail. The shift to 3D graphics and the provision of interactive journals that will run alongside and in-between episodes allow great opportunities to discuss challenges and intended outcomes with partners.

TLA. Are you prepared to give away the ending of the story?

Ian Harper. The straightforward answer to this question is NO! However, I can tell you that the complexity and interactivity increases exponentially with each episode and that by the end of the series the last episode will have the look and feel of a AAA computer game title. That ambition brings great challenges and we hope to surprise and delight ‘Friends of Alice’ many times along the way. It is no secret that the Inanimate Alice series was developed from a theatrical movie screenplay. The ambition holds that folks, having met Alice through all 10 episodes, 3 hours of screen-time, but never having seen her face, will want to visit the Tokyo Games Show and meet her together with Brad for the first time.
TLA. One of the features which makes IA unique is that, in your own words, it was ‘born digital’. Do you think that the era of the paper book is over?
Ian Harper. By no means. The printed word remains just as fascinating, just as gripping as it always did. People still love to get their hands on a book. I’m sure that that desire will remain, but the sorts of books that consumers will buy in paper form will certainly change. The revolution we are now experiencing centres on content, words with audio-visual accompaniment, appearing in multiple forms, often concurrently. Formerly, readers would have the single option of getting their hands on a paper book. Now they can read and experience on myriad devices. They can browse now or download for later reading. They have the choice of ‘read only’ or selecting an enhanced version that offers the prospect of venturing outside of the linear narrative. This enhanced narrative experience is in its formative stages and its an exciting time to see this unfold.
From our perspective, one of the great advantages of having the title ‘born digital’ is the prospect of simply being able to take the title in any direction. It’s just as easy to anticipate smartphone delivery as it is to imagine what Inanimate Alice looks like in print formats. Ease of translation and switching between translations suggests far greater reach than the mere option of “do you want the paperback or PDF on an e-reader?” and thinking beyond “how much is it?” What fascinates me is the challenge of delivering stories and translations for example in print to students in Australia, while offering a mobile version of the stories directly to kids in Japan, China and Indonesia. This kind of reach was the sole domain of the world’s largest publishers until digital came along.
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If you haven’t already joined Alice’s growing band of supporters you can do so in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.
Follow Alice on Twitter
Like Alice on Facebook 
Follow Kenny Pieper and his English class as they engage with Alice here
Find out more about Alice on Wikipedia
Read the latest Alice news at Scoop.it!
Collect Alice images and pin them at Pinterest
See how other teachers are using the Alice stories on Edmodo
Download and re-mix the the digital assets from ‘Alice in Australia’
 

E-Books and Beyond: The Future of Children’s Literature.

Alice in Australia Story Six – Game Play

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Inanimate Alice to the 12th Annual E-Books Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland’s ‘largest annual ebooks discussion for librarians’, a presentation which I began by pointing out that IA is not in fact an e-book, in the sense that it is not an existing product which has been digitised for reading from a screen, but that it is a born-digital, transmedia text for younger readers, combining conventional written text with images, sound and games. Incidentally, one of the amusing aspects of the conference was the ongoing discussion about whether the term ‘e-books’ should have a hyphen or not, a debate which to my knowledge has not yet been resolved! The distinction between the e-book and the digital narrative is an important one to make, not least because of the implications for the development of literacy skills, where traditionally we have focused on reading (words) or reading (pictures) as separate entities, rather than developing a proper understanding of their interconnectedness.

For those of you who have not yet met Inanimate Alice, please visit the website and explore its many possibilities for use in the classroom. If you are already an IA fan, you will be excited by the latest developments, which include a mini-series set in Australia between Episodes 1 and 2. As the first story begins, Alice has moved to Melbourne with her parents and is having to adjust to living in yet another new country. Brad – her beloved digital friend – has gone missing from her device (she thinks perhaps she left him behind in China!), and the buzzing beehive in the neighbour’s garden is making her very nervous. Has Brad disappeared for good? And will those bees escape?!

Alice in Australia Story Two – Buried Treasure

Alice in Australia introduces a young audience to whole new levels of inventiveness, with stories by award-winning writer Kate Pullinger, stunning imagery by the pioneering digital artist Chris Joseph, and the whole thing brought to life by creative developer Andy Campbell. Uniquely as far as I can tell (please correct me if I’m wrong) the series offers teachers and students the digital assets from each of the episodes, completely free, which allows them to re-create the narratives with strikingly professional results. The stories can be downloaded as comic books, with ‘words only’ allowing readers to create their own images, or as picture stories to which dialogue can be added by the student. Add in the fact that the soundtrack and sound effects are also downloadable as MP3 files, and you have a complete set of materials with which to introduce young learners to the world of digital narrative and transmedia storytelling, where the only limits are the limits of their imagination.

Literacy and the New Media Landscape

I have seen it argued recently that the term ‘media literacy’ is already redundant and that media literacy IS literacy. I have some sympathy with that view, given the new media landscape and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, so it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the sole focus of a literacy or English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.

According to James Paul Gee,Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional notion of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s concept of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”.In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? One of the most forward-thinking definitions is to be found in the aims of the Literacy strand of  the Australian (ACARA) English curriculum:

to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”

This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading.  However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:

“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”

There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives  they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent  attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that they were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.

Aussie Adventures 3: Postcard From Sydney

To round off my Australian trip I spent a few days in Sydney – or to be precise, in Richmond, about 50 miles to the north-west of Sydney. Of course, I visited the iconic city and took all the usual tourist pics, which I have used to create this Animoto video. If you have yet to discover Animoto, or even if you have been using it for some time, you may be surprised to learn that educators can apply for a free Animoto Plus account – for which private individuals like myself have to pay $30 a year. This allows you and your students to create stunning presentations – combining images, video clips, music and text – or to produce  videos which bring your lessons to life and show off your students’ work to the wider world. What on earth are you waiting for?!

Aussie Adventures 1: Adelaide, South Australia

Arrived in Tasmania ahead of the New Literacies, Digital Media and Classroom Teaching Conference this weekend where I’ll be sharing the keynote platform with some interesting and inspirational speakers. You can see the full programme for the event here, and I understand that the talks are going to be recorded and uploaded to the UTAS website. Before arriving in Launceston however, I took the chance to visit some relatives in Adelaide that I hadn”t seen for quite a few years, and they took me on a tour of the wine-growing districts of Riverland and the Barossa Valley. Hard work but somebody had to do it. I thoroughly enjoyed South Australia and Adelaide in particular – beautiful city, great climate, fantastic parklands, bikes and bike lanes everywhere. Oh, and did I mention the wines and the seafood. Watch out for some photos when I get the chance to upload them. In ‘pretending to be working’ mode, I did also get to visit the great people of Renmark Primary School, where my cousin is the Principal, and share with them some ideas about developing multimedia literacies in the classroom. Even converted a few of them to Twitter so watch out for them on your social networks. Just had time before I left for a visit to Ned Kelly’s Retreat and some authentic outback tucker. No worries mate.