Movellas: Reading and Writing on the Move.

First there were novels. Then there were novellas. So what else would you call an online publishing house, a meeting place for aspiring  young adult writers, dedicated to the writing of extended prose pieces and aimed at the mobile generation? A place where you can pick up the latest writing tips, practise your skills by emulating your writing heroes and share your work with a sympathetic audience? I have written before about the hugely popular, but largely ignored – in educational terms – world of fan fiction (see Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory). Now there’s a new kid on the block in the shape of Movellas, and it is causing quite a stir in the literacy world. Writing in this week’s Guardian newspaper, the editor of book review website Omnivore, Anna Baddeley, explains how the ‘startup’ has attracted the support of The Reading Agency and the innovation charity Nesta as a result of its ‘dedication to boosting creative thinking, team working and literacy skills’. The site, which was set up in 2012, already has in excess of 200,000 users, 75% of whom are girls, an imbalance the founders hope to shift as they move into the world of ‘story games’. As it becomes more difficult for teachers to motivate young people to write, is this perhaps the trick that they are missing?

“Taking to heart the maxim that reading for pleasure is vital to a child’s educational attainment, the company’s founders believe that encouraging young people to write about their passions and share those stories with others can have a positive effect on literacy.”

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’
 

Responsible Citizens in the Digital Age

One of the four key aims of the Scottish Curriculum is to develop ‘responsible citizens’, ‘with respect for others’ and ‘ a commitment to participate responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life’. One’s immediate thoughts are perhaps drawn to the life of the community, or the country, and the challenges of encouraging young people to engage in the democratic process at a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, but in an increasingly connected world, we have to think of responsible citizenship in global terms, especially in relation to the internet and social networks.

I learned the other day that YouTube is now the number one source of music for most young people. What happened to Top of the Pops while I looked away? Is it still on at seven o’clock on a Thursday? In reality, what is happening here is that the media which were once produced by the few and consumed by the many (and all at the same time), are now being produced by the many and shared by the many, at a time of their own choosing. To paraphrase transmedia guru Henry Jenkins, sharing is the new form of distribution. The implications of all of this are still emerging, but range from the ethical issues surrounding ownership, through digital literacy to e-safety and carbon footprints. How do parents and teachers begin to understand the issues, never mind teach the social responsibility which is such an essential part of the curriculum? Well appropriately enough, the answer may lie in the internet itself, and particularly in Google, which has developed an interactive curriculum on YouTube to support teachers in educating students on how to be safe, engaged and confident model ‘netizens’.

The initiative is aimed at students aged 13 to 17 and will help them to develop digital literacy skills on YouTube that would be applicable across the web. A list of 10 lessons has been devised, in which students can learn about YouTube’s policies, how to report content, how to protect their own privacy, and how to be responsible YouTube community members and, in the broader picture, digital citizens. The curriculum helps educate students on topics like:

  • YouTube’s policies
  • How to report content on YouTube
  • How to protect their privacy online
  • How to be responsible YouTube community members
  • How to be responsible digital citizens

Each lesson comes with guidelines for teachers and ready-made slides for presentation. There’s also a YouTube Curriculum channel where videos related to the project will be posted. Get started today by downloading your free Teachers’ Guide here.

Welcome to Planet Alice

Fans of the digital novel Inanimate Alice – and the number is growing rapidly – will be interested to hear of some new developments and more resources for teachers. The series was given a boost this week with the publication, in conjunction with new global education partners Promethean, of the third edition of Alice’s School Report which features a ringing endorsement from no less a figure than filmmaker, media expert and educational authority Lord David Puttnam:

“Here is a terrific reading-from-the-screen experience that talks the language of digitally literate educators. Kids will read this when they won’t read from books. It’s vivid moving imagery embracing some of the techniques used in both film and video-games. It’s authentic rich-media, yet it is a high-quality text that teachers can rely on. Surprisingly intimate, the feeling for the characters forms in your head, just like reading a book, surely more so for those whose prefer engagement with “born digital” material. Kids will love reading with Alice.”  David Puttnam

Read the full School Report here.

One welcome change to the new-look IA website is the addition of a Starter Activities Booklet on Episode 1 for teachers who are new to the story, while a host of extra materials can be found on the Promethean Planet website. No need to have or use a whiteboard to access the materials, simply open a free account and go to the User Group to find out how other teachers and kids have been engaging with Alice and taking her on their own adventures. If you are a teacher discovering Inanimate Alice for the first time, I suggest you watch and listen to the introduction from teacher-librarian and media specialist Laura Fleming, and if you are  introducing young people to Inanimate Alice for the first time, this film trailer is perfect for setting the scene. Perhaps after reading the series you could challenge them to make their own version. Find out how to make a film trailer here.

Aussie Adventures 2: Launceston, Tasmania

To Launceston, Tasmania, and the purpose of my visit. I had been invited to deliver the final keynote speech at the New Literacies, Digital Multimedia and Classroom Teaching Conference, a collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the HIT Lab Australia (Human Interface Technology) at the University of Tasmania’s School of Computing and Information Systems. The conference was beautifully organised by Angela Thomas (@anyaixchel). Angela is a senior lecturer in English and Literacies Education at UTAS, whose research interests include children’s multimodal authoring, social semiotics and new media literacies. As well as making sure the event was running smoothly, Angela found time to present a workshop on Virtual Macbeth, the Shakespeare classic reimagined in Second Life, where participants could ‘explore the potential of virtual worlds for immersive, experiential and student-centred learning.’

Professor Len Unsworth of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and well-respected author of several texts on new literacies, opened the conference with a fascinating insight into the ways in which the point of view of the reader/viewer changes between picture books and their animated versions, using the Oscar-winning animation of Shaun Tan’s picture book The Lost Thing as the focus. The point was well made that while the books and their moving image versions ostensibly tell the same story, there are often important interpretative differences arising from the position and actions of the camera.

Later in the day, Martin Waller (@MultiMartin), a primary teacher and researcher from Holy Trinity Rosehill Primary School in England, shared via his keynote the ways in which social media have fundamentally changed young people’s engagement with literacy and meaning making in the real world. The great thing about this inspirational speaker and teacher is that he isn’t just talking about it, he’s doing it in the classroom, where his Year 2 class (that’s age 6) have their own Twitter presence. Martin is also fascinated by children’s popular culture and how this can impact on learning, and is responsible for the famous @ClassroomTweets. Definitely a name to follow if you aren’t already doing so.

Day Two of the conference and the opening speaker makes an immediate impact. Lalitha Vasudevan (@elemveee) is Associate Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her stated interest is in how young people craft stories, represent themselves and enact ways of knowing through their engagement with literacies, technologies and media. Drawing on her experiences in New York with court-involved adolescents, and through the moving personal story of a young man expressing himself through rap music, she made a very powerful argument for the case that in order to move towards greater enactment of multimodal pedagogies, such that adolescents’ literacies cease to be seen as barriers to educational participation, we need to provide teachers with access to what the research findings tell us and with opportunities to engage, explore and enact these pedagogies in the teachers’ own contexts.

Given the quality of the speakers and workshop presenters, being asked to close the conference with my own talk, ‘New Narratives for NewTimes’ was an honour and a pleasure. The feedback was incredibly generous and there are already plans to develop the conference themes into a book for publication next autumn. I would like to thank publicly Dr Angela Thomas, Robert Ceperkovic for making all the travel arrangements, the lovely Damon Thomas (@DamonPThomas) for chauffeuring us around and showing us the beautiful Tasmanian countryside, and all the other great people we met during our stay, including Annemaree O’Brien (@AnnemareeOBrien), Paul Chandler (@pauldchandler) and the irrepressible James Riggall (@jamesriggall).

If you are on Twitter you can catch a flavour of the conference at the hashtag #UTASNewLits, and if and when the presentations become available online I’ll post the links. Next time: Aussie Adventures 3 – Postcard from Sydney.

Literacy, Film and the Scottish Survey

Moving image texts, in the form of cinema, and later, television, have been with us for a long time. So much so that it is difficult to imagine a world without them. And moving image texts have been used in education since the middle of the last century. I still vaguely remember trooping in to our school dining hall in the mid-1960s to watch Peter Brook’s wonderful black and white adaptation of Lord of the Flies (not to be confused with the awful 1990 remake which has the English public school boys replaced with American marine cadets). In those days, however, and to a great extent today still, the film or the television programme in class was used to enhance or supplement the ‘real’ text ie the book, or simply as an alternative means of communicating the lesson – a substitute teacher. The idea that moving image texts were valid in themselves, and were worthy of study, was reserved to a few enthusiasts and placed in the box marked ‘Media Studies’.

Not any more. In a bold move, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), working on behalf of the Scottish Government, has been engaged over the past eighteen months in developing reading tasks based on moving image texts, for inclusion in the new-look Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The SSLN replaces the old  Scottish Survey of Achievement and assumes a much more significant role in the post 5-14 landscape. A small, random sample of pupils from EVERY school in the country in P4, P7 and S2 will be assigned a series of short tasks, the results of which should provide a snapshot of literacy levels across the country. Crucially, however, the anonymous nature of the survey and the size of the sample (no more than twelve pupils per school in S2 and much fewer in primary) will make it impossible to compare schools or compile the much-vilified ‘league tables’ of old. The tasks will assess performance in literacy using a wide variety of texts, including moving image texts, as defined by Curriculum for Excellence:-

texts not only include those presented in traditional written or print form, but also orally, electronically or on film

The moving image tasks have been written by experienced and enthusiastic practitioners – thereby exposing another myth, that national assessments are written by SQA staff – and they have already been piloted  with great success. Feedback from pupils and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Having worked with the development team, the SQA granted me exclusive permission to publish a sample task which was developed for early trials but which will NOT be used in the actual survey. This Level 1 task (P4, age eight) is based on the short extract from the film ‘Babe’. As you will see from the task booklet, the ability to ‘read’ the extract depends on some awareness of the language and grammar of moving image, but does not require any kind of specialist vocabulary. Download the task booklet here.

Further Resources

For some excellent teaching materials and short films to use in the classroom check out the following websites:

Moving Image Education www.movingimageeducation.org

Film Education www.filmeducation.org

Scotland on Screen www.scotlandonscreen.co.uk

Languages on Screen www.languagesonscreen.org.uk

Open Culture www.openculture.com

Film Studies for Free www.filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com

Movie Clips and Movie Scenes www.movieclips.com

Docscene – Scottish Documentary www.scottishdocinstitute.com

BBC Film Network www.bbc.co.uk/filmnetwork

BBC Learning Zone Scotland www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/learning/learningzone

National Film Board of Canada www.nfb.ca

Vimeo www.vimeo.com

Scottish Screen www.scottishscreen.com

British Film Institute www.bfi.org.uk

I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

Writing in this week’s TESS, Peter Wright, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, offers a six-point plan to ‘rescue’ Scottish education from the doldrums in which he claims it to be currently stuck. Some of his ideas I happen to agree with, such as his recommended class size maximum, but on the subject of improving literacy he has this to say: “It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved.” On this I couldn’t agree less.

That statement is wrong on so many counts. For one thing, ‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’  The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive. The use of the word ‘fad’ is simply a sign of a desperate man in search of an argument.

I have written before about the blurring of the lines between reading, writing, listening, watching and talking, and about the development of digital narratives which appear to be breaking down the divisions between books, films and computer games. Inanimate Alice is a particularly exciting example of a multimedia, interactive narrative which combines digital photographs, video, printed text, drawing, painting and sound. The narrative is progressive and increasingly complex, not to mention absorbing and engaging. For a range of other good examples of digital narratives in development, and a wonderful range of materials and suggestions for creating digital narratives I would suggest you visit Martin Jorgensen’s definitive website The Digital Narrative – Finding Your Story with New Media and its close relatives The Lightning Bug, where young writers are provided with a host of ideas to inspire and support them in their efforts, and Building Community in Your Classroom, for teachers who are keen to introduce new technologies into their classroom but don’t quite know where to start.

I have also been excited recently by computer games such as Samorost and Machinarium, which have a narrative structure, but little or no printed text. They are described as ‘games’ but have a definite narrative or story – even although they have very little or no printed text – which only becomes complete or obvious after the player has solved all the puzzles and the plot has been resolved. These games are visually quite stunning and provide the perfect stimulus for discussion and for the creation of text, including the writing of stories. Beyond these however, it is difficult at the moment to find computer games which have a strong narrative element, rather than simply providing a context for interactive learning and social integration, commendable as both of these aims undoubtedly are. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the narrative which counts, and at the moment it seems to me there are very few games which are able to provide this. The problem for games developers is perfectly summed up in this very funny presentation from Daniel Floyd of Animation Mentor.