Category Archives: mlearning

Transmedia: A new instructional literacy

Storytelling is a powerful way of making learning stick. Moving from canned instruction to a narrative engages learners and helps them connect what’s being taught to their own mental models. Allowing learners to shape the narrative themselves is a particularly good way of allowing learners to pull what they need from the learning experience.

Enter transmedia

Transmedia uses different types of media to tell a story so it also sometimes goes by the name “cross-platform storytelling.” Transmedia audiences immerse themselves in narratives that  exist in parallel media universes and can dip into different expressions of a story, exploring this character’s perspective, or that setting’s context and history. An important way transmedia is different from simple multimedia delivery is that it’s participatory. Content is created and shared by users who, ideally, can take a role in shaping the narrative.

A good transmedia experience is a difficult feat to pull off and historically, it’s been used more for marketing (e.g., to promote movies) where budgets and teams are more readily available, than to create learning experiences.

Trying to get your head around transmedia? This article illustrates how a transmedia producer might reenvision the story of The Three Little Pigs.

The potential of transmedia as a learning tool

Despite the development challenges and expense, transmedia has been successfully applied  in a number of settings to develop learning experiences. Henry Jenkins’s  article describes two great examples: Robot Heart Stories  and my personal favorite, Inanimate Aliceand had an opportunity to interview two women instrumental in shaping these projects,  Jen Begeal (Robot Heart Stories) and Laura Fleming (Inanimate Alice). Robot Heart Stories encourages students to collaborate and use creative problem-solving to get a stranded robot who’s crash landed on earth back home. “For each photo or piece of art featuring the robot that is submitted, [by a student] the “signal strength” of the robot grows stronger and helps her to get back home.” Inanimate Alice uses text, images, music, sound effects, puzzles and games to tell the story of a girl’s journeys and growth. The Inanimate Alice website includes tools for teachers and encourages students to develop their own versions and chapters of the story using different media forms.

Transmedia is also being used creatively in health literacy efforts. Health Net, Inc., UCLA School of Public Health, and EPG Technologies have worked together to develop the T2X site, a virtual meeting place where teens can connect and share their health concerns. Teens (ages 13-17) can “Join the Club” and participate in a transmedia experience that allows them to add their voices to discussions with cast members who are role-playing teens taking charge of their health.

Learning through transmedia: not just for kids

But lest you think that transmedia’s just for kids, there are many projects geared towards adults. Transmedia has been used to connect learners to training experiences,  social advocacy projects, and even health issues.

Game elements are often injected into transmedia experiences because these experiences are nothing, if not playful. For example, Alternate reality games (ARG)  take a gameful approach to transmedia. As noted by Ken Eklund, the creator of World Without Oil and Ruby’s Bequest at the 2011 Games for Change conference,  ARG games have the “potential of a massive campfire”  where listeners participate in the story and the game is centered on  collaboration, action, and change. Such transmedia projects can integrate location-based mobile learning to make learning situated around contexts (both physical and social). ARG has been used to create workplace learning experiences and to develop awareness of, and participation in, social causes.

New instructional literacies

As the Inanimate Alice site reminds us, “New media demands new literacies.” It also demands that we, as instructional designers, take new approaches to crafting the narratives we use to teach.

This excellent Prezi by Florent Maurin provides a lot of food for thought on how our mindsets need to change to craft interactive narratives (although the prezi’s focused on iDocs design, many of the points apply to interactive media more generally).

Freedom and Engagement in Interactive Narratives on Prezi

One thing that I think is fundamentally different about a transmedia, or even just a non-linear narrative approach to instructional design, is that you have to be mindful that the learner can enter a learning experience at many different points and may have much more control over the narrative structure than even you do. So, while the narrative whole as it is (or should be)  may be firmly visible in your mind, the learner may only be seeing portions of it.

Imagine the learner as walking around an exhibit room in a nontraditional museum with lots of interactivity. The learner doesn’t necessarily walk from one exhibit to another, progressing from wall to wall, but may skip exhibits or even an entire wall. The learner can also add his or her own exhibits to different walls that can be examined and modified by other learners. Now imagine this museum in virtual space with the exhibits far more distributed and you get a sense of what a transmedia experience can be like. Thus, creating the individual “exhibits” or learning experiences and making them autonomous enough to be appreciated on their own but connected enough to take advantage of the overarching narrative is no easy task. It’s certainly a challenging and fascinating one though.

You can learn more about transmedia by following some of these excellent pages on

If you’re interested in transmedia and advocacy, you might want to check out the Transmedia for Social Good group on Facebook.