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Using Transmedia Storytelling to Increase Serendipity in Informal Learning

robert | November 1, 2016  ‐  No Comments

It’s long been known that combining informal learning with formal learning improves learning outcomes thanks to a beneficial effect on learner motivation. But informal learning means the learner decides what’s important or of interest to him. Hence, this could be at a tangent to what the instructor-as-expert thinks is important.

So what if we could build an informal learning environment that increased the likelihood of learners taking an interest in and directing themselves towards what the instructor thought were the key concepts, rather than leaving informal/unexpected learning to chance?

The diagram below shows the platforms typically associated with different types of learning – formal and informal. This article proposes an approach towards that Informal/Incidental learning that uses transmedia storytelling to increase the serendipity of learners reinforcing the formal learning.

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What is Transmedia Storytelling?

Transmedia storytelling is telling a story across multiple platforms in such a way that the platforms are additive. That is, each platform highlights a unique perspective on the story and doesn’t just repurpose the same content.

For example, a minor character in a video might have their story told in a series of blog posts; or a location mentioned in an email might have its full details revealed on a tourism web page.

For us at Conducttr, transmedia storytelling is also a design principal we use to create participatory experiences. The double-layer model shown to the left in the diagram below shows how we would embed a learner journey on top of what might be typical instructional design.

Add to this model the aspects of timing and pacing and we get a four-layer “transmedia learning” model – the delivery of content over time in such a way that it’s designed to increase motivation and memory retention.

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Lifelike Experiences

Working with our Brazilian partners, Lifelike, we’ve been able to experiment and improve our understanding of how to appropriate platforms that blend informal and formal learning.

In the diagram below we take a concept from transmedia storytelling which is the “storyworld”. A storyworld is typically a fictional world that encompasses a multitude of possible stories – for example the world of Harry Potter is one of wizards, wands and spells; James Bond is a world of espionage, guns and gadgets.   In the context of our transmedia learning, “in-world” means content in the fictional world we’ve wrapped around the learning (say a Twitter account from a mad professor searching for a flux capacitor) whereas “out-of-world” would be anything that’s not inside that fictional world (say a Wikipedia entry on Ohms Law).

Formal learning is most likely “out of world” whereas informal learning allows us to create “in world” content.

When it comes to intentional and incidental learning, direct communications to learners as afforded by email, SMS and phone calls lend themselves to very specific plot points or concepts or facts that the learner must come in contact with. Social media on the other hand is more community-based, more social of course, and this lends itself better to incidental learning.

None of this represents hard and fast rules – it’s just a rule of thumb – but the intention is to provide some introductory structure while designers new to transmedia storytelling find their feet.

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Writing Learning Stories

The diagram below highlights how certain character archetypes might be employed for certain types of learning.

The “Mentor” for example, is a character like, say, Yoda, that guides the learner in an informal way through the challenges of the formal learning – offering hints and tips, anecdotes and compassion. The Mentor is like a parental figure (but “cool”!) whereas the Sidekick is more like friend.

The Sidekick might travel ahead of the learner, making mistakes in a fictional world that shine a light on the real world concepts of the formal learning.

Again, the position of the archetypes aren’t set in stone – the point of the diagram is to provide a starting point for ideas in storytelling and how the story characters might support the formal learning and be true to themselves.

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Personalized Learning

Adaptive learning is something of a Holy Grail and we’re rather proud to have perfected our approach over several years now.

The diagram below is a template we use as a starting point for integrating a formal elearning with a fictional storyworld.

At the top of the diagram is a typical learner journey – start a course, complete assignments, finish the course. On the rows below are the data we seek to obtain about the learner’s progress and finally, on the bottom row, is the content we publish.

Note that in this model, we’re wrapping a fictional story around the instructional designer’s course with the intention of elucidating key concepts while proving fun, surprise and motivation. You can see too that we use the interactive narrative structure of “kernals” and “satellites” – kernals being the heart of soul or tent poles of the story while satellites are the fluffier bits, the parts of the story we’re free to personalize at will without derailing the plot.

Depending on the project, the “character interventions” might be purely fictional or could additionally be changes in course materials such as an easier task to improve motivation if the learner appears to be struggling.

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Conclusion:  why so serious?

Transmedia storytelling offers an excellent opportunity to engage learners in a wrapper around formal structures and can do so in a very systematic, structured way without damaging the integrity of the desired informal or formal learning environment.

Good storytellers should allow themselves the opportunity to tell good stories with interactive characters – and apply this approach to any client category. For example, compliance training for bankers can be extremely dull but a transmedia approach with stories told, say, on SMS during a commute to work can firmly embed important lessons. Why shouldn’t corporates use fictional warlords and oligarchs to illustrate important rules of conduct?

And of course with interactivity comes performance assessment – so no longer can someone use their assistant to click through an exercise, because detailed activity tracking and peer comparisons can identify cheats, liabilities and top performers!

Creating a personalized, serendipitous informal learning environment around the learner increases motivation and learning that really sticks.