Transmedia and Blended Learning

Posted by on 1 March 2017

This is an interview with Mick Gwyther and Erin McCuskey from Yum Studio about the relationship between transmedia storytelling and blended learning.

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Robin:
Hi, it's Robin here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast. In this podcast I'm talking with Mick Gwyther and Erin McCuskey from Yum Studio about relationship between transmedia storytelling and blended learning. Don't worry if transmedia storytelling is a new term to you. Erin explains it in the early parts of the interview. 

The format's a bit different, having two people on, and I'll keep using this format in the future. It was a lot of fun to do. Erin finishes the interview with a lovely statement about the importance of storytellers in learning, and encourages everyone to get storytellers involved more in learning processes. 

I'm actually going to follow this thread through with the next couple of podcasts about storytelling, and about listening to storytellers are possibly aren't always involved in learning projects. There are also some really great links (see above) to some really nice examples of transmedia and some background information as well.

Mick and Erin, welcome to the Learning While Working Podcast. We might get started by each of you giving a quick introduction to what you do.

Mick:
Thanks, Robin. I've come out of a community sector where I worked in adult community education, got interested in learning technologies there, disadvantaged groups, and finally moved into looking at digital learning in the VET sector and then beyond and I've kind of evolved into facilitation codes, online content, writer and developer, and general evening boffin I guess you could describe me.

Robin:
How about you, Erin?

Erin:
Hello Robin. Thank you for having us on board. My name is Erin McCuskey, I am a filmmaker and photographer in the main, and I'm the Creative Director of Yum Studio. Generally the kind of work that I do is in the eLearning sphere in terms of video storytelling and I also am commissioned by different cultural institutions to create film as well. My themes are usually around issues of story history and heritage. Women is a big theme of mine and I guess an artistic creative look at producing stories as well.

Robin:
Cool. What I wanted to do with you two today was really explore the notion of what transmedia was and how that relates to blended learning. Mick and Erin, it's my understanding that what you do is a fair bit of transmedia work. First of all, I think transmedia is probably a really new term to the main audience for Learning While Working Podcast, the L&D people. What's your definition or how do you explain what transmedia is?

Erin:
I have a one liner that I use regularly which is transmedia is one story in many places. While it may be an unfamiliar term for people, there's no doubt that they will have experienced it. The term itself has been around since probably the 60s and it was developed initially as an art form, I guess, or an exploration of different art forms. Particularly around theatre and written word, I guess, in the main.

Since the 60s though, it generally got picked up in Hollywood as a merchandising model, so what I want to do was actually go back and explore some of the tenets of using an art form like transmedia and developing it for different audiences. I'm currently working on a project called Luxville, which I've termed out there - front and centre is that it's a transmedia fable. It's a difficult concept for people to get. It's kind of like a write-your-own adventure story, but it's also about picking up people or picking up audiences or communities or learners, in different modes and models. Luxville, if I use that as an example, has a series of film elements, so different episodes, that you can see if you go to Vimeo or it can be embedded into blog posts or can actually screen at cinemas and theatres, which they have done.

To back up those episodes there was a series of photographic exhibitions that can also be seen face to face within a gallery context or it can be viewed on Flickr or again embedded in blog posts or written pieces and then there's also the story element, the written pieces which exists in various forms that can be found through the Luxville website. I just produced a book which includes the photos and some of the stories.

You can see that there's a lot of different bite-sized elements that can be produced in different ways and put together in different ways so it's like having a big picture. The big picture is Luxville, the one big thing. However, audiences community or learners can come to that story in different ways. They might come because they prefer photography or they might come because they prefer a written story.

Robin:
It's almost a little bit like building a story world. One single story but different ways of accessing it.

Erin:
Yeah, absolutely and that's why Hollywood picked it up because it seemed to be that people were really willing and able to step into a story once they understood it was a story. There was nothing there that could either hurt or harm them or worse still, embarrass them. It was a place where they could actually step in, step off and then find those extra pieces hidden behind different doors that they were actually interested in. I think the hardest thing is getting people to step through that first door.

Hollywood would've used the modelling in terms of merchandising so they see it as a thing that they can sell people stuff. I think there's a really interesting component where we can engage people in the complexity of a story for learning, for engagement, and for kind of a deeper understanding of who they are and what their place is in the world.

Robin:
Yeah and I think that's got some really powerful things about it. I think one of the really nice examples, I can't even remember which TV series it was. That there was essentially building backstories for each one of the characters. Each character actually had a - if you do a search on them, they would have their website and quite often when they were talking about businesses, they would actually have websites for the businesses and even e-mail addresses and phone numbers that if you actually called, you would get more of the story happening in the background. You had one story that was playing, the main story arc that was playing out in the television series that would lead to other spots where people could interact in a multilayered way.

Erin:
Yes, absolutely and it's that concept of providing. People need to understand where things come from and a backstory provides purpose and rationale to whatever comes next and they can investigate that stuff or they can choose not to investigate that stuff. Doctor Who is a really good example, you'll see that in terms of merchandising, it's all there, you can find the books, you can find the films, you can find the TV shows. And another element of Doctor Who is that you can find fan fiction so people can begin to contribute to a concept of transmedia in a really different way so they have the story arc or what we would call a production bible. They can check out the guidelines, they understand the history because they're fans, they're so involved and they often write their own stories, which adds extra layers by using the guides within that other world.

Robin:
Mick, to bring you into this, Erin just sort of hinted of the way how this possibly relates to learning. What is this all about transmedia work and how it relates to blended learning?

Mick:
Well, I think it's releasing the concept that there is one story in many places because I think if you go back over the history of where we come from with digital learning, despite a bit of initial promise around the role of trainer or facilitate in that, we kind of went down this rabbit hole of content and the whole 'content is king or queen' kind of model and we sort of throw an inordinate amount of resources at developing content which is part of that story. That content has various shades of understanding for people involved in the training. It could be procedural kind of understanding, it could be scenario based understanding, problem based understanding.

One of the things I think that we've seen is that we've seen a proliferation of different types of multimedia to propel the knowledge story forward to learn it in all sorts of environments. What I'm seeing in the VET sector is really quite interesting, in a sense that seeing RPO's or Registered Training Organisations start to look at these transmedia objects as places where the students start to understand the story and then that story is brought more fully alive for them by attending some form of virtual classroom or face to face classroom or work based simulation where the trainer rather than being a kind of a sage on the stage or lexus type situation, will actually go back and look at that material again and try to put it into their story, their industry story, their understanding of it or lead activities that enable facilitation of that.

One of the really interesting things I think that's thrown up is to say, these stories are all very well on their own but in terms of an educational experience, not every learner or every person can see this story for themselves and to ensure we got some quality about the learning and understanding, how do you put that facilitator back to being the kind of critical voice of the understanding and bring all the elements together in there?

Robin:
Yes, I'm not a big fan of the term 'flipped classroom' because I actually think it's a really good way of having a good excuse for bad eLearning that's content-driven and I think what you're talking about is something that sort of related to that which is actually about stretching out an online experience back into a facilitator-led situation and using that idea, that sort of story to drive that a little as well.

Mick:
Yeah. Some people will call it a flipped classroom which is not the kind of term that I really like. I think this is sort of a different movement. I've seen it with a couple of clients last year that I worked with where a lot of energy was put into developing content but then a lot of energy was also put into developing facilitators to coaching that we provided and also through change management processes that we provide to get those facilitators to change, establish practises and look at methodologies by which they could be part of that content and bring it alive for learners and for workers.

Erin:
In a learning context, it may be that this might be named a story. The core is story so it's almost story based learning and I think people generally, and trainers specifically, can think that the term story or storytelling is a bit naff but I think that that is coming around in terms of developing content that has story at its core and allows you to create a whole lot of rippled content from that story rather than attempting to create content that is more instructional, I guess, and many industries head for that instructional angle rather than looking at a creative core initially which can provide a lot of resilience in terms of the content and also that rippling out effect if it's come from a core of a story.

Mick:
That's really interesting Erin because a lot of the time, there's not the resources to develop training materials that are totally story based. They have to use other forms of knowledge types that are maybe a little bit flatter and not quite as sound engaging and interesting as story based or in this scenario, those type of narrative different knowledge.

This is the really interesting twist, I think, is that we're saying, "Okay, well let's look at our human beings involved in the training programme and see how we can put their story as a representation of the capability and knowledge that's embedded in a particular skill or vocation we're trying to train them for and bring their knowledge to bear in the form of adapting an narrative to that knowledge."

It's saying, "Well knowledge is expensive to create. Let's create the bare bones, let's put some elements of interest in there. Let's put the knowledge onus back on the trainer to make that sing as a story or as a narrative that a learner can understand."

Erin:
I think stories are more robust. While knowledge based content is expensive to create, story based content, that initial core or that spark of the idea, is actually not that expensive to create and it's the rippled content that staff can be trained to develope for themselves. It's actually that story having a - I'm grasping for words here because I think it's about having a skill set, particularly for the trainer, that is around story as much as it is about content. Developing a story that can provide bouncing off points for specific content.

Mick:
Yes, that's probably the interesting chink in the development here is that I think it's at an early stage and a lot of that content, depending on the example, the two examples that I've kind of dealt with late last year: one did go very much down to the story based approach to the content and so the trainers and facilitators as well, had much less focus on their own story. Whereas the content material, which was very knowledge based and procedural amongst the kind of scenario and narrative-driven stuff, that gave the trainer a little bit more wiggle room to bring to bear some of that narrative-driven experiences with learners to get them to understand and apply that kind of knowledge concept. It's really interesting kind of balance.

Robin:
Yes, and it's interesting because essentially quite often when we're working with clients and working with people doing PD, I find myself using the same framework that's quite often used for telling stories. Where is something? Who's there? What's happening to try to get people to move away from that content framework?

Erin, I want to backtrack to something which is the whole idea of a production bible, was a really new term to me. In blended learning approaches and especially the 70:20:10 model, one of the things that's quite often difficult is how you prototype, how you explain how all of the bits fit together, lots of people are starting to use learner maps, and journey maps, and guide books but could you just sort of talk a little bit about what this production bible is? I'm interested to hear whether or not it's something that can be transferred back to Learning and Development.

Erin:
Yeah, I think it can. Absolutely Robin. A production bible has basically come from the television industry, so from the creative industries. Where it comes from is that concept of people's understanding about how a show is put together and over the life of a TV program - let's take Game of Thrones for example, it goes over, what is it? Nine seasons, and they have different writers in that time and it's a very quick production process.

Television is really quick, whereas film production is very slow and very deliberate and they have a lot of time to develop things. TV shows, not so much. What they do is produce what's called a production bible and in that production bible, the writers that they employ to work on the show need to be really up to speed very quickly on who the characters are, where they've come from, where the story arcs are, what plot lines they're working with, who's died, who's still alive, who's maybe dead weight, what characters are dead weight in this story, that they can kill off for example. All that's within the production bible, the basic history of what's gone before but also within that are things that we talked about earlier, backstories for characters which can provide just such rich places of complexity for writers to develop stories from.

What also is included is basic messaging for that story world. For example, The Sopranos. One of the really big messages throughout that entire piece that's always adhered to is Tony Soprano, main character, big bad mafia boss of New York, and yet he sees a psychiatrist. He has inner demons. A big message that's put into that production bible is what are his inner issues that he's dealing with? As much as the external issues.

It might include also where the story has developed from. There's initial writers who got to get up to talk about The Sopranos: who were they talking about? What were they eating when they developed this storyline? Where were the sparks that came from? It's like all that brainstorming stuff also goes into a production bible as well as some really specific stuff like colours and fonts and the title credits. You see motion graphics now where the entire world of that story is developed through the opening credits, the opening sequences. They basically tell the whole story there and it gives, in this case, the viewers so much information to then move through the story. A production bible is basically everything so when the writer comes to write the content of that next show, it all has to meet with everything that happens in the production bible.

It's a living document, of course, too. It gets added to over time. It's a really important piece of material to develop. For learning resources, I would say it's even more important.

Robin:
We sometimes do what we call guidance manuals for large projects so we can get all the Instructional Designers on the same page. It's a very similar sort of approach that it sounds like it has a lot more - it's not just about the guide, it's also about the thinking processes in terms of where people have been in the past or other brainstorming as well.

Erin:
When decisions come to be made about which direction the content or that episode is particularly in, the decisions that are made are helped by going back and looking at the production bible. What does it say there, where were we heading, what were we thinking about when we even came up with that character?

Robin:
Yes and I think Mick, the notion of messaging in making sure they also have a key idea of messaging. These are really valuable thing for those facilitators, trainers when they're actually doing that sort of wrap around that you're talking about?

Mick:
Well, it's a new skill for a lot of people because what it's saying is that you're no longer responsible for being the font of content. That the content is there, it exists in a number of formats, purposed for video, audio, text, whatever. Now it's you that binds that all together. You're the key in binding that together and ensuring understanding. I think what it does is something that probably we miss a little bit with content-driven training and learning and development is that it enables that individual support or individual adaptive type of learning what individuals can either move ahead at their own pace and pick up clarifications on things that they need. For those who totally don't, don't get the content.

Not all content reaches all individuals no matter how we try to dress it up. There's a safety net there and there's an expectation too that when people do come to those sessions, that they've taken some responsibility for getting their heads into that content and seen what they make of it themselves and they help opportunities to hone that understanding through the facilitation-led activity.

So it is quite a reversal from trainer and facilitator led sessions because it throws the responsibility back to participants to get up to speed with a big picture that then the facilitator stitches together with the understanding of how to apply that in the particular role they're being prepared for.

Erin:
It really supports the organisation as well. If the organisation has some ownership over what I'll continue to call production bible, then trainers can move in and out of institutions, adding pieces of content. The production bible actually allows the story to continue regardless of as people move in an out. In a television context, that's writers generally moving in and out of series. They might come in, write a couple of episodes and then go out again. It provides a real resilience and robustness around that story and its development.

Mick:
That's interesting because I think a production bible might relate not specifically then to content - because the content may stay fairly similar for a period of time in training as it's wheeled out - but what will change and what probably does need also guidance - and we found a couple of examples that I mentioned earlier that we're involved with was - this need for a kind of a facilitation framework for particular content that we're addressing at a particular point in time. How might that be facilitated? What are some opportunities for that? What are some examples of things that we can do to get learners working together? What is the arsenal of tricks that as a facilitator I have to be able to apply, to get people thinking about that, embed that understanding in there?

There's a framework for them as well to do that and what we're seeing as well is people beginning to share within an organisation or across organisations, different types of facilitated practice that can support the promotion of understanding of various different types of content as well. It's some experiential stuff that people are sharing.

If you look at training frameworks and facilitation, preparation courses that we have, these are pretty much stuck in that old model but we are seeing that swing. It means there's a gap there to prepare trainers for this particular role.

Robin:
Just a couple of questions to start to wrap it up. I think this is one of those conversations again which probably needs more than 25 minutes. If someone was getting started in this sort of area that you guys are talking about, what would be a good way to get started?

Mick:
Well I think a good place to get started is that really big picture. It comes back to that production bible that we mentioned and it probably needs a little bit of an understanding of the different types of information that we generally use in training. Whether that be demonstration, background, processes, procedural, application, problem solving, almost like those old Maya competencies, that type of thing - that help us look at the training objectives that we've hopefully said: What might bring out the best of those and how might we tell the story for each of those in the best possible way? Using also the variety of content types that we've got at our disposal to use. Your multimedia, your video, your audio, text, imagery, your icons, your infographics, etc. Then the way you might tell that particular story.

An understanding of that is kind of a bit of a critical thing. We often find that one of the issues we had like in the TAFE sector was getting trainers to understand that. If they understood that, then the concept of them participating as a subject matter expert to the developments material was much easier because you giving them a lens by which to break down the knowledge that they've previously seen as kind of information, in a sense.

I think that's really critical and then the other side of that is probably some of those facilitation techniques and tricks that I've mentioned before to kind of support that. But I imagine Erin's probably got some more interesting things to say about the content side of it. Narrative-driven stuff.

Erin:
Possibly more interesting, Michael. Is that what you said? (laughs)

The place that I would suggest that people start is at story. Story is universal and we all love story. It's actually the way that we learn, it's the way that we share not only information but we share emotion, understanding, and the concept of where we have all come from individually as well as collectively. I would suggest particularly for learning organisations to engage with a storyteller or an artist or someone who can actually look at the issues in a really creative way. Look at facilitated training for trainers around concepts of storytelling because I think it's something that we understand almost in every atom of our being but that doesn't mean that we know how to put it together either. I would say really some training and facilitated training around storytelling and story development because a story is a really robust element that can last for many years.

Stories, do they change very much? They change probably a little bit, they can be modernised but the core of a really good story can remain within an organisation for a very long time and what changes around that is that rippled out content that staff and trainers, and learners can contribute to the making of. The story core will still always be there.

Robin:
I think that's a really nice point to finish on, a really strong message to finish this particular session on. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

Erin:
Thanks so much Robin.

Mick:
Thanks Robin, good on you. Cheers.


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