In the mid-1990s, I was hired as an instructional designer at an educational software start-up. The company’s vision was to blend story, character, and game interactivity with educational objectives. Essentially, a “Hollywood meets education” approach.
We wanted to engage kids, and motivate them to extend their in-school learning day with use of the engaging software on a school-provided Sony PlayStation at home. Our target audience was primarily low-income, non-native-English-speaking children. The students engaged with the characters and played games that reinforced their learning at school. They were motivated to learn.
And then something interesting happened. Drawn in by the characters and stories created by Hollywood professionals, parents of these children began to use the lower elementary level software to improve their own literacy abilities. (The start-up company, Lightspan, merged with PLATO in 2003.)
The power of stories
I was frequently reminded of the power of story and character while reading Stavroula Kalogeras’s book, Transmedia Storytelling and the New Era of Media Convergence in Higher Education. This self-described “scholarly exploration that combine[s] theory and practice” centers on the time-honored use of storytelling as a form of instruction, specifically in the higher education realm.
The book recounts the author’s journey to “discover a style of teaching and learning that would be appropriate to the digital age.” That journey is facilitated by significant amounts of literature review and the author’s own qualitative research, to ultimately define and describe the use of transmedia storytelling edutainment (TmSE) in higher education. That is, the use of multiple media platforms to engage learners in rich stories for the purpose of learning.
Drives toward transmedia: the familiar and the controversial
The book begins with a significant amount of background. Diverse chapters present impressive amounts of literature review to frame the author’s ideas around topics that include media convergence, transmedia storytelling, and the use of fiction as an instructional device. I benefitted by developing a deeper understanding of forces outside of education that are pushing education toward transmedia, and the likely use of storytelling as well.
Learning designers who read this book will encounter the familiar and, on occasion, the controversial. Not surprisingly, Kalogeras draws heavily on cognitivism and constructivist theories as she makes connections between the narrative structure of stories and the tenets of cognition. Her emphasis on gaining and sustaining the learner’s interest, and establishing relevance, will also resonate with those familiar with John Keller’s ARCS model of motivational design. The book succeeds in making connections between familiar theories, ideas, and models, and the use of storytelling as an instructional device for technology-delivered instruction.
Kalogeras suggests that the foundation for her work is learning styles. In Chapter 1, she describes how the education system challenged her. “I had suffered under the traditional model of education because my learning style, which was visual, and then kinesthetic and auditory, was not accounted for.”
Much later in the book, she briefly acknowledges the current arguments against learning styles, and the lack of empirical evidence. Yet, after terming these arguments “disturbing,” she offers little to defend her reliance upon learning style as the impetus for this work. While embracing many education-related theories—and many others residing in the communication and media disciplines, the author eschews Sweller’s cognitive load theory. She asserts that extraneous cognitive load in the form of the “seductive details” is what engages learners.
These elements of Kalogeras’s work certainly activated my thinking. But they also left me longing for more discussion, research-based evidence, or findings from the author’s own study described in the book, to reinforce the assertions.
Guidance for incorporating transmedia
The final chapters of the book turn toward application. It is here where learning practitioners seeking guidance for incorporating a transmedia, story-based approach to eLearning will find some helpful examples and limited guidance. This includes the author’s transmedia storytelling framework and guiding questions for developing or reviewing existing story-based assets for inclusion in training courses.
The first appendix provides a three-unit outline of the author’s eLearning course, Digital HIStorytelling: Exploring the Trojan War. This eModule provides a living example to instantiate the theory and concepts discussed throughout the book. In addition, the author has thoughtfully provided online access to her screentext The Goddess Within. I recommend reviewing the online screentext first to establish some prior knowledge, and thus facilitate your reading of the book.
A scholarly work to ignite thinking
As the title implies and the author asserts, this is first and foremost a scholarly work that targets the use of transmedia storytelling in higher education. The book delivers on that commitment, and provides much in the way of theory and concept to ignite the reader’s thinking around the topic. The author provides a compelling argument that addresses the “why to” of transmedia storytelling in higher education, and a limited amount of guidance regarding the “how to.”