Teaching Transmedia Using Transmedia: Conducttr in the Classroom
Warning! This is a very long post. Chances are you won’t get all the way to the bottom, so let me summarize by making three points:
- I think Conducttr is a very nice system with a lot of potential
- embedding a transmedia story experience within a transmedia course can be an effective approach
- using Conducttr to drive this sort of experience is something I would definitely try again next September
This winter I am teaching Sheridan’s first formal transmedia course. It is a modest beginning with 12 students from the post-grad ATVF program attending. Jean Desormeaux, the ATVF program co-ordinator, has also been sitting in. I’m enjoying the small class size – it gives us a chance to have discussions in class and to do some interesting group work. And I think it is a good place to start from as we look to expand our transmedia teaching and to integrate transmedia into course work that our media students are already engaged in.
Since it is the first time this class has been offered, and my first time teaching it, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to attempt some different approaches. Some of these have been total failures (the class blog never caught on) . Others have provided interesting learning opportunities – sometimes providing as much learning for me as for the students. And sometimes these experiments have resulted in unexpectedly humorous situations too. And this leads me to the story of how I attempted to create a transmedia story experience for my students using Conducttr. If you are not familiar with Conducttr, it is described as a ‘pervasive entertainment platform’. The goal of Conducttr is to provide a system that allows you to design and deliver a story experience across many platforms including SMS, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and many more. (If you are interested in more information on how Conducttr works, check out the video below.)
Instructional video from Transmedia Storyteller showing how a story can be built in Conducttr
Over the Christmas break, I was prepping a lesson on transmedia tools and platforms and I decided to take a closer look at Conducttr. I contacted Robert Pratten, the CEO and Founder of Transmedia Storyteller Ltd, and the force behind Conducttr. He graciously agreed to provide me with the resources I needed to evaluate Conducttr and present it to the students. After spending a short time exploring the documentation and interface for Conducttr, I realized that building an actual transmedia story experience would give me a much better sense of the potential of this system. I also felt that it would be a fantastic way to launch the Transmedia course – by actually creating a parallel transmedia story experience for the students! I was also inspired by a Sheridan colleague, Stephen Barden, who has been introducing gamification into his audio courses at Sheridan.
My idea was to develop an interactive story that would be designed and delivered using Conducttr. The characters that I created would interact with the students both during class and outside of class hours. A fictional version of me (the instructor) would be part of the story – in fact I would be the main character. The story would focus on my activities in the classroom, the quality of my teaching, and suspected ulterior motives that I might have. Here is what I came up with:
- I developed several fictional characters. Two of these were associated with a fictional organization called the Canadian Colleges Quality Control Service (CCQuaCS, pronounced see-see-quacks). And two were associated with a fictional educational consulting firm called Ripple Digital. As things progressed, it would become clear that these two organizations were in conflict.
- As the story goes, I had discovered that a group called TLA (loosely based on a real group that I’m involved with – the Sheridan Teaching and Learning Academy) were sponsoring a prize for Sheridan’s New Professor of the Year. So I decided to hire Ripple Digital to help me polish up my teaching and thereby win the grand prize, a trip to Greece in the spring. At least this is the story the students were told by (fictional) Sarah from Ripple when she emailed them on the first day of class, and asked for their help.
- Actually only half the students got this message from Sarah. The other half of the class received an email from Jack at CCQuaCS explaining that there were concerns about the transmedia professor’s unconventional teaching techniques. Jack wanted their help to monitor any suspicious classroom activities.
- Since half the class was aligned with CCQuaCS, and the other half with Ripple, they were set up to function as two opposing teams.
Before the semester began, I asked the students for any contact information they were willing to volunteer (email, Twitter, Facebook, and cell number). I sent out an automated email to the students just before the emails from Jack and Sarah warning them that I was trying something new, and that they should expect to get an odd email later that day related to the Transmedia course. This was my first mistake.
Students don’t read email any more [not intended to be a criticism - just an observation - email can be archaic!]. At least, they don’t read it the way I might expect them to. They read it sporadically, they read it out of order, and they may not read entire messages. This is a broad generality, but I think it is true for many of our students. The result, in this circumstance, was actually somewhat funny. More than one student read the odd email message from Jack at CCQuaCS without first reading my warning message. The inevitable result being that some students thought that I was actually being investigated by a government organization. I offered some reassurance in the first transmedia class that there was something entirely different going on, and that they should humour me and play along. But unfortunately one student, who was is in the process of dropping the class, and thus was not in attendance, never heard this reassurance. After a bit of soul searching, she sent me a very nice email warning me that I was being investigated and she felt I should know about it. So, the first thing I learned about developing this kind of experience – in order to avoid awkward misunderstandings, I should have let the students enrol themselves into the experience rather than doing that part myself.
I had also picked out two students to receive special messages from CCQuaCS and Ripple just before the first class. The student that was helping Sarah at Ripple was instructed to stand up during class and snap photos of a few of my best Keynote slides. She could then send these to Sarah to show that I was doing okay with my in-class presentations. Meanwhile, Jack at CCQuaCS had been tipped off that this was going to happen and he sent instructions to the other student – every time a classmate stood and snapped a photo, they were supposed to document it by taking a photo of the other student in the act. I thought this would be funny, and it would send the message to the whole group that this was going to be the kind of class that demanded an unusual level of participation. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way – neither of the students read the email before class so no-one stood up, and no photos were taken. [not a criticism of the students - I should have put more thought into this] I learned my second lesson – don’t give specific participants key roles unless you can be sure that they will do the job (and have a back up plan if they don’t).
So, my experiment didn’t work out they way I had hoped for the first class. But, at this point, I had already invested a significant amount of effort into creating this experience using Conducttr, so I didn’t want to give up. To give a sense of the amount of work I had done to set things up, here is a sample:
- I had created several fictional characters. All of these characters had functioning email addresses. All had real (local) phone numbers that could send and receive text messages (created using Tropo).
- I had registered the ccquacs.com domain and created a basic home page.
- I had created two private WordPress blogs (one for Ripple and one for CCQuaCS)
- I had set up audience records for all of the students that included SMS contact numbers for all of them
- I had taken the time to learn how to create many different kinds of content and triggers within the Conducttr system and I was hankering to try out what I had learned!
I decided to proceed with things for the second class. But I also decided that at some point during that class I would pull back the curtains and show the students how I was working the magic.
Using Conducttr, I set things up so that twenty minutes into the 2nd class half the students would receive a text message from Jack, and half would receive a text message from Sarah. Sarah’s message said:
“What colour shirt is Randall wearing today?”
If they responded with ‘blue‘, Sarah replied by saying: “Good – I told him he looks better in blue! Thx ” If they responded with anything other than ‘blue’, she responded: “:( Damn – I told him he should wear blue – he looks more scholarly in blue! Thx.”
The message that Jack sent was: “Did more than 9 students show up for transmedia class today?”. If they answered ‘no’, they Jack responded “I figured as much! Students are dropping like flies! Thx.” If they answered ‘yes’, Jack said: “Hmmm. Must not be anything else to take. I thought for sure students would drop after the first class! Thx.”
Granted, this was a very simple exchange, and didn’t provide much in the way of story. But, the point of all this was to show the students how they could use interactivity and non-traditional platforms. And I think that this was an effective demonstration. When I finally got to the part of the class when I wanted to talk about Conducttr, I asked them if they had received any texts from unusual sources during class and most of them confirmed that they had. I hadn’t even noticed, but almost all of them replied to the text message during class. They were definitely curious about who was sending them messages. Was I somehow magically texting them with my phone hidden behind my back while delivering my lecture? They were much more interested now to hear how I had achieved this odd bit of wizardry using Conducttr.
In an ideal world, I would have continued this experiment, and I would have achieved heightened levels of engagement and interest for the students in this class. I had grand plans of how I wanted the Ripple-CCQuaCS conflict to play out. There were going to be darker layers in this story, with elements of espionage and intrigue. There were going to be story elements buried in my Keynote presentations. There were going to be inexplicable QR codes that led to glorious transmedia insights. The students were going to be enlisted to post photos and videos. I was going to spread tentacles of this fiction (and by extension, the Transmedia course) all over Tumblr and YouTube and Twitter. But, sadly, I ran out of time, so the majority of this scheme survives only in my imagination.
Overall, I feel like this experiment was a success. The goal was to create something real in Conducttr in order to assess its capabilities, and I think I got there. My experience using Conducttr was positive. The system is very logical, and it is obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into the design. Robert Pratten has done a great deal of work to produce supplemental materials that help with the creative process. His Active Story System is an example of this. I have a feeling that part of my summer break will be spent designing a new experience for next year’s students. My gut tells me that using transmedia to teach transmedia is my way forward.