Why Use Transmedia in Early Learning?

A recent evaluation report on the Ready to Learn (RTL) program reveals that young children’s learning is enhanced by educational media, particularly when it is used in combination, such as educational television supplemented by complementary media like websites, games, or even print. As a result, RTL, in its latest round of grants, is pursuing the idea of combining media even further by supporting “transmedia” strategies, a term borrowed from digital media theorist Henry Jenkins to describe narrative storytelling that uses different media platforms to advance the story and to create ever-larger fictional worlds of characters and events.

In a transmedia experience, a child is introduced to a story and a set of characters by reading a comic book, then playing a digital game based on the situation that was introduced in the comic, and then viewing a television program that introduces even more characters and situations. Today, with the availability of technologies like the Apple iPad, all of these platforms can now be accessed in a single unifying device. Thus, it is possible that children using an iPad might already perceive these combinations of media in an integrated way, which is a question worth investigating.

Why might a transmedia approach have potential educationally? Here are several reasons:

  • It presents children with multiple entry points to learning. Children can start learning via any one of the individual media, but when these media are interconnected, children will be motivated to explore even more;
  • It enables educators to use individual media for the functions for which they are best suited. For example, games are particularly good problem-solving environments that encourage children to try difficult things without fear of failure; they are not as good as video, however, at presenting more linear and orderly information; and
  • the rich, fictional worlds of transmedia tend to create a greater level of social interaction that can inspire children to create their own stories and media products and to share them with each other.

Over the next five years, the current Ready to Learn grantees will put such assumptions to the test. About 25 percent of the program’s overall funding will be expended on research to determine whether newly produced RTL television and digital media products are effective in teaching literacy and math skills. By creating new software that tracks student performance across media, there will be new opportunities to use program analytics to tackle new types of research questions and to speed up the process of data collection and analysis. Stay tuned for the results.