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When borders know no bounds – How Canadian innovation is influencing students Down Under

April 23, 2021

Many parents worry about how technology so easily draws children into virtual worlds. However, one Canadian company is harnessing the captivating nature of digital technologies, transforming them into a force for good for students across the globe.

Curious? Meet Ian Harper, the creative producer of Inanimate Alice.

Inanimate Alice is difficult to describe – in its most basic form, it is a coming of-age tale concerning the adventures and experiences of a young girl named Alice and her imaginary friend Brad. What makes it special is how it is delivered: in a multimodal format.

Multimodality, also known as transmedia, is a catch-all expression for storytelling that moves across platforms. Combining text, video, animation, and imagery brings a story dramatically to life; the most advanced examples of transmedia now include augmented reality and virtual reality.

Harper’s inspiration for Inanimate Alice came from a moment at a train station almost 20 years ago.

“Observing people immersed in the use of their phones, totally engrossed to the exclusion of their immediate environment, I was struck by the idea of how human relationships with technology have evolved and continue to evolve as the technology becomes more sophisticated. It seems apparent that we are always looking for humanity within the technology. Alice’s relationship with Brad, a virtual friend that she has created for herself, is an expression of that deep human need,” he said.

Alice’s story originated in a screenplay, but its trajectory altered course when Ian met Canadian Governor-General Award-winning novelist, Kate Pullinger.

“At the time, she [Pullinger] had published about six or seven print novels… however, she was also experimenting with digital platforms, exploring what the possibilities might be. I saw a few examples of what she was working on and felt sure we could do something,” said Harper.

He was right. Harper and Pullinger formed a creative team with digital artist, Chris Joseph, and together they created the first four Inanimate Alice episodes.

The first stories, a series of ‘episodes’ that comprise a digitally-delivered chapter book, were presented at new media festivals around the world, collecting awards along the way, including the IBM New Media Prize in Stuttgart. While the original episodes were not targeted at a specific age group or even for education outcomes, the team soon realised they were a natural fit for the new generation of students.

One of the goals of Alice’s story is to encourage readers to participate in discussions about growing up and navigating life’s challenges.

“As we all know… life becomes more complicated as we get older. Hopefully, we become smarter as we are faced with tougher questions and need to overcome bigger obstacles. So we were trying to explain what life was like for a girl growing up, seeing the world through the lens of technology,” said Harper “as if she was relating her own life story.”

Today’s students are highly experienced in using technology during their leisure time, so integrating technology in the classroom has proven to be a powerful weapon when it comes to keeping them engaged.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an added catalyst for exploring new modes of curriculum delivery, and educational leaders have realised that experience with technology is vital to equipping young people with the skills to thrive in tomorrow’s world. Even if we don’t know what that world looks like yet, it’s certain that technology will be at the heart of it.

“This makes it the ideal vehicle for teaching young people about empathy, citizenship and social responsibility, enabling them to become true global citizens in an age when the future of the planet depends on the skills and abilities of the new generation.”

A decade and a half on from its inception, Inanimate Alice has become a leader in multimodal storytelling across the world. Harper continues to expand Alice’s adventures, going beyond stories that see Alice visiting countries like China, Italy, Russia and England and exploring moments in life that highlight the need for equity, intercultural dialogue and understanding.

Ultimately however, Harper puts Inanimate Alice’s success down to student engagement.

Inanimate Alice enables students to experience immersive tension within a literary work that has the look and feel of an action-packed videogame. As well as the core story, mini-games and magazine off-shoots are incorporated into the Inanimate Alice universe, features that invite students to develop and create their own episodes.

In addition to building important soft skills, Inanimate Alice encourages STEM education for girls, which continues to be a priority in both Canada and Australia.

“The story features a powerful female lead character whose situation demands that from an early age she must make her way in the world while learning not only to survive but to thrive in a technology-driven world.”

After Education Services Australia invested in the alignment of Alice’s story with the Australian curriculum, uptake from both university schools of education and in-service teachers was considerable. Now, there is a cohort of Australian teachers with a decade of experience using the title. This experience provides a clear demonstration of the value of working with the material over an extended period of time with benefits accruing from those years of student interaction.

Australian investment in the title also led to story extensions. “Alice in Australia”, twelve adventure stories set in Australia and around the region, were created to fill the gap in the narrative between episodes one and two of the core plot. These action-packed events, designed for elementary school children, are accompanied by curriculum-aligned teacher guidance materials and digital assets that encourage students to remix them and thereby tell their own stories. In a similar vein, Gap Year Journals were created to support Australian students in their acquisition of Indonesian and Japanese languages. In those interactive, pages, language learners are provided with immersive, contextual language learning experiences such as meeting people in a variety of circumstances in Japanese cities, eating street food in Jakarta and visiting jungle school in Kalimantan.

The profound and immediate experience with the characters is deep and meaningful through multimodal storytelling, stimulating curiosity and leaving a lasting impact on students of all ages.

Inanimate Alice allows for endless options for creativity, with educators able to facilitate discussions and lead young people to make connections through exploring their thoughts, feelings, values and perspectives. The story continues to evolve and is, essentially, endless. It can be used to support the exploration of subject matter across the entire curriculum.

Ian explains, “It’s a story where [teachers] can encourage their students to participate. And because it’s a world-travelling story, students can put their own lens on it, from their part of the world – they can add to it. In vital ways, it is their story, they can own it.”

Feedback shows that teachers agree.

I think what makes Alice so special is the strong narrative that allows for deep reading, conversations that move into critical reading, prediction, a shared experience between readers who are anticipating what might happen next and then designing and writing their own ‘next’ episode.  

- Gloria Latham, School of Education, RMIT, Australia

“Every time I teach Inanimate Alice, I am amazed by the discussions it provokes, and the work it prompts students to produce.” “[The] students were actively engaged with Alice from the get-go; interrogating her life experiences, what she might look like, her family situation, Brad, her culture and the culture of the people she met along the way.” 

- Claire Froggatt, Wenona School North Sydney, Australia.

“I have yet to find another educational tool that compares to the extensive stories, videos, and curriculum in Inanimate Alice.” 

- Larysa Nadolny, Associate Professor, School of Education, Iowa State University, USA.

If this year has taught us anything, it is the importance of exploring new and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

As Donna Terra, Grade 5 Teacher, Morse Pond School Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA says, “21st century schools must keep up with technology, engage students and create lifelong learners.”

With testimonials from teachers across the globe and the empirical research to back it up, it is clear that Inanimate Alice is one answer to this challenge, and fast becoming a new kind of pioneer in literature for young people.

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