The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter. Edward Albee

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear Kate Pullinger speak on the theme, Digital Literacy: Keeping it Real! Kate is the author of the digital fiction story, Inanimate Alice, along with other very interesting projects. Inanimate Alice tells a story through sound, text, image and video and gaming components which become increasingly important as it develops.

I was somewhat mortified when I was introduced to her as the teacher who had so loathed her first experience of Alice! She was very charming about this however, especially once I had explained that my initial reaction was being tempered by further investigation and a commitment to trying digital storytelling with some of my students.

Kate described how her attention had been drawn to alerts to the publication online of episode 5, and not just one but several versions. ‘Which was interesting. Because I am the author of Inanimate Alice and I’d only produced 4 episodes … For me this was a really big moment: to have students (in the US) taking a piece of writing by someone else and engaging with it in an entirely new way is a very exciting form of interactivity’.

The notion of text is evolving. We need to think again about what we understand by ‘literacy’ and the way that we read and interact with text and stories. ‘The children are redefining ideas of what authorship means, who owns the text, who is allowed to tell stories’. There are real opportunities for learning in delving into the digital realm to motivate and inspire youngsters, particularly perhaps those who have traditionally considered that storytelling is not for them.

Enabling students to create their own content as opposed to pushing it on them and creating these standards-driven story-worlds is the key to learning in the 21st Century. Inanimate Alice forces us to pay attention and change the way education is conceived. As Ian Harper states, “The kids get it, even if you don’t.”

I began working with a group of 11 year old learners with dyslexia once a week for an hour in their writing time in mid-January. After 3 weeks of our project the impressions the children have of Inanimate Alice are changing. At first they were wary of the whole concept, although prepared to indulge me when I explained I had recruited them to help me learn about this new form of storytelling. Children with learning difficulties notoriously fear the new; expect to find learnng hard; prefer to stick with what they know rather than try something new in case they fail even further.

However, they seemed pleased to take responsibility for reviewing this new form of text.

Initial negative reactions to the speed and ‘blurriness’ of the text as it appears and disappears have become less dominant as they realise that they can review whenever they want. This is important for these children whose decoding skills are considerably slower than others of their age. It is interesting to note that they decline all offers from me to read it to them: they are determined to read for themselves although they are prepared to allow me to scribe their thoughts.

The initial focus was on the story itself and the puzzles they encountered in episodes 1 and 2. Once they had ‘read’ each a couple of times – each at her or his own pace – we discussed the ‘digital’ aspects of the content. They appreciate that the music reflects the country where Alice lives and how it alters the mood. On the whole they like the video clips as they ‘give you more detail about the situation’. One boy is ambivalent about the benefits of ‘moving pictures’ as he feels too much visual information detracts from his ability to imagine for himself what is happening.

They like the puzzles on the ba-xi best, not least because ‘it’s not all about reading and that makes it more fun’. The reaction to the sounds, however, varies from ‘it’s a bit nippy’ to ‘it made me want to rip my ears off’. The most disliked element at this stage, apart from the electronic noise, is the rapidity with which the text disappears from the screen at times and the way that it flashes.  Learners with dyslexia often become visually stressed, especially when looking at strong contrasts. Inanimate Alice has white text on black background and thus is not particularly dyslexia friendly.

At the end of week 3 they are noticing common elements in the episodes, both in terms of the story itself and of the devices used to tell it. They are very keen to get on with writing their own episodes.

In our last session before the holiday, we read reactions from older students from ‘Just Another Teacher Rambling’s’ blog. This galvanised them into increased focus on the differences between traditional books and this digital story. They were delighted to discover that students a few years older are also investigating Inanimate Alice and clearly feel the whole project is becoming worthwhile in itself not just because of my whim.

Tomorrow we will explore in more detail the differences between print and digital texts.

I’ll report back.