Inanimate Alice is 9 years old. How’s she doing? [REPORT]
Welcome to the world of Inanimate Alice, a truly digital novel that has taken the educational world by storm. The idea for Alice first came about in 2003 and the team (Ian Harper, Chris Joseph and award winning author Kate Pullinger) published the first episode in 2005. The story is told by Alice through 10 episodes. Each adventure looks back through her childhood & into her early twenties, a bildungsroman.
The plot for the series uses Alice’s increasing interest and competency in game development to exemplify her transition from childhood to early womanhood. The first four episodes have been completed, the fifth is being released this year and the final five are still in development. With a team of creators fostering its relationship with its readers across the world, this is a novel on an epic scale.
Inanimate Alice is not a converted ePub manuscript with hyper links. This is a digital narrative that has been written to view on screens. Unlike traditional stories Inanimate Alice allows the reader to be fully engaged by interacting with the story. However, it is still linear and episodic in that Alice’s story has already been determined. The episodes have big sound tracks and technology is the central theme throughout. The gamification of the story means readers feel they are exploring it at their own pace – sub-consciously learning along the way.
Spanning more than six years already the journey the creators have taken is an interesting one, with the changes in technology and production methods altering drastically. Conceived at the forefront of digital fiction, Inanimate Alice stood alone for many years as its own genre. Now with a plethora of other digital materials available, today Inanimate Alice sits somewhere between gamification, digital stories & interactive books. But Inanimate Alice is still at the top of her game and her appeal is still growing.
Despite lots of information about Inanimate Alice I still had questions that specifically relate to the overwhelming success of Inanimate Alice’s use as an educational resource, which has now become integral to the Inanimate Alice project. I was very lucky and grateful that the author Kate Pullinger agreed to speak to me about some of these questions.
Alice’s use in Education
Thousands of teachers across the world use Inanimate Alice in their lessons and because of its multimodality Inanimate Alice can be taught across all aspects of the curriculum. Since the translation into other languages it is also being increasingly used in Foreign Language Teaching especially ELT.
Kate and the team never imagined that Inanimate Alice would be adapted so widely by teachers, originally not even writing the story for children! The series was submitted to 35 digital media and short film festivals around the world where it gained many accolades. However, the team noticed that most of the site visitors and almost all of the returning visitors were teachers. It was at this point, in 2007, that Jess Laccetti (a Ph.D student writing her doctorate on using Inanimate Alice as a pedagogical tool) was engaged to create the first education support materials. The team encouraged creativity at school level further by making available, for free, graphics, sound bites & music to encourage the response to Alice’s journey, turning Inanimate Alice from a multimedia narrative into a world of resources, creativity and education. Part of this expansion in 2011 was linking up with Promethean Planet, the worlds leading interactive white board community. Promethean Planet love Inanimate Alice, Kate mentions, it’s like nothing else they have access to and they struggle to find content that achieves their own aspirations for interactive educational resources. Not only do they and teachers love Alice but also Governments have started to realise the potential. The Inanimate Alice team have been commissioned by Education Services Australia to create a series of photo-novellas that sit in the gap between Episodes 1 & 2.
Once you start to get into Alice’s world you can really start to see the huge scope her story has for exploring many levels of children’s development – not just language and literacy skills but environmental and social responsibilities too. This larger responsibility for children’s educational needs has now been addressed by the Inanimate Alice team setting up an educational steering group specialising in literacy, media, ELT and more.
What’s the appeal for teachers?
Kate thinks there are many factors relating to the broad appeal of Alice. The content is interesting & different and teachers love the fact they are delivering lessons on something that appeals to the kids’ natural understanding of technology. Plus there are so many other things going on – music, mini games, video – that it’s hard for kids not to love it. It also caters for a number of different learning styles, which makes it highly accessible for a class with many different learning needs.
I asked Kate if the teachers using Alice are more technologically minded? It seems that to start with it was mainly teachers who were interested in bringing technology to their classroom, however, it’s now used by a much wider range. Kate feels that part of this appeal, for both the kids and the teachers, is the fact that a lot of the activities (like game development) are things that the teachers don’t feel as comfortable with, meaning the kids love being able to do things that they know their teacher can’t do.
The impact of Social Reading on Inanimate Alice’s future
I was intrigued to find out from Kate what the impact of all this attention might have on the narrative of Alice’s story. I asked if they had plans to change the story in response to all of the other narratives that have been created as a result of the educational side of things. And the answer was a definite no – they have very clearly always known how Alice’s story would develop and they are truly sticking to it. However, I still think that now knowing how Alice is being used in classrooms the team might feel more responsible for creating content that specifically addresses scenarios educators can use to develop students further. I guess the beauty of the project growing organically means we will never know if this happens or not.
Ditching design for digital
One aspect that I’m interested in is the look of educational resources. A huge part of engaging learners in material is getting something to look good, but a lot of products lately show that the design has been neglected in order to jump onto the digital bandwagon. I asked Kate if this is something that she thinks is happening and to a certain extent I think she agreed. And that’s another reason why Alice has been so successful because of the way it looks. The beautiful illustrations and the use of photography & graphics all help to create something that doesn’t look like traditional educational materials, adding further to the appeal for students.
A new sales model
Kate did discuss the Business Model for Inanimate Alice, which has changed as a result of the success and Ian Harper, the producer, has been grappling with this for a few years. The first five episodes and educational resource packs have been made available for free on the internet (Inanimate Alice site and Promethean Planet). However, the plan for the next five is to charge for the episodes and create premium educational resources.
So a new model of creating Premium products to sell is the way forward for Inanimate Alice. One element that intrigued me was why Publishers hadn’t picked up on this and I asked Kate if they had been approached by any of them. Kate was surprised that they hadn’t had any interest, which to me seems as if Publishers might have missed a trick. There is a whole community of teachers engaged with this product that is reaching into many areas of the curriculum. Teachers have shown they are embracing technology and are ready to experiment. Why Publishers haven’t jumped on this I don’t know, but maybe we have to assume they are cautious of entering a world they are unsure of and is commercially unproven. This also makes me wonder if the combination of having free resources and a whole community of engaged teachers and learners would change once the product becomes one you pay for.
What is certain is that the teachers and learners who have embraced Inanimate Alice have had such a positive experience of an interactive resource they won’t willingly go back to older methods. There is now an appetite for this material and a huge gap in the market – a gap that up until now has only been filled by Inanimate Alice.