An 11 year old is sitting in math class, staring out the window, his mind wandering somewhere between football at recess and making sense of decimals and fractions when the door to the classroom is flung open. A woman dressed completely in black sweeps into the room. She throws down a yellow envelope on the first desk she sees, says something in a strange language and then leaves.
The math teacher and the class are stunned. A student at the front opens the envelope, which has a red marking on it. Inside is a single piece of paper with what appears to be the most complex Chinese character of all, and beneath it, a single URL.The students rush to their laptops to enter the URL. A page pops up with the red mark that was on the envelope. There is a text box with an italicized message that reads: “Enter your email address. But, tell no one." They do. The page disappears and a video message appears. “Ah, so you got the letter,” says a shrouded figure with dark glasses. “Excellent. We need your help.”
The students have now been inducted into The Dragon Collective Trilogy. Only, they don’t know that’s what it’s called. All the students know is that they are in contact with Agent 42 who needs their help to defeat THE DOOM OF NOT KNOWING. They find themselves thrown into the middle of a thrilling plot involving secret agents, villains, talking cats and dogs, and advice from Immortals. The adventure takes them across the web, and jumping across screens to explore their local community and Chinatown, as they complete tasks, find messages and work in a team if they are to defeat THE DOOM.
The Dragon Collective Trilogy was produced by Project Synthesis in partnership with the University of Melbourne’s Chinese Teacher Training Centre and Education Services Australia (ESA). This feature project of the ESA’s Language Learning Space is a transmedia alternate reality game (ARG) designed with a few aims toward helping students spend more time learning Chinese outside of the classroom and offering an innovative methods for student engagement that make learners feel immersed into a movie plot rather than working on an academic subject.
The Dragon Collective Trilogy was created to teach the foundations of the Chinese language. Asian languages have different structures and sounds and look very different to English and other European languages, and language learners benefit from engaging with some of the meta-linguistics of Chinese as a way to help them learn. With this in mind, we designed the Dragon Collective Triology in three parts:
The Sounds of the Immortals where students learn about the sounds of language, how to hear the difference between languages and then identify and learn the sounds in the Chinese language through characters and pinyin with tone marks and other elements of language.
The Hunt for the Ancient Compass where students learn about local Chinese culture and history through identifying different historical objects and taking a visit to a local Chinatown (or a virtual one) depending on circumstances and teacher planning.
The Blackline Mystery where students learn about characters and how the Chinese language is written and how to decode characters and try to decipher their meaning.
The whole ARG uses the dragoncollective.org as a portal that guides students through the different storylines. This requires teachers to have access to a simple CMS that allows them to communicate with students (under the guise of an agent of The Dragon Collective) and to make certain areas accessible at the appropriate times.
This portal directs students to other places online to seek information and clues, but also leads them to places outside of school where they engage with real life characters and objects to give the experience that deeper sense of reality. The main objective in the Hunt for the Ancient Compass, for instance, has students exploring the physical realm – the Chinatown in their city.
Offering a resource like this at a national scale presented a serious challenge, which is why The Dragon Collective Trilogy is accompanied by handbooks that help guide teachers through teaching and incorporating the ARG into their lesson plans. Our prototyping has helped us to design in whole sections that give teachers much more freedom to design and shape the game as they see fit. We have had teachers leave secret messages and images on noticeboards, adding texture and life to the game. We have included these ideas and possibilities in updated editions of the handbooks, which are accessible from the teacher section of The Dragon Collective Trilogy site.
Designed for the middle years, most of them know that this is a game, but the way it is designed and offered as a learning experience means that they happily buy into the collaborative storytelling experience. What has been most crucial is making sure the game is immersed in both its own world and the real world. Avoiding using .edu.au URLs and not having funding bodies logos on the site (which we are used to doing) was important to maintain that sense of alternate reality.
Of course, it isn’t easy to get to The Dragon Collective. Someone told me there maybe some clues over here (but that may be country specific login). You can check out the front page. Or watch the trailer above. You will find your way, when you need to. When THE DOOM OF NOT KNOWING descends in your part of the world, that is when the agents of The Dragon Collective will make themselves known.
Thumbnail and images via Daniel Donahoo
About Daniel Donahoo
Daniel Donahoo is a researcher and author interested in childhood learning and development, as well as technology and emerging literacies. He has published two books, Idolising Children and Adproofing Your Kids. Daniel is currently the Director of Project Synthesis where he works with education and community organisations to support digital capacity, inclusion, and research. He is a contributor to Wired's GeekDad.com and collaborates on digital projects like In B Flat 2.0. He tweets @ddonahoo and can be found at danieldonahoo.com. The NMC first came to know Daniel through his NMC Horizon Report coverage in the Huffington Post.
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