Part II: More Lessons from Ed Zed Omega – Get Collaborative, Take Risks, Be Nimble

The Twin Cities Public Television’s (TPT) Ed Zed Omega project, in collaboration with Localore, is part of the larger American Graduate initiative through NCME’s American Graduate Engagement Grant program. The American Graduate initiative seeks to address and offer solutions to the high school dropout crisis.

By Jessica Clark, Association of Independents in Radio

Part I of this post unpacked the concept and goals of Ed Zed Omega (EZO), a cutting-edge, “authentic fiction” project featuring six fictional teens crowdsourcing responses to the question: “What’s in a diploma?”

Game designer Ken Eklund has been producing EZO throughout the fall, in collaboration with TPT and AIR for the national Localore initiative. Eklund, and TPT Interactive Producer, Andi McDaniel, reveal more lessons gleaned from the project:

Lesson 3: “Involve community partners from the get-go.”— McDaniel

Once the EZO team realized how powerful in-person encounters with the Zed Omegas could be, they stepped up their plans for face-to-face engagement. In particular, two events at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis revealed the Zed Omegas’ power to spark discussion.

The first challenged visitors to stand on a map of the “World of School Issues,” and use cell phones to call in their reflections. Watch them in action above, and then listen to one of several contributions.

By the time Eklund brought me in via Skype to experience EZO’s second event at the Walker Art Center, the actors had learned how to fully inhabit their characters. “Identity crisis” was the theme of the museum’s student open house — the Zed Omegas created a series of life-sized paper cutouts, designed to spur conversation about high school stereotypes.

At first, I stayed in comfortable reporter mode, a disembodied observer on a laptop, snapping screenshots and taking notes. But as I was passed from character to character, I got it. Participation meant simply having a conversation.

One Zed Omega, Jeremy, told me he’d decided to quit school, move away from his small town, and work at a bookstore near a university in Minneapolis. I began to quiz him, and he answered like a smart but impatient teen would — he’d hated his hometown, “everyone thinks the same things.” He wanted to meet other aspiring writers, to be in a place where “people think differently, where people argue.” In that moment, I didn’t agree with his choices, but he became real to me. (Watch Jeremy’s end-of-semester video to see what happened next.)

The Walker events were successful, says McDaniel, because “It was a natural fit…people walk into a museum ready to play. They’re willing to participate because they’re looking to have their minds expanded.”

This was an unusual type of partnership for TPT— one that extended the station’s brand in a new way. EZO events have also strengthened TPT’s relationships with other partner organizations searching for authentic and original ways to engage teens. McDaniel reflects that the project has taught her to make community partners integral to participatory story development, and even to involve them as early as the recruitment stage.

Lesson 4: “Prepare to be challenged”— Eklund

While EZO was exciting and creative, there has also been a steep learning curve. “It was only through doing the project that we figured out how we should do it,” says McDaniel. “We were building the plane while we were flying it.”

One persistent challenge was figuring out ways for the fictional students to interact with audience members online. Real teenagers would naturally have their own social media accounts, so the team had the actors set up Facebook pages, plus, in some cases, blog or Twitter accounts.

But as fictional characters, the Zed Omegas did not have the deep bench of friends, relatives and classmates that would allow them to easily grow their networks. Plus, the characters needed to spend time crafting updates and conversing with others on the same platforms. The takeaway: “Choose a particular platform, and learn the language of it,” McDaniel says.

The overall project site was built using Tumblr, a blog-hosting platform that has robust tools for content sharing among users. On the one hand, this made sense: it was free, easy to set up, allowed for content to feed in from other social sites, and plugged into an existing online network already popular with teens. Three of the Zed Omegas created Tumblrs of their own which fed into the main site, and EZO did end up gaining some traction when Lizzie jumped into one education thread.

Eklund was also intrigued by the “visual economy” of Tumblr, in which users appropriate and share images and snippets of pop culture to construct their online persona. This approach is reflected on the EZO site, which is rich with photos, videos, quotes, and the animated gifs that have become Tumblr’s currency in trade. Could EZO reflect the “soul of an issue,” he wondered, the same way that Tumblr users express a “part of their soul” through their posts?

However, the team found, Tumblr’s structure makes it difficult to thread related conversations together, and the platform’s tools for including content from elsewhere aren’t always consistent.

Each game he’s run presents similar challenges, says Eklund. He chooses a platform that speaks to the networks of users who care about a topic, but then “there’s always this bleeding edge headache.” The takeaway: Dealing with such uncertainties is the cost of working in an emerging storytelling space.

Lesson 5: Practice “leaping before you look”— McDaniel

It’s exactly these types of challenges, that stations looking to adapt to today’s media environment, need to take on, says McDaniel. “We know there’s a mass disruption, but it’s really hard to know precisely how to change if you don’t have a visceral example. This pushed up against our barriers in ways that made them more visible.”

TPT is ramping up for more projects that will engage younger audiences. EZO has taught them that “we need to be nimble and playful and experimental,” She says. “This has given us really good practice in leaping before we’ve looked at every possible outcome.”

And while the Zed Omegas have made their decisions, there’s more to learn from the project.

“We have a bit of curation in front of us,” says Eklund. “We’re trying to bring the stories and the site in for a nice, safe landing, looking at what has been accumulated through this interesting process…and marveling at how unique this collection is.”

Experience it for yourself with this list of “top tens” selected by the characters.

This post is one in a series offering insights from the Localore initiative, produced by AIR with support from CPB.


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