ON MEDIA LITERACY

 

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM FAKE NEWS?

Intelligence agencies, politicians and businesses are using psychological profiling to publish highly targeted messages on social media with the aim of swaying public opinion and persuading people to adopt their views. Often, these messages are not based in fact but designed to provoke emotional responses that serve the agenda of the poster.

The fact that people are susceptible to these kinds of messages shows how easily we can be persuaded of half truths and falsehoods. This has been successfully exploited by the advertising industry for many years but never to such dramatic effect as we have seen over the last two years.

Photos and videos are often used to assert validity but widespread access to image editing technology means that it will become increasingly harder to tell whether they have been altered. We live in a world with abundant opinions and information but limited means of judging their quality.

A recent study on information literacy revealed that the majority of school children cannot tell the difference between a news item and an advertisement. Another asserts that false messages are more likely to be believed than true ones.

But how can we maintain democratic principles if we are unable to make informed decisions? One way to address the problem is by teaching media literacy in schools. Three years ago, I was interviewed on that topic. I am reposting an abridged English translation below. The original German text can be found here.

Why should we still be learning when there is the internet?

The Internet offers knowledge for everyone. A massive library of content with isles and isles of shelves that multiply every second. The problem is no longer availability, but the sheer abundance of information. It is therefore less about finding it but more about learning to evaluate the quality of what there is. Therein lie both possibilities and problems and media literacy should be considered in this context. However, I would like to concretise this term, because studies such as ICILS 2013 [International Computer and Information Literacy Study, editor’s note] show that students must, above all, gain information literacy, which requires like many areas of life reflecting on the own real and digital environment.

So, should we remove textbooks from the classrooms?

One thing is certain: Despite this development, the textbook is still in the classroom is still the undisputed number one source of information. Textbooks are products of professional editorial work and the tasks are adapted to these materials. Once printed however, they can no longer be extended or updated and because the world continues to move, students often feel disconnected from the content.

This often causes young people to feel misunderstood not taken seriously by educational institutions. “What do I have to learn that for,” they often ask. This does not mean that textbooks are obsolete – on the contrary. There is much to be said for the haptic experience of the book. The printed word is not only a valuable cultural asset but they are also reliable. They still work, if the power fails or the computer doesn’t cooperate. I see digital content as a supplement not a substitute to analogue content.

From your point of view, what does this mean for teaching?

There is often a gap between school and the reality of life. The more technology permeates society, the greater this gap becomes. Our task is to continuously assess the objects and methods of learning; to test and compare them with the reality our children are exposed to. The extensive factual knowledge that pupils commit to short-term memory year after year like sizes, names, dates for example can be recalled in seconds, and often more reliably with the use of technology. But the subject of learning should not be limited to the use of computers, but must include the connection between the individual pieces of information. The context is key to understanding the meaning and evaluating the quality of information.

Learning with media and in context – how does it work?

I believe that children – and incidentally also adults – learn best when learning is embedded in an exciting context. In other words, we learn best when we are interested. An original story is a highly motivating context. People love good stories. Why should we not use this passion that is deeply rooted in us? There are many digital offerings that teach children how to handle media correctly; many of which are also fun to use but probably because work at the computer is still considered an exception and therefore partly is not perceived as ‘real’ teaching. Offers that use media in a considered and targeted way are still few and far in between. If children have spend an entire lesson watching a film or using software and at the end can’t tell what it was all about, then what was the purpose of the exercise? There is a lack of products that take content seriously: this is the starting point for the idea of the real world game and its first incarnation “Professor S.”.

I believe that story telling can be a powerful driver of our intellectual development because by creating stories we not only learn to recognise a good yarn but the research that goes into spinning our own helps us to develop critical thinking. One of the most useful skills I learned during my education is the ability to judge the quality of information. Like all things worth having, it doesn’t come over night and requires exercise which is why the sooner we start to teach these skills the better our world will be for all of us.

 

 

About Music

I am staying at a friend’s place at the moment. She has a piano so I get to play it from time to time. I have forgotten a lot of the tunes I used to play but I remember a few. I started learning instruments when I was 4. My mum and I had moved into a commune in the country side. The people there had a band and played a lot of shows at music festivals and local venues. My very first public performance was at one of those shows. Someone gave me a drum and told me to play along with the band – from that moment on, I was hooked.

The keyboard player in the band offered to give me piano lessons, which I happily accepted. A couple of years later, I started playing guitar. Later, I picked up bass guitar and also the drums. I would often switch between different instruments and go through long cycles of favouring one instrument over the others.

Over the years, I have played in a lot of different bands. I also love improvising and I would often get together with other musicians to play whatever came into our heads. One of our practise rooms was inside an old box van which we used to take out into the country side to play in a field or forest. There was a generator inside the van that powered the amplifiers and even a little cooker to make cups of tea during the breaks.

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The legendary rehearsal van outside my (then) home on Devenant Road in North Oxford.

 

Sadly, no recordings survive from the “van sessions” – at least none that I know of.

My first enduring band project was called “Camp Blackfoot“, which was a punk / jazz / rock band that existed between 1996 and 2001. We did one tour of France and Italy and released on album called “Critical Seed vs. the Spartan Society”. I played bass on all but one song but I also play lead and rhythm guitar on some of the tracks under the pseudonym “Lex Fontaine”. You can listen to the epic opening track “Exorcismo Di Paulo” here:

Between working on Camp Blackfoot and studying, I made a scarce living playing in different Jazz bands among which was a saxophone and guitar duo with the fabulously talented Alex Ward. We played pubs, cafes, hotel bars, golf clubs, shopping streets – you name it. Here is a track from our original demo – the beautiful “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”:

After Camp Blackfoot came a new band called “Vin Mariani”. We never progressed past the song-writing stage but our demo recordings survive. Below, you can listen to one of our tracks called “Art Rat” which I co-wrote with Nich Eglin and Luigi Cibrario. On this track, I play bass, lead guitar and keyboard.

The demise of Vin Mariani was followed by two years of musical inactivity during which I worked for Harley-Davidson, who had just opened their European headquarters in Oxford. Working for Harley-Davidson was an interesting experience which I might describe in a different post. Suffice it to say, that I was not cut out for a corporate career so I decided to start writing music for film. It all started with this demo:

In my next post I might entertain you with more stories from my career as a film composer.

“Professor S.” wins ‘Best Serious Game’ at DCP 2016

MUNICH, GERMANY - APRIL 07: Team members of 'Professor S.' receive their award from Nova Meierhenrich during the German Computer Games Award 2016 (Deutscher Computerspielpreis 2016) at BMW World on April 7, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Gisela Schober/Getty Images for Quinke Networks)
(Photo by Gisela Schober/Getty Images)

It’s official: “Professor S.” won the German Computer Game Award in the category “Best Serious Game”. So last night, we celebrated together with our fellow nominees and game developers at the BMW Welt in Munich. Sadly, we had to leave the giant cheque behind because they wouldn’t let us take it on plane. I delivered the shortest acceptance speech of the evening with a simple “thank you” and I want to thank everyone again. Over the last seven years, many people have contributed to the success of “Professor S.” and have invested time, effort and money. To all of you, who have worked so hard and trusted us and believed in us (you know who you are) I want to say a big heartfelt “you rock and we love you and thank you so much and here is to the next seven years”!

 

We All Have Our Skeletons

Jan likes his coffee black. He is leaning back in one of the blue lounge chairs by the bowfront window. At this point, he is getting comfortable being interviewed by me. After years of dedicated work, he is ready to look back and marvel at how it came together. As Jan is digging in the archives of his memories, it seems like he is not only telling me about the early days of “Professor S.”, he is telling himself.

The road of an explorer is never a straight one. “It was very rock’n’roll,” Jan concedes. “There were many spontaneous decisions during working on the episodes.”

With the surprise casting of Paul as Professor S., Jan was eager to start shooting the first episodes. “The film element was part of the idea from the very beginning,” Jan explains. “During my work in schools, I noticed how people used computers and media,” he continues. Seeing how many teachers used films as part of class inspired Jan to what would become LudInc’s signature dish: a storyline delivered in entertaining episodes with cliffhangers that require the audience to become active and add to the show in knowledge and character.

Bringing together both the entertainment and the educational aspects was Jan’s biggest accomplishment in those early stages of writing. A one-man operation for good parts of the early way, Jan had to step out of his comfort zone of composing and producing by having to divide his attention between all aspects of filmmaking, including camera work or the prop department. Jan soon found out that passion projects have a way of screaming for attention from all different angles simultaneously. What counts, though, is not how much you know but how well you are connected. “At the time, I was working on a feature film called Dark Fibre, together with Jamie King and a very talented director called Peter Mann,” Jan remembers.

Jamie and Peter had asked Jan to provide the musical score to their film. One thing led to the next. “Peter is very good with technical camera work, so I told him about my idea,” Jan continues. “I told him that I wanted this professor guy to travel inside of his lab, because that is all I could afford in terms of setting,” he laughs. “I said: ‘Inside the lab, there is a window. How can I make scenes appear in the window?’ Peter gave me advice on how to position my camera in order to achieve this effect.”

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All of a sudden, support was coming from all corners of the globe. Jan had charmed Mark Twain School headmistress Verena Thamm into granting him the school’s chemistry laboratory as a set. Tako Taal, Jamie King’s girlfriend at the time, offered helping with the set design. Leonard Cetrangolo from San Francisco, whom Jan had met while working in the States, provided valuable knowledge of cinematography. “It was nice having so many people involved from the beginning. People wanted to help because they really associated with the project,” Jan recalls, ”even though it was very ambitious. We were nowhere near having the resources to pull this thing off. It was a very rock’n’roll kind of production.”

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Tako, freshly cast Paul and Jan went into the lab over a weekend in the middle of December. “We dressed the room so it looked like a time machine with lots of blinking machines and apparatuses. When I set up the camera, I called up my friend Leonard on Skype and I did a live cast of my laptop screen for him so he could basically look through the camera’s viewfinder and tell me how to adjust the camera and lighting.”

Every well-equipped school science lab comes with a skeleton and so did this one. It just briefly graced the corner of the lab setting before being handed a name and a role in the story, the sidekick the script had been missing. “Tako came up with that,” Jan laughs. “She just used it as part of the set at first. During filming, Tako crawled on the floor and started moving it around to make it come alive.”

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“The skeleton idea was great because it showed the obvious need for a companion for Professor S. in the Time Lab.”

Find out next time how our skeleton Pierre changed names, nationalities and genders all at once. Skeletons are weird that way.

If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance. –George Bernard Shaw

David Lütke, Editor

" rel="bookmark">Go With The Flow (流れに身を任せます)

Production for a movie or TV series can span months and years. A lot can happen during that time. Previous plans can come undone. It’s up to the producer and crew to roll with the punches. The fascinating part is looking at cast, titles or details that never came to be. These could-have-been’s are something the audience rarely or never hears about. Of course, a multitude of factors play a part when movies become iconic. Imagine how different some of the world’s most popular productions could have been. Could you see John Travolta playing Forrest Gump? He almost did. Or Sean Connery in the role of Middle-earth’s favorite wizard Gandalf? They were considering him.

Now, our dear Professor S. is no Forest Gump, although he does get himself into quite a few situations of historical significance. But did you know he went through several incarnations, both on paper and on screen?

But let’s recap: Jan von Meppen proposed giving his unique game model a try at Mark Twain Primary School in Berlin. Jan, with a background in filmmaking and alternate reality games, went to work on a prototype of the game over the summer holidays of 2009. His friend Frieder Klapp, fourth grade teacher at Mark Twain Primary School, helped him.

“Frieder put me onto topics like fire, whales & dolphins, which is basic fourth grade content”, Jan remembers. “So I took that information and constructed stories around it. I wanted to wrap the learning content into a story. That was the idea.”

The writing process went fairly quick, as Jan remembers. The time travel theme quickly established itself. However, there were initial detours. “One of the ideas was that Michael Jackson, who had died in June of that year, was not really dead but actually living in the school’s attic, communicating with the children.” Jan laughs, “but that was dismissed quickly.”

When the professor story came into focus, Jan recognised the need to put a face on his main character. “The first idea was to get a Japanese actor. The character was then called Professor Takeshi. So I was looking for an Asian actor because there is a stereotype according to which Asian people are widely associated with technology.”

An email from Jan to set designer Tako, discussing the possibilities of having a Japanese Professor S.:

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Jan set up the auditions at HomeBase Lounge, an event space at Potsdamer Platz in the heart of Berlin. Some people who came to the audition were just curious and weren’t even available for the planned shoot.  Others simply didn’t have the acting skills. It wasn’t looking good for Jan’s schedule. But, as he soon found out, good things sometimes happen unexpectedly.

“All throughout the auditions, there was a guy named Paul, working the bar”, says Jan. “He said ‘Why don’t you just let me do it? I can do it, I love kids and I can act’, so we tried him and he turned out to be very good, he had a lot of energy”, he continues. “And he was kind of chaotic which is something I wanted for the character of Professor S.” Paul Karopka shortly thereafter put on the lab coat and thick rimmed glasses that made him become the first official Professor S. Lucky incidents like this are dotted throughout LudInc’s founding years and seem to be proof that persistence is always rewarded. Jan is smiling, thinking about it.

So far, lady luck has favoured our heroes. What happens if you go into a project passionate, open-minded and with a rock’n’roll attitude? Are great things going to happen or is the project bound for disaster? Which way does the pendulum swing? Find out next time.

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David Lütke, Editor

Fishing In The Idea Pond

Great ideas come by accident. The trick is to be ready when they come. What helps is a generous dose of rebellious spirit and the ability to think two steps ahead. When Jan von Meppen was first consulted by schools about their server setups and computer infrastructure, he didn’t know it would lead him to creating the concept of the Real World Game. After all, school was an unlikely place for him to start afresh.

“I’ve always disliked school”, Jan laughs. “I became a master at avoiding classes with the exception of those attended by girls I liked and subjects I enjoyed. In any case, I received spectacularly bad grades.” Several years down the road, new doors opened up when his admission to the renowned University of Oxford rekindled Jan’s academic spirits. “Basically, at Oxford, I got to do something I was really interested in.” Between studying philosophy and a finance position at Harley-Davidson, Jan has always been keen to try out new things.

Jan, together with some fierce Harley-Davidson colleagues in 2003:

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He knew when to jump at a good chance. His first steps into the world of digital media led him to film production and score composition and paved the way for Jan to further explore the field.

“I had become fascinated with the concept of transmedia and alternate reality games”, he recalls. “I enjoyed this novel approach to audience engagement. I absorbed everything I could find on the subject.”

The key moment took place at Berlin-based Mark Twain Primary School in 2009. The principal, Verena Thamm, asked Jan to produce a short image film for the school. “I just replied ‘I could do that but I might have something better for you’”, says Jan and chuckles. “My proposition to Mrs. Thamm was that playing an alternate reality game as part of regular class activities would create more buzz than an image film.” Were these the magic words that led to the creation of LudInc? Whatever the case may be, the two agreed that it was worth a try and Jan went to the drawing board.

Frieder Klapp, then teacher of a fourth grade class at Mark Twain, saw the potential in Jan’s idea. Having been given a thorough overview of lesson plans by Frieder, Jan went all in and dove into writing and the production of the first batch of episodes for Professor S.

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The scene was set for an unsuspecting school class to experience the first real world learning game.

Naturally, not everything went smoothly during testing. One time, the whole class started crying because they thought Professor S. had been eaten by dinosaurs. “We had to reassure them that he was still alive”, Jan remembers, “and that he had in fact just sent a new message through the Time Portal. It was the fastest I have ever seen kids run back into the classroom.”  Believe me, the first months with Professor S. produced boxes and boxes of these funny anecdotes. Stay tuned for more.

David Lütke, Editor

Remembering The Work Bench

Jan von Meppen has rolled up his sleeves and is typing away on his laptop. Warm air mixed with street noise is coming in through the open window. Jan doesn’t seem to notice. He is in the zone. It’s 11.45 on a Friday. The weekend is almost here. Not that a weekend would mean much to Jan anymore.

It’s been a busy week. LudInc has launched a crowdfunding campaign to ensure funds for further development of Professor S., LudInc’s first interactive learning adventure and Jan’s brainchild.

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Over the past six years, he has watched his idea grow from a seed into a thing. Jan is a modern-day Gepetto. He is helping his creation on its legs and watching it take its first steps.

The LudInc offices in Berlin-Wedding are bright and sunny on a day like this, spacious rooms with a warm feel and wooden herringbone floors. The shelves are filled with remnants from the past, bits and bobs from over the years. Musical instruments, books of sketches and ideas, early technical models. They showcase Jan’s path and the long way his initial idea has come. Between strategy meetings with his team and an increasing number of press appointments, Jan rarely gets to sit back and take it all in these days. New storylines and episode scripts are being developed so that Professor S. will soon be able to played by kids all over the world, at home and on the go.

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Jan remembers the early days of Professor S. He started exploring the possibilities of story-infused learning models for the classroom back in 2009. At first, he was on his own but with resilience, patience and a bit of luck, the pieces started falling into place.

This is the story of Jan and Professor S., a diary of our work at LudInc over the past six years. We will meet early contributors and loyal companions from along the way, hear funny anecdotes from what it means to bring together a team of maverick thinkers and visionary lunatics and uncover some of the secrets around Professor S. Where did the Time Portal come from? Was Professor S. initially Japanese? Can skeletons talk?

David Lütke, Editor