It's official. Xtranormal is a great little online tool for composition courses, particularly if your course emphasizes the conversational nature of academic writing.
After contemplating the use of Xtranormal in my composition course for about a year, I offered students the option of creating an Xtranormal script and video in lieu of two low stakes assignments. Working in groups, students who opted for the video project produced two-minute videos that put Malcolm Gladwell, Sherry Turkle, and Nathan Rott into conversation on the issue of social media and social action.
Writing effective source-based papers with a strong dose of argument is a tough task for college freshmen. Producing animated videos that put texts into conversation can actually reduce the level of complexity involved in getting the argument rolling. On top of figuring out the texts, locating moments of connection, and putting the texts together in the service of a position or view, students need to wrestle with effective integration of texts, a balance of quotation, paraphrase, and summary, documentation style, organization, and sentence construction. It takes a full term (or two) for students to become even somewhat proficient at juggling all these elements, and it can be frustrating for them. Their ideas and readings can quickly outpace their ability to represent their views in the structure of the academic paper. Here's where Xtranormal is a great tool.
Xtranormal uses Flash and text-to-speech technology to enable novice movie makers to produce animated videos online.
Students prepare a script that puts a couple characters in a scene and sets them in a conversation. When students have to use some of the language of the texts they're reading as they develop the script, they really begin to do some of the hard work of academic thinking. Xtranormal is fun because the author chooses characters, a voice, a background, camera angles, sound effects, and more.
The major drawback, really, is Xtranormal's revenue model. Rather than offer a free, ad-supported version for those unwilling to purchase the characters and sets, Xtranormal teases creators by providing seed money to make the first video. There is an education discount that puts the tool within some teachers' budgets, but it's likely that most students would have to work with a limited set and character selection to work in the budget of the teaser film. (Home economics for digital production?)
Xtranormal was optional this term. I think I'll require a project of this sort next term.