“There’s this expression, “zed omega.” It means “so over.” When you go zed omega, you are done.”
Ed Zed Omega Revealed 

When it comes to public or private education, everyone has an experience, everyone has a story, and everyone has an opinion. The internet is rife with pointed discussions about the problems in education, and full of suggestions on how to solve them. While education issues vary broadly from state to state and nation to nation, they share at least one commonality: solutions tend to be easy to propose but difficult to implement. Education reform is an ongoing conversation amongst government officials, educators, and the public, and conversations between these groups are often politically charged and riddled with miscommunication and misunderstandings.

Andi McDaniel and Ken Eklund have brought something new to the conversation about education with their freshly-launched project, Ed Zed Omega. The project focuses on a set of voices that often gets lost in the cacophony that pervades the education discussion: the voices of those most directly affected by our education systems, the people currently subject to the state of “being educated.” Ed Zed Omega features the stories of six fictional teens who have decided that they are done with education, and that they’re not going back. Their guidance counselor, Mary Johnson, has convinced them to use the time they would have spent in school to complete one more assignment, exploring solutions to the problems they perceive in education. Ed Zed Omega launched on August 15, 2012 and will run through November 15, 2012 to follow their journey.

Several people and organizations are involved in the creation of Ed Zed Omega. The Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) put out a call to producers working on innovative storytelling through their Localore initiative. Ken Eklund and Andi McDaniel were matched up through Localore to create a proposal for one of ten projects to be featured by AIR/Localore. The project is funded through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPC) and presented by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT).

Eklund is no stranger to interactive narratives and serious games. In 2007, he created World Without Oil, the award-winning alternate reality game that jump-started a conversation about a near-future crisis where oil was in short supply. McDaniel is an interactive media producer for TPT, and her work in photography, print, radio and video span a wide range of topics and themes. When the pair first got together to start discussing their proposal, they didn’t know that the focus would be education. However, TPT had historically done programming for kids and parents, as well as several documentaries on education. The subject of the high school dropout rate came up – 1.2 million kids dropping out of school every year for myriad reasons – and Eklund and McDaniel recognized the narrative power of teens who have disengaged with the education system. They envisioned the Zed Omegas, teens who feel let down by education and who want to try something different. They call it “dropping out loud.”

Ed Zed Omega focuses on the specific stories of six teens. Edwina, Nicole, Xavier, Lizabeth, Clare and Jeremy each have a different reason for wanting to drop out of high school and go their own way. They call themselves the Zed Omegas – totally done with high school and reluctant to re-enter the education system as the summer draws to a close. Their guidance counselor, Mary Johnson, identified them as “at risk” teens and, rather than trying to convince them they are wrong to drop out, she is trying to re-engage them with a self-directed study on education. She is aided by homeschooled teen Nora Rose Melendy, along with Alan Greye and Zephyr Yilmaz who keep the Ed Zed Omega website up and running. August 15 is the day they don’t return from their summer vacations, and when their exploration of education begins.

The Ed Zed Omega audience can interact with these teens and their support system through a wide variety of social media while following along with their progress in addressing the problems of education and as they deal with the consequences of dropping out of school. The audience is invited to influence and become part of the Ed Zed Omega story through sharing their thoughts, opinions, and experiences with the Zed Omegas. The game’s website makes it easy to follow the story using a Tumblr format with snapshots of character activity across the social media landscape.

Often, the response to teens expressing a wish to drop out is patronizing or diminishing. You don’t want to do that. You’ll ruin your life. You don’t have a future without an education. You’re too young to make this decision. These responses ignore completely the problems and circumstances hundreds of thousands of teens in schools across the U.S. face on a daily basis. These problems include harassment and bullying, poverty, disability, boredom and lack of a challenging curriculum, or the need to care for family members: problems that often seem solvable only by disconnecting from traditional schooling.  Rather than looking at “dropping out” as a negative action, through the narrative of these teens the Ed Zed Omega project proposes to create a space where it is safe for teens to question the education imperatives that they face and to perhaps create a vision of a better education system. Ed Zed Omega invites teens, educators, parents, legislators, and the public to examine education systems that have developed a deep-rooted conflict between the student and the procedure of learning. The story seeks to explore a traditional education system that has grown so large and so mechanical that individual instruction has been put aside in favor of institutional organization, leaving little room to accommodate the personal circumstances of many children and teens.

“We want to be hearing from kids, to tell the stories that might not otherwise be told,” Eklund said, as I listened to him discuss Ed Zed Omega with McDaniel in a phone interview last week.

“We don’t have an agenda,” McDaniel added. “It’s not about talking kids out of dropping out. We want to hear about what’s wrong, and we want to hear about what’s right.”

McDaniel explained that, to her, the number of kids dropping out every year is not nearly as haunting as the number of kids that might still attend school but are disengaged from their learning environment. McDaniel sees the premise of a promising, bright student spending years not being engaged in their learning environment as incredibly sad.

I learned from Eklund and McDaniel that they did not develop Ed Zed Omega‘s characters: rather, the characters emerged from the actors and actresses selected to play the assorted roles in the story world. The casting call for Ed Zed Omega brought out 40 participants who were asked to take video cameras and interview each other about their education experiences. Everyone who showed up had a story to share about their experience with education. Listening to those stories resonated with Eklund and McDaniel. “We came away feeling like we were on to something, that we had a finger on the pulse of something.”

Once the choice was made of who would represent the Zed Omegas, Eklund and McDaniel gave the cast free reign to create a character that they could embody through social media. The cast members seem to draw heavily on their own high school experiences, which are not far behind them. The team expressed a hope that the authenticity of these six voices will lead to a strong conversation, as well as making a connection to teens who currently aren’t engaged with their education systems.

As for the story itself, I asked the team how much of the story was scripted and how much of it would grow organically. Eklund responded with a quote from Lawrence of Arabia: “Nothing is written.” The power of this game, Eklund explained, comes from being authentic. “There’s a reason we’ve given the young people we’ve hired so much power over their characters. We don’t want to make judgments. We don’t want to impose our point of view onto their reality. We have to pay attention to the great stuff coming to us . . . embrace it . . . run with it . . . celebrate it.”

I also had a unique opportunity to speak with the characters directly, as a small taste of the highly personalized gameplay created for the coming weeks. From my perspective, a significant part of the power of interactive projects like this comes through the ability to directly address and be addressed by the heroes of the story. It was thrilling to suddenly find myself connected to these teens who had done what in my mind is a very brave thing, saying, we want something more for ourselves. The education system had failed them in some way, and they gave themselves permission to get out, to search for and hope to find another solution.

With that in mind, when the team introduced Ed Zed Omega to the people at TPT, they decided to bring the characters to two meetings about the project as a way to give a tangible example of how it would work and what the characters were trying to express. Clare attended a small meeting, and Jeremy and Nicole attended a larger meeting. The voices and presence of these fictional characters sparked an intense and powerful conversation among the people in the meeting as they responded to the characters and their reasons for dropping out.

“We were astounded at how well they did play these characters but more importantly how much of a conversation steroid it was to have these fictional characters present and how readily these groups completely embraced a fiction as if it was real, down to one person suggesting that Jeremy reach out to her writer friends and gave him their contact information!” McDaniel said.

The initial reaction to the teens’ expressed intent to drop out was the predictable one. The groups “essentially tried to talk the teens out of it. There was a general tone of ‘you’re naive and you shouldn’t be dropping out of school.'” But once the teens left, the conversation about education continued unchecked. “We didn’t have to say anything or monitor the conversation,” Eklund said. “The feeling we had tapped into – to have that happen just by bringing these two characters in – was so powerful.”

The Ed Zed Omega team decided to apply for a grant that would allow them to do more on-the-ground engagement in Minnesota, possibly taking the teens to local high schools to speak with both educators and other teens, as well as creating a safe space for teens to speak out about their perceptions of education. The Zed Omegas themselves serve as a conversational catalyst, a way to draw in multiple viewpoints about various areas of education, what’s working, what’s not working, and what might be done to improve or enhance the experience of learning for those teens who might otherwise have disengaged.

“This is a narrative that makes the process really easy for people,” Eklund said. “This subject can be emotionally charged – if parents have children who are struggling, they want to know more. If they get it from a fictional character, so much the better – they can play with this narrative in a serious way.” He noted that the challenge now is to find ways to evoke that powerful reaction online and to make the experience accessible not just to people who know alternate reality games, but to people who can be deeply affected by the stories that come to them through these characters.

My conversation with characters Xavier and Clare was short but thrilling. I found it easy to relate to both of them, to engage with the fiction and treat them as being completely real. Their voices are authentic – their reality is easy to embrace.

Clare is bright and bubbly and quick to speak. She is thoroughly enthusiastic when talking about her goals and aspirations and no less enthusiastic when she speaks of the Zed Omegas and their semester of self-directed study. She loves acting and is currently torn between a career in film or on Broadway. We chatted for a moment about the tv series “Smash” (a show about the creation and casting of a musical headed for Broadway).

Xavier is a quiet but intense young man who plainly feels a strong responsibility to his younger siblings and to future generations. He hopes to play professional basketball someday and feels frustrated with a high school curriculum that feels largely irrelevant to his goals and needs.

One of the first projects that counselor Mary Johnson gave the Zed Omegas was to write a letter about education to a celebrity of their choice. Xavier chose Denzel Washington, who has previously worked on a series of public service announcements for the Boys and Girls Club of America aimed at decreasing the dropout rate among teens. Clare chose actress Emma Stone, who herself dropped out of high school to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. I asked them if they had received any answers to their letters. “Not yet,” Clare said brightly. “But, hopefully!”

Xavier and Clare each expressed what they hoped to accomplish through their self-study projects on education.

Clare said, “I’m still unsure about dropping out. I want to, but I’m still open to other people’s ideas about how we can change my own personal education experience.”

“I just want to reach as many kids as we can,” Xavier said, “reach out to the next generation. I’m doing this for my little brothers. I’m just trying to show people the experience of the drop out, and the options you do have as a young man or woman. There’s more to the world than what we’ve been told.”

Just speaking with these characters made me a believer in the power of Ed Zed Omega. I confess that I’m eager to follow all of the conversations these characters will bring to the surface. I can’t wait to see what they discover about themselves as well as about education over the next two months. The fact that everyone has a story to tell about their experience – or maybe even lack of experience – with education seems to indicate that this is a conversation which has been waiting for its time.

Join the Ed Zed Omega conversation by checking out the Ed Zed Omega website, and watch The Zed Omegas on YouTube.