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Crystal Blue Persuasion: How Breaking Bad Is Rethinking Education

Education technology: 'tis a thing of beauty when put to work in a meaningful capacity. While I typically encounter this genre of hardware/software, it tends to reside directly within a learning/education vertical, but as our day-to-day usage of tablets and mobile devices continues to skew toward commonplace, the idea of leveraging these devices to inform and educate a particular audience is quickly gaining footing as well. The corporate and media world is waking up to this fact: an intelligent consumer is a more impactful consumer. It is in everyone's best interest to scale our collective knowledge.

This is where Breaking Bad comes in (plus the fact that I can't see to shake the images burnt into my brain from this past week's new episode).

If you have ever watched Breaking Bad (and I pray that you have, otherwise I am failing to attract my ideal audience...), you understand that the beauty of the program lies in its ever-so-delicate arrangement of props, emotions, and story lines. On the surface, we have Walter White, family man, simpleton, driven to the dark side (the production and distribution of methamphetamine - N-methyl-1-phenylpropan-2-amine - street name: crystal meth) by a cancerous death sentence. But prod a little deeper and we find the real story: A toccata and fugue of precise measurement, an exercise in discipline intertwined with combative explosion, a chemical reaction in D Minor driven by a potent mix of failed expectations, sullied potential, justified ego, and a ticking clock. Like a young J.S. Bach, or perhaps more fittingly a young W.J. Heisenberg, Breaking Bad's composer Vince Gilligan lays out his scenes with maniacal precision, a perfect balance of plot relevance and forward thinking - each note, each pitch, each element, will inevitably be revisited and come full circle. Utter mastery of his craft.

Of course, to fully immerse oneself in this turbulent experience, and I mean fully, the viewer must possess a photographic memory, be a certified member of Mensa, or rewatch the series incessantly. There is a reason this program has launched so many discussion boards, subreddits, and general social media tomfoolery: perhaps no show has ever demanded as much attention from its audience in television history (and beyond). It's pretty darn difficult to keep up!

But another option for immersion exists: take out your iPad and download Breaking Bad Story Sync.

This "Story Sync" is what is known in the Biz as a "second-screen experience," an app that, as indicated by its title, runs in sync with the live program, serving up pieces of content immediately as they become relevant to the viewing experience. Sometimes that comes in the form of audience polls, a rather useless tool in my opinion, but other times that comes in the form of graphics called "flashbacks" and "yeah, science!," bits of knowledge that not only provide additional context for the viewer but also ensure that the viewer understands the full scope of the tale at hand. Like an automated tutoring service, Story Sync ensures that its users are properly outfitted with the ammo necessary to fully comprehend the content they are digesting: (notice this painting Walt is staring at? He glanced at the same one while in the hospital in Season 2, Episode 3!).

Vince Gilligan understands that if you, the viewer, are not seeing all of the pieces of the puzzle, let alone figuring out how they all fit together, then you really aren't watching Breaking Bad at all.

And what a shame that would be.

Every book cover holds meaning, every dented towel dispenser a deeper riddle. Each little detail holds the key to unlocking a far grander reality. Second-screen experiences help to level the playing field, to educate the more casual observer and yield an informed, intelligent audience.

While the actual use case when played out under the thumb of a television network, desperate to combat the DVR-driven assault on its business model, is mired in advertisement and brand-showoffery, the rich, meaty value-add still drives the core of the experience: a new age education platform.

This second-screen experience is really nothing new, even if its delivery has become more defined and refined. Using Story Sync this past weekend to consume my weekly 60 minutes of Breaking Bad flooded my brain with myriad past experiences: visiting Alcatraz and being guided through the prison step-by-step by a portable headset as gripping stories of famous inmates and prison shanks were recanted precisely as I walked into their corresponding cell, or taking in the Whitney Biennial with a similar audio guide providing background on both the art and artist at hand, as if I were shepherded through the museum by the very curator of the exhibit. Or how about watching the NFL on Sundays with my laptop (and ESPN.com) propped in front of me providing real-time statistics to enhance my viewing experience.

We often associate "learning" with "academics," but this is not entirely fair. Learning and education are certainly at the core of academics, but they are also at the core of the very act of life. If we are not easing the learning process, automating where it is sensible and proper in order to scale our collective knowledge, we are inherently diluting the living experience.

This is what makes mobile technology so exciting in the realm of learning. With the proliferation of these devices (and the Apps that inevitably drive their usage), we now have the power to apply data consumption (and data collection) to most any activity, regardless of time/space/location. Whether you are visiting the Bronx Zoo, taking in a conference like South by Southwest, jamming out at the Governor's Ball music festival, or exploring the fruits of Teddy Roosevelt's labor at the Museum of Natural History - well, there's an App for that.

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