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PhD reading: videogames, digital play, makerspaces

 This week, I have been reading...

  • Digital games and libraries, James Gee (2012)
  • Emergent digital authoring: playful tinkering with mode, media and technology, Becky Parry and Lucy Taylor (2021)
  • An interview with Gunther Kress, Eve Bearne (2005)
  • Makerspaces in early childhood education: principles of pedagogy and practice, Jackie Marsh at al (2019)
Quite an eclectic list of reading for this week. I intend to adopt a more systematic approach to reading but, for now, I am happy to keep an open mind and read through things that have been in my #toread folder for a while.

A summary in ten words: Playing with digital technology invites rich social interaction and learning.

Word of the week: tinkering 

How much I understood: 65% (Gunther Kress dragged down my average)


Quite an eclectic list of reading for this week. I intend to adopt a more systematic approach to reading but, for now, I am happy to keep an open mind and read through things that have been in my #toread folder for a while.

It is James Gee season here in Meanwood. I have just finished reading his influential book What Video Games have to Teach us about Literacy and Learning (Gee, 2003). Aside from the strong case he argues in favour of video games as a powerful medium for learning, it was a witty and insightful journey through the video games of the early 2000s. It deserves its own blog post but I’ll wait until I have digested it fully first.

His article Digital Games and Libraries (Gee, 2012) builds on the ideas from his book: that video games encourage active, critical and collaborative learning in a way that many schools (in America, twenty years ago – although still relevant to my mind) do not. He argues convincingly that far from a “waste of time”, gaming finds the balance between teaching content relevant to a wide range of semiotic domains - areas of learning e.g., geology, narrative, the game genre itself – while building in a learning experience that rewards risk and persistence. Indeed, in Digital Games and Libraries, Gee argues that video games have developed a ‘new school system’ alongside that of the classroom. They provide a digital space where children can learn, often, in his view, more effectively.

He proposes the software itself (the ‘little g’ game) must be seen alongside the wider collaborative community (the meta-game) where players discuss, mentor each other and share ideas about games online. The communities he describes as ‘affinity spaces’ are where the collaborative and social aspects of learning, absent from many experiences of schooling, blossom.

This is why I am so interested in video games. I see them as a medium that promotes agency and authorship: children telling stories, imagining and finding a space to share things that matter to them and learning something valuable in the process.

Playfulness and collaboration are (unintentional) themes of the other readings this week. Emergent digital authoring: playful tinkering with mode, media and technology (Parry and Taylor, 2021) again explores the social aspect of effective learning through digital technology. The authors build the case for greater recognition of the importance of digital play or ‘tinkering’ in children’s emergent literacy. Often this play happens informally in the home and validating and foregrounding these experiences in formal education settings remains a challenge.

Parry and Taylor’s article plays on themes explored in Makerspaces in early childhood education (Marsh and a long list of others, 2019) which looks at the potential of makerspaces – collaborative, interest-driven making and design – in young children’s development. This is something I heard a lot about – especially in relation to ‘hack spaces’ - but had not considered the role of digital technology as a central part of the experience.  As a teacher, I had run them in school but with non-digital materials as part of DT lessons.

The researchers here consider the potential of makerspace workshops to foreground children’s agency as makers (independence and ownership), and consider the personal, social and institutional impacts of these experiences (drawing on the work of Rogoff, 2003). This has potential for my research. Linking Gee’s affinity spaces with the playfulness and purposefulness of the makerspaces feels like the right environment to think about authoring.

Through the tinkering and playful engagement with the tasks (such as VR, green screening, circuit building, and light play) children’s collaborations help develop their knowledge funds, their ideas of how materials work. Equally important for the learners is how they are able to draw upon home learning experiences and bring them into this space – again, something practitioners find challenging. While I know much pearl-clutching occurs when imagining that digital play is somehow eclipsing the non-digital, the authors here make the case for post-digital play: that the two coexist in children’s experiences. There was much, much more in these two articles which I will certainly revisit once the focus of my PhD becomes clearer.

A brief word on the Interview with Gunther Kress (Bearne, 2005). He discusses the concept of ‘literacy’ and how, in recent times, this understanding has become more blurred. He discusses the role of digital texts in literacy and language is understood, especially how technology has reshaped the representation, production and dissemination of texts. There was a lot in here about mode and linguistics that I didn’t understand fully so my next stop will be Kress and Van Leuven’s Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. I am hoping that will help!

One prescient point, however, was the place of knowledge in learning. He argues that the digital age has given rise to a knowledge economy which is reflected on the obsession with school curricula to deliver ‘content’. Kress argues that, far from being the end in itself, a knowledge economy is underpinned by innovation. This is something that doesn’t fit with the culture in education to train students training to conform. Such a powerful point that captures my entire motivation to take on a PhD.

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