Multidisciplinary Research Cafe Presentation

I was invited to present my work at Sheffield Hallam’s Multidisciplinary Research Cafe this week. Here is the presentation:

In case the embedded video and audio aren’t working properly, you can find the video of the virtual horse funeral here:

And the Audio of the sheep song is here:


My (rough) notes from my presentation are below the cut…

1: Located in Sheffield Institute of Education.
‘Investigating the lived experience of a children’s virtual world after-school club.’
Minecraft – virtual world video game.
Half way through a year long ethnographic study.
This presentation will present an outline of my research, with a couple of videos to exemplify the kind of data I am working with.

2: Background

I’ll begin with a bit of my background as, being an interpretivist, qualitative ethnographic study, my perspective will inevitably impact on the research I’m doing. I can trace back my own interest in video games themselves to my childhood where I would regularly be found in my bedroom, indulging in the solitary pursuit of staring at the loading screen on my Sinclair Spectrum +2 as I waited for the a game to load from tape, or in pretty much any location glued to my Nintendo Gameboy or a magazine about computers or games.

3: Perhaps significantly, however, my first encounter with a computer was in the classroom at primary school, where precious, rationed time was spent engrossed by the school’s single BBC Micro Computer.

4: Until recently I worked for nine years as teacher – and latterly as assistant Headteacher – teaching across the age ranges in a small primary school in Sheffield.

5: As ICT co-ordinator I was interested in incorporating technology into teaching and learning across school including, in my own classroom, using predominantly independent computer games (such as Proteus), particularly relating to opportunities around literacy, conceptualising the game as a multimodal text. I was also interested in getting children to develop their own games, using applications like ‘Scratch’, ‘Kodu’ and ‘Twine’.

6: I first heard about Minecraft – the focus of my study – about three years ago when a boy in my class asked if we could use it in school. I had never heard of it so investigated his request – soon setting up a lunchtime club for Y6 children and finding opportunities to link it to the curriculum.

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Minecraft, it’s a sandbox video game where participants can build and create using virtual building blocks. Imagining virtual lego is a good starting point, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Players often participate and connect with others in the same virtual map on a central server, so there’s potentially a massive social element that wasn’t present for me, sat in my room, on my own, staring at the loading screen.

7: Current Project
I left teaching to pursue a full time PhD at Sheffield Hallam, relating to class teachers’ use of technology. This turned into my current study, titled: ‘Investigating the lived experience of a children’s virtual world after school club’ I am currently conducting a participatory ethnography of a group of eleven 10 and 11 year old children in a weekly after-school club that I run in a primary school classroom.

8: The club is driven by the idea of creating a ‘virtual community’, inspired largely due to the positive connotations of the word ‘community’ (Barton and Hamilton, 1998, p.15) (using a modification of the PC version of the game called ‘Minecraft EDU’). This instruction is taken up by the children in their own varied ways, with little intervention from me. I am present in the room with the children and often participate in the game too. Children access the same world, hosted on my laptop, and the game continues each week from where they left off.

9: Context
My work is framed by ideas around New Literacy Studies (Street, 2003) and Multiliteracies (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000), and also informed by literature about virtual worlds and qualitative work in classrooms.
New Literacy Studies considers literacies – plural – as an evolving set of social practices.

In this way, literacy is understood as existing in the relations between people, rather than as ‘a set of properties residing in an individual’ (Barton and Hamilton, 2000, p.8). Literacy is also conceptualized as being purposeful, historically and culturally located, contextualized within specific domains and often subject to power relations (Barton and Hamilton, 2000). Whilst literacy practices themselves are often internalised and can therefore be obscured within values, attitudes, feelings and social relationships, they are illuminated by literacy events, which are the observable and enacted activities that arise from these practices (Barton and Hamilton, 2003).

10: This is a PhD grounded in education, so my overarching concern will be to identify implications for learning in what I observe.

Possible areas of interest that I identified at the outset of this project involve an attempt to understand the motivational potential of virtual worlds – what is it that compels children to participate in these activities – the children’s use of place and space, how it contributes to the development of their identity. I am very much led by themes emerging from the data, however, and my most recent paper focusses on the children’s spontaneous singing around their gameplay – how this influences, and is influenced by, their gameplay. I have collected data from twelve weeks of the club and am currently approximately half way through my fieldwork.

11: This project required a methodological approach that is capable of taking account of a complex hybrid space, where interactions play out simultaneously on and off screen.

As ethnography is traditionally associated with learning about a culture, describing what participants do and the meanings they ascribe to their actions (Wolcott, 2008, p. 71), it is an ideal approach to help develop an understanding of the social meanings and activities performed by the members of this group. ‘Thick description’ (Geertz, 1993), arising from participant ethnography, will provide an account that gives a ‘full description’ (Charmaz and Mitchell, 2010, p. 160) of the club.

My methodology has some commonality with Hine’s (2000) idea of ‘connective ethnography’, which seeks to take account of multi-sited virtual world participation. However, this project also presents the distinct difference that the multiplicity of connections are played out in the same material space rather than remotely. Taking account of the ongoing ‘socially constructed nature of reality’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 2011, p.8), an ethnography will present a complex, account of the group whose reality is continually constructed and reconstructed, over time, through the children’s actions and interactions.

Ethnography has strong affordances for exploration of the complex layers of interaction that are present in collaborative virtual world participation. By participating in the club, ethnography will allow me to take account of the material and virtual worlds, with my online and offline presence mirroring that of the children. This will give me the ability to explore the virtual world constructed by the children, whilst also maintaining a presence in the room to observe the children’s embodied interactions. This means that I also experience this multiplicity of presence first hand, alongside the children, giving me insight into how this may feel for the rest of the group. As a co-participant in the virtual world, I will have the opportunity to explore directly the complex relationships between material and virtual place and space, alongside the children.

Using ethnography will also help me to locate and understand the club within the multiple social, cultural and historical contexts (Flewitt, 2011) that extend beyond the immediate site, including the children’s wider school and home lives. By providing opportunities to talk with the participants and to listen to their discussions, ethnography enables me to take account of the clubs wider context. Participant ethnography, also involves a collaborative construction of knowledge, alongside the research participants.

Here, I am using the word ‘participant’ to refer both to my active role in the clubs activities and also to the children’s involvement in the meaning making processes of the research itself. In this way, participant ethnography ‘allows children to be seen as competent informants about and interpreters of the own lives and the lives of others’ (James, 2001, p. 250), therefore valuing the contribution of the children by actively seeking their ideas and opinions.)

12: Method

During the club I collect data in the form of fieldnotes from observation, photographs in the room, video in the room (sometimes filmed by me, sometimes by the children using a GoPro action camera), artefacts created by the children (such and notes and writing) and details from the server logs that include record of the children’s in-game chat.

I also conduct a monthly discussion activity with a rotation of four different children from the club during a lunchtime session, where the children use the iPad version of the game to create models to prompt discussion. This method is based on David Gauntlett’s ‘identity models’ approach where he encourages participants to construct lego models to assist with developing and communicating their ideas.

During these sessions I use a screencast of the gameplay that records alongside the audio of their discussion. These sessions have a loose focus that I explore with the children through an opening question, but I allow the children to guide the discussion into any area that they want.

13: Examples

This year’s club has seen a variety of events so far, including but not limited to:
a funeral for a much loved virtual horse (seen playing out in the video above)

Thomas had been training his horse, died, conducted funeral, others joined in, sign – memory – loving memory – placed flowers and build headstone

creation of – and play in – a virtual waterpark
negotiations around issues of access, territory, power and trade
instances of griefing, including mass invisibility through the casting of spells and mass spawning of animals
negotiations relating to the affordances of different modes of game play
the creation and destruction of a virtual McDonalds
discussion around player / avatar relationships
virtual farming
the spontaneous composition of a protest song about freeing a sheep…

14: Using comic strip as a way of representing the data

15: Sheep song

16: My discussion around the sheep song can be found in this poster and a forthcoming paper.

17: Hopefully this has given an overview of my project, with a bit of a taste of the kind of data I’m looking at.

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