IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Transcript: RFTRW S09E04

The ways we play: digital communication and creativity

Professor John Potter

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00:00:02 Female voiceover 

You're listening to an IOE podcast from the UCL Institute of Education. Powered by UCL Minds. 

00:00:22 Male voiceover 

This is research for the real world conversations with researchers about the path they taken, the shape of everyday lives. 

00:00:44 Dr Keri Wong 

This is Research for the Real World. Hello, I'm Keri Wong. I'm an assistant professor here at the IOE. In this episode, I'm delighted to be talking with Professor John Potter. John is professor of Media and Education in the IOE Department of Culture, Communication and Media, which is based at the UCL Knowledge Lab. 

He is founder of the Dare Collaborative and Research Partnership focused on the Digital Arts Research and Education. 

John is a Co editor of the Journal Learning Media and Technology. He is a member of the Research Committee of the United Kingdom Literacy Association and an Executive committee member of the Media Education Association. 

We're delighted to have John with us today, so we can learn more about his research into digital media and communication. Working with children as code participants, as well as more recent tech focused projects on children's play, an immersive virtual reality and augmented reality storytelling. Hello John, welcome to the podcast. 

00:01:45 Professor John Potter 

Thanks very much for inviting me. Thank you. 

00:01:48 Dr Keri Wong 

No problem at all, John. I guess to kick off, did you always know that you liked working with young people? 

00:01:55 Professor John Potter 

Yeah, I've always been interested in that I started life as a primary school teacher. I didn't know that I wanted to be a teacher. Some people become teachers because they kind of know it all through their lives. But I started doing some, I was working as an art researcher in Halifax after finishing university and I started doing voluntary work in a primary school and I kind of got sucked into that world there. 

And I did teacher training teacher education at the Institute after that and then I spent 10 very happy years working in different primary schools all over London, but mostly on the Isle of Dogs in East London, which was just a brilliant experience. And I worked in a wonderful school called Harbinger Primary School which was run at the time by head teacher called Helen Jenner. 

And I met so many fantastic children and teachers during that time. It was an inspiring place to be. 

And so yeah, and I think that's that's the root of my interest in working with children and young people, especially primary school children. 

00:02:56 Dr Keri Wong 

So how did you get into education and specifically digital media and education research? 

00:03:04 Professor John Potter 

I think that started it at school as well. The primary school that I worked in was a very creative place. 

It was really arts based and there was lots of really interesting stuff around artwork and making stories and making books and so on. And then as the equipment was rolled out in the Docklands Computer Aided Learning Project, I got very interested in what sorts of things we could do with computers, but very much on the creative end of the spectrum. So the not so much the drill in practise, educational technology, end of things, but film making, music making and all of that kind of approach to learning, so it's sort of paired up with the creative vision of the school. 

I was able to exploit some of the technology in order to do that and what happened as a result of that was I became less and less interested in educational technology and more and more interested in media. So the things that people make and share with technology rather than the technology itself, and that kind of that emphasis has stayed with me, and that ultimately led me into media. 

I think that for a while I was working as a education as an educator of teachers. So when I worked at University of East London and Goldsmiths, I kind of was trying to get teachers to do the same things as some of the children had been doing in making in projects had previously been involved with. So in both of those places teachers made videos during my ICT sessions and they learned how to do video editing and sound recording and made things about their lives as student teachers. 

And that so that sort of stayed with me from there and then back into Media Research when I joined the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the Institute of Education, which was based at the Knowledge Lab. 

00:05:00 Dr Keri Wong 

That's amazing, really fascinating. If anything, it sounds like a school that I would have liked to go to as well. 

00:05:07 Professor John Potter 

I think you would've enjoyed it Keri, yeah. 

00:05:10 Dr Keri Wong 

So I guess then you know a lot of the skills that you seem to have taught the teachers back then are very relevant today as well, especially during this Covid world. Why in particular is this research in media and technology and education important? 

00:05:26 Professor John Potter 

I think it's important because it connects up to children's lives in a way that some of the current curriculum doesn't. We have a very sort of arcane curriculum for literacy, for example. Rather limited, it doesn't don't mean to say that teachers are limited because teachers primary school teachers in particular work very hard to make things creative and enjoyable for young children. But the kind of statutory literacy curriculum is rather narrow. I think we should be more ambitious with our primary school curriculum, so we should be working with media, animation, blog creation, wiki writing and all sorts of issues like that that connect with children's lived experience and I think if anything the pandemic has shown that children are ready for it where they are lucky enough to have the equipment of course that they're ready for these experiences well. 

00:06:18 Dr Keri Wong 

Definitely, and I think what will come back to that idea little later in the interview too. But just to backtrack on some of the other really interesting studies you've done. I'm particularly interested in the Ministry of Stories Project. 

Can you tell us and the listeners how the project came about and what were some of the key research questions? 

00:06:39 Professor John Potter 

Sure I can, yes, but it was not my project alone. I was a researcher on it. So Professor Dominic Wyse and Andrew Burn and quite a large cast of characters were involved in evaluating the efforts of the Ministry of Stories. I don't know how much you know about the ministry, but it was set up as as a creative writing centre for after school literacy lessons, but they weren't lessons as such. They were literacy experiences for children, so it was in Shoreditch, and it was a shop front that children went into after school from local primary schools and they went backstage in this amazing place through a kind of secret door into this environment, in which trained adult volunteers and creative writers would work with them. And it was designed as a kind of what it was designed as a ministry. If you imagine a ministry from the 1950s or 60s, it had that kind of decor inside. 

And the Minister of Stories would set the children to work creating stories. And it was a very interesting and vibrant place. They ran lots of different kinds of classes there. It's not just the one thing, and it became a sort of creative hub for the people of Shoreditch. They even had a Shoreditch children's passport issued through it through the Ministry of Stories. It was a really fascinating and vibrant place, and they started. Actually, I mean, it was initially very much literacy focused, so it was really was about writing and lots of spin off projects were created as a result, and colleagues of mine evaluated poetry writing projects and all sorts of other film making and storytelling, and one of the ones that I was involved with was a computer game authoring project which happened at the Roundhouse in Camden. So they partnered up Ministry of Stories with the Roundhouse, and took children over there, which in itself is an interesting thing to be doing. It was in the summer holidays this one, so it's a summer school project and children created characters and then used software to design games around these characters. So what was interesting for me there, as I said in my preamble, really was the connection between literacy, kind of formal schooled literacy, and the informal worlds of children. And that's really the most interesting aspect of my research is where the world and cultures of school meet the world and cultures of children and create a kind of third space of learning. And so myself and Theo Bryer, who also works at the Institute, we did a research project over the summer looking at the kinds of things that they produced. It was really fascinating. 

00:09:24 Dr Keri Wong 

That all sounds amazing, John. Please tell me that the Ministry of Stories still exists... 

00:09:31 Professor John Potter 

I haven't been there. I haven't been there for ages, but I do know that it spawned a number of other such places. In fact, the whole idea came from Dave Eggers in America the writer who set who set one up in America, but this particular Ministry of Stories was established by Nick Hornby, the writer Nick Hornby and colleagues, and there's a similar venture in Hackney, called the Hackney Pirates, which is now called The Literary Pirates, but that was on Kingsland Road and we actually went to, I visited them a number of times as well as part of a kind of informal research project, so these kinds of imaginative clubs do bridge the two, the two worlds and there's a lot of great stuff going on in Hackney in East London and Shoreditch. I do think that my heart is really in the East End of London I think it's just a such a vibrant and interesting place to be. 

00:10:25 Dr Keri Wong 

Yes, definitely, and I I think it's it's you know, basically brings people from all ages or you know together as well. I think if this is open to adults I feel like some of our adult listeners might be inclined to join in the fun as well with the children. Great, I know that you've also completed, you know, another ESRC project with collaborators in the University of Tokyo and so forth. And this involved virtual reality and Augmented Reality, can you unpack that project a little bit for our listeners? 

00:11:01 Professor John Potter 

I can do yes. This project is that there's several in between, but this particular project was a project about virtual reality and augmented reality, and we were working with a team of us. We're working with the Royal College of Art, and University of Tokyo, and some game designers called Hashilus in Tokyo itself. And we hosted a visit by these six people from Tokyo, and we took them around various virtual reality experiences and introduced him to spaces in London where there was, you know, an environment for storytelling and then a little bit later in the year. This is in the middle of 2019. We went over to Tokyo and spent a week doing sort of virtual reality experiences AR experiences. What we're interested in finding out was what kinds of experiences worked and what kinds of experiences didn't really work. Didn't involve you in an immersive way, and we talked an awful lot about worlding and we talked an awful lot about such issues as onboarding. So when you go into a virtual reality experience, what is the physical environment like around that? Our experience of Tokyo itself was immersive. I don't know if you've been, but it's a very, very immersive city and is immediately very different from anywhere else that I had been before. 

I actually spent a day and a half there before the others arrived. I just arrived early, by the way, my transport worked, so is completely immersed in it for a while. I made lots of phone recordings and video and so forth, and sometimes it was hard because the line between what was virtual reality and actually reality for me was a bit blurred. 

So as I said, what we're interested in, what does it mean for storytelling? 

Because the act of putting on the headset and being in virtual reality is one thing, but the environment that you encounter inside. How are you enabled to experience it from the outset from when you arrive at the venue when you put it on, and when you go into that experience, we were also looking at educational applications for such things as AR and VR. We visited a Department of Archaeology at Tokyo University where they had a fantastic AR set up where they had overlaid the original buildings and villages that were around the campus buildings as an AR experience, and then they drove around in this kind of buggy thing when you put the visor on, you could see the world as it was laminated over the buildings as they are now and it was a fantastic way to sort of experience older parts of Tokyo, what Tokyo looked like before all of the all of the buildings and before the campus at Tokyo University. 

I think in a way just connects to other research I've done, it reminded me very much of the way that children see a play space so young children would go out into into a play street or a playground, or a school playground and they will see imaginative worlds overlaid on it. So when they're running around and doing this imaginative and creative play, they see the world in that way. So it's like a way for an adult to re experience that we decided to be playful all the way through and to record our experiences in a kind of playful way. 

And we ended up making a Zine, which is this in a particular way. We had a drawing workshop at the Royal College of Art, except remotely, obviously, and we were drawing, we were making images and I was inevitably had that feeling of being back in the art class and being somebody that really couldn't draw very well. 

Surrounded by people who could who were at the Royal College of Art, so is it. But it became a very soft, playful experience. It we exchanged images of our experiences of Tokyo and we we drew them the kind of anime things and the sort of environment that we were in and look. We have laminates here as well. One of us it made this kind of laminated page to it and this artefact this Zine, yeah it's really very beautiful and it's only an edition of 1. 

And this has been parts of our lives for a very long time, and in order to get around the problem of drawing, I made two pieces. One was an audio piece based on my collage, sound collages from Tokyo and the other one here accessed by this QR code was a video collage of some of the video that I shot it just on my phone in the city and it was my way of kind of contributing to the whole thing. 

00:15:42 Dr Keri Wong 

I was wondering that VR project you mentioned. Do you think there is an opportunity there for some of that work to, you know, be applied to young children too? 

00:15:53 Professor John Potter 

I think it does and it doesn't. My colleague Dylan Yamada Rice, who works at the Royal College of Art but is moving to Manchester Metropolitan University soon is a real expert in this and and she's written a report for a game developer that she also works for called Dubit in Leeds and that's available online. I can provide a link for that. 

In you know later on to you it's the case is that it has to have some kind of grounding in the experience that the child is around that world of the child if you see what I mean. So not just suddenly thrust in there but have some reason to be going in there and for shorter periods of time. There's evidence that for very young children it can be really disorientating, so the idea is that the idea is it has to have some kind of purpose or take the child somewhere where they wouldn't, perhaps normally be able to go and introduce a kind of world of imagination, a worlding around them so I do think that that's that's something that children really do respond to very well. There's another project that you might be interested in hearing about, which was called the Oracles, which was run by Angela Calvert is a researcher at Roehampton University. 

And the project involved a kind of augmented reality game that was created around them and it was just such a fantastic environment for storytelling because the children were introduced to the notion in the classroom and then they took that the world of the story back out into a real space. 

So what I mean by that is that they did some work on laptops in the classroom, saw the environment, and then they were introduced to the environment in real space in a kind of warehouse industrial space in Tottenham, and the world was built around them, so they kind of, that's what I mean about worlding. It has to have some kind of there has to be some kind of concrete elements as well, and it makes the virtual element that much stronger and contain more possibilities for storytelling and experiences. 

00:17:56 Dr Keri Wong 

That sounds really cool and I think it could really bring a topic to life, can it using the technology. 

00:18:02 Professor John Potter 

Yeah, definitely, and I think we know this from museums that probably you've been to and I've been to this that VR does have a presence now and often exhibits, in particular educational exhibits. There will be some kind of VR experience that that would be seeking to augment the kind of ordinary, more ordinary experience of the exhibition itself. Yeah, definitely. 

00:18:28 Dr Keri Wong 

Great, this is also fascinating and I know you've also done, you know, a tonne more kind of play research. Are there other ones that you'd like to highlight for our listeners as well? 

Well, I think that the play research has an affinity with the Media Research because in a way the play worlds and the media worlds are both parts of children's culture and sometimes they come together. I know Kate's already spoken about this with in connection with YouTube and and so forth. But we saw examples of children's play in Playing the Archive where the world of the media really did form an element of their play, just as historically it had done at the time of the Opies, who were the people that we were kind of emulating. The Opies, as you will know from that podcast, where Peter and Iona Opie who collected children's games over a period of about 40 years in various different schools all over the UK. So we were trying to do the same thing with contemporary play. And we saw the impact and the influence of media where children's games are kind of templated and they play them in particular ways with particular patterns of behaviour but they create their own forms of play from the media that they're experiencing at that present time. So we saw a lot of a lot less broadcast media than the Opies would have seen, and we saw a lot more social media and a lot more kind of YouTubers. And now if we were in the playground, if the playground was an option at the moment we would be seeing TikTok with no doubt and short form video forms in the dancers and the imaginative play that children bring to it. So the connection for me with media is around agency and children's ability to be self directed for a while in the things that they choose to do. And I think that that arises from the fact that play itself is a dynamic experience. I mean, it's iterative, it's cyclical, it's repetitive, its experimental and sometimes play means everything. 

Sometimes it means nothing. Sometimes it means exploration. Sometimes it means deep learning. Sometimes when we play, it's just the passing of time. 

But, and all of those things kind of apply to media as well. So it's I think because its ephemeral and, you know, evanescent, it sometimes gets accorded low status and it worries me to be honest with you, it worries me, the discourse, the public discourse at the moment around children's lost education for me that the far more you know, worrying side is their lost play with each other in in play spaces. So what we're trying to do in a new project is find where they have been playing and all the creative and imaginative things they've been doing during the pandemic and during lockdown. 

And we're making a what's going to play observatory of this where children can contribute examples of the sorts of creative things that they've been doing, inflected by, you know, sort of how the pandemic is influenced their imaginative and creative play. So yeah, I think play is vitally important, and I don't think there should be masses of longer school days or more and more school during the summer. There should be more and more opportunities for children to play. 

It's good for their mental health and well being, and I hope we see more of that. 

00:21:54 Dr Keri Wong 

Definitely, and I think that's definitely a very refreshing and much needed perspective in these challenging times that we're faced with and so perhaps even the parents listening. They'd be glad, perhaps to hear this advice from you as well, and you know, I guess I know it's in the project is in its early days, but do you have any hypothesis or maybe even some guesses as to what children might be doing during these times? 

00:22:23 Professor John Potter 

Well, there have been other attempts to collect these so there have been some really good examples already. For example, Helen Daughters collected things at the Museum of Rural Life over in Reading and our attempt, we're going to attempt to be both a collector of the things that children have been doing, but also an archive. So we have a really great team of people working with us. So we've got Kate, who you know from this podcast from an earlier episode, Kate Cowan. And we also got Michelle Cannon, whose a media producer with children as I am as well. 

And we've got Valerio Signorelli who works on public engagement with CASA. 

But we also have a huge team, not a huge team but a highly experienced team of three people, so it's not huge but highly experienced. Yinka Olosuga, who's a historian of childhood. Julia Bishop, who's a folklorist and ethnographer and an expert on the Opies as is Cath Bannister, is also an archivist, so our hypothesis is that there is an awful lot going on. 

And there is a lot of imaginative play. If you follow any of the hashtags on play on Twitter at the moment you'll see, for example, instances of children using the street outside their house in it, in a slightly different way. We've got images of children chalking kind of coronaviruses on the pavement and warning all this kind of things we have that. 

But we have examples, I was speaking to somebody yesterday who works at UCL who has a four year old and a 6 year old at home. They have set up a kind of the whole house is different play spaces in addition to the kind of school stuff that they've been doing. So when they've been playing, they've been playing, there's a hairdresser, for example, in their house now and the hairdressing salon is a covid safe hairdressing salon. 

You've got fantastic examples of children making new words from words like hand sanitizer become Hannah Tizer, which is a far more sensible way of saying it when you think about it. So it's an invented word that means something. In school actually, when children have been able to go into school. And let's not forget as well that schools haven't been closed, they have been open the whole time and teachers have been working so hard and teaching assistants to keep it all going. When they've been in school, they've been playing in bubbles and they've been playing in the playground, we know anecdotally that children have been playing things like Corona Tag where they don't actually touch in tag or shadow tag, where they they tag a shadow instead of the person or all of these kinds of things are incredibly creative and interesting ways that children approach the issue of play. So yeah, we know it's alive and well, we want to find more examples and we want children to contribute to it and there will be a space that they can do that in on the website, in any form actually. We will accept videos, audio, images, drawings. 

00:25:19 Dr Keri Wong 

If you ever need an intern to sift through all that you know interesting goodie bag of media that you're gonna receive, do let me know and I guess you know. Just out of curiosity, as part of your research cause you have to stay on top of the technology all the time, does this mean you have to also get in touch with and try out TikTok in all of those other media apps and things like that? 

00:25:44 Professor John Potter 

Yeah, I, I think it does to an extent. Yeah, I mean we're kind of well used to making videos now have a certain kind where you sit in front of a laptop and give a lecture and that that's recorded. So that's one thing. But we also do that. I say we, I mean, members of the team at that digital media, culture and education group of MAs at the Knowledge Lab. We do make videos ourselves. 

And some of us are film makers in our spare time. I have a music project that I do, and I sometimes make videos for those things. So yeah, I think we do need to keep up with it. No way would I be able to do a really good TikTok video I have tried, but 

I don't intend to provide any links to that, so it's all been deleted. 

00:26:32 Dr Keri Wong 

It sounds like you have hidden talents, perhaps John that we maybe discover later. 

00:26:39 Professor John Potter 

They are so skilful, I mean they look so easy, but they're just not and to over 15 or 30 seconds to work the way that they do it. It's an incredible amount of effort. I know people think well, 15 seconds. That's that's really easy. That's really short, but I would just encourage anyone who thinks it's easy to to try and to see how far you get. 

00:27:02 Dr Keri Wong 

Yes, definitely, and maybe perhaps in the near future, we might even have an IOE TikTok channel or something like that. 

Yes, just bringing everything back full circle. My final question to you, John, if I may is what role does digital technology and communication play as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, do you think? 

00:27:27 Professor John Potter 

Well, I think it's got a really important role to play as as it has done all the way through. I mean technology is is part of material culture now it's not possible to imagine life without it. 

It's melted into the foreground, if you like. It's kind of, it's part of everything that we do and I think that it will have an enormous part to play. There's the standard stuff about information giving and exchange and so on, but preserving social links over distance, for example, has been really important and where people have been isolated, being able to communicate albeit frustratingly through a laptop, especially when there's lag on what is it you're saying and you know, you experience these kinds of communication difficulties. It's still been a vital way of keeping people connected, and when you think about the way in which children have been able to use where they've been lucky enough to have the equipment and must remember that it's not everybody has access to this but where people have got the equipment and good connections have been able to play video games together and to communicate as they play, I think it's been. I think it's been vital. 

I don't, I mean, I hope that we keep the best of it when when we go back to what might be described as normal because some things have been of real value. Although online education it as a thing as a thing to do is not easy. It's not simple. It's really difficult to get it right. And I just think that teachers have done such an amazing job and deserve all of the kind of plaudits for keeping everything going and parents as well amazing. 

The people that have managed to keep it going throughout the whole time, just done an amazing job. 

00:29:13 Dr Keri Wong 

Yeah, I completely agree with you John and also not to forget the children too who have been lifting our spirits with their play and imaginative games as well. 

00:29:24 Professor John Potter 

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that's when I've done my daily walk out of my house and through the park that's at the back of our house. 

And I walk through, I do see that children are still playing. I mean, this has been this terrible. There is often a panic around screen use, isn't there? So first of all, screen use is disparaged as something that's inauthentic and possibly addictive and dangerous. And then, when the pandemic hit in the first lockdown, children were encouraged to use screens to keep up communication with each other. And there's some way some people feel that it's a sort of less authentic form of play that actually children don't see it. that way. They see screenplay and they see physical play an outdoor play as the whole thing is play. So when I walk through the park, I see children who are away from their screens, climbing trees, running around the local pond, feeding the ducks and playing football with each other, and in the swings and so on. And their play worlds are diverse and dynamic and you know, it's a worry when adults sort of try to project their own fears down onto that we should be listening to them a lot more. And that's all we try to do in our research is use children as researchers of their own lives to inform us on what's really going on with them. 

The Childhood Research group, people like Rachel Rosen and others at the Institute, never tire of pointing out that childhood is not a state of becoming. It's not an in between but for children it's a state of being. It is a being in the moment, so you know, we need to look at childhood slightly differently, take it seriously and enjoy the kind of exploration and the information that they give us and what they share about that world. 

00:31:12 Dr Keri Wong 

As a as a child psychologist myself, I couldn't agree with you more John, I think we definitely have things to learn from children as well. 

John, it has been really interesting talking with you. I learned a lot. Very refreshing perspectives as well that you brought to the podcast. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast and sharing your work. We wish you well with your research and look forward to hearing all about your results. 

00:31:39 Professor John Potter 

Thanks very much Keri. And yeah, it's been great talking to you. Thank you. 

00:31:43 Dr Keri Wong 

Thank you! You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPP. And you can learn more about his research and if you're curious about his collaborative artwork, check it out in the links in the episode notes. We've had some fascinating guests on the podcast are real variation in topics and expertise across social science and education. Search "IOE podcast" from wherever you get your podcasts and to find episodes from Seasons 1 to 8 of Research for the Real World, as well as more podcasts from the IOE. 

And if it is a musical interlude you're after, there's a Spotify playlist too, featuring songs chosen by our guests and the IOE podcast team. All that is available on our website. Just search Research for the Real World. I'm Keri. See you next time and don't forget to play. 

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Thanks so much for downloading and listening to this IOE podcast from the UCL Institute of Education, University College London.