Multimedia in Spanish Classrooms: Harry Potter Comes to School

The Comparative Media Studies Program often provides a temporary home to scholars from all over the world who want to learn more about our approaches to research and teaching. At the present time, we have scholars in residence from Spain, Denmark, Austria, China, and the Czech Republic. Spain’s Pillar Lacasa has come back for a second stay with us. Her background is in psychology and her current interests center around the educational use of computer games and other digital resources. She and her collaborators shared some of this research during the Media in Transition conference a year ago. Here, she shares some more of her impressions and insights based on field work in Spanish schools — in this case, work which involves teaching children and adults to think about what we call transmedia navigation. Here, she is using the Harry Potter franchise to encourage a closer attention to what each media platform brings to our experience of this popular adventure saga.

SPANISH CLASSROOMS AS MULTIMEDIA CONTEXTS: CHILDREN, FAMILIES, TEACHERS AND RESEARCHERS WORKING TOGETHER

by Pilar Lacasa

Recently, Henry shared some field notes about the place of digital media in Chinese society, considering not just how particular people use these media, but also how this use has a specific meaning in the Chinese political and cultural context. He was speaking about the rhetorical use of the “games addiction” concept, which specifically considers that “playing games is problematic precisely because it is unproductive” i.e. that game-playing is taking up the time of young people that they could better be spending doing their school homework and preparing for standardized testing. Henry’s comments suggested to me that very similar reflections could be made about these debates in many other parts of the world.

Let me explain a little bit about Spain, my own country. Our team has been working in Spanish schools as participant researchers and ethnographers, exploring how games and other digital tools might be used to enhance education. Many families, some teachers and even school principals have complained to us about how children waste their time playing games or surfing the Internet looking for information that adults do not regard as very suitable for children. What are the reasons for these opinions? Put simply, many adults are afraid to approach these new worlds and digital universes that they don’t know how to explore or don’t find interesting.

When chatting with such adults and exploring these thoughts in more detail, we begin to understand than behind this less than enthusiastic approach to digital tools lie much stronger beliefs about what learning in and outside of school actually means. For many we spoke with, the idea of learning is related only to schoolwork, the content of the curriculum, and particularly those specific materials that have almost always been present in the classroom: books, paper and pencils, textbooks, etc. All of these cultural tools are associated with the academic culture and the school context. What people think is learning is closely related to the formal context in which people have traditionally always learnt; that is, the schools and the tools that have been used there for centuries. However, as educators we believe that an important challenge today is to redeploy certain technologies that were originally designed for leisure-time use towards educational purposes.

How can digital technologies, not just computers, be of value as learning tools? This is the question. To recognize the question is easy, even simplistic, but, for the time being, to achieve this goal demands the participation of teachers, families, investigators, companies and, not least, children. One of the first steps in meeting this challenge will be to introduce digital tools other than computers into classrooms, not just occasionally but on a permanent basis, at least as much as other traditional objects. But how can they be used? Could specific tools that have being designed just for fun also be used in schools? From our perspective new ways of teaching and learning need to be explored, enabling children’s and adults’ activities as active learners, capable of creating new knowledge by using the tools that they use in their everyday life.

Adopting this perspective, our team of researchers in Spain are exploring the possibility of constructing these new educational innovative settings, in which families, children, teachers and researchers, and even industry, working together, learn to use some of the digital tools that are present in everyday life. Why are these digital technologies especially appropriate for supporting new approaches to learning? Through our project, teachers and researchers begin to prepare relatively innovative school homework in which parents and children could collaborate in interesting tasks that motivate them to bring to the schools topics and ideas from their everyday life, such as family stories, real problems people need to solve in their own work, and so on. We were thinking about how to open the school doors to topics beyond the curriculum. This homework was usually presented in the form of paper and pencil tasks. What happened in these families after they had been working for at least three months in this way with their children? We recorded many conversations at home when parents and children were working together, but contrary to our expectations, no innovative educational settings appeared. Family members were acting at home as teachers do into the classrooms, but in an even more traditional way. They were evidently using the same strategies by which they were taught many years ago.

After this experience we began to look for new educational tools, which we found in the mass media. We brought Newspapers, television, videogames, consoles and any other new technology that the children use in everyday life into the classrooms. But how should we use these new tools? In the course of the past ten years many questions have arisen in our classrooms that discussions and readings at the Comparative Media Studies are helping us to answer. It is obvious that it is not enough to introduce all of them in the classrooms. It is also necessary to design new educational settings within which to develop the new media literacies in order to deal with these new media in a critical, creative and responsible way.

When teachers bring movies, newspapers, television programs, or the internet into their classes, one of the most important conditions for a successful experience in terms of children’s motivation and reflective processes is that the teachers should feel secure with the materials that they are using. But bringing commercial videogames into the classrooms is still an especially challenging experience. At the moment, adults are much less familiar with games than other entertainment mass media. Today, commercial videogames are far from what many families or even teachers think could be used in classroom instruction.

Given our starting goals, it was clear that we wanted to integrate games into learning, but we weren’t sure how to do so. Our previous work in Spanish schools tell us that at least three main conditions need to be present for innovative experience to be successful in both teaching and learning processes:

  • First, to establish close relationships between teachers, families and researchers
  • Second, to be involved in a multimedia context in which games are only one of the possible tools we can use
  • Finally, to establish a working methodology that attempts to bring into a multiplicity of expressive multimedia codes that children and adults can learn to use together.

Let us show you how these three conditions are present in the Spanish classroom in which we are working. I will try to help you to observe this situation and to construct the meaning that the situations has for us as ethnographical researchers. Please, think for a moment of the context involved. It is January 2007 in a working-class neighbourhood near Madrid. The children and their teacher are waiting for the “new video game teachers”, this is the name that the children give to the University of Alcalá research team. They have become used to meeting once a week with some people who do not belong to their school, but who are participants in their classroom; the children understand that we teach in other schools where they are going to be teachers in the future. For the whole of the school year we have been coming to work with them once a week, with the goal of learning together, children and adults, using new media.

This particular day we are going to begin a workshop on Harry Potter; in the previous session we had chosen the topic by reflecting on the pros and cons in a large-group discussion. We all voted for our favourite video game. By this time each of us had different expectations about what would happen on subsequent days in the workshop. Given our previous experiences with other children, the teacher and the researchers tried to find a common task for the workshop: after having talked, played and reflected about Harry Potter, we will write our opinions of the game in our blogs, so that other children should know about our adventures with Harry Potter. Both children and adults will be journalists; people who write so that others members of the community and all over around the world will know the opinions of the class.

During the next three or four session the children were playing at home and in the classroom with the PlayStation 2, with family members and the research team, to find out much more about Harry and his world.

Now let us move on a little further in our schedule by observing a more advanced session during this workshop. As always, this new session begin by talking about Harry Potter. The children knew more than the adults about him. They even bring from their homes objects related to his adventures; they all belong to the popular culture based on Harry and represent this heroic figure, who is very popular in Spain at the moment. For example, there is a game of chess designed with the main characters of the Harry Potter books, films and games, an album of stickers, T-shirts with his image, card games, etc. By showing these treasures to all the participants in the workshops and discussing them, the children showed that they were conscious that Harry is not only the main character of a video game, but it is also present in other media.

In order to look in more depth at Harry’s presence in various media, a new activity was designed. We decided to compare selected parts of the film and game based on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After an introductory discussion on the film, we all watch together the chosen chapter. Later, we talk about Harry and invented a new collective oral story about him. By doing so, the children learn not only to tell stories but also to understand how stories spread across media systems. Moreover, by writing in their blogs the children understand that many other people, such as their families and friends, will be able to read the work that they have done in class, and in that way they begin to understand that there exists an audience that can read their texts and look at their drawings although it is not present in the classroom.

Let us see now the text that two children wrote together to be published in their blog after watching a small part of the film and discussing its relationship with the game.

Blog of Sergio and Miguel

Session 8, 02-06-07

Hello, we are Sergio and Miguel:

In the class today we played with the videogame Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and have seen a little bit of the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Today we learned what are the differences and similarities between the video game and the movie. They look alike in that the characters are the same, as are the magic spells and the adventure involved. And they differ in that in the video game you move the characters and in the movie they move by themselves. The movie is more fun, thinks Miguel. Sergio prefers the video game because you can play.

This brief description of the experience enables us to comment on what conditions need to be in place when introducing entertainment games into the classroom.

First, the text shows that the children are conscious that stories can be told via several different channels of communication. Moreover, the children also knew that each of them has different, ways of expressing particular messages. At that time they were exploring various ways of being in touch with Harry Potter’s adventures; e.g. the movie, the video game, the objects that the children had brought to school, the information that they had found on the Internet and the texts that they themselves have published. But what did they learn? I would want to interpret this text by considering that these children show an understanding that each medium has its own rules. Conversations with teachers, researchers, and other students, helped to increase their grasp of abstract concepts such as audience, messages, and the different affordances of different media. How have they learned this? By talking, reflecting and publishing about new media, always being supported by teachers, researchers and families, as more expert members of the community. Doing such tasks at school helped them to understand their lives beyond the schoolhouse walls.

In order to understand this educational innovative experience a little better, something more needs to be emphasized. Let us focus now on the interpersonal relationships among participants. Collaboration between the teacher, the children, their families and the research team was probably the main driving force behind these experiences. This becomes clearer when we study the video-recordings of the workshop sessions or analyse our field notes taken as ethnographers and participant observers. Two main ideas emerge:

  • First of all, the classrooms were transformed not only through the introduction of games but also because relationships among participants changed in the course of the workshop. Both children and adults were learning from each other. In many cases, they adopted new and different roles. The relations between children and adults were much more symmetrical at the end of the workshops than they had been at the beginning, even though what each of the participants were teaching was really different. While the children were focusing on the procedural dimensions of the games (e.g. how to solve a specific problem to go to another game screen), adults were orienting the conversations towards a much more reflective level, e.g. how the individual media related to each other, what were their specific messages, who were the people for whom the children were writing in their blogs.
  • Secondly, extensive observations of recordings of the classroom conversations show that the participants’ goals also differed according to their own particular roles. For example, when the games consoles arrived in the classroom, or when we compared the video game and the movie, the teacher’s interest was vividly aroused by the way in which the children can learn from the game certain content that is closely related to the curriculum. In contrast, and just as was to be expected, the most important goal of the children was just to play the game; to become immersed in it. Their families, who know of their classroom work by reading their blogs or because they were working with their children at home became interested in the games consoles as learning tools. What is was our goal as a research team? We think that we tried to be “good mediators”. At the end, we came to a deeper appreciation of just how difficult it was to address these different goals through a common workshop.

Pilar’s background is in Psychology and Media Education. During the past ten years she has been working with her students at the University of Alcalá (Spain), collaborating with teachers and families to facilitate the acquisition of new forms of literacy that enable children and adults to develop as global citizens in their community, as producers as well as active receivers of media content. She’s a visiting scholar at CMS where she’s looking for new theoretical and methodological approach to a transmedia education. At this moment they are working on a collaborative project with Electronic Arts to define innovative educational settings, introducing specific video games and other new media into the Spanish classrooms so that they can be used as educational tools in both formal and informal contexts. She recognizes that when she was lost, looking for new perspectives to design these new educational contexts, it was very useful to discover Ravi Purushotma’s work and the MacArthur Foundation’s report.