WorldBuilders: Kindness and connection in a shared safe space

Published: 16 June 2022 
Author: Dr Becky Parry 
Two teachers take part in a CPD session as part of the WorldBuilders programme. They both wear VR headsets in a white room.
Teachers attending an immersion day at the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield as part of the WorldBuilders project, supported through round 4 of the Teacher Development Fund. Photo credit: Emma Horton, University of Sheffield

Supported by the Teacher Development Fund, the WorldBuilders project is a two-year teacher development programme that aims to build teachers’ confidence in using media arts to teach digital literacies. Dr Becky Parry of University of Sheffield explores what they’ve learned so far.

As part of the programme, a consortium of Yorkshire schools and artists have formed a learning community with colleagues from The School of Education and the Maker{Futures} programme at the University of Sheffield and the National Videogame Museum. WorldBuilders aims to enable teachers to be inspired by videogames, through a programme of professional development. 

We commenced in the thick of the pandemic and all of the programme was online until March 2022. So it was really important to learn from the adjustments we all made in the pandemic about how to build relationships and trust online.

During lockdown all of us in education had to change our teaching to meet the needs of students and this often involved the use of new digital tools. At times online teaching sessions at the university felt like speaking into a black, square void. However, we quickly found new digital tools and spaces for interaction, discussion, creativity and even new ways for students to look bored, puzzled or engaged – hurray for emojis. This proved to be important preparation for our PHF project.

Equally, in the context of social distancing, teachers still found ways to connect and share memorable experiences with their classes. Many of us witnessed the humour, ingenuity and resourcefulness of teachers making TikTok videos for their children. It wasn’t necessarily the latest app that made all the difference to engagement. Early in the WorldBuilders project I was struck when I heard teachers sharing a story of an SLT email that went round to all staff, reminding them to say hello and goodbye to the children in online teaching’ after a parent had revealed her child cried when her friend didn’t say goodbye at the end of a session- small things!

Some would argue that the pandemic has prompted many of us to embrace digital tools and new practices that we might otherwise have been resistant to. Whether there has been a digital revolution in education I’m not sure, but the pandemic did enable us to be more experimental and less afraid of failure, and this was particularly important to the development of our community of learners. There was often a sense that we were all in it together’- despite the challenges of using digital technologies with limited and unevenly distributed resources.

We did not switch to online learning due to the disruption of the pandemic; we had always planned to engage with new forms of digital learning and take a blended approach. We run regular twilight online CPDL sessions, including introductions to videogames and practical sessions using creative tools for making games. A particular favourite of mine was an online makerspace. Currently, our artists are taking a lead on these, offering introductions to interactive storytelling and Meet the games designer’ sessions. We run these live and also record them and document activities in our online community. We have had our fair share of issues with online platforms and that old favourite – remembering to mute or unmute. What we did not anticipate, however, is the way working in a crisis and supported by the principles of PHF we could create a culture where change was possible – a light began to shine at the end of a difficult tunnel. We have grappled with the challenge of making online sessions interactive and we have experimented with some really useful tools to help us with this ( I heart Padlet). But the important lessons are not so much about which apps to use, but about how we can build new cultures of collaboration and experimentation when these are not the norm in teacher education.

I believe that the energy of our professional development programme has been maintained by a sense that we (the university and the arts partners) are not delivering’ learning – we are learning together with teachers. We are not (and possibly cannot be) slick or perfect. When you have six schools, six artists and a bunch of researchers trying to connect to do some learning online in a pandemic, things will always be challenging. Being creative, using new forms of expression and engaging with designers, artists, actors, animators and writers are all elements that have combined to help us to create a place of playful learning and in that place we ask important, critical questions about the digital resources available to us: What can this tool enable children to do? What worlds can children create with these resources? These feel like important questions to be asking and it is so good to feel that we can ask these questions in a safe, shared context.

We should not need a global pandemic to remind us that learning is powerful when we are not afraid to be playful, to take risks and to fail. And we should always remember the times when things were going wrong and we laughed or even cried, but supported each other to solve problems and see possibilities.

Bright yellow post-it note with black handwriting. The note reads: Wow! What a wonderful way to hook and inspire a child to step out of their comfort zone. The possibilities felt endless and I can imagine even the most reluctant writer or child that perhaps hasn't had such a rich life experience to deepen and further their imagination. Just fascinating!
Feedback from a teacher attending an immersion day at the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield as part of the WorldBuilders project, supported through round 4 of the Teacher Development Fund. Photo credit: Emma Horton, University of Sheffield
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University of Sheffield