Natalia Kucirkova: The new professor at the Centre for learning environment

She is the new professor at the Centre for learning environment at UiS. She focuses her research on young children’s contemporary reading practices. She is a much asked for keynote speaker and has started to learn Norwegian language. She plays the piano as well.

Natalia Kucirkova: The new professor at Centre for learning environment at UiS. Natalia Kucirkova: The new professor at Centre for learning environment at UiS.

Where did you grow up and what is your background?

– I was born in Slovakia but lived in several European countries. The longest and most recent stay was in the UK. My partner is Spanish so we speak Spanish at home.

What is your academic background and what is your scientific field?

– My background is in developmental psychology, but my current work is very much interdisciplinary and combines insights from psychology, education, literary theories and human-computer interaction.

I am interested in young children’s contemporary reading practices, which nowadays include the use of e-books and story apps. I am particularly interested in experiences that are personalised, that is those that position the child as the story author or story maker (agentic personalisation) or products that adapt to the child’s needs and preferences (automatic personalisation).

Where did your interest for your topic start and which factors have been important for your motivation to explore the subject further?

– I was lucky to identify a research niche early in my career. I looked at personalised books for my Master’s thesis and have continued researching them since.

The inspiration to explore personalised stories comes from my grandfather who used to read stories to me when I was a little girl. Often, instead of reading the book, he encouraged me to invent my own stories based on the story illustrations. Sometimes he expanded on my story and we laughed about the story characters in our imaginary worlds and had a lovely time together. Sitting on his lap with an open book is one of my fondest childhood memories.

I then came across commercial personalisation in children’s books and was keen to explore the contributions of authentic and automatic personalisation. Clearly, it is very different if a book is personalised by a child or by an algorithm!

How did you get in touch with Norway and the Centre for learning environment and what made you decide to apply and accept the professional position?

– I was part of the Academic Advisory Board for the VEBB project at the Reading Centre, working with Anne Mangen, Trude Hoel and Margrethe Jernes. I very much enjoyed the work ethic and scientific approach and was keen to work with them and their colleagues more.

I have always admired the Norwegian education system, elegant architecture, good ethics and beautiful scenery. When the job opportunity at the sister centre came up I thought I would apply as it would be an ideal marriage of professional and personal interests - which it has proved to be.

You share your time between the Centre for learning environment and University City College in London, where you work at the prestigious London Knowledge Lab. You also take active part at conferences in several countries, with Oslo, Cyprus and Chile on the schedule for the coming weeks.  What do you see as benefits from your engagements and active role within your field on an international level?

– Strong research requires strong international and cross-sectoral collaboration. My research topic lends itself to knowledge integration from many perspectives and I enjoy exploring it not just with academics but also with children’s app developers, book publishers, librarians, literacy charities and teachers.

In April, I will speak at a conference in Oslo about culturally sensitive book reading interventions. This is mostly for librarians and policy-makers.

In Chile it will be practitioners and university teachers interested in the use of apps with young children, the title is "Young children's use of apps: myths, realities and evidence-based criteria”. In Cyprus, it will be the end-of-project conference for the Living Book project, mostly for teachers and researchers interested in innovative ways of encouraging children to read.

You have been the lead editor for two Routledge Handbooks so far- The ‘Routledge International Handbook of Learning with Technology in Early Childhood’ was published earlier this year. How have you found the experience?

– I always learn so much through the editing experience. I feel humbled to be entrusted with the contributors’ chapters and the task of turning them into a book. More about the topics of individual chapters can be found on the Routledge website.

Lastly, how has the Centre for learning environment treated you so far?

– I love being here! I have met my colleagues several times before I started so I was looking forward to working with them. I cannot praise their welcoming and caring attitude highly enough. I am attending an intense language course and am pleased that I can already have a short conversation in Norwegian. Oh and did you know we now have a piano in the Centre? I enjoy playing it after work hours.