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August 03 2011

18:51

The Literacy of Gaming: What Kids Learn From Playing

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"When people learn to play videogames," according to James Paul Gee, "they are learning a new literacy."

This is one of the reason kids love playing them: They are learning a new interactive language that grants them access to virtual worlds that are filled with intrigue, engagement and meaningful challenges. And one that feels more congruent with the nature and trajectory of today's world.

As our commerce and culture migrates further into this emerging digital ecosystem it becomes more critical that we develop digital literacy, of which videogames inhabit a large portion.

Gee, a linguist and professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, thinks we should expand the traditional definition of literacy beyond reading and writing because language isn't the only communication system available in today's world. And there is no better example of a new form of media that communicates distinctive types of meaning than videogames.

The literacy of problem-solving

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Although games can be immensely entertaining, it would be a mistake to consider them as only a form of entertainment. Games are fun, but their real value lies in leveraging play and exploration as a mode of learning the literacy of problem-solving, which lowers the emotional stakes of failing.

In Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, he reminds us that our educational system has stigmatized mistakes. As a result, kids are frightened of being wrong. Yet if we are not prepared to be wrong than we won't be able to come up with anything creative or solve complex problems. Videogames, on the other hand, embed trial and error into the foundation of gameplay.

Kids aren't naturally great at gaming the first time. They develop mastery through disciplined practice -- a path marked by dead-ends, wrong turns and blunders. Yet gamers aren't angst-ridden about making wrong decisions because games encourage a growth mindset. Mistakes are how one figures out what doesn't work and provides the impetus to zero in on what might.

Conversely, the game of modern education revolves around right and wrong answers. Now this kind of learning may be appropriate in some instances, say, when you want a student to remember the capitals of countries. That method is important, but it can only take you so far. It certainly can't penetrate more sophisticated, and I would argue, more important questions, such as: How does geography shape culture?

Games on the other hand, cultivate problem-solving, that, with that right kind of scaffolding, could begin to gain traction with these more exploratory questions and knowledge.

Focusing on the process, not the content

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Much of the critique leveled at videogames is oriented around their content. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson writes of a hypothetical high school English teacher admonishing videogames' lack of content: "There's no psychological depth here, no moral quandaries, no poetry. And he'd be right! But comparing these games to 'The Iliad' or 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Hamlet' relies on a false premise: that the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent."

Games are based on problems to solve, not content. This doesn't mean that game-based problem-solving should eclipse learning content, but I think we are increasingly seeing that a critical part of being literate in the digital age means being able to solve problems through simulations and collaboration.

Videogames, and the type of learning and thinking they generate, may serve as a cornerstone for education and economies of the future.

In their book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson state that "policymakers interested in preparing students for success in the 21st-century economy would do well ... to appreciate how skills developed through navigating virtual environments might pay off in the workplace ... [and how] the new skills and dispositions of the gamer generation will transform the workplace. The gamer generation will push for work environments to incorporate more virtual aspects in fields, such as market analysis, and social and economic modeling. Gamers, for example, have abundant experience making big decisions, coordinating resources, and experimenting with complex strategies in game-based simulations."

Making the most of gaming for your kids

Although videogames have great potential to be powerful vehicles for learning, there is no guarantee this will happen. Just as there is no guarantee that someone will understand the themes and symbols of "The Lord of the Flies" by simply reading it. As a result, kids need parents, teachers and their peers to engage their gaming in thoughtful ways. While there could be a long list of recommended practice, for simplicity sake I've reduced the list to three preliminary suggestions.

  1. Play games. Otherwise how can you have meaningful conversations about them? Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about "The Lord of the Flies" without having learned to read.
  2. Connect games to books, movies, TV and the world around them. By thinking about games beyond their boundaries we can cultivate pattern recognition across media platforms and parlay the problem-solving of gaming into the real world.
  3. Have your students or kids collaborate with other peers to analyze and interpret games, as well share strategies. There has been a raft of research in recent years that extols the wisdom of the crowd and the logic of the swarm. Through collaboration and networking kids can learn to enhance their own perspectives, ideas and, perhaps, contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Read more in the Kids & Media series on MediaShift.

Photo of kids playing videogames by Sean Dreilinger on Flickr.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he's taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he's been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he's the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

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August 02 2011

17:20

Special Series: Kids & Media

We've all been there before. Whining kids at a grocery store with their dad, they can't sit still until finally the dad hands over his iPhone, and peace is restored. Kids are growing up with media all around them, from computers to smartphones to tablets to flat-screen TVs. And even in households without as many screens, kids find ways to get their media fix at school, the library or at friends' homes. We decided to do another in-depth special report focused on "Kids & Media" all this week on MediaShift, and likely into next week. We have great expert advice, an interview with a kid, and a live chat coming up on Aug. 3 on Twitter -- so you can join in and share your experience.

All the Kids & Media Posts

> Screen Time for Kids: Balancing Fun, Learning, Media Creation by Tina Barseghian

> How to Control (Or At Least Influence) Children's Media Access

Coming Soon

Wednesday: PBS Parents' webisode on augmented reality in kids' apps
Wednesday: LIVE TWITTER CHAT with special guests, moderated by Mark Glaser and Courtney Lowery Cowgill; 2 pm PT at the #kidsmedia hashtag.

Thursday: Mark Glaser interviews his son Julian about various screens he uses

Friday: Chris Purcell on parental controls for streaming video services

Monday: Courtney Lowery Cowgill on baby photos on Facebook

*****

What do you think about our series? Did we miss anything? Share your thoughts on how your kids use media and what you'd like to see change about it.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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17:00

How to Control (Or At Least Influence) Children's Media Access

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This week, MediaShift will be running a special series on navigating the relationships between kids and media. Stay tuned all week as we explore topics like this one.

Once you have a child old enough to use a remote, the angst begins over how to control access to media. And absent the will to live a technology-free existence, media access is virtually impossible to control.

Still, I have been able to assemble some tips on ways to at least try to influence how children navigate the media landscape. These are some of the conclusions I've reached after talks with friends and family, and a lot of personal experience as a father.

TIP: RESTRICT TV IN THE HOME

Often, the first screen a child will access on his or her own is the TV. In earliest years, it's not too hard to put the remote control out of reach and monitor use closely.

Once they get a bit older, you can turn on whatever parental controls your TV provider or set allows, sometimes even block access to certain channels.

A few friends and family members don't subscribe to cable TV. You can also go without TV, which one friend told me she has done since before the era of video on the web.

HINDRANCE 1: TV? What is this, the 1990s? Most media shown on TV is soon available on some other screen the child has access to. As I said to a friend whose children were issued notebook computers in middle school: "Once they get laptops it's game over."

HINDRANCE 2: Media is pervasive out of the home. Family members in Minneapolis don't have cable. So, their daughter for years has just gone over to the house of a friend who seems to have every channel known to man, as well as a giant plasma screen.

Even at school, your children might watch movies and shows without your explicit permission. I was unhappy, for example, to learn that my child during elementary school recess on rainy days was put in an auditorium to watch entertainment that was anything but educational.

HINDRANCE 3: Parental controls are often based on rating systems that may not match your values. My friends and I, for example, find sometimes startling levels of violence in programming that's considered "safe" for children, while a fleeting bare breast in an innocuous setting will cause a show to be blocked.

TIP: CONTROL NETWORK AND COMPUTER PERMISSIONS

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You can restrict access and set permissions on your wireless router for different computers (via, for example, identifying the computer's "MAC address" -- a unique identifier code for every computer's WiFi antenna). Some routers allow different permission levels for different computers, so you can restrict them from accessing certain web addresses. On some routers, you can also monitor activity on the network.

You can also set yourself up as an administrator on a computer, and make your children simple users, then use browser tools to restrict access to certain web addresses and kinds of content.

HINDRANCE 1: Do you really want to be the admin on your children's computers and have to be called on every time they need to download some little plug-in to access something they may need for homework or to play a legitimate game?

HINDRANCE 2: Your progeny (they are smart, aren't they?) may find a workaround and get the content from some avenue you haven't blocked. If you restrict them at the browser level, for example, they may figure out a way to download through a different browser.

Another friend was able a few years ago to block his daughter's access to AOL Instant Messenger chats by, he said, denying access on his home router. But the means of accessing AIM and other real-time social engines have ballooned to where he knows it would be a losing battle now to even try.

My movie-obsessed 15-year-old nephew knows how to fake proxy servers and make a website think he's coming from a different IP address or country to get around restrictions where he lives.

TIP: CUT OFF WIRELESS ACCESS

Instead of trying to restrict access over a home network, how about doing away with it altogether? One friend told me he and his wife decided to go retro. "We cut off our wireless Internet at home, and instead ran cables through our house" so everyone had to physically plug in to access the web there, he said.

He and his spouse also require their children under the age of 16 use computers in open areas of the house rather than their bedrooms.

HINDRANCE 1: Neighbors. My friend and his wife noticed their children doing homework in a cramped area near the front porch. It turned out they were accessing an unprotected wireless network named "Stevo" emanating from next door.

HINDRANCE 2: Going without wireless can tie your own hands. My friend, who is a busy hospital doctor, found it to be a hassle when he had to get online at home and find a free port while the kids were doing homework.

In a house like mine, where I'm constantly accessing media in all corners for work and pleasure, I have trouble imagining going without wireless.

HINDRANCE 3: Children often have access to smartphones and tablets, on which they can consume media over a cellular network, and sometimes tether to a computer to give it wireless access.

HINDRANCE 4: Laptops can be carried to places with WiFi over which you have no control.

TIP: CONTROL ACCESS TO PAID SERVICES

You can set up a separate log-in or account for your children's access to services like Netflix, and monitor what they're watching.

HINDRANCE: My 14-year-old daughter and nephew are masters at finding whatever they want to watch. They're fans, for example, of the British version of "Skins," which is considerably more frank about sex and drugs than the American knockoff.

If they can't get what they want through Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and other legitimate services, they seem to find it some other way. When they can't get a whole show, someone inevitably posts choice bits to shared sites like Tumblr or YouTube.

I have told my daughter of the agreement reached between content providers and cable companies to limit access to unapproved content, so she can better understand the dangers of downloading material that our ISP finds illicit.


TIP: WATCH TOGETHER

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In our house we encourage media consumption together, as a family. That way, at least, we can ask and answer questions, discuss what we're seeing and hearing, and I can gauge reactions and levels of sophistication. I'd rather have an idea of what's being consumed than believe I can place blanket restrictions.

HINDRANCE: Many children, once they're old enough, will resist watching shows with the family. Friends and I have experienced various excuses and explanations.

Our children will say they've already seen a show we want to watch and don't want to watch that episode again, or that something they want to watch isn't appropriate for younger siblings.

CONCLUSION: TEACH YOUR CHILDREN

Let's be frank: Part of growing up is doing things your parents don't approve of and testing limits.


Rather than resign myself to losing battles, I try to influence media consumption -- and production -- habits by instilling values and judgment. My daughter at this point would have to be pretty dull, for example, to not understand the risks of a) putting embarrassing personal material online or b) interacting with someone she doesn't know.

I try to encourage her to tell me what she's watching and listening to, even if it makes us both squirm a little at times.

An upside for a media professional like me is that children often act as a window into other media worlds. My daughter told me of YouTube sensation "Fred,"":http://www.youtube.com/user/Fred whom I've since researched and now use in lectures to demonstrate the power of the new social ecosystem.

I also believe we can't lord it over children if we're going to let them have rich, interactive lives, while hoping they have gained values and judgment that buffer them from the worst possibilities.

I know my daughter won't share everything with me. Yes, I can see her Tumblog and am her "friend" on Facebook. But I also am well aware that there may be other Tumblogs, social networks and websites where she does things she hides.

I do hope I've helped arm her with values so that in creating and consuming content she shows the good sense I've seen on so many other occasions.

Read more stories in the Kids & Media series on MediaShift.

Photo of family watching TV together by Paul Emerson via Flickr.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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August 01 2011

18:27

Screen Time for Kids: Balancing Fun, Learning, Media Creation

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This week, MediaShift will be running a special series on navigating the relationships between kids and media. Stay tuned all week as we explore topics like this one.

When it comes to videogames and apps, what’s a parent to do? On one hand, we’re bombarded with messages about the perils of letting kids play with computer games and gadgets. On the other, we’re seduced by games and apps marketed to us as “educational.”

It’s a tricky line to navigate. The spectrum of kids’ apps ranges from “baking” cupcakes to crushing war demons. Most of them have some educational aspect — at the very least kids learn what ingredients are used in cupcake baking, and the physics of launching Angry Birds at just the right angle to kill the piggies. That’s learning, isn’t it?

Therein lie the vague boundaries. Not all games are educational, and not all are shallow forms of entertainment. Many are marketed as educational tools, but in fact, most have some elements of both. The trick is to figure out what we want kids to learn and to experience. To clump them all into one category is to miss out on a huge treasure trove of learning opportunities. Real learning apps have a set of criteria that qualifies them as educational, so rather than writing them all off as a waste of time, parents can figure out what their kids are exposed to.

Engagement and Learning

“We don't ever want to separate engagement from the purposes of learning,” said Daniel Edelson, Executive Director and Vice President of Education and Children’s Programs at the National Geographic Society at a cyberlearning conference this spring. “When you're engaged with activities that have learning goals, you can connect the dots between engagement and learning. If you use engagement in its broadest possible sense when people are paying attention because of bright lights and activity, then you don't find that connection.”

Enter the parent. A young child is not necessarily going to figure out if she’s learning or having fun. And in the best cases, that line is blurred without the child even knowing it. She’s collecting information about bugs and plantlife with apps like Project NOAH. She’s creating original stories — complete with exposition and denouement and background music — with digital storytelling apps like Toontastic.

So should parents feel guilty allowing their kids to play games on mobile gadgets?

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

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Simply put: “No,” says Dr. Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which recently released a study called Learning: Is There an App For That. “Kids see their parents using mobile phones all the time. It’s only natural for them to want to use them too. And from the data in our study it looks like many parents are letting their children use them responsibly - with restrictions and in moderation. We recommend a balanced media diet that consists of content that is fun, educational, and doesn't take up too much time in a given day.”

Tools to Create Content

That said, Levine cautioned parents to stay vigilant about screen time. “We would be quite concerned if young children, especially pre-schoolers, began to dramatically increase their mobile screen time,” he said.

A screen is not just a screen, though. The one-way interaction between TV and the couch potato is far different than an absorbing Scrabble play-off with a friend on a mobile phone.

“Nobody's saying, ‘Give your kid a Gameboy, so he can be quiet and go sit in the corner,” said Andy Russell, co-creator of Toontastic at a digital media and learning conference. “We're giving them tools to actually help them create content. The new devices allow us to do new things that we haven't ever been able to do. But the world of ‘edutainment’ has dug us into a hole where most people think games only create a solitary experience.”

In fact, many apps invite multiple players, social interaction with peers, and a call to go outdoors, either with specific instructions or with the child’s own imagination. When my daughter and her friend were deciding how to spend their Saturday afternoon last week, their indoor play turned into an outdoor movie that they scripted, and that I filmed and edited for them with my iPhone.

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

Russell says game designers should also take responsibility in guiding parents on how to interact with the games and their kids. “The failure is not the technology, but how we communicate to parents,” he said.

BEYOND SCREENS

Regardless of how educational or engaging a screen can be, O’Keeffe says emotional connections are lost without face-to-face contact. “If they’re looking at a screen, they can't see the emotional response,” said O’Keeffe, who believes screens should be kept out of the hands of kids under 5 years old. “It's about empathy and they're having trouble learning that. Do you really need to turn on the DVD in the car? Do kids really need the Gameboy in the grocery store? We all have to use the screen as babysitter sometimes. But to always use a screen that often is a problem.”

But gaming advocates argue that social connections are built into most games. That sharing tactics and strategies help cement the learning experience — and connect players to each other in ways that haven’t been done before.

As researchers dig deeper into the ramifications of games and apps on young minds, parents will have to navigate the gray areas between absent-minded parenting and the smart use of technology.

Photo of boy with iPad by Mark Glaser.

Photo of girl with an iPad by Alec Couros via Flickr.

Read more about how technology wires the learning brain and suprising truths about videogames.

Tina Barseghian is the editor of KQED's MindShift, an NPR website about the future of education. In the past, she's worked as the executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Education Foundation, as well as an editor at O'Reilly Media and CMP Media. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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