Archive for June, 2008

Calling Peggy Charren – Recent Conversations with a Children’s Media Visionary

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Photo of Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television When I first became aware of Peggy Charren, I had been creating children’s media for only a short time. What I learned in those days was that Peggy founded a child advocacy group in 1968 called Action for Children’s Television (ACT). ACT challenged broadcasters to offer endless choices of quality television content for children. Her organization fought for content that was diverse, for all ages, and void of any censorship or hidden agenda. It advocated content rich with benefits for children and as free from the influences of advertising as possible. Ultimately Peggy and her organization pushed legislators to pass the Children’s Television Act in 1990, a law still in effect today that requires television stations to include at least 3 hours of “core” children’s educational content per week and, at the same time, limit the amount of advertising found in children’s programming. Peggy’s vision was bold, her voice strong, and her determination unstoppable.

I remember the moment I first spoke with Peggy many years ago. I searched online for a day or two to find her phone number, took a guess out of a handful of possibilities, and called her out of the blue. I introduced myself, told her I ran a company that creates learning products for children, and listed a handful of client names to demonstrate the quality of our work. Peggy immediately responded, “Are you one of those religious producers?” I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect her response. One of the clients I mentioned had often been misinterpreted as having religious leanings. “No, that’s not really what our organization is about” I replied. Peggy was sharp, quick, and to the point. I quickly learned that Peggy would tell it like it is, and she would be direct, and sometimes blunt, with me in our discussions. I realized these just might be the qualities needed to change the landscape of children’s media for the better.

Over the years I learned that Peggy loves the theater, that she developed arts programs for school children before ACT, that a member of her family was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, that her organization had fought off attacks from religious organizations, and that Peggy was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom under the Clinton Administration, the highest government honor that can be awarded to a civilian.

After the passing of the Children’s Television Act, Peggy closed down ACT, saying the organization had fulfilled its mission. In the thirteen years since it closed, a lot has changed within the media landscape for children. Today there are 24-hour channels dedicated to children’s content, online videos, screened technology toys, iPods and family cars with individual screens. Having recently read Dade Hayes’ new book, Anytime Playdate, a book that examines the development, research and production of children’s preschool content, it prompted me to check in with Peggy about her views on today’s media landscape. Unlike my first call with her, this time I scheduled an appointment for our conversation.

Scott Traylor: Looking back on the passing of the Children’s Television Act of 1990, do you think it was a success?

Peggy Charren: Fifty-fifty, because that kind of change in how things work is never completely successful.

ST: Do you say fifty-fifty because of the negotiating necessary to pass the Children’s Television Act, that it resulted in making the law weaker than you had hoped?

PC: No, I never expect things to be perfect.

ST: Have the Children’s Television Act and subsequent amendments and rulings been effective?

PC: I think the answer is pretty much ‘no’. In a funny way they’ve been more effective than most people would give them credit for. There are some who think it had no effect at all. A lot of people feel it was better than nothing. When push comes to shove, I don’t think it was really very effective. In a lot of ways it had zero effect.

ST: Do you have any thoughts on how it could become more effective?

PC: Yes, I suppose that the major way to change it is to focus on what we haven’t thought about before. Some people in industry are thinking about how it could be more effective. I think technology may be part of the answer. We haven’t spent enough time thinking about how we could use technology in this regard. When we do the world is going to be more interesting.

ST: ACT was always an advocate for more media choices for kids.

PC: Yes, that’s absolutely true.

ST: Today there are multiple round-the-clock channels dedicated to children as well as video on demand, online offerings, and technology-based games and toys that have screens. What are your thoughts on the degree of choice and the quality of choices today?

PC: I think there’s never enough choice. I think the sense of choice is just very important and we’re not doing enough for kids with that priority. We’ll get along fine anyway but I think the world of children’s media would be more beneficial if we devoted more time to the kind of issues that ACT worried about in the old days. We don’t do that anymore.

ST: What changes have you seen in media advertising to children?

PC: Well, I think it would be nice if there weren’t any media advertising to children. I’ve always thought that and it’s a little hard to just accept the fact that advertising to kids is a reasonable thing to do. I never thought it was reasonable. I’m not a big one on advertising to children. I think that the goal of advertising to kids is wrong and I don’t like it, I never did like it, and I don’t like it now. It’s not that I worry about it being the end of the world, its just that I think it’s an inappropriate goal.

ST: Can you speak to the pros and cons of advertising regulation for broadcasters?

PC: I’m a big one for advertising regulations. I’ve always been focused that way when it comes to advertising. I think advertising doesn’t hurt kids as much as it sounds like it does but I think it’s manipulative and we keep doing it. It’s amazing how little it has changed actually.

ST: How little has changed over the years with regulation?

PC: No, with children’s advertising. In terms of regulation there’s a limit to how much regulation we’re going to see. I think advertising by itself is nauseating… she says mildly.

ST: Let’s continue with this question. It’s said that young children under the age of seven are not capable of understanding the difference between ads and programs, or the persuasive intent of ads.

PC: That’s right, they can’t tell the difference. This must have been the first thing I ever said in my life.

ST: So should the FCC forbid advertising to children?

PC: I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Just get rid of it entirely. We almost did it you know. We almost had it. It’s a real shame that it just sort of vanished into the quiet part of everyone’s life. I mean advertising to children is so dumb. It’s just a dumb thing to do.

ST: How do you think changes in ad requirements would impact the range of media available to young children?

PC: Oh I think it could have a big effect actually. I think there’s an opportunity for an enormous effect relating to not selling to children and I don’t know why it’s taken so long. It’s probably my fault.

ST: What do you think of the baby video phenomenon and the Kaiser Family Foundation report that one quarter of children under the age of two have a TV in their bedroom?

PC: Oh I’ve always thought that was idiotic. To set up a baby’s room with a television set in it says more about the parents than it does about anything else. Some day we may find that children will really suffer because of this.

ST: What advice would you offer parents today for making positive media choices for their children?

PC: Let’s see. Let me turn this back to you. What do you think is the most difficult question parents have to answer regarding media and their child?

ST: Lately I’ve been thinking a parent might ask, “Is viewing media hurting my child?”

PC: I think parents have to pay close attention to what’s helping and hurting their child. If parents care enough about their child in terms of their media viewing choices, I think it’s probably not a terribly serious issue.

Peggy and I talked about a number of related topics in the children’s media world. During our conversation we discussed noteworthy figures in the industry. Vicki Rideout, VP of the Kaiser Family Foundation was a strong favorite. Alice Cahn, VP of Social Responsibility for Cartoon Network received high praise for her smarts as well as humor. We also discussed the work of Henry Jenkins, Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT for his thoughts on society and media. Peggy didn’t share her thoughts about who are the leading child advocate voices of today, but it was clear she was on top of the conversations and the people involved in shaping the discussion. Thinking about the challenges of quality media for children today I asked:

ST: Maybe we’re just missing those strong voices today that can fight for children?

PC: I don’t think so. I think that there are other kinds of voices we just let happen. It may never get fixed. People just aren’t upset enough.

Special thanks to Joe Blatt, Alice Cahn, Sue Edelman, David Kleeman, and Ellen Wartella for their help in preparing questions for Peggy. The ACT archives can be viewed at Harvard University’s School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Research Recommendations from a Child Interaction Expert

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Erik Strommen of Playful Efforts photo This past week I was at Northwestern University to participate in a conference called Interaction Design and Children (IDC). It’s a fantastic event where researchers, developmental psychologists and technology inventors and experts gather together to share information, research, and advice about creating effective interactive experience for children through technology.

There were many interesting presentations and posters offered which I hope to touch on in the coming days. One presentation in particular I enjoyed was delivered by Erik Strommen, founder and developmental psychologist of Playful Efforts. Erik and I were on a panel together along with Kathleen Alfano, the Director of Research for Fisher-Price. The panel was moderated by Edith Ackermann, who is currently a visiting scientist at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Among Edith’s amazing credentials is that she also worked with and studied under Jean Piaget. All of us discussed the importance of research in the creation of successful interactive technology products for children.

After opening remarks from Edith, Erik began his presentation by stating he would not be showing any Powerpoint slides because he is a member of the “Informal Society for the Suppression of Powerpoint” (Erik worked at Microsoft for many years.)

Next, Erik discussed the difficulty of testing interfaces for software and technology toy products that don’t exist. In many cases, researchers will be brought into a product development team to explore the effectiveness of an interface that has yet to be built. In such cases when you’re called in, it’s your duty to determine how best to guide the development of these new interfaces.

An important quote Erik mentioned that’s worth repeating:

“New interfaces raise a blizzard of never before asked questions that challenge conventional wisdom. Only after collecting data and seeing how such interfaces work with children can you determine how effective these new interfaces will be with children.”

Here are a number of tips Erik mentioned to guide successful child/interaction research:

  • Seek out “parallel literature” to inform your design.
    You may not find exact research you’re looking for regarding the new interface you wish to build, but you can learn a lot about how to inform your design by reading similar interface studies. For example, Erik recommends checking out “studies on social interaction and discourse patterns” to inform social interface design.

  • When prototypes don’t exist, fake it.
    Erik referred to this as “Wizard of Oz” testing. This is when the “man behind the curtain” may be carrying out audio or other functionality needs as part of a down and dirty prototype to test with. Always remember you may not be able to recreate the entire experience this way, just the crucial testing parts. How you define the testing will effect your mock-up. Focus ONLY on the developmental issue that need to be answered. DON’T focus on the technology! Be concerned with timing and vocabulary in your prototype scripts.

  • Understand the schedule and development process of your client.
    How much time do you have and where in the development process do you have the opportunity to make changes in the design? Definition of the interaction with your user needs to be defined up front. It is a deliverable that affects the entire development process, so work fast and deliver your findings early before crucial product development efforts begin.

  • Keep everyone informed.
    Let everyone on the development team know when findings will be presented. Keeping team members informed as to the time when conclusions will be shared better allows for changes that can be incorporated into the development schedule.

  • Be specific with your research question.
    Don’t ask overly broad or numerous questions that will keep you from ever finding the mission critical answers you need to inform you product development team. Remember, generally speaking, companies don’t want to pay for research and they don’t want to schedule research. But be ready, once the information is available, everybody will beat a path to your door for the results! Also be aware that the broader your research question, the more complicated your prototypes will become.

  • Make friends with the engineers on your team.
    They will be your best allies for creating prototypes. Engineers also care about having answers as to how best to develop for a specific audience

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
    Early prototypes can be very different from the final product. You may not have the right characters or correct voices in your prototype but if you ask the right question, the results of your test will be invaluable. Remember, it’s the interaction that you are interested in testing. If visuals or character voices aren’t correct it will not threaten the validity of your testing.

  • Document what you did and the conclusions of your research.
    People will challenge your results and you may not remember everything you need in order to support your conclusions. You may also need to refer to your notes in the future when conducting similar studies.

At the end of the Erik’s presentation, he showed a number of prototypes used in technology toy testing.

To see video of Erik Strommen’s presentation at the IDC event, click below:

Obama and McCain Education Advisors Debate at Annual AEP Summit

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

I just made it back from a three day conference in Washington DC held by the Association of Educational Publishers. The event, called the AEP Summit, occurs every June and industry leaders in educational publishing from around the globe gather together to discuss advances in technology, instruction, educational content, development and many other aspects of creating and delivering high quality student learning materials.

During the event, sessions are offered to discuss and showcase best practices, products, and trends. A highlight of the yearly event is the AEP Awards Gala. This banquet is held during the last evening of the conference and awards are presented to acknowledge the best educational products in their respective disciplines.

This year attendees were in for a special treat during the Summit. Through the amazing and tireless efforts of Doug Ferguson, AEP’s VP of Operations, with the assistance of his fantastic staff, conference attendees and invited members of the press participated in a debate between the senior education advisors of presidential hopefuls Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. Jeanne Century, Director of Science Education and the Director of Research and Evaluation, University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE) spoke for the Obama campaign and Lisa Graham Keegan, Principal of The Keegan Company spoke for the McCain campaign.

During the more than ninety-minute debate, many important questions about education, policy, teacher performance, and global competitiveness (just to name a few) were asked from an insightful group of panelists moderated by Frank Catalano of Pearson. Panelists included education experts Marjorie Mayer from Scholastic, Neal Goff from Weekly Reader, Bernice Stafford from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), Dr. Sara Davis from USA Today, and Joel Packard from the National Education Association (NEA).

During the debate, two noteworthy moments stood out from rest. The first came from Neal Goff, president of the Weekly Reader Publishing Group. Neal asked:

“How do you go about reintroducing subjects [like music, art and others] than those that are being tested [as mandated by No Child Left Behind] into the curriculum and how do you keep teachers from teaching to the test?”

In response to this question, Senator Obama’s education advisor Jeanne Century responded:

“With regard to keeping teachers from teaching to the test, the point isn’t keeping them from teaching them to the test, it’s making sure that teachers know and agree – on all the skills and expertise (students) need to succeed in the 21st century, agreeing on that, and then testing those. If we all agree and commit to what students really need to know and be able to do, we’re all good with the teacher teaching to the test, including the teachers.”

I thought this response spoke clearly to the United State’s need to address a 21st Century Skills approach to learning as outlined by Bernie Trilling, not just the country’s proficiency in math and reading skills.

The next memorable moment in the debate came from an impressive twelve-year-old middle school student named Madison. She is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps. and a reporter for Junior Scholastic News. The reality of Madison’s question gave greater weight to the discussion. Ms. Madison’s question was:

“I attend a public school in Washington DC, just a few blocks from each candidate’s senate office. Although it’s academically one of the best schools in the city, we have clauster falling from the ceiling, water fountains and air conditioners that don’t work. We also learned that our entire foreign language program is going to be cancelled next year. How will your candidate make sure that all public schools have proper facilities and provide a variety of classes for students that will allow them to be more competitive in the global economy when they grow up?”

The first reply to Madison’s question was Jeanne Century, advisor for the Obama campaign:

“There is a sub-group within our education policy group that’s developed a plan for ensuring that school facilities are up to par with what they need to be. That we have not just the modern technologies, but the basics in place. It’s an obvious necessity. It’s part of that floor I was talking about [earlier] that needs to be in place. With regard to foreign language, it certainly shouldn’t be cut from middle school, but we need to have foreign language programs happening even earlier than that. Senator Obama is committed to helping our students become bilingual, trilingual. It’s a necessity for our country and for the future, not just so we can compete, but so we can communicate and collaborate with our colleagues and with their fellow students, as they are still students and their colleagues as they grow into adults.”

Next to reply was Lisa Graham Keegan for the McCain campaign:

“This question of school facilities is one that half of the states in the country right now, or at any given time, are in their supreme courts arguing about their school finances, and usually that revolves around inequities and access to facilities. I think this is a question this country needs to take very seriously. Senator McCain is very interested in hearing from different states because this is their purview and the federal government has not (been) acting to the facilities business except in the backing of the finance in various minimal ways. But we obviously need leadership together to ask why in areas like DC, where the money is seemingly available, it is not tracked down to schools. The percentage of money available to education that does not get into school facilities and classrooms and instruction is way too high. We’re one of the highest in the world for administrative overhead so salaries outside of school or expenditures outside of instruction need to be addressed and it’s something he would want for us to take a look at.”

Digitized video and audio podcasts of the debate will become available sometime in the coming days through the Association of Educational Publishers. For further information about the debate or for information on how to acquire video or audio files of the debate, contact Doug Ferguson (dferguson at aepweb dot org) at the AEP.

Thoughts for Designers: Announcing the Web 2.0.1 Patch

Friday, June 6th, 2008

[The following is an article I wrote for the May 2008 issue of Children’s Technology Review. For those unfamiliar with this monthly magazine, it’s a great information resource to all the latest software, gaming, and technology products being released for children.]

Last month, I was presenting at a conference for education publishers when someone raised his hand and asked “What’s a Webkinz?” Hmmmm, I thought. Doesn’t everyone know about Webkinz World? Shouldn’t everyone know about this site and others like it without the excuse “I don’t have kids.” The next day, somebody asked me, “What’s an avatar?” I was starting to understand that there were still plenty of publishers firmly stuck in yesterday’s Web 1.0 world. But don’t worry. We’ll fix the problem the way we developers always do – with a Patch.

The Web 2.0.1 Patch is designed to help you become more thoughtful when creating interactive experiences for children (and it works well for school or library websites, as well). Installing this Patch in your brain is a quick and painless process as long as you have a USB 2.01 port just behind your left ear. Or, you can follow these three steps.

STEP 1 – Create an account for yourself in a virtual world like Club Penguin, Pirate’s Online, Nicktropolis, Second Life or any of the many virtual worlds that are popping up all over.
Once you have an account, test it out and play with it. Keep in mind – like many other Web 2.0 products available you may not see the benefits immediately, but you will see incremental improvements every time you come back to visit one of these virtual worlds.

STEP 2 – Upload digital photos to Flickr or a video to YouTube.
Don’t forget to include some tags that describe what you’re uploading so for others can easily find it. Once you have posted something, control your excitement, pat yourself on the back, and email friends and family with a link to your newly posted UGC (User Generated Content)!

STEP 3 – Create a personal profile on Facebook, LinkedIn, or any another similar social networking site.
If you don’t know one that’s right for you, ask a smart computer friend what she uses (chances are she will have already installed the 2.0.1 Patch and will be familiar with the requirements). If your techy friend is not available, casually ask someone under the age of 20 what sites they use. Don’t tell them that you are setting up a new account. If you do, he or she might give you that “Web 1.0 look” and then slowly back away.

Here are just a few of the benefits you’ll be able to enjoy from downloading and installing this Patch:

  • You will start from, and work from, a central plan.
    If you’re designing a site or service with social features, there will be no more “winging it” or making it up as you go along. Thinking through the design of your new web idea, writing it down, and sharing it with all of your team members are more important now than ever before.

  • You’ll test your work with your target audience.
    The Patch works best when testing is considered at the very beginning of your product’s definition on paper and throughout the development process. Some of you might explain “We never had to test our products during the Web 1.0 days!” Yes, in many ways the Web 1.0 days were a simpler time, and a time we will all look back on with nostalgia. However, the hustle and bustle of today’s fast-paced Web 2.0 world demands ongoing testing.

  • After you install the 2.0.1 Patch, you’ll have zero tolerance for UI (user interface) mistakes.
    If buttons or other interactive controls don’t function as they are supposed to, your product will be in violation of the User’s Agreement. It is important to think through the entire user experience fully before launching an interactive product. This requirement can’t be overstated. You can’t blame it on Flash, Microsoft or some browser error. That’s the 1.0 baby talk of the past.

  • If you are a Web 2.0 savvy developer, keep in mind that it is possible your audience is not acknowledging that he or she is a Web 1.0 user.
    Education outreach and friendly intervention is an important component of the Web 2.0 vision. Take the time to gently explain how their actions are hurting others around them. Also explain the benefits of the Web 2.0 universe. (Note: This should be apparent in the development documentation you will have recently created for your plan). To keep your Web 2.0 chops fresh, try out the latest ground breaking technologies, like the iPod Touch interface, for example. You may not know how to find it at first, but be diligent.

These steps can avoid wasting countless hours and dollars, and they can prevent you from having to install the 2.1.1 Patch and a 2.1 Update. In the end, keeping your Patches up-to-date can result in better products and happier users.