Archive for September, 2008

Sandbox Summit: The Importance of Play in Learning

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Last week I attended a conference called the Sandbox Summit in New York City. The Summit was a day long event with many noteworthy speakers who are software and content creators, child development experts, and reviewers of technology toys for children. The event’s main theme? The power of play and its ability to help facilitate learning.

Opening

During the opening keynote, speaker Andy Berndt, managing director of Google’s Creative Lab, described how almost everyone can remember a favorite toy when they were young (link to audio of presentation.) Andy shared his favorite play activity, that being a creative experience which involved the process of inventing new bicycles. When he was a child, what he did was take apart many different bicycles, and because bicycle parts for the most part are standardized in terms of their bolt sizes and screws used to make them, he was able to recombine different bicycle parts into unique, unusual, and exciting combinations. One could say that Andy’s open ended experimentation with bicycle parts was on par with play experiences found in Legos, K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and the like. What is it about Andy’s creative experience that can lead to insights on how best to help facilitate a love of learning? Read on.

The Importance of Play and its Relationship to Learning

The next speaker who I thought did a fantastic job of providing an overview on the importance of play and the learning opportunities that come from play was Nancy Schulman, the director of the 92nd Street Y Nursery School in New York City (link to audio of presentation.) Nancy shared with the audience that one of the best things about her job for the last 18 years was the wonderful opportunity to watch young children play. With that experience she has learned a great deal about the benefits of play not just for preschoolers, but for all ages.

Nancy expressed that educators, psychologists, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics have great concerns today about the quality of children’s play, how children play, and the quantity of time children play. Parents on the other hand express a lot of concern around wanting their children prepared for success at a very early age. Through her work, Nancy speaks with many parents. One of the greatest anxieties she hears from parents is that they want to be sure their child has every advantage, making sure that before they’re five years old they’ve mastered a second language, mastered every sport they might possibly play, and excel at playing a musical instrument as well. While child professionals are encouraging more open ended play in a child’s life, sadly most parents aren’t paying much attention to these recommendations.

When Nancy was asked “What types of skills do kids learn through play? And why is that meaningful in terms of a child’s lifelong appreciation for learning or confidence in their ability to learn?” she responded first with a quote from child development expert David Elkind of Tufts University:

“Play is not a luxury, but rather a crucial dynamic of healthy, physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development at all ages.”

Nancy then discussed each of these developmental benefits and how child initiated play can lay the foundation for learning:

  • Social – “Through play, children learn to interact with others. Play prepares children for morale reasoning. They figure out how to resolve a problem with a friend independently.”

  • Intellectual – “They learn to recognize and solve problems. Children get that feeling of mastery that only comes from when they’re challenged but not frustrated at the same time. In academic areas, play is linked to creativity, imagination, and problem solving skills and it lays the groundwork for successful learning experiences in reading, writing, math, and science. If you think about what children do when they play, it’s very language rich. They are interacting with words and language all the time and learning communication skills.”

  • Physical – “In terms of physical development, they can develop through play fine motor skills, gross motor skills, overall strength and integration of their muscles, their brains, and their nerves. It sets apart a start in their lives for healthy living and fitness, which of course, can counter obesity as well.”

  • Emotional – “Play is Joyful. It is probably one of the greatest underpinnings for later adult happiness. It can’t be underestimated how much happiness and joy have in terms of learning as well.”

Survey of Kids Opinions about Play

The next speaker who offered some additional insight into what kids think about their favorite play objects was Peter Shafer, Vice President of Harris Interactive (link to audio of presentation.) Peter shared with the audience a recent online survey conducted in collaboration with the Sandbox Summit of 1,353 US children ages 8 to 18.

There was a wealth of data to digest in this presentation that spoke to tween and teen toy preferences as well as video games and digital toy products. In general I found this data interesting in that it backs up many gut assumptions about what different age groups prefer in their toy playing experiences.

One observation, it appears the definition of a “toy” was intentionally left undefined in this survey. Did survey respondents think a toy was a traditional toy, a technology toy, or maybe even a video game? Parts of the survey appeared to suggest what the differentiation of a toy was while other questions were not as clear.

Here are a few pieces of data I found interesting to pull out of the Harris Interactive Sandbox Summit survey press release:

“How much do you agree or disagree with the following?”
Summary of Strongly/Somewhat Agree

 

8-12 Year Olds

13-18 Year Olds

Males

Females

Males

Females

%

%

%

%

The most important part of a toy is that it is entertaining.

86

83

72

69

Toys that involve technology, like video and computer games and handheld games or toys, are more fun than other toys.

84

69

71

53

I enjoy toys or games that make me think.

82

79

73

77

I would rather have a toy or game that is fun to play even if it does not help me learn.

75

67

61

48

Toys are important in our lives to help us learn.

67

63

60

53

I call your attention to a couple of specific items from the survey (colored in light blue.) For the 8 to 12 age group the most popular response for a toy product was that it should be “entertaining” whereas with the 13 to 18 year old group there is a great appeal in products that “make me think”.

Best Practices for Developing Playful Products

After the Harris Interactive presentation, Carly Shuler, a Cooney Fellow from Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center and educational technologist Carla Engelbrecht Fisher delivered a presentation called “Fun Follows Function: Ten Tips for Developing Quality Toys”. Below I briefly outline each tip, but you can download an audio recording or download a PDF copy of the PowerPoint presentation here.

  1. Bridge the gap between industry and academia – This first tip strongly suggests the benefit of bringing together multidisciplinary teams (child development experts, content experts, pedagogy experts, etc.) This first tip is one my company follows frequently. There’s a great paper by Brian Winn and Carrie Heeter, both from Michigan State University, about the important balance needed (and often the necessary heated debate) that comes from working collaboratively with multidisciplinary teams. A copy of this paper can be downloaded here.)

  2. Incorporate research and testing in your product development and discovery process – Any amount of testing, large or small, will have a beneficial impact on your product’s development. From informal focus and user testing groups to serious product research efforts there’s a research approach that can fit your budget.

  3. Track what users do in your product – There’s lots to be learned from watching how your target audience interacts with your product either informally or through data collection. Spend time analyzing what you find.

  4. Read some research – Become familiar with the basics of developmental psychology for the specific age group your developing for. Doing this will help avoid reinventing the wheel. A handout was shared at the conference with many great places to jump start your research reading list. A copy of this reading list can be downloaded here.

  5. Become an observer – Watch kids at play in the real world or even on YouTube (a cool suggestion offered by Carla). Watch how kids interact with products, visit playgrounds, schools, toy stores. Note what’s on the shelf and where it’s located. Also be aware of what’s on sale, it may provide a tip for what’s not selling.

  6. Break the traditional model of one child per screen – Think outside tradition single player models. Think multiple players, or better yet, how can you actively encourage inter-generational participation! Think outside the keyboard box, consider alternative input devices (dance pads, guitars, balance boards.) Consider how you could combine virtual and physical worlds in new ways (like the success Webkins achieved with dual play patterns online and offline.)

  7. Leverage consumer market trends for learning – Consider user generated content, online video, or casual game approaches. Be aware of these every changing trends and you just might find one that will greatly elevate the success of your product.

  8. Go beyond the “3 R’s” – Think 21st Century Skills: Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication. For more on 21st Century Learning Skills, download this presentation from the May, 2008 Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s first annual symposium.

  9. Become familiar with various game mechanics – There are many different game mechanics that could increase interest and engagement in your product. Some old mechanics can be made new again with the newest technologies.

  10. Tap into your own childhood – Everyone has childhood experiences that can help shape your product for the better. Tap into your own experiences as well as those around you.


Note about Virtual Worlds

Kids and virtual worlds was touched on a few times throughout the day but I thought the following statement was worth calling out in its own section. Peter Shafer of Harris Interactive indicated that we will see explosive growth in the area of virtual worlds specifically for kids. The numbers cited were that there are about 80 virtual world destinations for kids today and by the end of 2010 there will be more than 150 virtual worlds to choose from. For a current list of virtual worlds available, I have the following link to share.

Takeaway

So what’s the key take away for developers, innovators and creators of playful learning products for kids, whether traditional or technological? Here’s the secret sauce that was repeated over an over again through words and through examples:

  • Make the play experience as open ended as possible. Think about opportunities for vast exploration, not a limited path of play. Include opportunities to fail as well as ones to succeed. Let each child develop their own unique path to play, one that is customizable enough that it appeals to a single user and flexible enough that multiple users can find their own unique approach.
  • Bring together a variety of child experts.
  • Become familiar with research.
  • Watch your audience, get familiar with your audience, test with your audience.
  • Try something new! Break the habit of relying on the same old technology and user input solutions.
  • Think 21st Century Skills

Nancy Schulman also offered this sage advice:

“If your child can’t play with a toy in at least three different ways, leave it behind.”

And one last thought for making the next greatest learning toy, digital or otherwise… Think bicycle parts.

Referenced Products and Videos

Here’s a list of digital products and online YouTube videos that were referenced throughout the Summit.

Apple Ad Andy Berndt from Google reference this old Apple ad called “Industrial Revelation” that looked at computers and their power to significantly enhance learning empowerment

Dizzywood Scott Arpajian’s latest virtual world environment. In Scott’s presentation, he touches on how schools are using Dizzywood to promote student diversity
Huru Humi Mike Nakamura of Senario, demonstrates his company’s latest digital avatar toy that is designed to encourage self-discovery and social skills by using technology to spur real-life interaction among tweens and teens.
Kerpoof Kerpoof is an empowering online creative tool for kids.
Kidthing Kidthing CEO Larry Hitchcock presents his safe digital online environment which can be used for distributing entertainment and learning material
LeapFrog’s Learning Path Jim Gray, Director of Learning for LeapFrog, discusses LeapFrog’s Learning Path, and online component to LeapFrog’s consumer products that lets parents see and shape a child’s learning.
Backyard FX – How to make Movie Rain Erik Beck, who is a producer for NextNewNetworks develops an online low budget video show called Backyard FX. Erik’s work is wonderfully creative and the audience cheered his YouTube presentation on how to make “movie rain”. It was an excellent example of how best to combine a technology and creative vision. The example video is a must see!
Sabi Games Margaret Johnson, CEO and Cofounder of Sabi Games, discussed her upcoming learning games release that is worth keeping an eye on. Stay tuned for more from Sabi in October.
Scratch Mitchel Resnick’s online creativity and collaborative learning project called Scratch. For an interview with Mitchel about Scratch and his learning approach embedded throughout the product, click here.
Sesame Street Makeda Mays Green discusses the newly relaunched preschool learning website at SesameStreet.org

Scratch That: An Interview with Mitchel Resnick

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

[The following is an article I wrote for the August 2008 issue of Tech & Learning Magazine. For those unfamiliar with this monthly magazine, it's a great resource for education technology leaders. It provides helpful information on how to implement technology into schools, and is tailor-made to meet the special needs of a professional educator.]

For an audio recording of this interview, click here.

Photo of Mitchel Resnick, researcher, inventor and professor at MIT's Media Laboratory

Mitchel Resnick is a researcher, inventor and professor at MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambrige Massachusetts and the founder of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT. He is the lead innovator behind many cutting-edge learning technologies and projects for children including the , PicoCrickets, and the wildly successful consumer product, Lego Mindstorms.

In this interview Mitchel shares his experiences about his latest online learning product for kids called Scratch. Scratch is a unique digital creativity tool for kids which helps facilitate expression, communication, concepts in interactivity and programming, presentation development, and community-based learning. It consists of an offline application used to create projects, and an online gallery for sharing those projects with other community members and the world. This interview was conducted in the Spring of 2008 and has been edited for clarity purposes.

ST: Can you tell me about the meaning behind your group name, the Lifelong Kindergarten Group?

MR: In our group we’re especially interested in how to help people develop as creative thinkers. It’s our belief that one of the keys to success in the future is going to be one’s ability to think and act creatively. We’re living in a world where things are changing quickly and because of that people need to be able to come up with innovative solutions to unexpected problems.

If our goal is to help people develop as creative thinkers, we then ask ourselves “Well, where can we draw inspiration from? What are good models of how to help people develop as creative thinkers?” As we looked around, we found lots of inspiration from the ways children learn in Kindergarten, especially with traditional Kindergarten. Kindergartens are in the process of changing, but at least in the traditional Kindergarten from its early roots almost 200 years ago, Kindergarten has been a time where kids are constantly engaged in creating things in collaboration with one another in a playful way. Whether they’re building towers out of wooden blocks to make a city, or making pictures with crayons and finger paints, kids in Kindergartens are constantly coming up with ideas, creating things playfully with one another. We’ve seen that that approach is a good way for learning some important concepts in Kindergarten, like learning about number and shape and size and color, but it’s also a very good method to help kids develop as creative thinkers.

By looking at the way children learn in Kindergarten we developed what I call the “creative learning spiral.” In many of the best creative thinking experiences you start with imagination, you come up with an idea, you create something based on your idea, you play and experiment with that idea, you share it with others, you talk about it with them, they try it out, and they give you feedback. Based on that experience, you reflect upon your idea, you think about what happened, and that gives you new ideas. Then you’re right back again at the beginning with imagining – at which point, you keep on spiraling out with new ideas based on this concept of “imagine, create, play, share, reflect, and imagine.” We can see this spiraling concept working really well in most Kindergartens. So we ask ourselves “Why cant we take this same approach to learning and bring it to learners of all ages?” Hence the name of our group, Lifelong Kindergarten.

Kindergarten has been around for a long time. Why hasn’t the Kindergarten approach to learning been adopted for learners of all ages? My thinking is that it’s been difficult to spread that Kindergarten approach through older grades in school and through the continual learning experiences as we get older because we haven’t had the right media, the right technologies, and the right tools.

Crayons, fingerpaints and wooden blocks are great for learning Kindergarten concepts like number, shape, size, and color. As you get older and you want to learn more advanced ideas, then crayons, fingerpaints and wooden blocks are not enough. People then shift to a more “transmission” approach to learning, where we try to deliver information to students in a classroom as a way of helping students learn new things.

This is where I think new technologies can make a big difference. My feeling is if we use new technologies the right way, we can extend the Kindergarten approach to learning to learners of all ages. What we want to do in our Lifelong Kindergarten group is develop new technologies that are in the spirit of crayons, fingerpaints and wooden blocks used in Kindergarten. By using these new technologies, want to allow learners of all ages to work on personally meaningful projects and to continue to learn in that Kindergarten style but to learn more advanced ideas and to work on more advanced projects.

ST: This is a recurring theme with the other projects you have been involved with. Not just Scratch, but also PicoCrickets and the Computer Clubhouse as well.

MR: Yes. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group has been the name of my research group for maybe ten or fifteen years now. We’ve worked on many different projects under that banner. The theme of Lifelong Kindergarten is our broad vision. Within that broad vision we’re always working on different projects. Sometimes its developing new technologies that will help people continue to experiment, explore and express themselves in a Kindergarten style. Sometimes its creating new sites or contexts where we can experiment with how people learn, like the after school Computer Clubhouse settings we started. We’re creating technologies, activities, and environments, both physical and online, that help support this Kindergarten style of learning. Our feeling is that you need lots of different things to support the Kindergarten style of learning. Any one technology is not going to do it.

ST: Kind of a diverse curriculum for older ages?

MR: Yes, and for us to support that approach, we need people with lots of different backgrounds. They can’t just be a bunch of technologists building the technology. It requires not just computer scientists, but also psychologists, educators, designers, and people with expertise in content areas like math and sciences. It also requires people who are not just thinking about developing technologies but who are developing activities and developing different types of real world settings to support all of this.

ST: And you would need theorists as well.

MR: Yes.

ST: I know the work of Seymour Papert has had a strong impact on your thinking and the development of the Computer Clubhouse, Crickets, and Scratch. What areas of Seymour’s work have had the biggest influence on you?

MR: Well, a few different things. It’s from Seymour that I received a real appreciation about the importance of the design experience being interwoven with the learning experience. Many of our best learning experiences come about when we’re actively engaged in designing and creating things. With almost all of our projects, we’re always thinking “How can we engage people in creating and designing?” because we feel many of the best learning experiences come about when you’re creating and designing. That’s one important thing that I’ve learned from Seymour.

A second thing that was a very big influence for me is the importance of supporting a very wide range of different learners. I find that too many toys and educational activities are designed for a very particular type of learner. They might do a good job of supporting that particular type of learner but unfortunately it means that only certain types of people are able to get engaged with important ideas. I was very influenced by Seymour’s efforts to try to broaden the range of people who would get engaged in activities. To make sure you take into account that different people have different styles of learning and that they also have lots of different interests. We really try to think about those issues as we design.

Seymour would talk about developing new technologies in terms them having a “low floor” and a “high ceiling.” A low floor means making it easy for people to get started, and a high ceiling can keep them doing more and more advanced and complex things with it. I then extend this metaphor to say it’s also important to have “wide walls.” This means that you can have many different ways of getting engaged in these activities, not just one narrow way of doing it.

Also, the idea of connecting with people’s passions is also something I took away from Seymour. In his book Mindstorms, he starts with a wonderful essay about his own experiences as a child playing with gears. Playing with gears gave him a way of thinking about different mathematical ideas. An important part of this essay was Seymour saying he “fell in love with gears.” That’s the phrasing he uses and I think it’s an important one. It’s not just that he learned about gears, but he fell in love with gears. It’s all about the importance of engaging someone’s passion in what they’re learning. The lesson is not that we should be giving gears to everybody, it’s that we should find out what each person is passionate about.

ST: What insights can you share in how best to make technology more personable, more meaningful and more accessible to kids?

MR: The first thing is to make sure we think of technology in terms of a material that kids can do things with. Too often today, a lot of technology delivers something to the kid. I think too many technologies are trying to create an experience for kids or deliver information to kids. I’d rather think of technology as a material that kids can mold out of their imaginations into things. The more that you give kids control over the technology and allow kids to shape the direction of the technology then it becomes much easier to connect with their personal interests and passions. Giving kids the ability to shape, mold and direct technology allows everyone to shape the technology based on their own interests and passions. I’m always thinking about how we can make the technology in a way that kids are the ones who are deciding which ways to push it. Kids should be pushing the technology, the technology should not be pushing the kid.

ST: Do you find yourself in conversations with educators about the differences between Constructionism and Constructivism or Behaviorism or the learning approach teachers tend to use in class today?

MR: Yes, I certainly find myself in all those discussions.

First of all, the way I think about Piaget‘s term Constructivism, the core idea to recognize is that learners build knowledge structures. Learning is an active process where learners are actively constructing knowledge based on their interactions with the world. In our minds we have lots of pieces of knowledge. Through our interaction with the world we’re actively making new connections and building our understanding. Building understanding is an active process where learners, through their interactions, are constantly constructing an understanding of the world. In a class of 30 students they are all going to be doing somewhat different constructions. It’s an ongoing active process.

Now Seymour Papert, who studied with and worked closely with Piaget, added to this concept with his term Constructionism. This idea says that one of the best ways to help people actively build their knowledge structures is to engage them in constructing things in the world. This can be thought of broadly. It might be constructing a tower out of wooden blocks, constructing a poem with words, or constructing a picture on the computer screen. Those are all ways of constructing in the world. When you talk about Constructionism, Seymour’s main point is that one of the best ways of building knowledge structures is by constructing things in the world. Whenever I construct things in the world, there is this constant feedback, back and forth, that helps me building new ideas. By building new ideas it gives me new ways of thinking about how to make things in the world. It’s this constant cycle of making things in the world, which enables me to make new ideas, which let’s me make new things in the world, which let’s me make new ideas. This is what I see Seymour saying with Constructionism.

I interpret Piaget’s Contructivism as more a theory of how people learn, where Seymour’s Constructionism is more of an approach to learning, it’s a strategy for education. I see them as somewhat different. It’s not that one replaces the other. Constructivism is more about the way people learn and Constructionism is more a suggested strategy, an educational approach, to help people learn.

As I look at the educational community, especially in the educational research community, over the last decade or so, everybody says they’re a Constructivists. Increasingly with teachers, they also say they’re Constructivists and that they’re drawing upon these ideas from Piaget. One thing that I sometimes find frustrating is that people often say they are Constructivists, but if you look at their practices, whether it’s the practice of a teacher in a classroom or the practice of a toy designer, or a media designer, their practices are totally at odds with what I think Constructivism is really about. I worry that it’s a buzz word being tossed around these days. I don’t think people really take it to heart in a serious way.

I should add that, although I feel I’m very influenced by and a strong believer of this Constructivist approach to learning and Seymour’s Constructionist strategies for education, it’s important to be up front about the fact that it’s not easy to carry out a Constructionists approach to learning or to set up an educational approach taking seriously Constructivist ideas. I think that’s one reason why they don’t get followed through as well as I would wish. It’s not that it’s easy to follow through on these approaches. To really respect individual learners and their learning styles and the ways that they go about constructing knowledge is a challenge. Although I think these ideas are very important, and I’m a deep believer in them, I’m also very aware that it’s a challenge to realize them.

ST: Where teachers and students are regularly tested for what they’ve learned within a week, within a month, I wonder if a Constructionists approach to learning can co-exist with all the testing that occurs in these assessment heavy days?

MR: I think it’s challenging. I think the role assessment plays in today’s classroom does make it more difficult to bring about the approach to education I would be most supportive of. I think assessment influences both what we’re helping students learn and how we’re helping students learn. First of all, some of the things I think are most important for students to learn aren’t easy to assess. If we need to have a very clear, often quantitative assessment of what students are learning, some things that I think are very important for students to be learning just don’t enter the classroom because we don’t have good ways of assessing them. But I don’t think that means we should give up on those things because they’re not easy to assess.

It’s a challenge. It is important to be accountable and to make sure what you’re doing is valued and is bringing about important change. I think it’s a dilemma.

Also, what is easiest to assess is knowledge of specific facts and specific skills. If those are the easiest things to assess then often times the curriculum drifts in that direction. If what you’re going to assess people on is specific facts and specific skills then drilling, practicing and memorizing can be a very effective way of achieving those results. Again, I don’t think that’s what the goal should be, but if that is what the goal is, then those approaches to education and learning could be effective. However, I do think this steers a lot of education away from what’s most important.

ST: Where did the inspiration for Scratch come from?

MR: A few different places. Partly it grew out of our long experience with our Computer Clubhouses. We started these after school centers for young people from low-income communities and specifically set them up for young people to learn to express themselves with new technologies.

One thing we found was that kids were very engaged with activities like designing with graphics and images. Photoshop became very popular and kids would grab images with a camera or they would scan an image and then they would put together someone’s head with someone else’s body and make all sorts of great images. But one thing we found was that it was much more difficult for Clubhouse members to create dynamic interactive projects, or to create interactive animations, or to create their own games. We thought that it was unfortunate that they couldn’t do this because a lot of them wanted to create interactive animations, interactive stories, and interactive games. They see a lot of this kind of creative work on the Internet and they want to create it as well, but they didn’t have good tools for doing it on their own. A lot of times they would see things online made with Flash, but Flash really wasn’t made for this audience. A lot of the young people would come into the Clubhouse thinking they could get started with Flash and then learn it was really hard for them to do the kinds things they wanted to do. The right tools didn’t exist out there for them to create what they wanted to create.

We also saw this as a missed learning opportunity. In the process of designing and creating interactive projects there are lots of opportunities for important learning experiences. We saw that there were two problems; kids couldn’t design what they wanted to design and there was this missed learning opportunity. The tools that are out there, like Flash, didn’t really seem to be serving the audience that we were most interested in.

Around this time another source of inspiration came to us through my interactions with Alan Kay. Alan is considered one of the grandfathers of the personal computer and the graphical user interface. He’s also been very interested in children’s learning. Alan had been working on a project called Etoys, which was built on top of a programming language his group had developed called Squeak. When I saw Etoys I was very inspired. It was a media manipulating authoring environment that allowed kids to manipulate media in creative ways.

As I looked at Etoys, I found it to be very exciting but didn’t really think it was going to work with the audience I had in mind. Using the experiences we had gathered over the years from the Computer Clubhouse, and drawing off of my work with Seymour Papert and his work with Logo, we imagined we could take some of the ideas from Alan Kay’s Etoys work and make it more accessible. We wanted to figure out how we could lower the floor and make it easier for kids to get started.

Also, from the beginning, we wanted to think about the community aspect of how people could share their projects with one another and how they could collaborate with one another. We thought this was going to be an important part of the learning process.

Using our experiences from the work of Seymour Papert and the work we had done with the Lego Company on the Lego Mindstorms product, we knew a lot about how to make a graphic programming language for kids. Rather than using this graphic programming language to control things in the physical world, as with Lego Mindstorms, the question became “How do we help kids control things on a screen and also let them share there creations?” That’s how we got started and those were our goals.

We were very lucky to receive a grant from the National Science Foundation to work on this project. We worked on what would become Scratch for about four years, trying out different things, constantly working with kids along the way to see what kids were interested in, what type of tools were intuitive for them, and what would they do with the tools we created. There are a variety of different aspects to the project. We built prototype after prototype to try out with kids and finally we publicly launched Scratch exactly one year ago. It’s been very exciting to have it out in the world and attracting a growing community.

ST: Can you tell me about Scratch’s journey since the moment you made the product available online?

MR: It had a rocky start at the very beginning because there was so much demand. On the first day our server crashed. We had a lot of learning to do in order to deal with the demand. But the problem was stabilized quickly and we’ve been able to support the community well since then.

The things I’m happiest with and most surprised about, I’ve been amazed by the sophistication of the projects that the people have done in Scratch. People created things that are beyond what I imagined could be created with the language we developed. It’s always exciting when you develop a piece of software and then people do things with it that you never imagined could be done with it. For example, people have made these incredibly accurate versions of old video games that are sophisticated in ways that I didn’t realize our software would be able to support. This level of sophistication is very impressive.

Even more so I’ve been impressed with and pleased by the diversity of projects kids have been created. From the beginning we knew we wanted to help kids make interactive games, interactive stories, interactive animations. Kids have found so many more creative ways of using the software and the related website.

Here’s one example that comes to mind. There’s a girl in England that instead of making a game, she just started to make some animated characters. She put these characters online with a message that said “I like making animated characters. Please feel free to use them in your stories or games. If you want a special character, just leave a message below and I’ll make it for you.” What she was doing was offering her consulting services on our website to make characters for others. So kids started asking her to make characters for their games and then they put their games online. Another kid offered their skills in making new features that could be added to a game. In several cases, kids would start their own online companies, the first one being a company called “Crank Inc.” which was a group of kids; one in England, one in Ireland, one in Russia and one in the United States. They started this company making games together where each member made different parts of the game.

Another great thing we saw was a project called the Scratch News Network, which was modeled after the Cable News Network. This project had a newscaster giving news about what was new on the Scratch website. As part of our own efforts running the Scratch website, we would feature certain projects on the Scratch home page. However, here was somebody who was giving a newscast of what in their opinion were the most important projects to be aware of on the website. The first time I saw this, my reaction was “Oh, that’s cute. Here’s a simulation of a newscast.” Then I stopped and realized that this was not a simulation of a newscast, this was a real newscast. It was just as much a newscast as is the evening news on CBS. It was created by someone to serve an audience by providing information about what was new in their community. This person wasn’t a fake newscaster or a simulated newscaster, this person was a real newscaster.

I mentioned that we feature certain projects on the Scratch home page. We also found a project that offered advice to the community on how to get your project featured on the home page. People are just using this tool in all sorts of different ways.

The level of collaboration with the Scratch community has also been exciting to see. Right now we’re up to about 130,000 projects on the Scratch website. [Author's note: In May 2008 there were 130,000 posted projects. In September 2008 there were over 200,000 posted projects.] Out of those 130,000 projects, more than 20,000 projects are what we call “remixes”, meaning that someone took someone else’s projects, added things to it and then uploaded it to the site as their own version.

In the early days of the website, this led to a lot of discussion. People would complain that someone else stole their project. We participated in these discussions and offered advice saying the Scratch community is a sharing community. That it was our intent that users be able to put things up on the website and encourage others to make use of it and extend it. We want kids to build upon each other’s work. That’s the way innovation comes, through people sharing their work. This discussion led to the design of new features on the Scratch site. Soon after we automated this remixing process to include information about who’s project it was based on and include a link back to the original project. Then people could trace back through a remixed project’s history to find out what projects it was based on. Our hope is to support this as the culture of the community such that people will feel pride in remixing, that you can see how many of your projects were remixed by others in the community.

ST: I remember reading in Laurence Lessig‘s book Free Culture a quote he wrote that says “no future creation can exist without prior creation.” It seems that this concept easily transports to kids who are enamored by certain creative projects posted to the Scratch website and who have the ability to remix those projects.

I know from my own experiences when learning new software applications, people usually learn best by starting out with something that somebody else has already built and deconstruct that work. Instantly you jump in and learn something. You’re not thumbing through the manuals. It’s like you get a leg up by jumping into the world faster.

MR: Yes, it’s both that you can learn from the techniques other people use and be inspired by the possibilities. Both of those things happen when you look at these projects online.

I sometimes quote a line from Marvin Minsky, a professor here at MIT, and one of the fathers of artificial intelligence. When he was asked about the programming language Logo that made its way into schools in the 80′s, Marvin responded by saying that “It was a nice grammar, but there’s no literature.” By this he meant that it’s a nice programming language but there wasn’t any compelling literature to inspire you. When we learn to read, part of the reason that we learn to read and write is because we’ve read other literature and we’re inspired by what we’ve read. Children grow up reading children’s books and they see great literature and it inspires them to want to read and write. In Marvin’s words, with Logo you never saw that. What we’re hoping to do with Scratch is provide tools for great literature to be created, which in turn will help others be inspired by those works.

ST: Are there challenges you see in getting teachers to use Scratch?

MR: I see that there are challenges along several dimensions.

One is that Scratch doesn’t fit so naturally into the existing curriculum. It’s not the type of activity where you can say this is going to help students learn concept X that is part of standard Y. It doesn’t fit that neatly into existing curriculum.

The second thing that makes it difficult is that in order to get the most out of Scratch it requires someone spending time getting to know the product, in a supportive environment. It’s not as simple as just booting it up and you’ll know everything about it. Some of the most important aspects of Scratch take some time and effort to learn. Providing teachers with the appropriate support to help them learn to make the most out of Scratch, not just the technical details, is certainly a big challenge.

How teachers can fit Scratch into their existing classroom activities is another challenge.

There are a few ways that I do see Scratch getting into schools. The easiest fit for Scratch is related to programming-related studies, which can be an important part of any middle school technology or high school computer-science curriculum.

Another way that Scratch is being used is in a similar manner to Powerpoint. Powerpoint is used as a general presentation tool. Whether students are doing a report on the rainforest of Costa Rica or doing a report on the presidents of the United States they might make a presentation using Powerpoint. Scratch can also be used as a presentation tool, and I think its abilities go beyond Powerpoint. First of all, you can make richer dynamic projects. It can be expanded beyond the standard image displays and bullet points of text often found in a typical Powerpoint presentation. I also think Scratch allows users to be more expressive with a richer learning experience. Teachers appreciate that, and once they become familiar with Scratch, they’ll start to use it as a tool with students for a wide range of activities. From the early adopter teachers using Scratch, there are great things happening in their classrooms.

ST: Is Scratch being used internationally?

MR: Yes. Scratch has a very big following in the United Kingdom partly because we received a lot of press coverage by the BBC. The word spread well there. It’s also being used in many different places around the world.

In the early days of Scratch, English was the primary language built into the product, so that constrained who could use it. We’ve gradually been expanding the software to include a wider range of languages. Today there’s a menu where you can choose from more than a dozen languages. There are still a few constraints. It doesn’t convert everything on the interface perfectly. Scratch initially was built to support Latin characters and characters that are in English. It doesn’t support Japanese or Chinese or Indian dialects yet.

This summer we’re coming up with a new version of Scratch that will support a number of additional languages, like Hebrew, where you read from right to left. It’s our intent that Scratch will support a much wider range of characters and the entire interface will be supported in the conversion. We’re working on getting both the website as well as the application to support more languages. Internationalization is of interest to us because we currently have users from dozens of countries around the world.

Initially we put out a call on one of the discussion boards asking people to help translate the site and we heard from lots of volunteers. Basically we sent these volunteers a spreadsheet with all of the English words in it and they just filled in the words from their language.

ST: Do you see Scratch having an equal appeal to girls as well as boys?

MR: This was certainly something we were aiming for from the very beginning. We’ve seen a lot of interest across genders. It was important to our design group that we support and encourage a wide range of projects because users have such a diverse set of interests. We didn’t want Scratch to become just a game site. In some ways it’s easy to say Scratch is great for making games, and it is great for making games, but we were worried that this would become a self-reinforcing message and could potentially turn off some of our intended audience. We’ve made an effort to provide a wide variety of projects and that approach has helped us keep a variety of people with different backgrounds interested. I don’t know what the exact percentages are, though there are more boys than girls on the site. But when we did the analysis, girls posted just as many projects on the website as do boys. They are equally active participants. We would like to improve the numbers some because it isn’t quite balanced right now.

One user’s story that speaks to diverse interests is that of one 14 year old from New Jersey who made one of the most popular projects on the Scratch site. We spoke with him and his parents. His mother referred to him as a theatre geek. He had never really done much on a computer but he loved the theatre. Scratch was his way of getting involved creating on a computer. We really like this story because we wanted to make Scratch appeal to a wide range of kids, to not just the math-science types at schools, but theatre kids and many others as well. We’re very happy that we’ve been appealing to kids with a wide range of different backgrounds.

ST: In reading through some of your published research, you describe the Digital Divide as something that’s not just tied to issues of computer access, but also issues of fluency. Could you discuss how Scratch addresses issues of fluency to help minimize the Digital Divide?

MR: The good news is the Digital Divide will narrow over time. It is already narrowing and will continue to narrow due to the rapidly declining costs of technology. I think this makes new technology more accessible to a wider range of people. There are still barriers to entry due to cost, but new technologies are becoming more widespread than have been in the past.

What I worry about is a future where everyone has access to technology but people simply use technology as a consumer. That all they’re doing is pointing, clicking and chatting. Other users will be able to design, create and invent with new technologies. That’s where there’s the risk of having a divide between those who quick browse and chat and those who design, create and invent.

In my mind there’s going to be a much richer learning experience for people who are able to design, create and invent. It will better prepare these users to be better participants in the society of the future. I think by providing tools like Scratch we’re providing opportunities for young people to grow up designing, creating and inventing so they are better prepared to be full participants in tomorrow’s society where they’re really able to use the technology to express themselves and explore things in new ways.

ST: Can you share any insights into kids’ social interactions that could lead to better online learning outcomes?

MR: The thing that’s really important to us is creating a respectful environment and a culture of respect. Not simply because we want kids to learn to be polite to each other, but because we want kids to take risks when creating and designing. If you’re part of a community where people are making insulting comments based on something that you’ve created, then you’re not going to try out new things and you’re not going to take risks. If you create something new and somebody makes an insulting comment about it you’re not going to take risks again. We think it’s really important for kids to take risks and to try new things and it’s only going to work if they are part of a respectful community. We have put a really high priority on is how can we create a community of respect.

We put a lot of emphasis on a community of respect when we were creating our after school Computer Clubhouses. There are a lot of challenges in creating an environment of respect in an after school center and we learned a lot by doing so. There’s lots more we have to learn in creating a similar community of respect in an online environment. Online we’re not working directly with the kids. They can be anonymous, we don’t know who they are, we don’t know things about their background. If we’re working directly with kids in the same room, we learn more about them and we’re able to find the appropriate feedback that will help cultivate an environment of respect. It’s tough to create that environment, but once you get a mass of the community to behave in a certain way, it soon becomes the norm. It then becomes easier to perpetuate it. This is an important goal for all online communities to establish. If online communities are concerned with the development of children’s learning, then a culture of respect is critically important.

Tween Social Networking and Other Media Trends

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

The New York Times recently ran a short article called Preferring the Web Over Watching TV which cited a few stats regarding TV and web habits of 10 to 14 year olds. The article was based on a study conducted by DoubleClick Performics. In the article it stated:

  • 83% of children ages 10 to 14 spent an hour or more a day using the Internet
  • 68% of children ages 10 to 14 spent an hour or more a day watching television
  • 72% of the children online have at least one social networking profile on a site like MySpace
  • 60% of this online group said they never or rarely read blogs (Don’t latch onto this stat. Read more below.)

I thought these stats were great to find, but I wanted more. Much more. So I started searching online for any additional information about this DoubleClick Performics report. While I didn’t find the full report, I did find this gem of a release many weeks earlier called New Data Shows the Tween Scene is Online written by Stuart Larkins, VP of Search Operations at DoubleClick Performics. The article was posted on a site called Chief Marketer. This report appears to have been written from data gathered in an online survey of more than 1,000 tweens in the 10 to 14 age group. In this post the following additional stats could be found:

  • Almost 50% of this group go online more than three times a day with each visit lasting at least a half an hour.
  • 29% of children ages 10 to 14 spent an hour or more a day listening to radio
  • 10% of children ages 10 to 14 spent an hour or more a day reading newspapers
  • 5% of children ages 10 to 14 spent an hour or more a day reading magazines

As it relates to social networking for this demographic, the article states:

  • 54% have a profile on MySpace
  • 35% have a profile on Facebook
  • 45% have a profile on some other social networking site
  • 64% visit social networking sites at least once per day
  • 34% spend four or more hours a week on social networking sites

In terms of this demographic reading blogs:

  • 8% frequently read blogs
  • 31% occasionally read blogs
  • 40% rarely read blogs
  • 20% never read blogs

What I find interesting about these stats in terms of this demographic having a MySpace or Facebook account is that both online services state in their Terms of Use (Myspace, Facebook) that users must be at least 13 years of age or older to use the site. Since the publicly available information from this report is not broken out by individual age, you have to wonder:

a.) What percentage of kids ages 10 to 12 report using MySpace and Facebook?

b.) Should we assume that the majority of these social networking statistics only apply to 13 and 14 year olds?

c.) Could it be possible that kids in the 10 to 14 demographic are over reporting their actual use of these sites because it’s a “cool” thing to say you have a profile on MySpace and Facebook?

Jennifer Kotler, AVP of Domestic Research at Sesame Workshop, presented a similar report a couple of months ago at the Joan Ganz Cooney Symposium and the Kid Power Xchange conference, but with a focus on 6 to 9 year olds. I’ll share more on her findings in a future post.