Archive for May, 2009

Classroom Surfaces Crackle with Life

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Smart Technologies newest product, the Smart Table

It’s often been cited that if one were to go back in time 100 years to visit a classroom one would see no difference between that classroom of yesteryear and that of a classroom today. While indeed there are many similarities between the two classrooms, there are some major differences. First, a difference that cannot be seen is the many bits and bytes floating in the air of classrooms today thanks to wireless computing technologies. Second, the surfaces within a classroom are turning into interactive screens. As many technologists within the ed publishing space are certainly aware of, the interactive whiteboard is growing in popularity. I see a trend that has yet to occur related to these new interactive technologies that can be seized on today.

Currently, interactive whiteboards (IWBs) are being used at the front of a class for instruction that just a year or two ago occurred on a blackboard or with an overhead projector. Could you imagine a classroom where each student had their own netbook on their desk that could interact with an IWB in real time? Also, looking one step beyond netbooks, recently SMART Technologies announced its new interactive surface product, the SMART Table, which could very easily lead many similar manufacturers to convert student desks into interactive desks within a few short years. How can publishers take advantage of this opportunity that is almost visible on the horizon?

A number of new products can be defined to not only take advantage of IWB instruction, but to facilitate learning through two-way conversations between IWB and interactive desktop. Such functionality could result in the next “must have” learning product. Such products would allow all students to participate in the digital instruction, alongside the teacher, in real time. Also, if every student could interact from the comfort of his/her own desk, teachers could also monitor student progress from afar either in real time or after the class day has ended. Teachers could also scan student efforts from the IWB, and project a student’s work in much the same way Timbuktu technology allowed years ago, displaying a student’s interactive table on the IWB for everyone to see.

Another yet to be explored opportunity by publishers relates to classroom use of IWB altogether. For some instructors, the art of teaching can be a linear process and for the most part, delivered as a one-way conversation to students. Interactivity begs for participation. My greatest fear with IWB materials is that teachers will use the technology to deliver content in a similar manner to using an overhead projector. IWBs allow for an interactive opportunity that is a two-way or participitory conversation, or at very least, a one-way conversation that can branch off in many directions based on student needs. What publishers are doing today with IWBs is similar to when radio professionals tried applying their expertise to television in the early days of the new medium. Content creation sensitivities for radio did not automatically port to television, and as a result, many mistakes about how best to use the medium were made. It wasn’t until the invention of the three-camera shoot and many additional “formal features” that the medium of television began to succeed as a means to communicate. What happened in these early days of television is also occurring today with IWBs and most surface computing.

What I’m noticing while my own company is defining and developing IWB products for publishers is that experimentation, user testing, and research are areas soon to evolve in this fast growing space of ed tech. Simply converting print material into PDFs as a solution for successful IWB products doesn’t fully exploit the interactive teaching possibilities that can be found with these new devices and doesn’t create the best value for the classroom dollar. True product successes will occur when publishers think outside the blackboard and outside the overhead projector to create a product that has more to do with the language of interactive engagement and less to do with that of linear print.

Finding Fun with Children’s Books

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Every now and then I’m asked by a new parent or friends of new parents for children’s book recommendations, so today I thought I’d take a short break from kids tech-talk to post some of my favorites. I want to thank Amy Kraft over at Media Macaroni for introducing me to the No Time for Flash Cards blog. This site’s a great find that promotes play, discovery and learning with preschoolers in mind. A recent post asking for favorite children’s books reminded me that I’ve been keeping an ever growing list of my own. I think every new home library should include these “must have” starter books, and chances are if you’re looking to give a children’s book as a gift, these will already be in the collection:

  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and Archambault
  • Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann

Now that we have those great ones out of the way, here are some of my personal favorites for young and growing children. I’ve simmered my list down to just these 10 books:

  • Barnyard Dance! by Sandra Boynton
    Barnyard Dance! by Sandra Boynton A delightful rhyming story of barnyard friends that go to a dance. The rhythm and meter of this story will keep you reciting sections from this book for days on end. Another great find for our family was discovering that there’s a Sandra Boynton CD available with this book’s lyrics set to song.

  • How Are You Peeling? by Joost Elffers
    How Are You Peeling? by Joost ElffersElffers is a fantastic photographer with a talent for bringing personality and emotion out of common everyday fruits and vegetables. Each page is filled with wonderful facial expressions from his creations. Light copy, lots of unique and interesting faces to enjoy.

  • Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin
    Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen CroninFarmer Brown runs a no-nonsense farm, but things change once the cows who live there acquire an old typewriter and learn how to express there wishes on short notes. When Farmer Brown doesn’t comply with the cows requests, the cows decide they will go on strike. Fun, fun. fun!

  • Bunny Planet by Rosemary Wells
    Bunny Planet by Rosemary WellsThere are so many great books written by Rosemary Wells that it’s hard to pick even just a few, but the Bunny Planet books (a small collection of three books sold together as a set) have a wonderful Zen-like story quality to them. Ms. Wells explores the idea of a perfect world that lives inside our heads when things outside don’t go quite as well as we had planned.

  • Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh
    Martha Speaks by Susan MeddaughThe story of a family dog named Martha who likes to eat alphabet soup. The interesting twist in the story is that when Martha eats the soup, the letters go up to her brain instead of down to her tummy! There are many Martha Speaks books available and the first is the one that sets up the story for the entire series.

  • The Monster at the End of This Book by John Stone
    The Monster at the End of This Book by John StoneI think everyone in the entire world loves Grover, the fuzzy blue character from Sesame Street. In this story, Grover asks, even begs, the reader not to turn the pages of this book because he’s afraid there’s a monster that might scare him on the very next page. You will read this one again and again with your young child.

  • The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller
    The Scrambled States of America by Laurie KellerWhat would happen if each state in the nation could move to a new location? This book explores the fun and mayhem that ensues when each state moves to where they think they would really enjoy living. A funny story for children who are learning to memorize the US states.

  • I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
    I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato by Lauren ChildThis is the first book that began the popular Charlie and Lola series of books and television shows. Lola is a very finicky eater. Her older brother Charlie presents familiar foods with funny names and stories that make Lola curious about what she might be missing. Just where do peas and fish sticks come from? And what sort of story would you tell to make eating these items more appealing?

  • Owly by Andy Runton
    Owly by Andy RuntonThe Owly book series are a charming collection of graphic novels starring an owl and his woodland friends. Together they go on many adventures, making new friends and helping other animals and friendly insects along the way. These books require a parent to imagine and invent the dialog alongside the visuals which I believe fosters an even closer story telling experience between reader and child.

  • Police Cloud by Christoph Niemann
    Police Cloud by Christoph NiemannThe graphic design approach to this story is just beautiful. Christoph Nieman is an artist for the New Yorker magazine and now shares his visual talents as a children’s book author. Nieman tells a captivating story about a cloud that wishes to become a policeman.

    I hope you find this list helpful and enjoyable. Happy reading with your young friends!

  • What Works For Virtual Play? – Questions to ask about Web-enabled toys

    Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

    [The following is an article I wrote for Playthings Magazine which appears in the May 2009 issue.]

    Photo of girl holding her stuffed animal while playing on a laptop computer

    When toy companies talk about new toy products, there’s often a lot of discussion around a toy’s play patterns. What is it about the toy that resonates with a child? What play patterns will the toy tap into? Will the play pattern extend across age and gender differences?

    Sometimes answering play pattern questions like these are pretty straight forward, other times their answers are not as clear cut. Potentially even more complicated is describing the play pattern around a toy product tied to a virtual world or online experience. What kind of play pattern are we talking about now? How does the play experience through an avatar in an online world differ from that of a child playing with a physical toy in the real world?

    These are hard questions to answer, but they are ones I’m betting more and more people will be asking in the world of youth marketing.

    The 2008 American International Toy Fair was a big year for virtual world toy products. Unlike years before, 2008 saw many virtual world product announcements, a first for the show. Some of the biggest announcements came from the likes of Disney and Techno Source with Pixie Hallow and Clickables, iToys with the Me2 Universe, Ty with Beanie Babies 2.0 and TyGirls, and 10Vox with Tracksters and KooKeys. Each of these companies offered a virtual play experience through the purchase of a tangible toy product—the business model of preference being one in which the consumer buys a tangible product that grants access to an online world.

    Fast forward to 2009. It seems almost every few days we learn of a new virtual world for kids. While a number of virtual worlds were announced on the show floor during the 2009 Toy Fair, even more were announced outside of the walls of the Javits Center. What was surprising was the number of new product announcements, not just updates to old products launched a year or two prior. Take note for the future: February could very well become the product announcement month of choice in the virtual world space. Such announcements started in 2008 and today appear to be picking up steam.

    As you can imagine, any announcement attached to a toy industry event will include some tangible toy product as part of the virtual world offering. Most often plush toys are the vehicle of choice for promoting virtual worlds to kids, but changes are underway within the toy-related niche of the virtual world space. Just about anything these days can include a password key on a piece of paper to allow access to an online destination. Also added to the mix are new solutions that include USB thumb drives that plug into your computer and become the keys to playing in these online destinations.

    When I look back on the last two years of tangible toy/virtual world product announcements, I notice two trends, in particular, related to the software portion of the announcement:

    1. At the time when a company first makes a virtual world announcement, the virtual world is generally far from completion. If the virtual world has been in development for a long time and is in the process of a sizable public beta effort (meaning many actual consumers are testing the virtual world to flush out problems and improve the quality and stability of the product), this is a good thing. A sizable public testing effort should be the norm with all such products, but sadly it is not. As a result, first-year launches can be challenging for both the companies that make the products as well as the children who use them, typically resulting in poor reviews out of the gate.

    2. After a product has officially launched, it tends to be improved and expanded upon as sales grow or as web traffic proves what is working and what is not within the virtual world. These sorts of improvements are generally seen with products that have been in the marketplace for at least two years.

    As it relates to the overall offering of both the physical and virtual parts of the product, I have these additional observations related to the buying and selling of these items that can lead to consumer success:

    • How “giftable” is the product? For example, one of the things I love about Webkinz is that the current line of plush toys makes for a great gift idea. They are priced right and are easy to give. Also, the cost to get online is attached to the purchase of the tangible item. This removes the burden from a child of figuring out how they may have to pay for the online experience.

    • Related to cost, are there any hidden fees to gain access to the online world? Sometimes the purchase of the tangible product will not allow full access online. Some virtual worlds can be tiered or gated in a way that premium content is restricted until a credit card is used. A number of different financial models exist related the sale of such products. Be sure to ask if the purchase of the tangible good is the only fee involved or if other fees are part of the online experience.

    • What kind of tangible toy selection is possible? Are there only a small number of items at one specific cost or are many SKUs available across a variety of price points? A variety of products and pricing options can be of benefit to sales.

    • Is there more to the virtual world than just game play? Few of the latest virtual world announcements offer an experience beyond games. Two products to watch that offer something more include Jacabee’s The Jacabee Code, which promotes a unique approach to learning history and Tales 4 Tomorrow, a destination that is all about animal conservation (with plush toys from Fiesta).

    • How deep is the online experience? How many activities and how much content is available? What is the mix of games to creativity tools? Newer sites may not have as much depth as sites that have been on the market for some time.

    • Who does the product appeal to, boys or girls? Historically, very few of these virtual world offerings have had an appeal to boys 9 years old and older. However, this too is changing. New destinations with a greater appeal to boys include products like the car-centric Tracksters, Revnjenz (Revnjenz) and KizMoto (KizToys); and the dinosaur-themed Webosaurs (Reel FX) and Xtractaurs (Mattel).

    • What about younger users? While it may be surprising to find even younger users interested in similar online destinations, many of the social and communication tools available to older users are just not of interest to younger users. Age-appropriate products for young users have been in short supply. However, Ganz recently announced a younger version of Webkinz called Webkinz Jr., and since 2007, Gigapals has offered an eponymously-named site with related toys for the same audience: ages 3 to 6. When thinking up products for younger children, consider the amount of reading and audio instruction provided within these worlds. This demographic may be computer savvy enough to get to your site, but they may still be challenged by the inclusion of too much text once they arrive there.

    • If the online world allows its users the ability to communicate with one another, is the method of communication “canned chat,” “filtered chat” or “open chat”? In addition, what kind of monitoring is provided to prevent inappropriate conversation or cyber bullying?

    It’s hard to easily describe the appeal of online worlds for kids. An answer may be found with the sense of independence or a feeling of being in complete control over the digital universe. There might also be an aspirational component to these worlds, as well, that is hard for an adult to fully understand. Part of this new play experience may be an extension of pretend play we’re all so familiar with, related to kids and toys in the real world. One thing is certain, virtual worlds are an expanding part of a child’s play options, however you choose to define the play pattern. And because new virtual worlds are being announced more frequently, chances are there’s one that’s a perfect fit for any girl or boy, or maybe even the child at heart.