Archive for the 'Audio Recordings' Category

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Casual Connect is an annual conference in the US that explores the business and development of casual games. This conference also travels to Europe and Singapore. This year’s US event recently held in Seattle, had a day long track focused on Children & Family Entertainment. 360KID CEO Scott Traylor was asked to deliver a presentation on trends and best practices for developing learning games. The video below is a recording of his talk called “Technology, Kids, & Learning: The Future and the Opportunities”.

Links to specific research cited in this presentation are listed below.

Do you need help developing a learning game for the classroom or just need some advice for creating a consumer-based learning game? Be it online, offline, electronic toy, iOS or Andriod, give us a call.

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Monday, January 19th, 2009

[The following is an article I wrote on mobile computing with handheld experts Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway for the January 2009 issue of Tech & Learning Magazine.]

For an audio recording of this interview, click here.

Photos of Cathleen Norris of the University of North Texas and Elliot Soloway of the University of Michigan

Cathleen Norris and Elliot Soloway are both pioneering educators who are defining the future of technology and learning.

Dr. Cathleen Norris, a former high school teacher for over 14 years, is currently a professor in the Department of Technology and Cognition at the University of North Texas. Cathleen is also the past president of ISTE and the past president of NECA, the organizing body for the country’s leading technology and education conference, NECC.

Dr. Elliot Soloway is a faculty member at the University of Michigan. In addition to teaching at the university, Elliot is involved with a number of grant initiatives for the development of middle school science instruction through technology. His research also involves working with many different school districts to define technology-based curricula.

Together Cathleen and Elliot have authored and published over 100 different research papers on a variety of different learning technologies through the professional organization the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). They are also founders, partners and collaborators of the handheld software company, GoKnow.

Late in 2008, I had the opportunity to interview Cathleen and Elliot on their thoughts regarding mobile technologies and this platform’s ability to deliver educational content to students.

Scott Traylor: Cathleen, Elliot, could you share with us how your university work and the work you are involved with at your company, GoKnow, have influenced your thinking regarding technology use in the classroom?

Elliot Soloway: Well, Cathie and I have worked together for about 15 years. A bunch of years ago we took on the task of trying to understand why is it that technology has not impacted K-12 education in the same way that it’s impacted basically every other aspect of human endeavor. We conducted a survey called the “Snapshot Survey” and as we went into that survey we thought, “Oh it’s going to be something about the teachers. There’s something about the teachers that’s problematic. If we can just figure out what that problem is, then we could address the issue of why computers and technology have not yet had an impact in the classrooms.” What we found in the survey results was that the issue was about access and wasn’t about teachers at all. It was about the fact that there was such a limited amount of access. 65% of the classrooms had one computer or less in their classroom. We found 60% of the kids were spending less than 15 minutes a week on a computer because there weren’t enough computers or there weren’t any computers. So why hasn’t technology had an impact on K-12? It’s because there hasn’t been enough technology available, so the kids couldn’t use it. And if they couldn’t use it, they certainly weren’t able to learn from it. That was a startling realization. The fact that it is about access was sort of a necessary condition.

Cathleen Norris: In the survey that Elliot was talking about, we surveyed more than 10, 000 teachers across the country; from Santa Clara, California to Florida, to New York. We had a really good mixture of teachers. When we found out there was this access problem, we decided that if we were going stay on this path we’re on, which was to provide laptops to all students as the solution to the access problem, then the technology solutions we were looking to achieve were simply not going to happen. The amount of laptops needed, and we were talking about 55 million children in the United States public schools at the time, was a solution that just didn’t scale. Elliot and I didn’t really believe that this was the right answer to the technology access problem.

So five years or so ago Elliot was in a meeting with Roy Pea, a leading professor on education at Stanford University. Shortly after this meeting, Elliot called me and said “We’ve got to start developing for the Palm computer.” This was just after the Palm first came out. He said “Roy’s convinced me this is a real computer.” At that time we were working on an NSF grant. We decided to take what was left of that money and try to develop educational applications for the Palm. In other words, let’s take this low cost, easy to use businessman’s device and retrofit it so that it could be used in schools.

During that summer we had a group of very bright and enthusiastic undergraduate students working with us. We asked them to help define what Elliot called the “cool dozen apps.” We talked to teachers about what kinds of things they did in the classroom and what kinds of ideas the students had for what they would want if they were students in those grades. We didn’t quite come up with twelve apps but we did come up with and develop quite a few. Almost immediately we had more than a hundred thousand downloads of these apps once we offered them online for free. The only problem was that after Palm changed their operating system, our apps didn’t work on the new Palm operating system. People started calling us saying we have to redo these apps so that they work on the new operating system. We said “Excuse me but free is free and we are professors. This is not what we do, ” but these calls continued to come in. We thought that maybe we could hire a programmer, one of the original people we worked with us on these apps, and maybe we can just fix this problem. Anyway, long story short, we ended up spinning a company out of the University of Michigan. We licensed the applications from the University and then started to maintain them. This was the very beginning for us in doing anything other than our professorial work. This was how we got into the software business.

ES: Traditionally NSF gives out all this money to researchers. Researchers publish papers, and that’s really great, and they get their tenure and such, but really nothing happens. At the time, NSF was asking “How do we transition research into commercial ventures?” So basically what Cathie and I did was do what NSF wanted; to take the research and make it real. Now we were naïve in the sense that we could easily start a business. No big deal, right? The University of Michigan was very supportive and helpful as we started it. I was the CEO thinking “No problem!” We had absolutely no marketing. We thought people would simply call us up, we’d answer the phone, and we would send off the software. We really had no idea how to do this as a real business. After a while, people started helping us because they realized what we had was valuable and the Palm at that point was really in it’s ascendancy.

We also realized that if people were going to use Palm computers with kids in schools, then they needed our software. For example Sketchy, which is a drawing animation tool we developed that allows students to create animations, is not just a paint program, but a tool that can be used as a sequencer. Kids could illustrate how to do long division with Sketchy. They could use this software to demonstrate long division. They would show the math and write English to explain it. Teachers have shared with us that they can teach long division in half the time when we use Sketchy. So we hit something, we hit a nerve that really made a difference with early adopters.

At the same time Cathie and I we were doing research in Detroit along with some other folks to look at the impact of handhelds on learning. We had three teachers, each of which had four classes. Two of those classes used Palm computers, the other two classes didn’t use Palms. This was a controlled study, paid for again by NSF. At the end of the second year of the study, once the teachers finally understood how to take advantage of the technology, the children who were in the classes that had the handhelds showed a 13% advantage over the children who didn’t use the handheld, using the same test and the same curriculum.

What this study did was confer an advantage in using these devices. It was a difficult study to do and it cost almost $600, 000 by the time we were finished with the research. But in the end, we had a control study to support the anecdotal story, which is pretty cool. Today, Cathie and I continue to do research at the universities, publishing papers, writing, because that’s what you do at a university, but also trying to figure out how to make this company into a viable force in K-12.

ST: What year was this when you started?

ES: We developed the applications in 2000 and then by 2002 we were a small little tiny company.

ST: So GoKnow, as a business entity, offers instructional content via the Palm or other handhelds for K-12 use?

CN: That was the way it started, but as of the last year handhelds have converged with telephony. While there are still some companies that make standalone handhelds, many of them are now cell phone computers as opposed to simply handheld computers. We are starting to see the implementation of cell phone computers into classrooms.

ES: Let’s take one step back. What happened was Palm started to back away from the K-12 market and all of a sudden Dell came into the picture. They offered low cost pocket PCs. We ported our software over to the Windows mobile platform when there was an uptake on pocket PCs. But then, that too stopped because of this idea that no one would want to buy a non-telephone handheld device. Everything was going towards this converged device.

Parallel to this was the one-to-one laptop programs as Cathie mentioned earlier. The results from those programs were “They’re not really working.” Why weren’t they working? One reason was there wasn’t enough educational software available for these laptops. A second reason, teachers weren’t receiving any professional development on how to use those laptops in the classrooms. They could show technically how to use the computer, but the bigger issue was how do you integrate the laptop into the classroom. And third, the costs were such that it was not sustainable. You couldn’t keep buying and buying laptops, it just didn’t work. So that laptop thing, it’s still going, but the momentum has clearly died down.

ST: I know we had spoken about this before Elliot. That the business of how computers are sold on the consumer level, with upgrades and operating systems that are updated every 18 months or so, seems to work against trying to create really successful learning software because schools purchase equipment that outdates itself pretty quickly. Schools can’t necessarily repurchase again to keep up with whatever the state of the art is in computing.

CN: That’s exactly right. We had a school district that we talked to just this week that said they were ordering a device, a laptop, and the hardware was changed three times before they received the device.

ST: Well this leads in nicely to my next question. I think it’s clear what the challenges are related to laptops and workstations in the classroom, that there are financial incentives to computer-based businesses that require OS and hardware upgrades. Computer obsolescence seems to occur faster than a school’s ability to pay for upgrades. Do you see similar challenges with handhelds in the classroom?

ES: Well, again, let’s take one step back because there is this new opportunity with these low cost, mini laptops that was started by Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop Per Child initiative. While GoKnow was going out and selling its handheld software, people would say to us “Why should we buy a handheld? We can spend a $100 and get a whole laptop computer.” We used to say “Well if you can buy a laptop for a hundred bucks, go buy it.” As you know the OLPC device came out around $200. What also happened was that Intel, Asus, and now Dell, all came out with a $300 – $500 mini laptop, and we’re seeing schools moving pretty quickly to buy those laptops. They’re not buying the $1, 000 – $1, 500 laptops, but the lower cost laptops are an exciting opportunity. Now they still run XP and you still have problems with these devices turning on or off instantly. There are still all kinds of headaches and the operating systems are still complex, but the price point is really low and that’s very exciting. Handhelds are still in the $250 – $350 neighborhood. Double that and you can get a full laptop.

On the market today you have this mini laptop movement and then you have these converged devices that have a lot of functionality. Everybody has an offering in that space and the prices for those devices are not unreasonable. So now the question is how could K-12 take advantage of this opportunity. Remember, our study stated that access was the problem. Now it seems that access is no longer the problem. It is within the grasp of schools to give every kid a computer. It could be a cell phone computer, it could be a mini laptop computer. The conditions necessary for computing to have an impact could actually be achieved, and it’s only been in the last 6 to 12 months that that vision has been recognized in the community. But now there’s another problem that has raised it’s head.

CN: The biggest single problem now, if children do indeed have access to technology, is the problem of how teachers integrate this technology into the classroom. Up until now, technology is either the focus of the instruction in that it’s an instructional technology class (they’re teaching children about Word and Excel and that sort of thing) or it’s an add on to a lesson (here we’re going to be doing a lesson on the Civil War, let’s look at this website that deals with the Civil War, ) but it’s not an integral part of the lesson. We determined that it couldn’t be an integral part of the lesson because there weren’t tools available that easily allowed teachers to create lessons around the technology. There are products like Blackboard or WebCT or Moodle and I can understand why teachers aren’t authoring their lessons everyday in these tools. It’s like asking them to program in HTML. How good are they at that? I would say many of them don’t even know what HTML is, especially when we see elementary education majors who are only required to take one three-hour course in technology. They don’t know the difference between “Save” and “Save as” and we’re going to ask them to create their lessons in something like Blackboard? Well we know that’s not going to happen and so what we did was create what we call the Mobile Learning Environment. The mobile learning environment is a tool that runs on top of Windows Mobile, Windows CE or Windows XP. It allows teachers to easily take whatever applications they normally use, be it Inspiration, or a paint program, or some type of drill and practice program, and it allows them to build a cohesive lesson in a very short amount of time with very little training.

ES: What Cathie’s explaining is that schools have existing curriculum that they have to teach. They bring that pencil and paper curriculum to the table and set it down next to a computer and say “How do I take this pencil and paper stuff and integrate it with the technology?” School districts across the country have specific things they have to teach. Some companies try to replace the curriculum through a new computer-based environment. These companies are saying “You adopt this technology, and with it, you also adopt this curriculum.” We feel that this doesn’t work. School districts have existing curriculum they teach with, you can’t tell them to change the curriculum because of the technology. So then the question becomes how to integrate the technology with the school’s existing curriculum.

ST: Let’s say that technology and hardware, because it’s coming down in price, is not the issue. The problem then becomes software that attempts not to undo lessons and materials teachers have been preparing in an analogue way for years. Software that tries not to tell teachers to chuck all that they know aside and start anew with whatever this latest and greatest software product tells you to teach. The issue is about providing tools that work in addition to and complement side by side with the teacher’s instructional materials they’ve been using for years.

CN: Yes, that’s very well put.

ES: If you go to a situation where the computers are one-to-one, where every child has a computer, be it a cell phone computer or a mini laptop computer, then all the learning activities, all the learning resources are on that device. It becomes the conduit then for the curriculum and for the artifacts the student creates. In some sense it does replace or certainly augments the paper and pencil materials. As Cathie pointed out earlier, the problem was that the computer was used as an add on. The major part of the lesson was still done on paper and there might be one activity that you did on the computer but that activity wasn’t integrated with the rest of the pieces of paper. The computer wasn’t playing an integral role to the lesson. But with one to one, it becomes possible for the computer to play an integral role.

CN: Which is the way it is in business. Most business people do the majority of their work on their computer. Pencil and paper tends to be an aside or an add on for notes. When we start talking about teaching children 21st Century Skills, teaching them how to use the computer for the bulk of what they do is certainly a 21st Century Skill.

ST: Certainly, so long as it’s not just teaching the technical means to do a PowerPoint presentation or write a paper. It’s about the critical thinking that goes on.

ES: Right.

ST: I’ll come back to that point in just a moment. I’ve heard it expressed by business leaders involved in creating educational materials that handhelds present an opportunity to empower student learning in a way we’ve never before imagined possible, but it could come be at the expense of teacher control. Can student empowerment and teacher control coexist in the classroom?

ES: Absolutely.

CN: The teachers who are out of control when students have handhelds are the same teachers who are out of control when the students have pencils and paper. I was a classroom teacher for 15 years and back then the threat was that computers were going to come in and replace all teachers. All of the good teachers felt that any teacher who could be replaced by a computer should be. There is always room for and a place for good teachers. In this case the role of the teacher is different. It’s not necessarily a role of handing out the information. You don’t open up students’ heads and dump in the information. Rather, teachers provide direction and contextualize things for students as they do their lessons. Students are not sitting there like little birds waiting to be fed. To create autonomous learners you must contextualize things for students as they find them or as they run into difficulties trying to fit pieces together because you’ve structured the lesson for them.

ST: You’re singing my song. One of the things we often say at our organization is that a child is not a vessel to be filled, but a flame to be kindled. What you’re speaking to is how do you create that spark and engage that 21st Century Learner.

CN: Exactly.

ES: We saw that spark and the leveling of the playing field when we were working in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City with handhelds four years ago. This was when pocket PCs were just beginning to be available to K-12. We would go into these classrooms where children are physically and sexually abused, they live in homeless shelters, it’s 100% free and reduced lunch. This is a very intense school. You bring in these pocket PCs and they could do anything, they could do everything. If you looked at the work and said “Who produced this?” you wouldn’t know that it was a child from Bedford-Stuyvesant. It could be a student from an upper class suburb. The work stood on it’s own merits. The children there were not successful with the paper and pencil. They didn’t like it. It didn’t meet their needs. It wasn’t part of who they were. But when you gave them this technology, it kindled that flame and they then had an opportunity to produce in the same way that the other kids had. It was astonishing to see.

ST: So it’s your belief that 21st Century Learning Skills can be addressed properly with handhelds?

CN: Yes. The way we learn and what we learn is changing, and that is really the majority of the issue around 21st Century Skills. Children need to learn how instead of what. How do I find this information? How do I determine from this Internet what is valid information? How does this fit into everything else that I’m reading? How does this merge with my textbook? It’s the how. Again, it’s helping the child take the wealth of information that’s out there, assimilate it, and determine what’s a valid source, what’s real information.

Photo of 5th grade students  from Singapore using computers that are tethered to desks Photo of 5th grade students from Singapore using computers that are tethered to desks.

ES: The 21st Century Skills are about teamwork and the “soft skills” kids gain when working and collaborating together. If you watch classrooms with big desktop computers, the kids are sort of sitting hunched over looking up at the machines. They’re not talking to each other. They’re not sharing. They’re just staring at the screens with headphones on. But when you put mobile computers, handheld computers, in a classroom the kids are looking at each other, talking to each other, putting the handhelds in front of each other’s faces. They’re working together. They’re actively engaged in teamwork. It’s a completely different flow in the classroom.

Photo of 3rd grade students  from Singapore using mobile computers in a conversational manner Photo of 3rd grade students from Singapore using mobile computers in a conversational manner.

The smallness, the immediacy, the ease of use of these handheld devices is exactly what is needed to support the 21st Century Skills, where your dynamic workgroups change over the course of a day. If different children work with different kids on different problems, no problem! That’s what happens with these handheld computers because you’re not tethered.

CN: We have some excellent photos of that when we were in Singapore last month. We were working with researchers there at the university in Singapore. They’re implementing a project where they will follow third and fourth graders who are using cell phone computers, pocket PCs, for learning activities in the classroom. We observed great diversity in the entry points into lessons, even on the part of second graders. One such lesson was on prepositions. Teachers gave them pocket PCs and sent them out into the school yard, over to the Koi pond, into the central office in groups of three to take pictures that were illustrations of the preposition “in”. You know, the fish are in the pond, the basketball is in the basket, things like that. They gave them a series of prepositions they had to photograph and then they came back to the classroom and wrote sentences explaining their pictures. Then they shared their pictures and the sentences that went along with it. We saw eight different ways that students could complete a lesson. In the end, they all got the assignment done but they were all able to do it their own way, the way that suited them best.

ST: That really speaks to the empowerment for students. One of the things I wonder about for a greater acceptance of handhelds in the classroom; do you have any thoughts or insights into what professional development should be in place to help this succeed?

ES: When companies that really understand the role of technology in the schools work with the teachers, they realize it’s not a one shot deal. You can’t just go in and only show the teachers how to use the computers. That was the failure of those laptops programs, the lack of ongoing professional development with the integration issue. We stress this when we work with a school district. There are districts that say “Well we don’t have the money and we really can’t do professional development” and Cathie and I just sort of grimace because we know there’s going to be trouble. The teachers and administrators are not going to understand how to use the technology. When the bumps happen, and there are always bumps, they’re not going to know how to deal with those bumps. Professional development is not just having experts help the teachers, it’s also having the teachers talk to each other and work together with children to get over those bumps.

ST: It’s great that schools can invest in the technology, but just buying the equipment and any additional software to benefit the instruction is only half the solution.

CN: That’s exactly right. It would be like buying a new car. It really helps if someone walks you through all of the features of the new car. Otherwise you’re driving but you’re not really taking advantage of all of the bells and whistles that a new car has. A lot of districts think that if their teachers know how to use a computer that this skill translates into knowing how to integrate it. In fact that’s something that they don’t teach in school. Most of the colleges of education don’t have tools to be able to teach prospective teachers how to do that. Teachers who have been out there in the field certainly don’t have that information.

ES: So if we could summarize. One of the first challenges we saw to getting technology to have an impact on the kids was the access problem. Today we feel that the access problem, while it’s hasn’t gone away, is certainly addressable in a scalable, sustainable way. The next problem is this issue of how do you integrate existing curriculum with the technology. That requires professional development, it requires software that helps the teachers in doing that integration so the technology scaffolds in some sense so teachers can create coherent, cohesive lessons. Professional development also scaffolds the teachers in creating coherent, cohesive lessons that integrate the technology. Now that we have access addressed, we have to deal with this integration problem, and it’s integration with existing curriculum.

People say, and I’ll be honest I’m guilty of it too, that we need to have a new curriculum. Technology enables us to do new things. That’s easy to say but it doesn’t address what schools have problems with today. The curriculum will change but everything is not going to change on day one. You have to start where the teachers are, with their existing curriculum, and help them understand how to integrate it using tools like what Cathie suggested along with professional development.

ST: If I could branch off of your comment there. Classrooms have the potential to see beneficial change as a result of technology. Today there are so many different ways of interfacing with these new technologies, be it classroom technologies like Tablet PCs or Smart Boards or consumer technologies like the Nintendo Wii or Apple iPhones. Are you seeing any technology trends that are important to watch in terms of learning?

ES: I think the smallness issue is really important. The cell phone computer is not simply just a smaller laptop computer. We’ve spent years learning how to design interfaces for laptop computers. You can’t just use all those same techniques, scale it back a little bit, and apply then to cell phone computers. Designing for mobile machines with a small screen is different than designing for 15 – 17 inch screens. We have to think about what is the essence and what’s really important. It will require a change in how we think about designing our software, how we design our web pages. Companies that simply take their 17 inch or 15 inch technology and just try and repackage it for the small screen will lose out. People will not buy that solution because it is not effective on a small screen.

ST: That seems to be a common occurrence with publishers, that is if they have a successful program in one media format they simply port it over to another. And that is not the best solution for addressing mobile computing or any other kind of platform for that matter.

CN: Exactly.

ES: It might make instant business success but they won’t have business success with that simplistic model. We’ll see. The proof’s in the pudding. It’s too early to say. That’s our opinion, we’ll see.

ST: Well that’s true. One of the things that I worry about with Smart Boards is people are just porting all of their book based content into static PDFs to be displayed on Smart Boards. There’s nothing engaging there about that solution.

CN: Right. Children are simply watching something bigger. We were in Mexico and we saw that Mexico had adopted the Smart Boards in all the classrooms. At one meeting we attended, they demonstrated how they were going to be using the Smart Boards in the classroom. A teacher had a book opened, displayed on the Smart Board, going through the lessons with the book on the Smart Board. It was just a bigger book, the children are still being passive learners. They simply watched her as opposed to engaging with a technology that fits them, moving up and around, it’s a completely different learning environment.

ES: This was a very powerful learning experience for both of us. Here is a country trying to move into the 21st century. They were going to equip their classrooms with all these expensive, electronic whiteboards. All they were doing was the same thing that they had done with books in the past and that wasn’t particularly interesting to the kids. Displaying the book a little bigger is not going have any impact whatsoever.

CN: We were laughing. We thought “Is this just telling you the same thing, but only louder?”

ST: Andy Warhol had a saying, “If you can’t make it big, make it red.” So maybe that’s the next step.

CN: That’s right.

ES: That’s good.

CN: That’s not to say that some people aren’t doing innovative, imaginative things with Smart Boards, because they are.

ST: Very true. I don’t mean to be down on Smart Boards. I’m excited by them but I get disheartened when I see its use in such a way that it’s really not forward thinking to benefit the instruction with the great medium that’s available to them.

ES: Historically, new technology mimics old technology until you figure out how to take advantage of the new. A classic example is when the movie camera came out people simply photographed the theater because that was the thinking of how you viewed theater. Then Hollywood came along and defined this experience as a new genre, a new medium, one that can tell a new kind of story. It wasn’t immediate. It took a while to figure it out.

We work folks at SRI and they are doing some wonderful things with whiteboards, with the clickers, they’re really trying to go beyond the obvious things that you could do with those devices and be much more engaged, much more imaginative.

ST: Let me ask both of you; whose work are you watching these days? Who do you think is doing neat work with technology and learning that would really benefit students everywhere?

ES: Outside the education world, I think the folks who are trying to develop apps for mobile computers, people who are grappling with how to use multi touch, how to display information, those are the folks that we’re looking at. The range of location-based apps that people are coming out with now, with GPS built in, those are very, very provocative.

We’re going to see new interface conventions generated. Phone companies have opened up access to lots and lots of applications, not just the three or four products that come with the phone when you buy it. You can download and install whatever applications you want. Cell phones are full blown computers. Cathie is intentional when she uses the term cell phone computers. Just like you have desktop computers and laptop computers, you have cell phone computers. The emphasis is on the computing part, that it can enable all kinds of applications. What do you build, how they work, ease of use; these devices have to be ready to go and intuitive from the moment someone picks them up. That’s a real challenge.

ST: I sometimes wonder if the difficulty with technology in the classroom is in how it is defined, semantically. A cell phone in the entertainment industry is portable entertainment or portable gaming device. That terminology doesn’t work in the classroom. I like how you’re framing the conversation, that these are cell phone computers, they’re not cell phones, they’re not entertainment devices, they’re devices made for learning.

CN: Yes. We had a discussion about this just yesterday, about what a cell phone computer should be or not be. In Singapore they’re not enabling voice. They’re only paying for data plans for the third and fourth graders. They will have 24/7 access to the Internet which really levels the playing field because it doesn’t make any difference if you have an Internet capability at home or not. You can still have access to all of the information, no matter where you are because of your cellular capability. But someone in a parents group yesterday said “Do you really think it would make a difference, and what difference would it make, if you did indeed give them voice in addition to it?” We have moved away from the term acceptable use policy of devices to what we call responsible use. As educators, we believe that we need to make all of these users responsible for what they do with their technology. It’s not that we’re dictating what is acceptable and what isn’t. It’s about being responsible and maybe that means we do give them voice. We also encourage schools to let children put a few tunes on the mp3 player, or to let them download a game or two because we want the device to seem personal to the children as opposed to it just being another school device. If it’s personal to the child, then they’re going to take better care of it, they will make sure that it’s charged, because is theirs. It’s their personal device. What’s important to you are those things that are personal to you.

ES: We see a trajectory with this issue of one-to-one computing. The entire notion of one-to-one is going to change. The term is inappropriate. It’s a dominant term now because it comes out of the laptop world. It still focuses on the technology as opposed to what the kids are going to do with the technology. I think over the next few years, the notion of one-to-one as a term will disappear. What’s going to happen is that it will be a given that all the children will have a computing device. It probably is going to happen faster than most people think. Right now, a large percentage of schools in the United States, ban cell phones. But once this dam breaks, when schools see that kids are already bringing computers to school and schools don’t have to pay for those computers, the light bulb within administrators will light up. Administrators will begin to notice that one child brings a Motorola, another brings a Nokia, and yet another brings an iPhone. The solution? You just put a layer of software on top of the phone that makes all those non-homogeneous devices homogeneous with respect to the teacher and the learning activities. Just like a Dell and a Sony and a Gateway. They’re different computers. You put a layer of software on top of them and now they’re all the same. That’s the same idea that will happen in the cell phone computer world. And when this happens, we think it’s going to happen very quickly. Not in five years, more like two to three years.

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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.


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









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





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





I enjoy toys or games that make me think.





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





Toys are important in our lives to help us learn.





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.


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

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 251 user reviews.

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.

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Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

On May 9th, the first ever Joan Ganz Cooney Center Symposium was kicked off at the McGraw-Hill offices located in New York City. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center is the newest addition to the Sesame Workshop enterprise. Its mission is to offer guidance, research and insight into how children can learn through emerging media. The symposium itself was an amazing event. A stellar list of speakers and influential attendees from diverse areas of education, broadcast, gaming and the toy world came together to discuss the future of learning and technology for children in the 21st century. This jam-packed event included presentations from over 34 different industry insiders. Over 150 invited guests filled the room. Included on the guest list was Congressman George Miller (D-CA) who is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

All of the presentations offered many important perspectives and voices that are shaping the learning and technology conversation today. A number of speakers served up new research and valuable insights to chew on long after the event concluded. While there was significant take-away from all of the speakers, I would like to call out two specific presentations. These include the presentations of Connie Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation and Jennifer Kotler of Sesame Workshop.

First and foremost, Connie Yowell‘s presentation on new learning paradigms was simply amazing, passionately delivered, and has given many folks the most food for thought about the future of new media and learning. Connie expressed the importance of seeking out the right questions to ask at the beginning of our journey, stating that in order for us to realize the opportunity in front of us, we must be ready for a significant paradigm shift in the existing learning conversation. I heard many attendees echo the importance of Connie’s words at the conclusion of the event. In the matrix below, I have included an audio recording of Connie’s presentation. A transcription of her comments can also be found in my next blog article.

During this part of the symposium, both Ellen Wartella (of UC Riverside) and Connie Yowell’s words were offered in succession and both speakers expressed a great need for more research and a significant rethinking of our current approach to education and learning. Their comments were vital ones to be heard by policy makers, and while Representative George Miller attended the event for most of the day, sadly he left just before Ellen and Connie took the stage.

The next presentation I’d like to call attention to was that delivered by Jennifer Kotler. Jennifer presented two reports, but one in particular has an important story to be told. This report gathered information from interviews conducted with children ages 6 to 9. It asked them about their favorite games and websites. Included within this report was a very clever validity check that, when its findings were presented, calls into question any other self-reported findings from other organizations asking similar questions about kids and online preferences.

In the study, kids were asked about their technology preferences. Included within the interview question sets were six non-existent website and game names. That’s right, online products that were completely fictitious and do not exist. What this report revealed was that 56% of those surveyed claimed to have played these non-existent games and websites. How could this be?

What the research suggests is that kids may be more likely to exaggerate their actual use of technology because of the apparent “cool factor” and/or the aspirational aspect of these technologies. How does this cool/aspirational factor play out within the data? Here are just a couple of examples: When kids were asked if they have ever visited a MySpace page, the “clean” data suggests that only 19% of those surveyed have visited the popular online destination whereas the non-valid data states the number is 54%. When asked about posting video on YouTube, the numbers are 7% (valid data) vs 42% (non-valid data).

These findings suggest that similar studies conducted by other organizations would benefit greatly by the inclusion of a validity test in their research. If not, the numbers reported could be significantly skewed from what they should be. Now that we’re all armed with this information, go back and look at all the claims regarding other popular children’s destinations, like Club Penguin, Webkinz, and the like. Hmmmmm.

I would also like to call out presentations made by Bernie Trilling of Oracle Education Foundation about 21st Century Learning Skills, Allison Druin for her work with the International Children’s Digital Library project, Krista Marks of Kerpoof, James Paul Gee and his report on Getting Over the Slump, and Jim Styer of Common Sense Media for his report on how parents and educators view the educational potential of new media.

The matrix below offers audio recordings, papers, and related websites collected from the event. Friends and colleagues who know me well will tell you that I’m rarely without a camera or recording device at such events. I believe it’s important to capture and share such information with everyone so that industries can move forward together. The list below includes audio recordings from most of the speakers. However, my apologies go out to the last 8 or so speakers, mostly from Warren Buckleitner’s Dust or Magic panel, for by the end of the day my recording device lost power.

All of the audio clips can be downloaded as a single zipped file here.

Audio PDF Site Speaker or Description
Yes Opening video (audio recording only)
Yes William Oldsey – EVP, McGraw-Hill Education
Yes Gary E. Knell – President and CEO, Sesame Workshop
Yes Joan Ganz Cooney – Co-Founder, Sesame Workshop
Yes Yes Michael Levine – Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center
Yes Yes Jim Steyer – Founder & CEO, Common Sense Media
Yes Yes James Paul Gee – Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University
Yes Questions and Answers
Yes Claudia Wallis – TIME Magazine
Yes Buwon Tran – Director of Consumer Research, Casual Entertainment, Electronic Arts
Yes Jennifer Kotler – Assistant VP of Domestic Research, Education, Research and Outreach Department, Sesame Workshop
Yes Susan Neuman – Professor of Educational Studies, University of Michigan
Yes Francie Alexander – SVP of Scholastic Education and Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic
Yes Questions and Answers
Yes Lisa Guernsey – journalist, author of Into the Minds of Babes
Yes Marilyn Jager Adams – Research Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences, Brown University
Yes Yes Bernie Trilling – Global Director, Oracle Education Foundation
Yes Nichole Pinkard – Senior Research Associate & Assistant Professor, University of Chicago
Yes Margaret Honey – SVP, Strategic Initiatives & Research, Wireless Generation
Yes Lesli Rotenberg – SVP, PBS KIDS Next Generation Media Initiative
Yes Jayne James – Executive Director, Ready to Learn, Corporation for Public Broadcasting
Yes Questions and Answers
Yes U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) – Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee
Yes Gabriel Zalzman – SVP and General Manager, Fisher-Price
Yes Bing Gordon – Chief Creative Officer, Electronic Arts
Yes Linda Roberts – Former Director, Office of Educational Technology, US Department of Education
Yes Rob Lippincott – SVP, Education, PBS
Yes Ellen Wartella – Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost, UC Riverside
Yes Connie Yowell – Director of Education, MacArthur Foundation
Delia Pompa – VP for Education, National Council of La Raza
Yes Warren Buckleitner – Editor, Children’s Technology Review
Yes Allison Druin – Director, Human-Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland
Michael T. Jones – Chief Technology Advocate, Google, Inc.
Yes Krista Marks – CEO & Co-Founder, Kerpoof
Yes David Rose – Chief Scientist, CAST
Kathy Shirley – Technology and Media Services Director, Escondido Union School District
Michael Levine – Executive Director, Joan Ganz Cooney Center

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