Archive for the 'Age 13-15/Grade 9-10/Young Teens' Category

Game On with Katie Salen at Quest to Learn

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Katie Salen, visionary behind a new school in New York City called Quest to Learn

It seems wherever I travel, educational publishers, learning theorists, and teachers of all kinds bring up the concept of learning through interactive games. It’s an idea that’s been picking up steam over the last few years, and why not? Research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project last year found that 98% kids ages 12 – 17 play video games. Organizations like the MacArthur Foundation have been funding a small number of projects to test out new ideas for using interactive games with learning in mind. A few months ago I came across a great article in the Economist about a new public school opening in New York City that uses gaming principles to teach its students. At the recent Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference held at the Google headquarters, I had the opportunity to speak with Katie Salen, the visionary behind this initiative. You can view a short video of my interview with Katie on the Cooney Center YouTube channel or read the complete interview below. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity:


Tell us about your new school, Quest to Learn.

How did you recruit teachers for your school?

Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

How are the students working with the teachers who apply this teaching model?

How do you divide up the class day?

Is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?


Scott Traylor: Tell us about the work you’re involved in with the start of your new school, Quest to Learn.

Katie Salen: I run a nonprofit called Institute of Play. Two years ago we started work on a new school with an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. Our new school is called Quest to Learn. The MacArthur Foundation gave us a two year planning grant around the school. The work that we’ve been doing at the Institute of Play centers around the idea of games and learning. We’re really interested in the idea of how we can develop a school that doesn’t necessarily use games in the classroom, but does use game design principles in learning spaces. Our idea was to design a school from the ground up built on those ideas.

We opened Quest to Learn this past September. It will eventually be a 6 to 12th grade school but we started with just the sixth grade this year. Next year we will roll in another grade, continuing to add an additional grade each year for the next six years.

Today we have six teachers and 79 students. We’re located in New York City, in Manhattan. It’s a district two school so we could recruit kids from a specific geographic area in Manhattan. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How did you go about recruiting teachers for your school?

Salen: We think the way we recruit teachers is actually very interesting. Our process is one in which anybody we bring into the school needs to be immersed in our model. We held a series of four-hour workshops on Sundays for teachers that were interested in our school. They come in, we put them through a learning problem that kids would have and then they do some work with us around assessment. From the list of interested teachers we narrowed it down to a smaller group and then took them through a series of interviews. We also do direct observation in our classrooms.

We had some really specific criteria for the teachers we were looking for. First, teachers had to be content experts, they had to really know their content. Next, the teachers we looked for have to be really good collaborators. Teachers didn’t necessarily have to be technology people, and a lot of them weren’t necessarily gaming people either, but they were able to work in teams or had come from schools where they worked in teams. They had to have a very good sense of how to enable kids to be innovators. This was very important to us. And finally, teachers had to have done project-based work before, our curriculum includes project-based work in it. Those were the three criteria that we looked for. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

Salen: You know, when you begin to explain to a teacher how a game designer thinks about the design of the game, and we’re able to show them a one-to-one parallel with how they think about teaching students, they say “Oh, it’s the same thing.” Then they realize “Oh, maybe it’s the words that are different” and so it’s about helping them understand and translate between something like the term “core mechanic” in games, which talks about the primary activity of the player, and the learning design, because the curriculum is the basic activity of the lesson. It’s a learning curve for everybody. Game language, as with any other language, can feel very specialist, but the concepts aren’t so new. That’s our whole argument. Games actually model good learning and good teachers are immersed in good learning all the time. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Quest to Learn has only been in operation for a short while now. Any observations this early about how the students are working with the teachers who apply this model?

Salen: Well the interesting thing is that the kids are so excited to come to school every day. We have parents saying this is the first time that their student has ever come home excited to tell them about what they’re doing in school. This is the first time that their child gets up out of bed and wants to go to school. So that’s great just from an engagement perspective. It’s a place where kids feel safe. It’s a place where they feel excited about coming which is no small feat for a new school where kids are coming from many different neighborhoods. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How do you divide up the class day?

Salen: When you design a school from the ground up, you attend to every detail. One of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about was the daily schedule. A lot of schools use the Carnegie Unit, classes that are 45 to 50 minutes long. We don’t believe good learning can happen in 45 minutes. From the beginning we wanted to use block scheduling which are extended periods of time.

The main classes we offer, domain classes, last 88 minutes. In a typical day a student will take two domain classes. Since we have an integrated curriculum students will take a class that’s an integrated math/science class and an integrated math/English language arts class. They may be dealing with three or four subjects in a day, but only in two full classes.

There are shorter classes called annex classes, which are extended enrichment and literacy periods. There’s also a gym period for 50 minutes.

For elementary school kids it’s a bit of a shift to be in a class for 88 minutes because they’re used to changing topics with every 45-minute class period. Because our students are working in a problem-based way, the time goes by in a second. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Looking to the future, is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?

Salen: Everyone always asks us about scale. To be honest, it’s not the first thing we’re thinking about. We’re still in a fact-finding stage to understand what’s working about our model. However, our curriculum is modular. We piloted it in schools before we opened Quest. Everything we produce is open source and online. Any teacher can take what we’ve created and use it right now. The professional development program we have is something that could be used by any school. Our vision is not to make a hundred or two hundred Quest to Learn schools. Over time maybe other organizations will be inspired by the ideas we developed and seek to build schools that share a similar model. (Return to Question Picker)

Kids, Virtual Worlds, and TV Ads

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Cartoon Network's virtual world Fusion Fall

For those that follow my blog, you may remember a post I wrote last winter where I explored the world of children’s television commercials, just before and after the last holiday season. At the time my focus was mostly on the world of technology toys, and how toy companies promote their wares to children through television. Over eight consecutive weekends, I had watched about 100 hours of children’s television across seven stations, which loosely added up to over 3,000 commercials viewed. That many commercials edited end-to-end would fill an entire day of watching nothing but commercials.

A couple of months ago I was reviewing the data I had collected, deciding if I might undertake a similar effort again this year (I’m looking for sponsors), when I realized I was sitting on a ton of stats related to virtual worlds and kids. After pulling my head out of the world of toys, and instead focusing on social and virtual worlds for kids, I realized that many virtual worlds were advertised for the first time ever on television during the latter part of 2008.

In the months leading up to last year’s Christmas holiday, at least nine virtual worlds were advertised in the US to older kids and younger tweens. These destinations included Bella Sara by Hidden City Games, Build-A-Bearville by Build-A-Bear Workshop, Mattel’s UB Funkeys, Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall, Irwin Toy’s Me2 Universe, Disney’s Pixie Hollow, Hasbro’s MyEpets and LittlestPetShop, and Wizard 101 by KingsIsle Entertainment. Most companies offered commercial spots in 15 and 30 second lengths to promote their online virtual worlds. All commercials were placed on channels that aired children’s programming with the heaviest rotation appearing on weekends.

The company that had the most commercials in rotation was for Cartoon Network’s virtual world Fusion Fall. Cartoon Network ran an AMAZING number of spots in 10, 15, 30 and 45 second lengths to promote Fusion Fall, but all of Fusion Fall’s advertising was on a single channel, that being Cartoon Network. The shorter spots were placed strategically as bumpers around all show entry end exit points. I can’t cite the exact number, but the amount of Fusion Fall impressions per hour was impressive and more than any other competing site.

The Pixie Hollow and Wizard 101 virtual world commercials were the next heaviest in rotation after Fusion Fall, but for these worlds, they were advertised across multiple channels. Next in line was Build-A-Bearville, Bella Sara, and Funkeys. Each virtual world destination experienced an increase in unique visits to their virtual world but none more than Fusion Fall and Wizard 101 in the November to December 2008 time period. Both of these desitinations experienced an increase in web traffic 3 to 5 times more than before those on air campaigns began. All virtual worlds lost traffic to their sites after the holiday season as advertisement campaigns wound down, all except for Disney’s Pixie Hollow. However, gains remained for seven out of nine of the virtual worlds advertised when measured over a two month period, though only three out of the nine had experienced any significant gains. Out of the collection of these nine virtual worlds, seven companies offered a tangible product that was sold as part of their virtual world service.

Over the summer months, I’ve had the opportunity to check in on a few children’s channels to see what’s being advertised. A new crop of virtual world commercials are running on air this summer. One big surprise to me was MapleStory which is a virtual world that started outside the US. It makes sense to try to reach out to kids during these months to grow an audience base. I’ve been thinking that this might be a better and cheaper way to gain visibility as opposed to winning kids over during the winter holiday season.

Outside of children’s television, I’ve also been keeping a close watch on a number of virtual worlds for kids. Every now and then I’m surprised by how some site just explodes. Moshi Monsters has had my interest most of this summer. This is a UK virtual world for kids that has yet to take off here in the states, but has been doing great at home. I’ve wondered why it has been so successful in the last two months. Only recently did I came across an interview with Michael Smith, CEO for Moshi Monsters on YouTube. (Thanks Joi Podgorny for the tip!) In this interview Michael discusses the growth in visitors and subscribers to his site as a direct response to advertising on TV.

If you’re interested in learning more about the data I have, shoot me an email. One thing is certain though, we should all be prepared to see many more commercials of virtual world advertised to kids in the months, and years, ahead. What used to be a vital part of toy promotion is now expanding to the virtual world as well.

May the Force be with you… Star Wars Force Trainer by Uncle Milton

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

NY Toy Fair 2009 – Cool Tech Find Number 2

Photo of the Star Wars Force Trainer by the toy company Uncle Milton Industries

Have you ever had something fall behind the couch, just out of reach, and you think to yourself “If I just could use my mental abilities to reach that item, I would have it by now.” Well, we’re a whole lot closer to successfully making this happen than ever before. Soon you’ll be able to channel that mental energy and grab that item by using your powers of the Force. That’s right! The Force.

At this year’s Toy Fair, the toy company called Uncle Milton announced their latest creation, the Force Trainer. It’s part of a collection of science products recently unveiled at the show called Star Wars Science.

The Star Wars Force Trainer comes with a headset that reads certain kinds of brain activity, and a base station that receives those brain signals. Inside the base station (the Training Station) is a ball (the Training Sphere) enclosed within a clear tube. As the headset captures focused thoughts from the user, it converts those signals into instructions to power a fan within the base station, which in turn lifts up the ball within the clear tube. The more the user concentrates, the higher the ball floats. The less concentration, the lower the ball floats. The voice of Yoda helps you attempt to master 15 different Force Training activities included within this technology toy.

The ability to capture brain activity and channel it towards some device may be something we see more of in the future. A number of video game companies as well as other business enterprises are exploring this brain wave capturing technology for commercial use. One company in the San Jose, CA area called NeuroSky appears to be the way out in front with developing the technology, and currently offers a licensing and training program to learn more about it.

The Star Wars Force Trainer will become available on July 23, 2009 and will sell for just under $120.

Now, if I could just use my newly acquired powers of the Force to find my car keys, I’d be on my way to saving the universe from powers of the dark side. Check out the video below to see how you too can master your feelings with the Force Trainer.

Rubik’s TouchCube, A Digital Spin to a Classic Puzzle

Monday, February 16th, 2009

NY Toy Fair 2009 – Day 1 Cool Tech Find

Photo of the Digital Rubik's Cube by Techno Source

On opening day of the 2009 Toy Fair event in New York City, I began my search for new toy products that include unique application of technology for the benefit of enhancing play. While I only covered a small fraction of the show’s floor (7 hours of isle wandering), I came across a few products that caught my eye. One being a digital facelift to the classic Rubik’s cube, promoted by a company called Techno Source.

Let me start off by saying that I am not a Rubik’s cube fan. I never could figure out those darn things. But I thought a couple of tech features applied to this toy were really groundbreaking.

First, users interact with this non-twisting cube by touching the different surfaces with a finger. It immediately comes across as an iPhone touch interface. Slide a finger along a row of lighted tiles made the cube “rotate.”

Next, the cube has a built in accelerometer used to determine the active display face. Once the accelerometer has figured out which way is up, it only allows the upward face to be changed through touch. This way a users holding the cube with both hands from the side will not alter the puzzle’s surfaces in unexpected ways.

There’s a button to give you a hint if needed. Also included is multiple levels of undo so you can roll the surfaces back to a point where you think you may have made a mistake. When the TouchCube is rested in its docking bay to be recharged, the cube puts on a unique visual display. Think of this as your new digital lava lamp.

The Rubik’s TouchCube is available for purchase in the Fall and is being offered for a suggested retail price of $149.99. Check out video below to see the product in action.

Winning Online: Age Distinctions Smooth Success in Social Media

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

[The following is an article I wrote for the October 2008 issue of Playthings Magazine. For those unfamiliar with Playthings, it is the oldest (over 105 years in circulation!) and most widely respected professional toy magazine in all of North America. Playthings reports on the business of play as well as trends that not only impact the toy industry but also children across the globe.]

Social networking, social media, virtual worlds; the Web 2.0 world is on fire, and sites that touch on some part of social media are rapidly growing. Sites that allow individuals to come together, form online communities, and share thoughts and different media types in a virtual way are feeding this ever-changing way to engage with others online.

Plain and simple, people are social creatures. It’s wired into our being. The concept of social networking is not new. It’s been part of our DNA since the dawn of time. Some researchers think that our desire as humans to socialize is an instinct that plays a part in our survival. Only recently has the term “social” been applied to interacting online, allowing individuals to become virtually engaged with others who share common interests across the street or around the globe. And social network destinations are not just for adults and business people, they’re of great interest to kids. Many adults may first have become aware of social networking sites through high profile business acquisitions with noteworthy online companies like MySpace or Club Penguin. Kids, on the other hand, often learn about child-friendly equivalents by word of mouth, from friends at school or the playground.

But just what are the current growth trends? What is the makeup of existing social networking sites today and how—and better yet, why—are kids interested in them? Where are the new opportunities yet to be explored by future businesses? How can a traditional toy business better integrate these new virtual play patterns into existing physical products?

Worlds worth watching

One way to begin chipping away at these questions is to take a look at the wealth of social network products available on the market today. There are literally dozens of sites that people young and old use.

In fact, once a list of social networking sites is identified, a clear demographic split can be seen, and two distinct user groups emerge. One group includes children ages 12 and under; the other includes teens between the ages of 13 and 18.

What is this age group distinction about? In part, the separation has to do with privacy laws that protect young children online. Another factor is that each group comes to these products with a different set of social interests. There are also differences in communication style across the age groups as well as access to and understanding of different technology types.

Before building our list of sites, it’s important to identify the critical social networking features these destinations have in common. The criteria used for this article includes features that allow its user base to communicate with one another in a real time or a delayed manner using open chat, filtered chat, or canned chat —the three main methods of communicating online through such sites. The ability to communicate with other members in these sites is usually, though not always, accomplished through interacting in a virtual world. First, let’s take a look at a list of destinations that appeal to children age 12 and under.

Popular Social Networking Destinations Used by Children Age 12 and Under
BarbieGirls 2007 MinyanLand 2008 SuperClubsPlus 2006
Beanie Babies 2.0 2008 Mokitown 2001 ToonTown 2003
Be-Bratz 2007 Moshi Monsters 2007 TyGirls 2007
Club Penguin 2005 MyEPets 2007 Webkinz 2005
Club Tuki 2007 MyNoggin 2007 Whyville 1999
Dizzywood 2007 Nicktropolis 2007 YoKidsYo 2006
Gold Star Café 2007 Panwapa 2007 Yomod 2007
Horseland Jr. 2006 Postopia 2001 ZooKazoo 2008
Imbee 2006 Shining Stars 2007
Kidscom 2001 Stardoll 2004
NOTE: The year listed next to the social networking site indicates the time that the site launched or the time the site first began offering social networking tools.

Next, a similar list can be created for popular social networking services that appeal to users between the ages of 13 and 18. The method of communication in these sites for older users tends to be more open-ended and less likely to be monitored or filtered when compared to sites for their younger counterparts.

Popular Social Networking Destinations Used by Children Age 13 – 18
Bebo 2005 Horseland 1998 Postopia 2001
CityPixel 2006 Millsberry 2004 PuzzlePirates 2002
Facebook 2004 MySpace 1999 Runescape 2001
Friendster 2002 MyYearbook 2005 Teen Second Life 2005
Gaia Online 2003 Neopets 1999 WeeWorld 2006
Habbo Hotel 2000 Orkut 2004 Xanga 2000
Hi5 2004 Piczo 2004 Zwinktopia 2007
NOTE: The year listed next to the social networking site indicates the time that the site launched or the time the site first began offering social networking tools.

When the above two sets of data are mapped out over time and placed on top of each other, adding up the number of new social network products launched within each year for both age groups, some interesting trends present themselves.

Line chart showing new social networking website starts by year.

[NOTE: This line chart above showing the two sets of historical data layered on top of one another did not make it into the magazine article. I am adding it here to the blog post only. -ST]

It’s impossible to ignore the recent growth in new social networking products launched each year that target children ages 12 and under. In 2007 alone there were at least 13 such products announced for this demographic. And 2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for new announcements. During this year’s Toy Fair, I counted 12 new social networking and virtual world announcements, products that have, for the most part, yet to go live. What’s surprising is that over the same time frame, social networking products that appeal to teens have remained somewhat steady in new business starts and consistent year over year. Yet, both demographics are experiencing significant activity in new membership growth and Web traffic month after month. So why is it that the younger demographic is experiencing a greater surge in business startups? Let’s explore a few theories that may answer this question.

Not all social networking products that are appealing to teens are developed specifically for teens. These destinations are often developed to appeal to audiences over the age of 18, but have found success with users between the ages of 13 and 18. Conversely, almost all sites for kids ages 12 and under are intentionally developed for these younger audiences.

It’s possible that older users of social networking products are more loyal to a specific social networking site, whereas the younger demographic is more transient in its social networking choices, preferring to use multiple sites over time instead of staying with just one.

The younger demographic may have greater turnover in users and shorter life cycles (churn) with social networking products that target them than their older counterparts. In the children’s magazine space, for example, it’s not uncommon to hear that an audience base and related subscriptions changes every 18 months. The same could be true for an online world created for younger audiences.

Many younger social networking services are tied to consumer products like plush toys or are affiliated with on-air television programming, whereas services targeted at older users are usually not. While an older demographic has more expendable income than the younger, it may also be a harder group to sell a specific consumer product to in a social networking manner based on ever changing consumer tastes.

Social network destinations that appeal to our older group may see significant growth in add-on services like widgets and other related micro businesses and technologies, whereas the younger social networking destinations do not have the ability to tie in other, similar business extensions.

While both age groups use avatars to represent themselves in an online world, the younger services rely more heavily on avatar use than services for older users. Representing oneself with an avatar online may have greater appeal with younger users.

Services targeting older users take advantage of additional forms of social engagement, like media exchange (photos, music and video). These are offered in addition to engagement through written communication. Few destinations for younger audiences offer the same opportunity to share different media types.

Social networking services for older users do not need to mask a user’s identity, though identities can be hidden, changed and altered at will. Younger services hide all possibility of making oneself identifiable online. The need to protect the identity of young users is a clear distinction that separates the two groups.

Revenue models differ as well. The services for older users rely heavily on ad-driven models. Some younger services also rely on “in world” advertisement but can also take advantage of tangible product sales and/or monthly subscription models.

A number of toy companies have taken steps into the online social networking world for kids, resulting in varying degrees of success. Some companies simply offer an online destination alone while others offer a tangible product (like a plush toy) together with a virtual product, each touching on a different play pattern or desire. Webkinz World and Club Penguin are often cited as exemplary successes in the kids’ space. Others, less so.

Almost, but not quite right

An offering like Mattel’s Barbie Girls is a high profile example of a site that hit kids’ engagement levels correctly but fell short with the related MP3 product that tied into it. It was a case of a strong online solution with a weak tangible product. Ty’s Beanie Babies 2.0 has the opposite problem. Ty’s plush toys are loved by many a child but its online offering falls short in ongoing engagement after its initial use.

It’s easier to correct an online shortcoming by continuing to evaluate, test, build and expand such sites than it is to correct a problem with a tangible consumer product once it’s in the marketplace, but getting both virtual and physical products correct from the first day of launch is vitally important. In the early days of Club Penguin, before the official launch of the site in October 2005, an earlier iteration of Club Penguin called Penguin Chat existed for a couple of years. It was extremely limited compared to other social networking products offered today. But the creators of Club Penguin continued to build and add to this first step with additional features and games. The same is very much true for Ganz’s Webkinz World. Both sites’ initial offerings were smaller than they are today, built largely on a shoestring budget, sweat equity and love, but both offered an acceptable level of quality content, quality experience and user engagement with kids right from the start.

Looking towards 2009, we will continue to see even more ways to engage in virtual worlds, resulting in unique and specialized methods of socializing and participating in communities online. Some technology products for holiday 2008 will connect to the Web via USB ports. Additional connectivity through cell phones or other mobile technologies could provide ongoing social opportunities when access to a computer is not available. Stay tuned for more innovation and opportunity in this ever-changing, ever-expanding online world for children, teens and adults alike.