Archive for the 'Age 11-12/Grade 6-8/Tween' Category

The Thin Line Between Education and Entertainment

Friday, May 13th, 2011

[The following is a piece I wrote for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's 2011 Leadership Forum, Learning from Hollywood, a cross-industry event that will explore new ways of bridging the perceived gap between entertainment and education. The event will be held in Los Angeles at the USC School of Cinematic Arts on May 16 & 17. ]

If you were challenged to define what math is, what would you say? How about science? What makes the two different, or maybe even the same? I started exploring the idea of what makes up these educational disciplines as a result of hearing the term STEM more and more in the news. STEM is a short-handed way of referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but is this term simply a collection of separate items, or could there be something larger at play here because of the overlaps between these disciplines? Is there greater benefit to the whole than simply its parts and could this concept be applied to other similar examples outside of education as well?

While noodling with the idea of categories and boundaries, I remembered a discussion I had with Vinton Cerf from Google many months ago. Vint is frequently cited as “the father of the Internet” a title he will quickly point out involves the contributions of many of his fellow colleagues, and not just those of his own.

During our meeting we talked about how Google looks at the world of content. Vint shared with me the following:

“In the academic world it has become traditional to speak of disciplines, and that’s an organizational artifact; geology, history, English, physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on. Yet when we dive down deep we discover this is all a continuum. These things are not really broken up with such hard walls and barriers between them. Understanding that those disciplines are actually related to each other in a very intimate way is an important thing. I want to be careful about the idea of organizing information into categories. That can be helpful abstraction but it’s dangerous if you actually believe these things are segregated from each other.”

Upon reflecting on Vint’s words, I immediately thought of a quote by the great media thinker Marshall McLuhan, who famously said:

“Anyone who makes a distinction between entertainment and education doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

Connecting the dots between the two statements came over me like a tidal wave. Could we as media creators, educators, researchers, whatever the industry, be carrying with us artificial boundaries that prevent us from making real breakthroughs in our field? If we look for new ways to engage audiences through media creation wouldn’t it be in defining new boundaries that reshapes society’s thinking about these boundaries?

Simply being aware that we have the ability to redefine those boundaries may actually be the first step in creating something larger, something that is truly breakthrough. How would you define the boundaries between education and entertainment? Or should we instead define the overlaps, or maybe even define how we wish those boundaries to be drawn? The overlaps appear to change and grow with every advance in technology. Their sum is greater than the parts. To separate the two diminishes our ability as creators to discover new opportunities and reach audiences in ways never before dreamed possible.

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Fun with 3D Glasses, and Ideas

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Turning ideas into reality, make your own Kermit the Frog glasses

Ever wonder what you can do with those 3D glasses after you go to see one of the latest 3D movies? Yes, you can recycle the glasses, but what if you wanted to do something creative with them? Well, here you go, make your own Kermit the Frog glasses!

I’ve had the idea to create froggy spectacles for a couple of years now. Whenever I have a creative idea, I try to capture it in my “Idea Book.” I’ve been keeping an idea book for a long time, and I encourage others, especially young children, to keep an idea book too. Going on a long family trip? Bring along your idea book! Kids want to play another 15 minutes of video games? Okay, after you have come up with three new ideas to put in your idea book. It’s a lot of fun to look back on ideas you have sketched out. Sometime, long after you have captured your idea, you might realize you have the materials laying around to make your idea a reality!

Here's a look at the different 3D glasses template I've created in the PDF file you can download. Included in the design is Kermit the Frog, stars, hearts, and dollar signs.

To get started with your own glasses, click here to download a PDF template I made with a few different designs. I’ve added stars, hearts and dollar signs. After you print out the page, use a pair of scissors to cut carefully along the inside of the thick gray line. If you’re really good, you can also try cutting out the inside shape using a sharp X-Acto knife, which will allow you to see through your glasses after you have applied the paper cut outs on top of the frames. I’ve found you can just slip the paper cutouts under the plastic rim to hold them in place. If you want the paper to stay in place more permanently, use a glue stick or rubber cement.

Enjoy making your own glasses, and take lots of photos to remember the fun! You can even paste a photo of your completed creations into your very own idea book to show others you can made your ideas come true!

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The Changing Views of the Online Experience – from Fears to Possibilities

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

[This post first appeared on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, where I was invited to be a guest blogger for the day.]

Panelists from the September 2010 event, Back to School – Learning and Growing in a Digital Age. From Right to Left - Moderator: Wendy Lazarus of The Children's Partnership. Panelists: Sara DeWitt of PBS Kids, Mandeep Dhillon of Togetherville, Marian Merritt of Symantec, Joe Sullivan of Facebook, Catherine Teitelbaum of Yahoo!

Last week I attended Back to School – Learning and Growing in a Digital Age, an event which explored federal policy, e-learning, and digital literacy, sponsored by Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and The Children’s Partnership. The session that impacted me most was Empowering Parents and Kids with Technology. What was fascinating about the speakers on this panel was that collectively they described the evolution of Internet and its perceived challenges facing parents and kids over the last ten years, from a social perspective.

In the early online days, parents’ concerns about the Internet were largely about preventing children from stumbling upon inappropriate content online. As time passed, the concern shifted towards one of a fear of online predators. Today, the focus of concern is more about a child’s privacy, cyberbullying, and what constitutes appropriate behavior online. If you think about it, our social perceptions of the Internet and how kids will experience positive as well as negative aspects of the online world have changed a lot in a very short time. The changes we see looking back, and the changes we have yet to realize, still point to the amazing potential the Internet offers our children. Here are a few noteworthy comments from the panel that capture this change:

Mandeep Dhillon, CEO & Co-Founder, Togetherville

“There are many sociological changes occurring … If you look at the last couple of years, computing has become more social. We’re just now starting to see the first generation of tech-savvy parents know more about technology than their kids. In the past it was common for a parent to turn to their kid for help with technology. That’s no longer true. Now parents can actually say something meaningful about the technology their kids use. As a result, this is changing attitudes about how kids should be engaging with technology.”

Marian Merritt, Internet Safety Advocate, Symantec

“It’s been remarkable, over the last several years, seeing the dialog shift from fear and panic and a real lack of understanding on the parent’s part to discussions like this where we’ve moved the conversation to one that’s more realistic. However, I still think our parent community is lacking a bit, still focusing on mythology rather than the real world of their children. This gap prevents our children from being honest about what they are experiencing in the digital world, be it cyberbullying, be it downloading inappropriate content, running into things they don’t understand on the Internet. I think there’s some old fashioned issues we still need to contend with. Parents have been educated to protect their children from the Internet by placing the home computer in a central location. That was great information for a generation ago. Today, as our children increasingly have full access to the Internet on a device that fits in their pocket, these rules need to be adapted for a changing environment.”

Catherine Titlebaum, Director of Child Safety and Product Policy, Yahoo!

“I’ve been watching online behavior for more than a decade now, In the past the conversation ws all about what kids consume, what they search for, and what they find. Over the years, as kids become increasingly more social online, we’ve had concerns about who they might connect with and speak with, and now it’s really about how are your children behave online. How are they living in these digital spaces as opposed to their real spaces? The challenge for parents to recognize is that this extension to digital life is real. It’s a real extension to real friendships, real learning, and there’s real interaction back and forth between these two spaces.”

During the opening remarks of this event, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke to the challenges all parents and children face:

“It’s striking how much technology is part of kids’ lives today. Children are using multiple devices to consume 11 hours of content a day. They send a text message an average of once every 10 minutes they’re awake. There’s a lot to be concerned about here, and I don’t know a parent who isn’t. We need to find common-sense strategies to mitigate the risks of the new technologies, including the safety and the privacy of children online. We need to establish new norms for families; new strategies for the home and for when kids are on the move. Technology can and must be a key part of the solution to the problems technology creates. Real solutions that address real and growing needs that honor the First Amendment. Because here’s the truth: We can’t slow technology, and we shouldn’t try.”

Though the Internet is not a perfect place, Genachowski went on to describe the benefits that are almost within our reach:

“I believe that the opportunities of new communications technologies for our kids far exceed the risks. Indeed, I think it’s mandatory in the digital age – in our global digital economy – that we seize the opportunities of technology for our children; that we ensure universal access and digital literacy for all our kids; that we ensure that all our children, no matter the town or the school district they’re from, have the tools they need to be full participants in our digital economy and 21st century democracy.”

This vision took a huge step forward last week as the FCC voted to modernize the current E-Rate program, a mandate which was originally established by Congress years ago to bring the Internet to all schools and libraries in the US. This update will now guarantee these same institutions the very best and fastest broadband access to pave the way for innovative high-tech tools that are essential for a world-class education.

As we begin to see the National Broadband Plan advance this country’s digital infrastructure, the changes in social perceptions mentioned above only help propel this promise, complete with all of its widening educational possibilities. What an exciting time to be involved in the digital universe on behalf of children (and everyone one else too!) Yes, very real concerns will continue to exist in this digital future, perpetuated by media outlets looking to capitalize on shocking headlines, but it’s truly amazing how our collective intelligence about the Internet is changing from one of fear and reservation, to one of infinite possibilities.

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Kids, Cartoons, and Sugary Cereal Ads

Monday, September 6th, 2010

While the sun is shining outside,  a child is eating vibrant colored cereal while watching a cartoon on TV.

Breakfast cereal is really not my thing. Sure I eat it, but when I’m reviewing commercials on TV for work, I’m usually looking for toys and techno playthings, not cereal. Recently however, while reviewing virtual world commercials as part of a new client request, I just couldn’t ignore the dozens of breakfast cereals being advertised to kids. After noticing how many there are I decided to start a little side project. I would watch one children’s television station on any given Saturday morning and see what shows up. To begin my experiment I watched a five-hour Saturday morning block on Nickelodeon. Here are a few of the cereal ads I saw:

  • Cinnamon Toast Crunch
  • Cocoa Puffs
  • Cookie Crisp
  • Cupcake Fruity Pebbles
  • Frosted Flakes
  • Honey Nut Cheerios
  • Lucky Charms
  • Rheese’s Puffs
  • Trix Swirls

These commercials are in such heavy rotation you could see most of them within about an hour, along with numerous yogurt, candy and restaurant ads targeting kids. (Just a note, Nickelodeon is not the only children’s channel to air these commercials. These same ads could be seen on Cartoon Network and Disney XD.)

The technicolor explosion of sugary cereal ads blew my mind. Wasn’t there some standard, at least a code of ethics in place, that prevented marketing these cereals to children during their morning cartoons? After doing a little research I learned in late 2007 the breakfast cereal industry announced they would self-regulate which products would and would not be advertised to children. They defined a number of industry guidelines; one in particular stated that this coalition of companies would not advertise cereals that contained more than 12 grams of sugar per serving to children. How much sugar did the cereals above contain? A quick trip to the supermarket revealed almost all skated just below the self-imposed rule of 12 grams per serving. But what was the standard serving size as part of this guideline? Almost all of these cereals recommended a serving size of 3/4 of a cup. Was that a lot? How much cereal does the average person eat for breakfast?

The next morning I went to the kitchen, poured myself a bowl of everyday, non-sugary cereal and measured it. I found I eat about 1 1/2 cups of cereal for breakfast. I then asked a number of kids, ages 11 – 14, to pour themselves a bowl of cereal, after which I measured each one. Their bowls ranged from 1 to 1 1/4 cups, 33 – 66% more than the recommended serving size.

This chart looks at a number of cereals advertised on television and compares the amount of sugar in the recommended serving size as well as other, larger serving sizes

The conspiracy theorist in me wondered if these cereal companies simply reduced the size of a single serving to guarantee they could get the sugar levels below 12 grams per serving. In an attempt to prove my theory, all I would need to do is find the Nutritional Facts for each cereal before the self-imposed 2007 regulations. Did you know that eBay and Flickr are both excellent resources for finding photographs of nostalgic cereal boxes? I couldn’t find all of the cereals listed above, but I did find a 1979 box of Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms. That year both cereals had a recommended serving size of one cup. Today, the recommended serving size is 3/4 of a cup.

This retro cereal box sleuthing proved nothing though. These cereal companies may have changed their ingredients over the years, maybe even realized that one cup of cereal was actually too much to eat in a single sitting. I started to wonder if all this sugar-talk was a moot point. Just how much sugar is actually okay to eat in one day?

In 2003, the World Health Organization stated that a person’s daily caloric intake should not exceed more than 10% from sugar. If a typical adult calorie count per day is 2,200 calories, the 10% ceiling translates into about 12 teaspoons or about 50 grams of sugar per day. After this announcement the US Sugar lobby had a fit with the WHO’s sugar guidelines and countered that the daily caloric intake of sugar could be as much as 25% per day. That’s about 30 teaspoons or 120 grams of sugar per day. Last year the American Heart Association recommended no more than 6 1/2 teaspoons or 25 grams of sugar per day for adult women, and no more than 9 1/2 teaspoons or 37 grams of sugar per day for adult men, recommendations below the WHO’s position. According to that math, if you have just one cup of any sugary cereal in the morning, and you wash it down with a cup of milk or orange juice, you’ve just about reached the upper limit of sugar intake for the day in a single meal. That means no more juices, cookies, sweets or deserts for the rest of the day.

If this country truly wants to reverse the growing childhood obesity problem, relying on self-imposed industry regulations for food advertising clearly won’t lead kids (or adults) to healthier eating choices. Like I said, cereal is not my thing, but I just can’t ignore what I see on children’s television every day. The food ads kids consume on a regular basis are far from sweet, and when you begin to pull back the curtain on this sugary controversy, you too may find you’re left with a very sour taste in your mouth.

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Club Penguin Founder Discusses Disney’s Latest, World of Cars

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Rachel DiPaola, Lane Merrifield of Disney Interactive Studios and the launch of World of Cars

Start your engines! Disney’s newest virtual world, World of Cars, is at the starting gate! World of Cars recently went live and is the latest online community for kids. The LA Times posted a great interview with Rachel DiPaola (shown in photo above) who is the Product Director for Disney Online and commander in chief for Cars Online. Reading the piece reminded me that just a few months earlier I had a conversation with Lane Merrifield (also in photo above) about Cars. Merrifield, founder of Club Penguin, now oversees all virtual worlds for Disney. Below are highlights from our conversation together as he discusses the thinking behind Cars Online. This interview was conducted in the Spring of 2010 and has been edited for clarity purposes.

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

In our last interview together, Club Penguin had just been acquired by Disney. Today you’re in charge of all virtual worlds for Disney. How many virtual worlds are you managing?

You were made the Executive Vice President of Disney Online Studio. Where do you start with this role?

What makes World of Cars unique compared to other virtual worlds?

What 3D solution are you using for Cars, Unity?

Was John Lasseter involved with this project?

In addition to Cars Online, what else can Cars fans look forward to in the near future?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: In our last interview together, Club Penguin had just been acquired by Disney in August of 2007. Today you’re in charge of all virtual worlds for Disney. How many virtual worlds are you currently managing?

Lane Merrifield: We have four actively launched virtual worlds. ToonTown was the first, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Pixie Hollow, Club Penguin, and soon to be World of Cars. That’s four live currently with a fifth virtual world actively being worked on. It’s a lot of worlds to manage, but we have really strong teams who own the product, who are passionate about it, and passionate about their audience. For me, I’m less inclined to feel like I have to manage the worlds themselves, and more inclined to make sure that the values are lined up, the priorities are right, the expectations on quality are consistent. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: You’re under Disney’s wing now, which was nothing unfamiliar to you since you first worked in the parks at Disney as a teenager. You’re brought on as the Executive Vice President of Disney Online. Where do you start with this role? Do you focus on business models for these virtual worlds? Do you coordinate branding? Do you modify these virtual worlds to meet the business objectives of Disney Online or maybe the entire Disney enterprise?

Merrifield: When I first came onboard, almost all of these worlds, with the exception of Cars, had already been launched. So all of them had a nature. They were all in different parts of their life cycle. Some were struggling a little more than others. Pirates, which had great content, was not technically functioning as well as it could. It wasn’t working well on all machines. The team had reached pretty far with what they could do technically, but as a result, had made the site less accessible. For Pirates, we put a halt on a lot of new development, went back to the drawing board, and retooled to get it to a place where it is now. Recently we started to move the content ahead again, and the experience is far more accessible. You can play it in a browser now. Anyway, these virtual worlds are all on different paths, and a lot of my focus has been stepping in, bring the two studios together (the Club Penguin studio in Kelowna, now called Disneyland Studios Canada, together with the Disneyland Studios LA,) and bring together a lot of shared learning.

It’s interesting, the two studios are almost identical in size, although one was focused on just one product and the numerous facets of that product, and the other was focused on multiple products. One studio wasn’t involved with as many languages. The other wasn’t as tied into their consumer products and other things. One was driving very deep, and the other was focused on all the pieces. Internationally, Club Penguin was really leading the way, and now the infrastructure that we developed for Club Penguin is going to allow all of our virtual worlds to be able to grow internationally in the same way that Club Penguin did. The sharing between the two studios has been a great cross learning experience. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What makes World of Cars unique compared to other virtual worlds that compete in the same space?

Merrifield: Well the most obvious is that it starts from such a strong place in terms of its intellectual property. People know the product, people know the characters, they know what Radiator Springs should look like and feel like, although they haven’t necessarily experienced it like this before. There’s great strength in that, but it’s also a double-edged sword. It means people’s expectations are going to be higher. We already had a head start in the narrative, and in the environment and the characters. I don’t like to focus on the technology, but we’ve also created a way of doing 3D in Flash that’s pretty unique and different from Papervision and some of the other technologies out there. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: The front-end is in 3D using Flash? You’re not using Unity?

Merrifield: We’re using Flash, at least until some of these other tools get to the same adoption rate. Our goal is never to try and perpetuate the technology. We’d rather come in behind it once it’s already reached a significant adoption level. This is not to say we’re not looking at all of these other new tools, playing with all of them. Just the same, we’re not locked into Flash either.

We always talk about being technologically agnostic. That’s a big focus for us. It’s difficult to bring a Pixar 3D movie to life in 2D. Not to say we didn’t experiment with it, but it just wasn’t the same thing. The character of the cars, and the ability to bring them to life, and the way they are articulated, we knew we had to address that problem. And yet, the requirement was always not to chase technology. If we’re going to do it in 3D, it has to have a 98 percent install base, which is what Flash has. It was a tough challenge, but the team rose to it. In part, it’s also why we’re making sure everything will work right for the launch. This is a technology approach that hasn’t been done before. We need to make sure when there are 60 cars driving around on the same page at the same time, that it’s still as strong an experience as if there were just two cars driving on screen. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Was John Lasseter involved with this project?

Merrifield: Yeah, John’s been pretty involved. He would do check in meetings throughout. He also has the dedicated gurus of Cars at Pixar who are involved in work on Cars II and the Cars Land Experience. The relationship has not been like a licensing situation where we say “Okay, can you tell us everything about Cars, and we’ll go make it.” It’s been a real collaboration. In fact, there are elements of what we’ve created that are being incorporated into the Cars manual, the Cars bible. Some point down the road, it could be incorporated into future movies or theme parks or whatever else. It’s neat to see this. It’s a collaborative effort, more than it is one way. John’s been a big fan, and he’s very interested in this because it presents a new medium for storytelling. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What you have shared with me so far is that there’s a new Cars Virtual World, a new physical world theme park called Cars Land, you’re also talking about the next Cars movie. I’m seeing a “tent pole” approach with the Cars brand that has many different elements circling around that center pole. Fans of the Cars franchise are soon to see much more than just the Cars virtual world, is that correct?

Merrifield: There is a lot of cool stuff coming out. The neat thing about everything you mention is that the center pole IS the story and IS the narrative. People sometimes say, “The virtual world is the connection point.” The Internet may be the connection, the vehicle, and Cars Online will be a browser experience. However, as devices get more and more connected and smarter, as we connect more with mobile, as we connect more with console games, as we connect more with the physical environment, my hope is that this next evolution of engaging with the Cars franchise will be more about this connected experience. Disney has been making similar connections from a franchise perspective for years. It’s not just about the replayability of these various experiences. It’s really about one continuous story across multiple experiences. (Return to Question Picker)

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