Archive for the 'Learning Games' 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)

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James Paul Gee on Video Games and Learning

Monday, December 28th, 2009

James Paul Gee, noted expert on video games and learning

If you’re attending a conference on forward thinking ways to help kids learn, or maybe an event on learning through video games, chances are you will be listening to thoughts offered by James Paul Gee. Dr. Gee is a noted expert on the topic of video games and learning. He is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University and is a member of the National Academy of Education. His work has been published widely in journals in linguistics, psychology, the social sciences and education. Dr. Gee’s recent book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy argues that good video games are designed to enhance learning through effective learning principles supported by research in the Learning Sciences. His new book, Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning, written with Elisabeth R Hayes, will be available this coming May, 2010. At the recent Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference held at the Google headquarters, I had the opportunity to speak with James. You can view a short video of my interview with Dr. Gee on the Cooney Center YouTube channel or read the complete interview below. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity:


What successes do you see in the learning games movement?

Why do you think games are not perceived as effective learning tools?

Would a funding approach that is similar to public television be a good model for the learning games industry?

What excites you when you see kids developing their own games?

How are learning games best used to accelerate learning?


Scott Traylor: Where do you think things stand today with the learning games movement? What successes do you see?

James Paul Gee: Successes have been slow in coming, much more slowly than I would have thought, but they are coming. What I’m seeing is the beginning of noncommercial games for learning.

Looking back on the gaming industry, developers made products that were expectable, products that were designed by baby boomers and made by principles of instructional technology. These games didn’t break the mold, and didn’t break out of a pattern. They were not good games and did not include good learning. Today we’re beginning to see games being developed by young game designers who understand learning and understand game design. They’re making good games, and they are making things that work. Over the next few years we’re going to see a real explosion in better products. Some of this has to do with the appearance of the independent game studios. In the commercial world the independent games community has been very slow to develop. For a while there really was none, but now with downloading services across all major platforms, you’re seeing many independent games being developed. Games like Flower and Braid, made with relatively small budgets, but they are really top games. Independent games like these are doing as well as many of the commercial games out on the market, and they’re setting the standard for so called “serious games,” games that have the ability to teach. If we can make commercial games that are as good as Flower or Braid for a modest budget, we certainly can make games in the learning sphere that are equally as good. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Why do you think games are not perceived as effective learning tools?

Gee: I think the major reasons are cultural, along with the slow development of an independent game industry, but also the power of baby boomers. People of my age, baby boomers, have theories and are in relatively solid positions in institutions. They get to call the shots, but this is a changed world. We’re talking about learning and using technologies that people under thirty know a lot more about. It’s not surprising when they apply our theories and do a better job than when we applied our theories. I think that’s all good, we need to release that creative energy.

The other thing you touch on, and it’s a very serious matter, is that we really don’t have many new business models. Think about it. We’re trying to make things that do social good, but if the social good is done for free, it dies when the grant ends. Right? We now realize we have to think about how to make products that can go on for a long period of time, and at some level earn enough money to sustain themselves while still doing social good. Lots of people are now thinking about how we can create new and innovative business models so that everybody wins. Models that allow people to make enough money and at the same time spur new businesses, new enterprises to open up, models which will help everybody benefit. Until we really get that down, what you’ll end up seeing are products that are made on government dollars that die the day the grant is over. The same is true with academic research, the day the grant money stops coming in the research stops. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Would you suggest a financial approach that is similar to public television? Would that be a good model for growing a learning games industry?

Gee: There’s going be a whole new set of models. Open source, the public sharing of programming resources, is one very important area. A public television model around games that would include both design workshops as well as giving out products, and also encouraging consumers to make products, would certainly be one model. We just have to have new models for new businesses. There are going to be “double bottom line” businesses; businesses that are committed to social good by solving our educational problems but these same businesses would be committed to making money. Making money not just to enrich individuals, but to also keep the social good going. There are a number of models we can think of for that. As is true of many academics, we didn’t think that business models were important. Now people are starting to see that business models are needed to bring about long-term impact. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: What excites you when you see kids developing their own games?

Gee: I’m excited that so many young people today are taking gaming beyond gaming. They’re not just playing games. They’re making games. They’re designing things for games. They’re setting up discussions and guilds and websites around games. They’re learning new software, software that contributes to these sites and discussions and products. And very often, they organize themselves into learning communities to do all of this. Their passion for learning in these communities grows beyond their passion for the games themselves. In other words, it’s a trajectory towards learning communities, and towards thinking like a designer, and producing, and not just consuming, that some of our best games give rise to.

The video game Spore is a great example. Spore is designed so that you play, and then you design, and then you play, and you join a community, and you get the products you have designed to appear within the game, and then you design with others collaboratively. This game provides very good tools to do that. Anyone, from the very young to the very old, can play.

Another great example is the game Little Big Planet. There’s a whole bunch of products coming out that say why don’t you see playing and designing as things you can do together in a game. These things are integrated together, so the game becomes as much your product as it is ours, and becomes a community event and not just an individual event. The lessons here for education are massive, because it means we’re going have to start designing, not just pieces of software, but ways for people to set up learning communities that they’re productive within. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So the perception that learning games alone will result in really good learning outcomes, is not the full story. What you’re saying is that learning games, supported by learning communities, are really the combination that accelerates the learning opportunity?

Gee: Those of us who study learning games make the distinction between a game, which is just the software, and the game with a capital “G”, which is the whole set of social learning interactions built around the game. We used to argue, if you’re going to use games for learning, you have to have a community of learning built around the game. Now the commercial industry realizes you won’t make money if you don’t build a learning community around the game. It’s an integral part to gaming, to participate in a collaborative community around the game.

My work has never been that of an advocate to put games into schools. That’s a fine thing to do, but that’s not what my work is about. It’s about putting the learning found in games into schools, learning that’s centered on problem solving and collaboration.

In school students get a bunch of facts and information. You can’t solve problems with it, so you get nothing. The interesting thing is if I make you solve a problem, and I really design the experience of that problem, guiding you and mentoring you, which is what good game design does, you get problem solving and you get facts and information, because you have to learn that in order to solve the problem. I will also get you to collaborate in a community where you might even innovate. You’re going to design new things and do new stuff. I want to see that model go into schools and that model doesn’t have to be a game. We can do that in the world in many different ways.

The other thing I really want to stress about games is that, in my opinion, it’s not a good idea to try to teach a whole curriculum through games. Industries are building up to try to do this. It’s too expensive. We want to learn in many different ways. Games are particularly good for preparation for future learning. If you want to motivate somebody in an area like chemistry or physics, a game is an ideal way to not only motivate that learning, to get learners to see why you do it, what is good about it, why it would be a turn on to do it, but it also prepares them to get ready for learning in the future. That future learning doesn’t have to occur in games. We tend to get obsessed with one platform, but just like in the world where kids don’t just game, they also go on the internet, and they write fiction, and they mod games. They do a whole bunch of stuff. We want our curriculum to be a whole bunch of stuff as well. (Return to Question Picker)

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Sesame Street and the Future of Learning – Interview with Sesame CEO Gary Knell

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Gary Knell, Sesame Workshop CEO & President

In the last week of October, I was invited to participate in a conference that was held at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age. While I was at the event I had the opportunity to interview a number of thought leaders involved in the world of technology and learning. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I thought it fitting to begin with an interview I had with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. The following is a transcription of our discussion. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity. Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming days and weeks.


When looking at expanding into other mediums, how will you apply the Sesame philosophy?

In terms of metrics, do you see Sesame’s on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Is it more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air?

In regards to testifying on Capitol Hill about the Children’s Television Act, what outcome are you looking for?

Do we need the Children’s Television Act for other media formats?

What is the Cooney Prize?


Scott Traylor: Congratulations on the upcoming 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. It’s amazing to think how far the Sesame Street show has come, a show that is often called the “educational television standard.” When you look at expanding into other mediums, how do you think you will be applying that same Sesame philosophy?

Gary Knell: Well the show was invented 40 years ago and has now won more Emmy Awards than any television show in history. Recently we were awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Emmy’s with a standing ovation from, I think, everyone who ever worked in daytime television. But we know today that children are using applications that weren’t invented back when we started the show, and media and technology is getting faster, smaller, and cheaper. So it’s a world of on demand media, portability, those are places that we have to be because those are the access points to where kids are going to find Sesame Street. This was the first year we have ever seen more people and more children access Sesame Street content off television than on television. That’s through video on demand, that’s through iTunes, that’s through YouTube, that’s through our website. It’s through all of the different ways in which we are spreading our content now because that’s where the audience is going. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So if you were just looking at the metrics of how viewers are watching Sesame Street, you see on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Knell: Well I think you’re generally seeing that across television, and certainly network television and PBS is no exception to that because there are a couple of things happening. Sesame Street was one of two preschool shows in 1988. Today there are 54 preschool shows on television. If you just look at market share, you’re not going to have the same market share today that you did 20 years ago. But more importantly, kids and parents are just accessing media differently today. For example, I was just chatting with someone at the University of California here who told me about her daughter who does not watch television but when she sees mom on her laptop, sits down in her lap and says, “Can we watch Elmo for ten minutes?” And I think that’s what’s happening now. I think you’re finding parents who are trying to have more of a control over their child’s viewing habits and behaviors. The TV becomes less of an available babysitter. Interactive technologies give us all the ability to have a more vibrant, richer learning experience than one-way television. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Do you think it’s more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air? In part I look at the example of Viacom recently folding the popular preschool channel Noggin into Nick Jr. I see this move as something that’s a detriment to the entire preschool space. It’s too bad there aren’t more outlets like that.

Knell: Yeah, I think there were a combination of factors to that decision which may have had to do mostly with branding, as well as the economics of children’s programming, because there are 54 shows, so I think Nickelodeon probably made the decision that, well, we need to be under this umbrella because it will attract more people to watch our programs. But I agree with you. I think we have to have some safe spaces for children, where moms and dads can leave their kids in a place where they’re not going to be marketed to, where they’re going to be safe from commercial messaging, and it’s a place where kids are going to have a learning experience. Because we do know, even with the youngest kids, that television teaches. As Joan Ganz Cooney always says, “It’s not whether television teaches, it’s what does it teach.” So we’ve got to be in those spaces today just as we were in 1969. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Related to those safe spaces for children, I know earlier this summer you were testifying on Capitol Hill in front of Congress about the Children’s Television Act, a bill that a major children’s media advocate, Peggy Charren, was able to see turn into law many years ago. Could you talk a little bit about your latest efforts and what you hope will be achieved?

Knell: Let’s think about how the world of media has changed in the last 20 years. The Internet did not exist 20 years ago, at least in its popular format. What we were trying to urge senators to do was to take a fresh look at this. Maybe the rules about having three hours of educational television on every broadcast station are sort of irrelevant today. I mean most kids don’t know what NBC is necessarily, or channel 9 versus channel 12. It’s really about shows that they’re watching or their platforms online. And I think you’ve got to redefine the space in terms of protecting children’s health and promoting education. So we were trying to promote the idea that there’s a real gap in educational programming today, especially for 6 to 9 year olds, in fact, a bigger gap than there is for preschoolers. The other thing is to make sure that children’s health and welfare are being taken into account. Things like childhood obesity, which have exploded in America over the last decade, in part, many people feel, because of the commercial messages targeting kids with foods that are less than healthy. These are things we were trying to urge Congress to take a fresh look back, 20 years after the initial act, which has become a little bit irrelevant if you go back and look at it. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: One might argue that it’s a bit of a challenge to think about the mindset of Children’s Television Act and applying it online or in other kinds of digital media delivery systems, that in principal it’s a great place to go, but in order to get everyone on the same page to try to implement it across numerous online media outlets, there’s a real challenge there.

Knell: It’s true. Although, you know, children’s content platforms are still children’s content platforms. And so you have these iconic characters who have a huge influence over children. When a major character on some channel is promoting double cheeseburgers, it has a big influence on a child’s behavior. It doesn’t really matter what the distribution platform happens to be. You’re looking at the use of licensed characters to promote unhealthy lifestyles. And those are the things that those of us who care about children’s health need to do something about, and that’s what we’re focusing on, along with a lot of other people. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: During the Breakthrough Learning event held at Google recently, you announced the Cooney Prize. Could you share a little bit about what you hope it will spark in the years ahead?

Gary Knell: Well we feel that we’re just beginning to unleash the power of digital media in learning applications. There are a lot of people talking about it. This is a way to specifically bring attention to 6 to 9 year olds, which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is focused on, and try to promote digital learning for literacy using online platforms and also, specifically, mobile learning platforms. The iPod Touch, for example, could be a very powerful learning platform, without the cell phone component. And being able to connect kids to content in unique ways who otherwise disengage from learning could be a way that reaches them more directly. What we’re trying to do is spur innovation by having a prize contest. We will be giving cash awards to the most innovative people who come forward with the most innovative ideas. We hope this contest will spur innovation. We hope that these ideas can be incubated to go to market, and frankly, we hope that other people will copy this. We want to start a movement in which we challenge the conventional wisdom in the gaming community, for instance, that education can’t sell. This is the same challenge that Joan Cooney had before the launch of Sesame Street when she was told that education can’t sell on television. Well we certainly know that is not the case. You now have 54 shows on air, you have six competing networks, and all of this started because of a dinner party in Manhattan decades ago, when two people got together and thought about the idea of using television to teach children something, something more than showing them sugared cereal commercials. And look what happened. Now fast forward to 2009, we think we can spark a similar outcome. What we want to do is jump start this idea a little bit through these awards. (Return to Question Picker)

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15 Minutes of Insight at the Toy Store

Monday, September 21st, 2009

The new tween Dora the Explorer display that greeted me at the door

I raced out the door last night with one of my young friends for a trip to Toys R Us. By the time we arrived, we had 15 minutes before closing time. We would not let this fact deter our mission, to purchase a very specific Nintendo DS title.

Walking into the store, we were immediately confronted a five foot tall box portraying the tweenage Dora. It welcomed visitors to the store with an announcement for the Dora Links online world that would become available in another week or so. My young companion was pulling my hand, trying to steer me in the direction of the video games department. “Please! Hurry up! They’re going to close!” she yelled as we passed the Star Wars section. My jaw dropped. An amazing display of new Lego and non-Lego Star Wars products called out to me. I immediately lost track of time and space, wishing to savor each shiny new Star Wars item displayed before me. There were many life sized Clone Wars images hanging from the rafters, but every one was labeled “Star Wars.” I wondered if other adults knew about the Clone Wars television show and if they too thought there was some mistake with the display’s labeling.

My friend continued to pull me by numerous Hannah Montana products until finally we made it into the video games section. We found the Nintendo DS isle, but the ScribbleNauts title we came for was nowhere to be found. Clearly this area was a hotbed of activity. We groaned out loud that the shelf was empty and a nearby clerk headed to the storage room to find another box full of ScribbleNauts titles to restock the shelf. It was at that point that I ran into the store manager. Now was my chance to get the inside scoop!

We exchanged some small talk around the successful launch of ScribbleNauts. There was a $15 dollar in-store gift card offer with the purchase of this title. I wondered what the video game store down the street was offering to pull people in. I was happy to avoid that’s store’s nine foot evil battlebot display that guarded the door to announce some futuristic XBox Armageddon game. I was excited to buy my copy at a toy store.

The TRU manager I spoke with was certainly on top of her game, despite the corporate cost savings measure to cancel this year’s event to share the latest and greatest product info with all of their store managers before the holiday.

The Disney netbook

We stood nearby a shelf lined with about nine different netbooks, those trimmed down laptop-like computers which are best used for web browsing and email. They typically cost between $300 and $350, a sizable sum for a toy store purchase. The only netbook I recognized by name was the Disney netbook. The recently announced Nickelodeon netbook was nowhere to be found. I noticed how each netbook was wrapped with three bulky secure straps, making them look less appealing. I asked the manager how the netbooks were selling. “Well, we’re seeing some movement with them, but not a lot. My assumption is that they’re doing better at stores like BestBuy and other consumer goods stores like that.” I asked specifically about the Disney netbook and she said it wasn’t moving any more than the others, though its light coloring and prominent shelf position made it easier to find over its competitors.

Thinking about the latest news in the video games world, I asked how The Beatles Rock Band title was doing.

“The title is doing well. The peripherals are selling nicely too.”

“Anything else of note that’s selling?” Nothing came to mind for her.

“How about that giant Dora display?” I asked.

“Well, I think people don’t quite know what to make of that one yet. Diego recently has been attracting more attention than Dora. While there are still many people that love Dora, Diego is hot. It’s doing well.”

The manager left to follow up on a call in another part of the store. My young friend told me the reason why Diego is doing better than Dora is because there are animals on Diego’s show. “Oh,” I said. “That makes sense.”

I then brought my ScribbleNauts title, along with the latest Professor Layton title to the counter. I was so excited about a new Professor Layton game, the last one was fantastic.

Trying to strike up a similar conversation with the clerk who was ringing up our purchase I realized there are two kinds of toy people in the world; Those who love toys, love talking about toys, love the business of toys and those who are simply there to punch a clock. I wondered how could anyone not love the toy world, warts and all?

Having completed my purchase, it was announced over the store’s sound system that the store was closed. Now it was my turn to grab my young friend’s hand and drag her through the outside path of the store quickly looking at products we had yet to see.

We scrambled through preschool. Nothing noteworthy stood out which I found very odd. There is always something of interest in this part of the store.

Opposite of the preschool isle there was an end cap display that offered Transformers masks complete with voice pitch shift capability. Cool!

Then we passed a dozen or so miniature, battery powered jeeps and SUVs, the standing out from the crowd. They were all so gigantic in size! My friend wanted to stay here and explore, but there was no time. I wondered how anyone would have space in their garage for such a thing?

VTech's toy laptop

Then there was a VTech end cap displaying two different “laptop” computers. These simplified electronic toy computers were targeting young children, but would the 3 inch black and white screen display be enough of a toy offer to maintain a child’s interest, even if that toy was priced for 60 bucks? I began to wonder if the rapid pace of technology change would result in five year olds demanding a real laptop with a real screen next holiday season.

At the end of another isle I was surprised to find that Publications International was still selling their talking books. VTech also had a similar, but smaller talking book display. Okay, maybe I’m jaded, but didn’t the LeapPad and PowerTouch talking book craze move on already? I wondered if the buzz around the Amazon Kindle was behind the decision to keep selling these talking books for another year. Couldn’t any new features be introduced over last year’s model in the domain of toys, reading and technology?

On the way towards the store exit, we passed the Star Wars display again. “No! We have to go!” shouted my young friend. As I was being dragged by the giant Dora display for a second and final time I said “Adiós amigo” and headed out the door. There was so much left to see, so much more to talk about with the store manager. It would have to wait for another visit. Maybe Dora the Explorer is a fitting guest to welcome you to the store after all, whatever her age happens to be, especially if you like to explore the business of toys.

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Conversations with a Game Changer

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Assistanct Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Ann My Thai

Can you imagine using video games as an effective tool to improve a child’s mind and physical well being? Can you also imagine video games that do more than just passively entertain and become media tools to improve a child’s life? These ideas no longer live in the domain of fantasy, and the researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit organization named after the Sesame Street show’s founder, are exploring how new kinds of video games can help promote learning and healthy lives for children across the globe.

Yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, the Cooney Center released its latest policy brief entitled Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health. (Note: Video of this event will be available soon on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s YouTube channel.) The paper was shared with a crowd of thought leaders specializing in the areas of education, public policy, research, television and video games. Game Changer defines a number of recommendations for a new framework related to learning games and games for health. After the event, which include a panel discussion from a number of pioneers in the learning games and games for health space, I had the opportunity to speak with Ann My Thai, one of the Cooney Center’s lead authors on this paper.

Scott Traylor: Your Game Changer report covers two sizable topics; learning games and games for health. Why one report and not two?

Ann My Thai: This was something we really struggled with because learning games and games for health are both large areas. Learning encompasses all types of content areas, be it literacy, math, programming, or 21st century learning skills. Health on the other hand has a certain kind of knowledge and a certain rigor in the medical field that doesn’t exactly map out in the same way to learning research, especially when you talking about educational intervention research, an area which created a really big challenge in writing this paper. In the end we decided we wanted to stay to the Sesame Workshop philosophy of the “whole child,” or in other words, the many areas of a child’s overall development, not just one area of development. We felt it was important not to ignore one or the other but to present both topics together. There’s strong research that shows learning and health are closely connected in young children. It’s important to address these challenges in both realms when talking about digital media. We suspect these are the areas within digital media that provide the greatest benefits. They can help bridge the gap between home and school as well as provide tailor-made learning for children, areas that are really important in health learning and learning in general.

ST: In your report you cite that the health-based gaming industry is estimated to be a $6.6 billion market. How big is the learning games market?

AMT: That’s a hard question to answer. Defining what is a learning game can be tough to begin with. On one hand you have organizations that are developing learning games in a research-based way, to make games intentionally educational. On the other you have companies who are making games that are fun first, but sometimes accidentally provide great learning opportunities to kids. Financial data exists for the gaming industry generally but I’ve yet to find anything specific that defines the market size of just learning games.

ST: In your report you touch on Henry Jenkins’ Digital Media Literacies Project, a body of work that could provide valuable insights for integrating digital media in the classroom. What do you think it will take for the points defined in the Digital Media Literacies Project to find its way into the classroom?

AMT: I think it’s going to take a complete paradigm shift with everyone who is involved with educating children, from parents to teachers, to school administrators, to reasearchers like us. There are so many ways that learning can work better for students. We need to completely re-envision what it means to be a school. For example, the area of parental involvement with children’s learning alone is huge. There’s a big disconnect between what happens at school and what children do at home. Digital media can be a really powerful tool in this regard, but it won’t happen if there are calls for cell phone bans in schools because news reports claim students are cheating in school by texting with cell phones. I don’t believe this is the response that will keep kids engaged. Kurt Squire, a leading learning games researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently said that kids pass notes in class to one another all the time, notes that have been created with pencils. We don’t ban pencils in the classroom. Pencils are a neutral medium, just like cell phones and other technologies. We need to spend more time exploring the benefits of these technologies, instead of banning them for what potential harm they may bring.

ST: Studies find that Nintendo Wii Sports players expended significantly less energy than children playing “real-life” sports. Would you say exergaming is more about behavior change than it is about physical exertion during game play?

AMT: That’s a good question, and one that reminds me of a comment made by Alan Gershenfeld, founder of E-Line Ventures, during today’s panel presentation. Alan wonders if the success of Guitar Hero has inspired children to want to learn how to play guitar. Wouldn’t it be great of we could track increases in guitar sales as as a result of Guitar Hero’s success!

I think behavioral change is one part of it. I also think about communities that may not be safe for children to go outside and play. As the exergaming pioneer Dr. Ernie Medina mentioned in our interviews, exergaming may not necessarily be better than going outside. However, if children are inside and they are playing games, playing games that require children to be physical active are a much better alternative than playing sedentary games. It’s all about a balanced media diet.

ST: How best can we achieve a coordinated effort to improve research related to learning games and games for health?

AMT: Certainly programs like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio national Health Games Research program is a good start. A good first step would be to get people who are developing games to communicate with others across a variety of other important disciplines. Game Changer calls for the government to conduct an inventory to determine what games research is being funded and by which agencies.   This would organize the current research and help accelerate collaboration across silos, which is already starting to happen. The government also needs to create incentives for people to work and play in the same sandbox. The way that academic research is currently being conducted is very much driven by individual researchers. There are not many opportunities for researchers to cross pollinate. This is something that digital media, as well as any other media, requires.

Researchers also need to have more communication with practitioners and people who are using these digital medias as part of their research. There needs to be more incentives to drive and encourage these sorts of collaborations.

ST: Are you hearing any feedback from policy makers about your report? What are they saying?

AMT: People are talking about these issues. This is a really pivotal moment in Washington in terms of setting an agenda for education and health. We hope that policy makers will read this report and see that if children are playing video games for hours a day, why not provide options that are not only entertaining and engaging, but also helpful with improved health and can teach children something as well. We have a briefing coming up with the Office of Science & Technology Policy. We know they have been looking at some of these barriers to multidisciplinary collaboration. We hope that our recommendations will give them some concrete ideas for how to lower those barriers.

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