Would it surprise you to know that by the time they reach fourth grade, around age 10, 33% of kids in the US can’t read at their grade level? Statistics like these are what drove Sesame Workshop to establish The Joan Ganz Cooney Center last December. Founded on the idea that learning in kids ages six to 11 could be improved if educators and industry were able to harness kids’ love of, and immersion in, new media, the center has set out to research potential hot spots in the landscape. And its first report D is for Digital hones in on a category ripe for exploration and innovation – informal educational consumer products. We’re talking toys, video games, computer games and online software that in one way or another have the potential to fuel children’s literacy and cognitive development. Is there a way to bring these manufacturers together to build a smarter, more entertaining mousetrap, so to speak? All signs point to yes in D is for Digital.
Charting a new course
It’s worth noting at the outset that the report does not present itself as definitive. Cooney Fellow and D is for Digital author Carly Shuler says it’s a starting point. Like the efforts of TJGCC, she says, the end goal with the paper was to get academics and manufacturers exploring ways to make more compelling educational digital media products together. ‘We’re working on a Sesame Workshop model for older kids,’ she says. ‘Bringing together educators and business people and mashing their ideas to come out with products.’
She adds some academics spend their lives studying how kids interact with media in the context of their development (see ‘The Middle Years’ p. 90), and there are companies putting out toys marked educational that may not be founded on any kind of pedagogy. ‘You need both to make fun, educational goods.’ Additionally, the report highlights a number of cool academic projects that product creators should know about (see ‘Too Cool in School’ p. 98).
To get the ball rolling, the report outlines just how immersed in digital media elementary-school-age kids are these days, recapping their tendency to multitask that leads them to log more than six hours per day interacting with various outlets, including computers and TVs. It also points out just how accepting parents have become of their children’s digital consumption, citing stats that show 74% of US moms and dads are comfortable with the idea that the once-maligned video game console is now a regular part of family life.
And while any digital consumer products manufacturer worth its salt stays on top of trends, D is for Digital outlines the current modes of media consumption sweeping the core kid demo, largely for background. So there’s an overview of what’s shaping virtual worlds à la the Webkinz phenomenon, user-generated content, casual online gaming and the advent of streaming video via computer.
More interesting, perhaps, to industry types is the categorical scan of the current product market that identifies some holes ready to fill. For example, D is for Digital documents 88 electronic learning aid (ELA)-related items in the US market, including hardware systems, software and standalone devices. Of that assortment, only a small percentage targeted kids ages nine to 11, with the bulk of product aimed at the preschool market. Overall, only 3% of ELAs requiring the use of an additional medium, such as LeapFrog’s ClickStart Computer that plugs into the TV, employed an internet connection.
Looking at video games, the report notes kids eight to 10 spend an average of 65 minutes a day playing console or handheld games and that the top-20 selling video game titles in 2006 generated more than US$500 million in revenue. Yet Shuler and her team could only locate 69 titles in the market that might be considered educational.
Turning to the internet, D is for Digital’s scan singled out 131 web destinations, i.e. portals and media sites, considered educational. Of those, it found 46% had a commercial element (subscriptions, advertising) and a full 70 of them targeted kids ages nine to 11, with 41 dedicated to six- to eight-year-olds and only 20 made for preschoolers.
Along with adding fostering research that looks at what’s working in products currently on the market to help kids – and disseminating those findings – to the mandate of TJGCC, D is for Digital outlines a number of recommendations for future product development.
Number one – market trends should drive the development of educational products. More than anything, says Shuler, ‘We’re trying to get makers of educational media to look at what’s trendy.’ The largest commercial opportunities point to more educational video games and ELAs linking with virtual worlds to create web/toy hybrids much like the entertainment-driven Webkinz and Barbiegirls.com. (Interestingly, LeapFrog already seems to be on that path with the impending launch of The Tag Reading System, which replaces its LeapPad format with an all-in-one USB-enabled stylus to which parents can directly download books from the web.)
Another area that could lead to much innovation is breaking the ‘one child, one screen model’ of media consumption. It’s been proven that the best learning takes place when an adult is there to scaffold the experience – in other words, helping the child move to the next level of understanding. Mitchell Resnick, head of MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Lab notes in the study: ‘Many adults think they need to just get out of the way. They are wrong. [For example] kids can find comic book sites, but they can’t make interactive animated comic books on their own.’ D is for Digital, in turn, wants those working in the industry to ask how media products can help encourage kids to talk to each other and adults, and encourage interaction. It points to the Nintendo Wii as a good starting point.
Finally, IP owners with popular entertainment properties should leverage them to create supplemental educational materials. Shuler believes entertainment and learning should mix. ‘If you can take a character like Harry Potter that kids care about and let them do something creative, where they are thinking and writing about character, that’s a great opportunity.’
On the road
Certainly, D is for Digital provides food for thought, and many are hopeful about the direction in which it and TJGCC are trying to steer the development of learning products. Warren Buckleitner, PhD and editor of the Children’s Technology Review, who’s been studying the space since 1984, was impressed. ‘Learning happens no matter what,’ he says. ‘This is a time to think broadly, and what I liked about the report was it was the first to lump ELAs, handheld smart toys and video games together…it’s time to start harvesting the fruit of technology and use it to enrich kids’ lives.’
As a reviewer of the devices covered in the report, Buckleitner pointed out a few already on that path – the Nintendo Wii and Jakks Pacific’s breakthrough EyeClops. The Wii, he says, dismantled the useability barrier, adding the decline in the educational software market has been largely caused by the category’s complexity. Parents don’t want to fuss with installing software on their PCs and then open up their systems to viruses and manhandling by their children. The Wii, on the other hand, is not complicated. The console’s interface is so intuitive, it’s easier to use than a mouse.
Similarly, Buckleitner says the EyeClops shows that educational products can be fun, if not pure genius. ‘It’s philosophically ideal in terms of kids’ development,’ he says of the oversized electronic microscope released last fall that made it onto Amazon.com‘s best-seller list at Christmas. As an educational tool, the EyeClops is very empowering for kids and has a completely open-ended play pattern. So the child’s curiosity drives him/her to explore and look for things to put under the microscope.
Not surprisingly, Jakks is adding to the line with a souped up version of the original EyeClops (US$49.99) later this year and a more advanced spin-off, the BioniCam (US$79), which has its own display screen and USB key to save images. Jakks SVP of interactive John Ardell notes that the device’s chief appeal is that it’s empowering for kids and they don’t perceive it as educational. A bonus so far has been that teachers are buying the EyeClops for in-classroom use.