What kids learn in virtual worlds | CNET News.com
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: November 15, 2007 12:15 p.m. PST
Kids who are active members of virtual worlds are learning how to
socialize, how to be technologically savvy, and how to be good little
That’s according to a group of academics and researchers who met
Wednesday evening at the University of Southern California to discuss
the effects of virtual worlds
on children today. Of course, virtual worlds are still so new that
researchers haven’t had much time to study their impact on kids. But
the MacArthur Foundation, a sponsor of the panel discussion, has
invested millions in research over the next several years to ask such
Doug Thomas, associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School of
Communication, said during the panel that much of what’s happening in
virtual environments is informal learning. In many cases, kids are
getting an early education with technology, learning how to be members
of a citizenship, and picking up skills that they’ll need in the future
workforce, Thomas said.
The downside, he said, is the inherently commercial nature of virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz,
which encourage kids to play games, dress up online characters, and buy
virtual goods to decorate their in-world homes or avatars.
“If you’re a parent, I would be much less concerned about things
like online predators or violence, then I would be about the conflation
between consumption and consumerism and citizenship (in virtual
worlds). Because our kids are being taught that to be a good citizen of
this world you got to buy the right stuff,” Thomas said during the
panel, which was being simulcast via video over the Internet.
The panel came together to talk about the promise and pitfalls of virtual worlds from an educational and commercial viewpoint. Virtual games like Club Penguin and Webkinz
have become much more popular with 6- to 14-year-olds in the last two
years, attracting tens of millions of members. Researchers estimate
that more than 50 percent of kids on the Internet will belong to such
an environment by 2012, double that of the current population of
virtual world members.
Meanwhile, many educators herald virtual environments for their
educational potential because they manage to get kids extremely
engaged. Thomas, for example, works with kids in an educational virtual
world called Modern Prometheus.
He said the environment is useful for teaching children about subjects
that can be difficult to teach in the classroom, such as ethics. The
game allows the kids to play out scenarios involving ethical decisions
over and over from different angles, letting them see the various
effects, he said.
Most people in America still haven’t even heard of virtual worlds,
but that’s changing, said Julia Stasch, vice president for domestic
grant-making at MacArthur. This generation is the first to grow up
digital and everyone needs to be paying attention to what kids
themselves have to say, Stasch said.
online predators or violence, then I would be about the conflation
between consumption and consumerism and citizenship (in virtual
“Only rigorous research is really going to tell us if a profound
change is occurring and what form it’s taking. If it’s true, there are
significant implications for schools, libraries…families…the economy
and even our democracy,” she said.
Yasmin Kafai, associate professor of the UCLA Graduate School of
Education and Information Studies, has been conducting research on
tweens in Whyville.net, a virtual world with a more educational
bent. She said kids are drawn to virtual worlds because adults aren’t
supervising and they can bring far-flung friends in vast areas like Los
Angeles to a common place.
“Particularly for teens with a drive for independence,” Kafai said.
“In (these worlds), there’s a lot of flirting and socializing, a (play)
ground for what comes later.”
Thomas said he was astonished to hear that a majority of kids didn’t
know how to find Iraq on a map. But they would know how to find any
kind of map of Iraq on the Internet, he said.
“Knowledge is changing. It (used to be that it) was a set of facts,
now it’s not so much a ‘what’ but a ‘where,’ in which kids learn how to
find information,” Thomas said. “That’s going to be the single most
important skill–the ability to adapt to change.”
He added: “I wouldn’t be worried if they’re engaged and playing these games, I’d be more worried if they’re not.”
an audience member from PBS Kids.com asked the panelists about concerns
of cyberbullying in virtual worlds, which is fairly common in these
environments. The panelists responded that it’s the dark side of
virtual environments but it’s not much different than what happens in
the real world.
“Bullying, racism, homophobia, every cultural ill is replicated in
virtual worlds,” Thomas said. “If you went to any sixth grade class and
studied it for a year, all the good, bad, and ugly shows up in a
virtual world just like every class, and we should all be mindful of
The panelists advised parents to take an active approach with their
kids in virtual worlds. Thomas, for example, said that he would want to
teach his children media literacy skills so that they could discern the
difference between being a good member of society and buying stuff.
Jim Steyer, moderator of the panel and CEO of panel co-host Common
Sense Media, suggested that parents set time limits and put the
computer in a common room.
Kafai suggested that parents become a member in the virtual world
that their kids belong to and play with them. “Go into the world with
them,” she said.
Send insights or tips on this topic to email@example.com.
About the author
Stefanie Olsen covers science and technology for CNET News.com. In this
series, she examines the young generation’s unique immersion in the
Web, cell phones, IM and online communities.
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