What kids learn in virtual worlds
By Stefanie Olsen
November 15, 2007
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.
"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
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
Still, 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 that."
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
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.
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