Merging virtual and real world learning gets younger!

 This is an interesting article with advice for educators and Linden Labs about the issues in using Second Life in educational settings. I particularly like the advice in general and the specific information on running alternate viewers. The recent manditory update to the Linden Client poses yet another úpdate of the school network.

In another article on Terra Nova, there is some great advice on Protecting Children In Virtual Playgrounds. Anyone with children will have noticed that kids toys in the high street are increasingly connected to some form of virtual world. The ‘pocket”device powered worlds are popping up all over the place which means that there is an marketplace increasinly this is aimed at younger children.

Webkins is an example of the real world of play merging with the virtual word – which is not as much about play, as it is about social interaction and collaboration.

Chat is not ‘open’ but constructed, which Webkinz claim makes it

“The Webkinz Clubhouse is a place for kids to socialize with friends in a fun and safe environment. In the KinzChat area, kids use our pre-constructed chatting system called KinzChat. Members cannot type in their own words in KinzChat; they can only use the phrases and words we’ve created.”

But the point is, that children f this age, are communicating online with avatars, and in tern, children whom they would otherwise probably never meet. Give then pre-school to elementary age of the target market, products such as webkinz are creating a ‘norm’with kids that online communication in virtual spaces is as acceptable as playing a computer game with their friends in their lounge room. Webkinz in making ‘virtual’ learning a norm, though play and social interaction.

Freaky Creatures – targets slightly older kids – and uses Freaky Creatures gives players a toy with a USB key that they then train online for battles . Again signing kids up for online experiences based on a toy, mashing reality play with virtual play – connecting socially. This genre of toy development is firmly focused on leveraging the ‘media age’. Going online to look for ádded information’ as it used to be – buy the toy – then look at the website for éxtras’ was simply a hook to get you to look at more product. Now the product is the online facet, not just an add on.

Plush toys are not missing out either.  http://www.zibbiezone.com/ Zibbies now inhabit their own virtual world – The Zibbie Zone! The “Zone” is a virtual world where children play and interact with the quirky and cute characters created by Play Visions. ZibbieZone.com was created by children’s book author Stephen Cosgrove (Penguin Publishing). The plot involves the imaginative premise that plush toys begin disappearing into the Internet. Zibbiezone is combining traditional toys, virtual worlds and a respected childrens author (who has previously created flash books) to again create a pre-school social network.

So while many educators debate the benefits or otherwise of Second Life, Active Worlds, Teen Second Life, the reality is that the is a growing immersion for kids in social-based learning and play – online. And its not all marketing, there are multiple benefits in using something like Webkinz or Freaky Creatures.

For example – boys love Ben 10, they like scary creatures and fantasy books such as Deltora Quest. The ‘flat primary’ internet used to be given over to product promotion. A few slick graphics, flash games, colouring pages and maybe a flash movie. It was all about engaging with the character, buying into the marketing message. It was a pull technology.

Deltora Quest’s website is mearly a reinforcement that there are books. Emily Rodda is one of Australia’s most successful, popular and versatile writers, and has won the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award  five times. Together with illustrator Marc McBride, their books are hugely popular. The internet presense is quite different from Zibbie. Parents however are used to seeing young kids on the internet sites of their favourite ‘products’, but now those products have a new ‘pull’ factor that parents may not have any reall understanding of.

Webkinz needs you to look after your pet – online. Freaky Creatures wants you to battle online to power up your toy. And Zibbies live in the internet as well as the kids bedroom. Quite simply reality play, imaginative play, and virtual play are fast meshing to just become ‘play’. The humble plush toy are plastic action figure now has a social life – all be it one managed by a commercial interest.

This trend is something that primary teachers can use to their advantage. There are numerous ways in which they can use these emerging technologies to engage kids in their classroom – as now they will be doing it more an more at home. So Media Literacy is important to not just high school (still debating Second Life), but to primary school. Perhaps more significantly, the toy industry is not going to get into such moral debates. They know that social networked based media has fast overtaken the idea of us living in the ínformation age. As kids flocked to online teen plus games such as Age of Empires, World of Warcraft – now the see that technology is now present in the home, to allow even younger kids to ‘get online’.

Club Penguin is now be called Disney’s Club Penguin There have been rumors about another player in the ring ever since Sony backed out of its potential $500 million deal to buy Club Penguin.  PaidContent is reporting the deal was “a cash payment of $350 million and an opportunity to earn out an additional $350 million between now and 2009”. Such is the power of brands, when they move on a social trend.

The shift to virtual play is as sure as the move from trains to space rockets, the moment they landed on the moon. 2D experiences online are less appealing to kids that the integration of a physical toy into a 3D environment with social aspects. Immersive worlds that connect to the real world are here to stay, even if as an educator you cling on tight to the idea that MS Office activities is enough.

The ‘reality’is that hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in virtual worlds. Toys are connecting to them, and giving kids exposure to immersive media. You can deny it, you are argue against it, but the brand power and marketing machines behind the entertainment industry are not.

They know that their linear, 2D offerings are being downloaded and their market revenue is falling. Music, Videos and Stand Alone games are easily pirated. DRM was not the solution and proved un-popular. There is no doubt that reality play and virtual play will continue to merge. Technology, speed and access to 3D based experiences – outside schools – is now as simple as anything else online.

Yet the use of socially connected devices and worlds in school is still seen as óut there’ which is rediculous. What is not happening is that teachers have the opportunity, desire, awareness or ability to look beyond their ‘training’ and consider how using online virtual worlds should and could be blended with everyday learning – as it now is with our students – informal learning.

Designing Teaching and Learning experiences to take in ‘now’technology – is critical.

PSPs, Nintendo’s, Webkinz and more are all low cost, durable and perfect tools to engage students. It just requires educators to be more ‘media aware’ and to accept that ‘media literacy’ is not limited to 2D websites and books.

The horse is already out the gate … I can’t see much point in denying that immersive learning, 3D environments, games, and mobile devices are not as relevant as rulers, text books and calculators.

At the rate we are going, schools are going to been seen as learning museums in a few years by students. The world does not require approval to re-organise how kids want to learn by educators. It will do it through product and social networks.

I think we are reaching a massive ‘moral and ethical’ watershed in education – and we talk about ‘safety’ – as if that is just a school issue and sufficient to circle the wagons and do almost nothing more.

I think is is firmly a social issue – and personally, I’d rather not leave it to massive commercial brands to set out what is good/bad/safe or educationally beneficial for students. After all, they may get educational consultants in the design process – but focus groups and marketing ultimately has the last word.

Teachers need to be active in the development of these technologies, not deny them. And the best way to do that is to use them – or at the very lest – explore them away from class and make a more informated decision. The established communities of practice, such as ISTE Island or Jokaydia have established learning networks to offer advice. There are regular online events to attend or join. Virtual Professional Development and Seminars are probably the best way to convince ‘nay’ teachers of the educational benefits of what is currently in store now.

8 thoughts on “Merging virtual and real world learning gets younger!

  1. Hi, Dean,

    You’ve done your homework. I agree that “immersive worlds are here to stay.” Young children of privilege are equipped by tech-savvy parents to navigate, socialize, communicate and trade in Webkinz from very early ages. I’ve listened to yuppie parents discuss teaching cyber-responsibility/security to children as young as four years old. You are correct in noting that the “plush toys” are the initial draw. The Webkinz toy collections are the rage among offspring of upward-mobile parents. This phenomenon is viral.

    While I could argue the pros and the cons of virtual “play” in the life of the young child, I won’t in this forum. I’m more concerned right now about education’s obliviousness to the inevitable growth of sophisticated immersive environments. These powerful learning tools are creating a NEW 3-D digital divide that further separates the privileged from the unfortunate. I see one more layer of separation emerging. Children of poverty are excluded from early online social learning by lack of connectivity, hardware and informed parenting. If schools do not UNBLOCK these early education opportunities to enable ALL children equal opportunities to participate, learn and navigate the world that they will live in – we fail them. We fail them.

    Thank you, Dean for a forward thinking post. I appreciate the opportunity to add thoughts that deeply concern me.

  2. Thanks Beth, you’ve filled in the missing social-class elements I missed so well. I find it difficult to reconcile that administrators and governments do not see mobile devices as effective as more expensive hardware such as laptops. I can’t agree more, the divide is now much deeper, not only wider – between have and have not – able and unable. Unlike the debate of ‘should we use ICT as well as books’ – the current one is not should we be using immersive tools – but how fast and how well we can get this to all students, not just the tech-savvy ‘yuppies’.

  3. Excellent observations Dean. Understanding the power of digital play to change behavior, we have focused on teaching children about “going green”. At our virtual world of kidscom.com we have invited librarians and school librarians into the experience where Idea Seeker Training Mission game play gets children offline and sends them to libraries and museums to look up facts on global climate change, endangered animals and energy efficiency. The Chicao Field Museum has a biodiversity game that ties into exhibits in the Museum. Families can download a guide book to the National Zoo and geocache their way to different endangered animals. Linking online and offline learning play together makes for a richer experience for children and the adults who love to learn as well. Thank you for your great blog.

  4. no, thank you – it’s a very important aspect of the current media age our kids are in, look forward to checking out kidscom.com. Sounds like a fantastic idea. There is no doubt in my mind that kids do not see computers as exciting or challenging as perhaps teachers do. Multi-modal learning is something that they say the want. In a recent interview with kids – they were very clear, that being on a computer all the time is boring. Giving them a good reason to go to a museum or library is fantastic

  5. Ah yes, this post should be compulsory ready for School Principals and Education Faculty leaders responsible for training new teachers. No matter how hard teachers push their heads into the sand, the tide is coming in and nothing in the world can stop it. Playing and learning will never be the same!

  6. Ah, Free Online games. Thanks for the post. As an educator k-12, we could not use your site in school. Any reference to drugs or violence negates t”s use. Perhaps if you had a G rated version – or even an educational portal. If teachers could sign up and put together a portfolio of games and have kids sign into that, it would be great. Right now the site would be blocked by 99% of Network Managers in schools – sites like Addicting Games, Mini Clip etc., while having some games that could be used – cannot be – mostly due to the drug/gangster themed games.

  7. Dean an interesting post! Having boys a little older than those targeted for webkinz or Freaky Creatures I was not aware of the marketing ploys that drew younger kids in through these online, commercial tactics.
    I always think of the money research & effort that commercial industries put into finding out what appeals to kids. They get it right because they take the time to find out exactly what it is that will ‘sell their product’- they KNOW their customers, they KNOW what appeals & works. Sometimes I’m amazed that the education sector simply does not put in the same effort!

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