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Some Words on Webkinz: Can Digital Media Actually Help Emergent Readers?

I have decided to pick on Webkinz in a post this week on the Breakthrough Learning blog -- a place where writers are stirring up ideas in preparation for a Google forum later this month called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age.  I'll be moderating the "Literacy 2.0" panel. A copy of my post is below.

P.S. If you're not familiar with Webkinz, take a look at this screen shot, which shows you one view of what children see when they play with Webkinz on screen. Webkinz, you should know, are really two things. They exist physically as hold-in-your-hands plush toys -- like stuffed horses and dogs. And they exist as virtual characters that live online in virtual worlds that children create. Each toy comes with a password so kids can log in on their home computers and design rooms and outdoor spaces for the online versions of their stuffed animals. (I know, it sounds a little odd and confusing. But trust me, these toys and their accompanying virtual worlds are perfectly understandable to the 5- to 8-year-old set.)


A young girl, age 5, sits down at her family's computer and logs into Webkinz with some help from her mother. She's got a plush toy on her lap. It's a Clydesdale horse named Mirabelle who, seconds later, appears reincarnated as a pixilated horse on the screen. The little girl grabs the computer mouse, points to the screen, and shouts, "look Mom!" A three-dimensional room is now before her eyes, and she can fill it with whatever furniture she thinks her horse might like. A catalog of food items appears too - marshmallows, carrot sticks, hamburgers, you name it. The little girl knows that she is supposed to buy whatever will make her horse happy and healthy. She clicks on the carrot sticks and feeds them to Mirabelle. A little thought balloon appears over her horse's head with tiny text inside. Maybe it says "that's delicious" or "thank you!" or "now can you buy me some apples?" But we'll never know, because it appears for only a second and then it disappears.

"What did it say?!" the girl screams. Her face is in a panic. "I couldn't read it!"

She couldn't read it. Why? Two reasons. 1) the little girl is not yet a fluent reader. 2) the digital media did absolutely nothing to help. 

I offer this story not to bash Webkinz or to chastise her mother (who is me, as many readers have probably guessed by now.) Nor do I tell this tale to lead you into a sermon on the value of reading a book versus sitting in front of a computer.

I tell this story to highlight the disconnect between digital media and children's literacy today. Consider the elements in place: We have a highly motivated child sitting in front of a highly motivating piece of software. We have text on the screen. But we have no recognition anywhere that this is a moment that could be harnessed to pull her forward in reading, to help take her to the next level. Something as simple as enabling the words to appear on the screen until she took an active role, until she clicked a button to close the thought balloon, could have helped. But much, much more could have happened as well. Imagine a Webkinz world populated by characters who love to read and urge their owners to check out virtual books to stock virtual libraries. Imagine a moment in which my daughter might have been invited, first through an audio prompt, to read more about horses and how to care for them, and then led her to a page of non-fiction designed for her reading level that she could print and read later with the help of parents and teachers? Imagine the richer literacy possibilities that could be infused in the games, email exchanges or printed bulletin boards on the virtual world's walls.

The opportunities to encourage reading through digital media are endless.

And so are the pitfalls. I'm not alone in having dozens of questions about when, why and how to use digital media in a way that doesn't divorce children from reading instead. Here are just four that are on my mind:

1) How can we prevent the power of digital media become overpowering, from doing so much for children that reading seems unnecessary to them? We think of the screen as a place to tell stories visually, and as we all know, a picture speaks a thousand words. So where will children learn to read those words if they so rarely appear before their eyes? Can the "printed" word become more infused in our multimedia experiences? How do we give kids a reason to read?

2) Digital media has been held up as a motivator, but is that enough? We see children excited about using a Nintendo DS or logging onto an online game, and we say we need to use these platforms as a launching pad for introducing reading. But what happens when the novelty wears off? Can these games produce such a love of reading, or even simply a fluency in reading, that it becomes deeply embedded in children's approaches to learning no matter what technology they use in the future?

3) What can digital media do to improve comprehension, to move students beyond a rudimentary ability to decode words? Can we use multimedia and immersive gaming to introduce students to vocabulary and concepts from history, science and literature so they recognize words and ideas when they come across them in texts? And if so, will that be enough? Can digital media become a bridge to better comprehension for children from non-English speaking households? Or is that something that can only come from reading text in the first place?

4) What is the relationship between creating and reading? Digital media is renowned for its ability to spur creativity, motivating children to create videos, develop games, mix and produce music, write messages. Do we know empirically whether this might help them learn to read or propel their reading to new levels? And is one necessary for the other?

Until we find answers to some of these questions, skepticism will remain over whether digital media can play a positive role in raising reading achievement among today's young people. And parents and teachers will continue to nag their children to log off Webkinz and go read a book.

Screen shot courtesy Flickr user ouvyt used under the Creative Commons license.


Software for young children still lags in DAP

As an early childhood educator who is extremely passionate about technology, I know there are some really excellent programs and websites for young children, but in my opinion, 90% of the products are really disappointing. I have been waiting, year after year, to see improvements in in the industry and every year, I am surprised to see that not much is changing. While there has been an explosion of offerings for the youngest set, the products continue to fall short.

The potential to captivate and harness the inherent motivation of young children is there, but the software developers seem to be stuck. It appears that they not working with instructional designers and usability experts who have expertise in early childhood development. Why not? Are the margins just too thin? I think not. Perhaps they are just not educated about developmentally appropriate practice and early cognitive development. With the amount of time and money invested in R & D it is hard to believe they could be so misdirected in their efforts. I have come to believe it's just about marketing to the masses.

What can we do to educate and motivate software developers to produce applications that are educationally sound AND appeal to parents and children?

Lisa, you are singing my song

I am an early learning researcher and mother of a 6-year-old, with whom I just had the EXACT same experience you described last night. How about this one:
The quizzes that allow you to get more money to buy food for your pet are also time-sensitive. The answers start disappearing. Hints are then given, which also disappear, and by this time my daughter hasn't even had enough time to read the question, much less the multiple choice answers. This led to even more panic and frustration than the disappearing bubbles, because if she can't do the quizzes right, her poor dog will starve! (and she can't buy fancy frilly furniture in the W store either).

Despite my expertise, the experience led me to spend another hour or two on the internet, researching about struggling readers, wondering, is my child the only 5-6 year-old who can't read well enough to do Webkinz?

The fact that designers of software like this would NOT be consulting with Reading Recovery, and other early literacy experts boggles the mind. And didn't they pilot-test the program with normal children like ours?