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Friday, September 25, 2009

From 'chalk 'n' talk' to learning by doing

You know how middle and secondary school (probably in most countries) divide students' days into subjects? Well, there's a new public school in New York City that divides the schoolday into four 90-minute blocks devoted to the study of “domains,” The Economist reports. They're called things like "Codeworlds (a combination of mathematics and English), Being, Space and Place (English and social studies), The Way Things Work (maths and science) and Sports for the Mind (game design and digital literacy)." The domains, which could be called "courses" and conclude "with a two-week examination called a 'Boss Level' – a common phrase in videogame parlance" – are also videogames. Like courses, they have units of "study," which in this case is clearly a mashup of learning and play. "In one of the units of Being, Space and Place, for example, pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action. In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography and public policy."

The school is called Quest to Learn, and it draws its inspiration from three sources, New York's Bank Street School for Children, the MacArthur Foundation-funded Digital Youth Project I've written a lot about (see particularly "*Serious* informal learning"), and the work of the University of Wisconsin's James Gee, author of "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy."

The school might draw further inspiration from the new study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children's Learning and Health," which shows how "increased national investment in research-based digital games might play a cost-effective and transformative role and provides comprehensive actions steps for media industry, government, philanthropy, and academia to harness the appeal of digital games to improve children’s health and learning.

Related links

  • "Supreme Decision," is the debut game of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's new site,, with games for teaching middle school students about the US Constitution and courts. The game site's backed by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and Georgetown University, according to eSchoolNews. "Though she didn’t get a computer until she was in her 40s, and she doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, O’Connor believes using technology is the way to teach students about the Constitution and inspire a renewed commitment to civics education in US schools."

  • See also my summer posts, "The power of play" and "Play, Part 2."

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  • Thursday, September 24, 2009

    Teen sexting conviction upheld

    The teenager, Jorge Canal, was an 18-year-old high school student at the time of the incident in 2005. His misdemeanor conviction for sending sexually explicit photos to a 14-year-old student in his school was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court, USATODAY reports. The two students "had known each other as friends for roughly a year, according to the ruling. The girl, identified by initials C.E., testified that she asked [him] to send the photo three or four times, as a joke, and not to excite any feelings." The judge in his original trial "granted him a deferred judgment with a $250 fine and one year of probation," but he was required to register as a sex offender. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has just released its "Policy Statement on Sexting," which asks questions including, "Was the distribution of the photos done with no malicious regard or desire to harm another, or was it the result of malicious intent by one or more senders?"; "What was the intent behind the production of the photos, on a severity scale ranging from a benign reason to supporting a separate and malicious criminal purpose?"; and "Will prosecution achieve a result which addresses the larger problem of 'sexting' adequately?" There isn't much guidance associated with the potential answers to those questions, but they're important questions. This was not the reporting process in the case above, but all students need to know that schools are required by state laws to report sexting incidents to law enforcement when they become aware of them, and NCMEC says in its statement that federal law requires it to refer all sexting reports it receives through its CyberTipline(.com) "to the appropriate law-enforcement agency for investigation. NCMEC does not determine whether photos are actual child pornography or a violation of any laws. [See also's Tips to Prevent Sexting.]

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    Adult & kid judges picked Dizzywood

    Dizzywood, a virtual world for kids aged 8-12, has won the 2009 NAPPA Gold award in the software, Web site, and videogame category, reports, which administers the awards. Both adult experts and a team of children of appropriate ages for the products and services participated in the review process, seeking "the most entertaining, appealing, safe, educational and age-appropriate products." Previous winners in the category include UK-based Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, and, according to (NAPPA stands for National Parenting Publications Awards). I'm excited about Dizzywood's award because of a pilot digital-citizenship project Bel Aire Elementary School conducted with Dizzywood. Principal Patti Purcell told me she felt students needed a "space" they could actually practice what they learned in character education, which has long been part of the Tiburon, Calif., school's curriculum (for more on this, see the 4th paragraph of my original post about Bel Aire and Dizzywood here. [See also NetFamilyNews contributor Sharon Duke Estroff's series, Undercover Mom in Virtual worlds.]

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    Wednesday, September 23, 2009

    A call to action on eating disorder sites

    Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists called for "urgent action" to protect online youth vulnerable to pro-eating-disorder Web sites, the BBC reports. It says the number of such sites has "soared with the growth of social networking," and the government's year-old Child Internet Safety Council should expand its definition of harmful sites to include those promoting anorexia (pro-ana) and bulimia (pro-mia). The BBC cited one eating-disorder charity as saying it welcomes the Royal College's position but banning pro-ED sites doesn't get to the root of the problem.

    The other issue is that social networking complicates the issue. Not only is this not just about Web sites but profiles and pages in social sites and on mobile phone networks, and all of the above based in other countries. Further complexity is evident in the pages, profiles, and sites themselves, which display both pro and con positions at the same time. In a story about the migration from secret sites to social-network ones, Newsweek cites the view of Dr. Steven Crawford at the Center for Eating Disorders in Baltimore, who "sees the openness of the Facebook site as part of its appeal. Increasing numbers of teenage patients at the center are joining Facebook groups that proclaim their disorders to the world, which Crawford believes is a means of adolescent rebellion." Dartmouth Prof. Marcia Herrin, author of several books on the subject, "finds the public nature of the discussions of anorexia on Facebook encouraging, because it shows that teens are less afraid of confronting eating disorders," Newsweek adds. Facebook says it actively searches for and deletes pro-ED groups because, in supporting self-harm, they violate its terms of use.

    This past June, Liz Jones, a columnist for the Daily Mail in the UK, wrote about her 40-year battle with anorexia and a normal-eating experiment she conducted for three weeks. It's just one person's story but maybe sheds some light: "I found the gnawing, tight knot that is always in my stomach – fear of life, work, boys, social interaction – was quietened when I starved it.... I might not have been good at anything else – relationships, sport, conversation – but I have been really good at being thin.... That's the thing about being a borderline anorexic: it makes you feel superior, clean, morally unimpeachable. It isn't a whole lot of fun, endlessly disappointing friends who invite you for lunch. My spartan lifestyle ... has kept me tiny, but it has also isolated me.... I'd rather be thin than happy or healthy." [See also my 2007 interview with "Hannah" about her anorexic friend and "Sarah's Death at 19 Left Her Family Struggling to Understand the Power of an Eating Disorder" in the Washington Post last spring.]

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    Thin avatar, thinner self?

    Virtual world "residents" and their parents know what avatars are: An in-world representative of you. In Second Life, though some users have more than one avatar, most avatars are quite human-looking versions of users. It depends on the world quite a bit. In ClubPenguin, they're, well, penguins. In a lot of kids' virtual worlds, the avatars are cartoon-y humans with big eyes and heads. In videogames, there's a huge range of virtual selves, from human-like to fantasy creatures with special powers.

    I'm telling you all this because a new study indicates that people's avatars can be aspirational or motivational, at least in terms of appearance. It found that "creating a thin and physically fit online avatar may encourage people to become healthier and more physically fit in real life," Triangle Business Journal reports. The study, by RTI International, found that that "80% of respondents who reported high levels of physical activity for their avatars also reported participating in high levels of physical activity in their real lives." The article appeared in the August issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research.

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    Tuesday, September 22, 2009

    Teenage brain: Fresh perspective

    For a long time, most adults have assumed that teens take risks and act impulsively because their brains aren't fully developed. It's the explanation we hear a lot for their "immaturity." And although some very reputable publishers have reported on the "teenage brain" - e.g., PBS Frontline, Harvard Magazine, and the National Institute of Mental Health – one academic researcher I know even calls this "pop science." Well, a new study at Emory University really reinforces the pop-science perspective and could end up turning the developing-brain theory upside down. It found that "the brains of teens who behave dangerously are more like adult brains than are those of their more cautious peers," Scientific American reports. At least two observations undermine the theory that the impulse-control, executive part of the brain develops later than the emotional part, it says: "First, American-style teen turmoil is absent in more than 100 cultures around the world, suggesting that such mayhem is not biologically inevitable. Second, the brain itself changes in response to experiences, raising the question of whether adolescent brain characteristics are the cause of teen tumult or rather the result of lifestyle and experiences." Certainly nothing's completely clear yet, but the term "teenage brain" already feels dated and a little disrespectful.

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    How mobile is Facebook?

    "Sixty-five million people regularly use mobile devices to access Facebook, making it one of the largest mobile services in the world," Forbes reports. It adds that mobile users are "twice as active or 'engaged'" with their Facebook accounts than Web-only users. The social site's definitely making mobile a priority, with its updated iPhone app and new apps for Nokia phones, phones running Google's Android operating system, and Palm's WebOS - all in the last month. Facebook has also "played a central role in the launch of Motorola's new smart phone, the Cliq."

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    Monday, September 21, 2009

    Online-safety ed, Swedish-style

    The Swedish Media Council recently unveiled three 30-second animated videos designed to be distributed "virally" by the human peers of their star, "Eddy." He's "an impulsive teenage boy who tries out typical online behavior in the physical world," and he's meant to get youth thinking about why people act differently online. It's interesting to see what's rising to the top as the most salient concerns in many countries. See if you think the videos address them effectively (feel free to comment). Here are their links and descriptions: "'Eddie's blog' illustrates how easy it is to forget that online publication of texts and photos usually are available to everyone and not only the people they were intended for." "'Eddie comments' ... demonstrates that the illusion of anonymity on the Internet sometimes has a negative effect on people’s behavior. 'Eddie signs up' points out that signing up on a social networking site or registering as a user for a service usually entails giving away rights or approving that the information submitted can be used in other contexts." Here's the Swedish Media Council's site.

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