Scottish Learning Festival - Stranger danger - but trust in friends

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Forget Bebo, the next generation will talk with 3D avatars in online environments

Keeping up with the kids can be tough. Just when you think you've got there, the terrain shifts again.

Not long ago, there were digital natives who had grown up with technology, and digital immigrants, who were never as comfortable in the new learning landscape. Now another divide has opened up, says Ollie Bray, national adviser for emerging technologies at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

"The next generation of kids - the three to sevens - are growing up with 3D avatar environments, such as Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Habbo Hotel. These children will never move on to earlier social networking sites, such as Bebo, which the older ones still use, because they're completely text-based.

"So we need to be teaching internet safety and responsible use in avatar environments from an early age. Take Club Penguin - a site that has good moderating software and large numbers of real people in there moderating too. The banned word-list is huge and they're adding to it all the time."

There is no problem with young people playing, communicating and building in Club Penguin, he says. "But I worry about where they'll go when they grow out of it. If the thinking has been done for them - if they haven't learned responsible use at that foundation level - how will they cope when using sites that don't have the same levels of support and safety?"

The whole idea of shielding children from dangerous online environments is well-meaning but inadequate, Mr Bray believes. It's like trying to protect them from road accidents by keeping them off the roads. It can't be done forever and they will have fewer survival skills, when they do get out there, than their peers.

What's needed is for schools to extend the concept of "stranger danger" to online environments, says Mr Bray. "The majority of online safety resources have been aimed at the senior school, because that's where children seemed most vulnerable. But it's almost too late by then. These are core skills. They need to be embedded in the curriculum right from Primary 1."

But while there are very real internet dangers, and children and young people - and parents and teachers - need to learn safe ways to behave online, certain kinds of risk have been exaggerated, believes Derek Robertson, LTS national adviser for learning and teaching futures.

"When we did the research on the use of Dr Kawashima's brain-training in schools, I expected we'd find some children being teased or bullied, because they weren't doing as well the others. But we didn't.

"We found exactly the opposite - as we have done with other computer games. Within these worlds, the kids become collegiate and supportive of each other, as well as focused on self-improvement. They want to get better and they want to help each other to do so."

Of course it might be that some children are being picked on by peers, but the research and observations have not yet detected this - and that is worth investigating, says Mr Robertson. "But the evidence we have - that in a games world, young children do not behave inappropriately - makes me wonder if our adult view of how children are and how they develop is to some extent self-fulfilling.

"Perhaps children are essentially supportive of each other. It might sound idealistic but that's what the evidence from computer games in schools is telling us. Classes across the social spectrum become more cohesive. Kids share ways they've found to improve. They celebrate each other's successes."

A combination of more education at an earlier age and some research-based trust in youngsters to do the right thing are needed before the full potential of computer games and online environments can be realised in schools, say Learning and Teaching Scotland's experts on educational technology.

"That potential is immense," says Mr Robertson. "I've had my eyes opened. I've gone into schools all over Scotland, including challenging areas, where they've been using Dr Kawashima, Nintendogs, Guitar Hero, Endless Ocean - and what I find everywhere is focused, industrious classrooms with children supporting and helping each other to improve."


Understanding the New Learning Landscape

Ollie Bray and Derek Robertson

September 24, 2pm

Moshi Monster Mania

Port of Menteith Primary

September 24, 12 noon

Age-appropriate resources (five to adult) on child internet safety:

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