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.
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
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