How can we design digital spaces for children and teens to play, learn, and interact with each other that have a developmental purpose and goal, and that support positive outcomes? This is a question driven by a sense of urgency as the design of our digital world is increasingly guided by commercial purposes and not by developmental concerns.
We have a lot of materials to choose from, but we need a framework to guide our choices. This article describes a framework called Positive Technological Development (PTD), which was created based on more than a decade and a half of research at the MIT Media Lab and Tufts University. Although this article is about new technologies for children, it is inspired by an old question: “How should we live?” The pressing issue is not what kind of digital landscapes we will build, but what kind of people we will become as we inhabit those spaces. This is an approach to help children acquire the technological literacy of the 21st century while developing a sense of identity, value, and purpose.
Positive Uses of Technology by Children
As designers of new media, we need to ask ourselves, “What do we understand by positive uses of technologies by children?” In the 1970s and early 1980s, when people first thought about computers as tools for education, positive uses meant children learning new things about and through technology. For example, programming languages designed for children, such as Logo, became popular amongst educators. Along came the idea that learning how to program at a young age had an impact on cognitive development, as well as the potential to engage children in “thinking about thinking,” and helped master subjects such as math and science. Thus, in these early years of computers and children, positive uses of technology were defined as children developing computer literacy and technological fluency.
However, nowadays when technology plays a role in most aspects of a child’s life, having competence and confidence using computers for learning might be a necessary step, but not a goal in itself. Developing character traits that will serve children to use technology in a safe way to communicate and connect with others, and providing opportunities for children to make a better world through the use of their computational skills and new ways of thinking is just as important.
In academic jargon, we refer to this as Positive Technological Development. This is in alignment with current ICT standards, such as the Framework for 21st Century Learning, that emphasize the integration of the technical skills of digital technologies and an understanding of the ethical and social issues surrounding the use of such tools.
What do we mean by positive uses of technologies by children? Children are using technologies in positive ways when they can engage in the developmentally appropriate tasks for their age. For example, the developmental job of a preschooler is to explore the world through creative play. Thus we want open-ended technologies that support creativity and exploration, as opposed to constrained and limited interactions. The developmental task of a child in elementary school is to develop a sense of mastery, so we want technologies that allow her to create projects and learn new things. The developmental task of a teenager is to explore identity. Therefore, technologies such as virtual worlds that allow role playing and “what if” situations might be appropriate.
The 12 Cs for Positive Design
The PTD framework provides us with design guidelines. Technologies that support positive youth development should engage children in the following activities:
Content creation to develop Competence
Learning theory and the work of Jean Piaget have shown that children learn by doing. By making and constructing their own projects they also construct internal concepts and models. The early work of Seymour Papert, who pioneered the use of computers for learning, taught us that the best computational environments for children are those that give them multiple opportunities to make their own animations, create stories, post their own blogs, create websites, compose songs, and so on. From a developmental perspective, the process of creating content, as opposed to only consuming it, promotes the development of competence.
Creativity to build Confidence
New technologies that integrate multimedia allow children to generate new ideas and express them in new ways. When children are engaged in creating their own computer-based projects and, in the process, find themselves solving technical problems in creative ways, they develop a sense of confidence in their learning potential and an ability to master the tools and use them for their own creative purposes.
Communication to support Caring
From a developmental perspective, engaging children in a learning environment that promotes the exchange of ideas, working in teams, sharing resources, and caring about each other is very important. Fortunately, there is a vast array of new technologies today that promote collaboration and a shared understanding about its benefits.
Collaboration to foster Connection
From a user experience perspective, we tend to think about communication, both synchronous and asynchronous, as an “exchange of data and information.” However, when designing for children, communication should promote a sense of connection between peers or with adults. From a developmental perspective, technologies that facilitate social interaction are more effective than technologies that merely facilitate the exchange of information.
Community-building to promote Contribution
New technologies should provide children, even in early childhood, with the tools to make contributions to their local and global communities. Virtual spaces and social media that enable the formation of social networks are particularly appealing.
Choices of conduct to develop Character
Childhood and adolescence are periods of life in which we develop as moral individuals. This involves the capacity to make informed choices while evaluating possible consequences. New technologies, in particular virtual worlds and multiplayer games, provide wonderful playgrounds to experiment with “what if” questions. This also involves a certain space for risk, where not all the choices will be made ahead of time and young users will be invited to examine their values and explore their character traits so that over time they can develop an inner moral compass to guide their actions in a just and responsible way.
Below are real-life examples on designing and studying the uses of the Zora virtual world by teens and pre-teens, and robotics for young children. They give a sense of how the 12 Cs of the PTD framework can be put into action.
Zora Virtual World
Fourteen-year-old Melanie uses her home computer to connect to Zora, a multi-user virtual city. There, she has created an avatar (a virtual representation of herself) and a virtual home. A visit to Melanie’s home on Zora reveals much about the girl: her best friends, her pet, her family’s history, her baby picture. By clicking on an object, one can read the stories that Melanie has chosen to tell. For example, one can learn that Melanie received her kidney from her mother when she was a baby. After working on her own virtual home, Melanie visits other homes in Zora. In the virtual city she meets Jamie, a sixteen-year-old girl who received her kidney transplant five years ago. The teenagers meet weekly on Zora and engage in lively online conversations about strategies to remember how to take their medicines, boys, and what makes the two of them different from their classmates. It is the first time the girls have met another child in the same situation. After a couple of months of “seeing” each other and becoming virtual friends, the girls decide to meet face-to-face.
Caroline is a sixteen-year-old girl who received her new liver eleven years ago. She connects to Zora weekly for an average of three hours. In one of the virtual meetings, Caroline shares with the other Zora citizens that she is worried about leaving home and going to college. In particular, she wonders about how she will remember to take her daily medicines when her mom is not around, and how she will tell her new friends that she had a transplant. Michael explains to Caroline that he uses an alarm in his cell phone as a reminder for his medicines. Peter uses a colorful stack of cards that he keeps in his room. The three kids engage in an online conversation about different strategies for medical adherence. The Zora coordinator suggests to the children that they work together in building a virtual pharmacy so that other children in Zora can also learn about these topics. Someone else makes a virtual health museum next to the pharmacy so that children can learn more about their transplants. Children contribute their own transplant stories and medical information to the museum. They also invite a doctor and interview her online.
However, Caroline is still worried. She is one of the oldest in the Zora virtual community and she will be going to college soon. She has never met a child with a transplant who went to college. The Zora team hears this need. The next week, nineteen-year-old Sam comes online from his dorm. He talks about his heart transplant and his life in college. Caroline feels relieved. Sam offers to come back online anytime. He feels important and enjoys his role as a mentor. He has something to share with others. He can be helpful to younger children who are going through the same things he went through years ago. He can help them to feel less lonely.
Making a Robot
Max used robotic manipulatives in a combined first and second grade classroom in a small private school in Massachusetts. When given the choice of building a project, he decided to make a “hopping Eskimo.” In his journal, he wrote, “My Eskimo hops and runs away from a polar bear. I built this because I am an Eskimo.” Max wanted to use the technology to tell a story about himself and his cultural heritage. The open-ended nature of the technology enabled Max to work on this project. But it wasn’t only the technology that made this possible. It was also the constructionist pedagogy that Max’s teacher used when introducing robotics.
Max was not as interested in exploring the potential of the technology as he was in telling a story. When Max recounts his work on the project, this priority is also expressed in the steps he describes. “First I built a platform. Then I built the background. Then I built the Eskimo and the trees and then the motor for the Eskimo. I put a lot of slow motion into the motor of the Eskimo. And then I put a lot of fast speed into the wheels. I learned that it is very hard to support the car.” The last thing Max did was work with the motor. He first needed to have the setting for the story (the platform, the background, and the trees), and the main character (the Eskimo). Then he could focus on the motor. Max used a motor and learned a few things about motion and programming. He expressed that what he enjoyed most was “learning how to make things jump.” However, using motors wasn’t what got Max hooked into his project. He had a story to tell. He put the engineering skills and his evolving technical fluency to the service of storytelling.
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