What the Tech?

A few weeks ago, I realized that my house seemed awfully quiet for a post-school afternoon and wondered what my almost 6-year-old son and almost 9-year-old daughter were up to. They knew they had a few things to take care of—such as finding a home for pajamas that had been hastily strewn across the bedroom floor in our customary pre-school rush. I tiptoed to the edge of my kitchen and peered around the corner. Yes! Caught them in the act … from behind an armchair, I saw two sets of feet huddled together. They were definitely on my iPhone. “Hey!” I exclaimed, “What do you two think you are doing? And don’t you have homework to do?” They popped out from behind the chair. I expected them to fess up to a covert game of Cupcakes! where they create fantastic cupcakes and virtually eat them up (perfect for extended waiting time in a doctor’s office). Teva, with a skew smile, handed over the phone. They had been playing Words with Friends, a Scrabble-esque game. She had long ago hijacked my Words account. Among the culprits encouraging her Words habit were my cousins, my aunt, and a few family friends. But her two most avid partners in crime—and the two people had she been playing with in real time—were her grandmothers! All the while, her younger brother Jesse—who is just learning to read—was following along. Here they were, surreptitiously creating words and testing Scrabble strategies against a group of super smart adults instead of doing their homework. Now tell me (but don’t tell them!), could I really be upset about that?

I recently attended a conference cleverly named What the Tech? Scholars discussed the potential hazards of cyberbullying, the effects of social media on children’s social and emotional development, and the ways youth communicate differently these days given all the new media prevalent in their lives. A panel of “digital native” students (children born into the internet era) explained to the audience of “digital immigrants” (people born before 1980 who have learned how to use e-mail and social media) how exciting it is to be able to access information and participate in online communities. One of the most common themes that emerged across the speakers was the value of intergenerational play. Dr. Larry Rosen underlined how important it is for children to be able to talk to their parents about their online activities and for parents to know about their children’s online use. Dr. Mimi Ito pushed the audience to explore intergenerational online communities that revolve around common interests.

A friend recently lamented the fact that she sees no redeeming value in her son’s obsession with video games. I commiserated that it can be very frustrating to entice kids away from the game console, computer, Wii, iPad, smartphone, or TV. But I did make a suggestion: that she and her son should start up a game of Words with Friends. By playing together, and opening an opportunity for her “digital native” child to teach her about games, they might just discover common ground.

Next week, our Facebook game, Mission: Admission, goes live. After three years of design, testing, development, and research, we are very excited to share the beta version (an almost complete version) of the game with friends, colleagues, and strangers. I’ve been playing it with Teva. While she doesn’t understand the intricacies of the content focused on the college application process, she loves navigating around the game. And I have loved playing it with her. Even though designed for high school students, I am also enthusiastic that Mission: Admission, will give parents an opportunity to engage online with their children through a super fun and accessible game. Please check the Collegeology site next week for details about playing.

William G. Tierney is director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the Rossier School of Education.

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