"Do Video Games Help Kids Learn?," Digital Media and Learning Panel Discussion, Introductory Remarks delivered by Jonathan F. Fanton
February 8, 2007 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Good afternoon.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the MacArthur Foundation.  Thank you for joining us – here in person and watching via webcast.  Every quarter the Foundation holds an event to share information about its work with our friends and colleagues in Chicago.  Many of you have participated in recent seminars on our work in science, technology and security, juvenile justice, human rights, and conservation.

Today we have changed the format from a staff presentation to a panel discussion and moved here to the Newberry Library because of the lively interest in the topic: a new five year, $50 million initiative to investigate the impact of digital technology on young people and the implications of this phenomenon for schools, for families, our economy, even our democracy.

MacArthur is best known for its genius grants recognizing individual creativity but it does a lot more here in Chicago, across the nation, and around the world in 65 countries where we work.  Common to everything we do, from affordable housing preservation in Chicago, to women’s reproductive health in Nigeria, to higher education in Russia, is the search for what is new.  We are committed to illuminating patterns and trends that are re-shaping our world, opening opportunity but also posing challenges.

We believe technology is changing the way young people think, learn, play, make judgments, and relate to others.  Understanding these changes requires a new interdisciplinary field we call digital media and learning.  MacArthur is taking the lead in building this field and we want to explore one critical dimension today: the  perils and possibilities of video games.

Parents and researchers alike know that this is the first generation to grow up digital – coming of age when the use of computers, the internet, videogames and cell phones is common.  For today’s young people expressing themselves and building communities with these tools is the norm.  Consider these facts:

● On a typical day, more than half of U.S. teens use a computer
● 72 percent use instant messaging
● 83 percent of young people play video games regularly
● 50 percent of all young people who use the internet have created media content
● 33 percent have shared their content on the Internet

Although a lot of information exists about the number of young people using technology, less is known about how they are using it – how they think about it, the role it plays in their lives, and what it means to them.  Might it be that, for many, the richest environment for learning is no longer in the classroom, it is outside the classroom – online and after school?

A new participatory culture is emerging, where there are low barriers to artistic and personal expression and social engagement. 

We are talking about a rate of change that is truly dramatic.

-The number of young people using the internet has grown 24 percent in the past four years; and 87 percent of kids between 12 and 17 are on-line.

- High speed Internet use – and all that means for access to the richest content – jumped from 60 million in March, 2005 to 84 million in March, 2006 – a leap of 40 percent.

- User hours in the virtual world Second Life have increased from half a million in January 2005 to more than 7 million in November 2006.  And over 500,000 young people now participate in virtual worlds on a regular basis.

So the future is now – and we need to comprehend it.

Our new work in Digital Media and Learning embraces three goals:

● First, we want to learn even more about how young people are actually incorporating digital media into their daily lives and with what effects.  We want to answer questions about:
● How these new technologies may change the way young people reason and make ethical judgments;
● The way they acquire content and analytical skills;
● How they interact with others and relate to teachers and authority;
● How digital media may be affecting their sense of identity and community;
● How their attitudes toward civic participation and their awareness of other cultures may be changing;

● Second, we want to help young people be better at navigating, judging, and using digital information and tools in school and beyond.
How will they evaluate the credibility of what they see on the Internet?  How will they deal with information overload?  Will there be quiet time for reflection?

● Third, we want to understand the implications of all this for the institutions that prepare our young people for the future.  And we want to help these institutions adapt to a new reality.  Schools for sure, but also libraries, museums and after-school programs.

We are starting here in the United States.  Over time, we will look to learn from other countries where the saturation of digital devices is high and the patterns of use may be different in significant ways.

Like all of us here, MacArthur cares deeply about our young people and their futures.  We bring no agenda to these questions other than a desire to learn and share the results as broadly as possible.  We have a sense of what may be happening, but we are agnostic, even skeptical, about the effects of technology on young people.  We are eager to know what solid research will tell us. 

Our first grants range across research, media literacy, game design, and are early efforts to build this field. They include a large-scale ethnography, at USC and Berkeley collecting information on-line and in person about young people's social networks and peer groups, their family life, how they play, and how they search for information and learn. 

We have launched the MacArthur Series on Digital Media and Learning. The first six volumes will be published in September – in print and electronic form.  They are devoted to topics of deep interest to this emerging field — identity; race and ethnicity; the ecology of games; and the credibility of information, among others. 

We already know that children should be learning more than reading and math and that media literacy is needed to prepare them for productive adulthood in a digital world.  With MacArthur support, Professor Henry Jenkins and his colleagues at MIT have developed a new framework for media literacy. The goal is to help young people filter, judge, synthesize, and use information on the Internet and from other sources.

A pilot application is underway in after-school media literacy programs directed by Nicole Pinkard at the University of Chicago’s charter school. Nicole is one of our speakers today and Professor Jenkins’ thoughtful paper is available at the resource table near the entrance.

A final example brings us to our topic today.  A team at the University of Wisconsin is working on "Game Designer." The goal is to promote young people’s media literacy through participation – by making digital creations, including games. Games can help kids learn in many ways.  I will suggest three, but there are many more. They require players to solve problems as they play – to negotiate unknown worlds or to outwit a crafty opponent, for example.  Games provide players with immediate feedback. When players do well, they get a reward: they finish a level or defeat an enemy.  But they stay engaged. They immediately go on to play at the next, slightly more challenging level.  Games – if designed well – can be good tools to help young people learn. 

If 83 percent of young people play video games regularly, we must understand the changing nature of play and its effect on learning.    The national debate about games is highly charged, emotional, and even political. In the midst of it, however, parents and teachers are making decisions every day about digital media use by young people in their care.  Solid evidence of the role games play in learning will help parents and teachers know what to watch out for, but also how to use them to foster the kind of learning, personal growth, and civic engagement that we want for our children.

We are pleased to have the following panel members with us today.

• David Williamson Shaffer, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of a new book, How Computer Games Help Children Learn

• Sasha Barab, from Indiana University, will demonstrate Quest Atlantis, which is a virtual world that he is adapting to help teach science to middle school students.

• Because MacArthur’s initiative is about much more than games, Nicole Pinkard, the Director of Technology and Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement, will share with us how she is using games and other digital media in an after-school program here in Chicago. 

We have asked the panelists to be sure and touch on the concerns about games and possible negative or unintended consequences of digital media use.

The panel will be moderated by Connie Yowell. She is the Director of Education in MacArthur’s domestic program and the primary architect of this initiative.  

I will come back to the podium after the panel and all of us will be pleased to respond to your questions. 

Let me turn it over to Connie.

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