Remarks by Julia Stasch at the Digital Media and Learning Forum
November 14, 2007 | Speech | Digital Media & Learning

Thank you, Bob. This is the fourth of our regional forums on digital media and learning and what a wonderful turnout. Thanks to you, Common Sense Media and USC.

In thinking about this event, I wondered what questions you might have as you walked in the door today. First of all, what is this all about? What is a virtual world? Is it a game? It is OK not to know? Most people in America either haven’t heard of virtual worlds and, if they have, do not understand them at all. If you are one of those people, you are definitely not alone. But you are here, we are glad, so let’s dive in.

If you are a teacher, you might be asking: What can kids learn in virtual worlds that they cannot learn in a school setting? What are they doing and even learning out of school?

How do I stay ahead of the curve as these new worlds proliferate? What can I do to guide young people as they explore? Are virtual worlds the new classroom or just the new playground? I am running just to catch up to my students; how does that affect my role as teacher, mentor and guide?

As a parent, you may be wondering: Are virtual worlds good or bad? Is there real value to the time my kids are spending in front of the computer? Sometimes you may think that games were bad enough; now they are actually meeting other people on line at the same time. Are they safe? What values are they exposed to? How do I keep up and should I share in this new experience?

We have brought together a wonderful panel to begin this conversation with you and, after their remarks, no question or comment from you is out of bounds. During the reception, you will have an opportunity to experience some of the most popular virtual worlds hands-on.

Before we do that, however, I would like to briefly answer another question. Why is a major international foundation, at work in 60 countries, with offices in Chicago, Russia, India, Mexico, Nigeria and soon China—with programs in human rights, peace and security, population and reproductive health, global conservation, migration and the world-wide movement of people, juvenile justice, urban policy, affordable housing, and community and economic development—thinking about virtual worlds? Why indeed?

This topic is just one of many in our major new area of interest in the overall topic of digital media and learning. Last year, we announced the commitment of an initial $50 million to investigate the role and impact of digital technology on the lives of young people. We want to understand how it influences how they think, learn, interact with others, navigate enormous amounts of information, sort out its credibility, make other judgments and grapple with ethical dilemmas.

Despite what you see every day and know to be true, only rigorous research can really tell us if profound change is occurring and what form it is taking. If it is true, there are significant implications for schools, libraries and other social institutions—for families, the economy and even our democracy. We also think there may be a new interdisciplinary field in the making, bringing together not just scholars but game designers, educators, commercial interests and others—all of whom need to be listening to what kids themselves have to say.

Think about how different the world is today from what it was just a decade ago. Children coming of age right now are the first generation to grow up digital. In their world, the use of computers, the Internet, cell phones and interactive games is commonplace. We used to worry that technology would remain in the hands of the privileged few; now it is in the pockets and backpacks of people from every walk of life. Clearly, access is no longer the issue. More than 90 percent of kids between 12 and 17 are on-line and statistics are outdated even as they are reported.

Today’s young people increasingly express themselves and interact with others through technology. The real gap between the digital haves and have-nots will be a lag in competence and confidence in the fast paced digital world found mostly outside of schools. Research, some of it by MacArthur, is just beginning to fathom how deeply our children have absorbed new technology. It suggests that digital kids are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy that must take its place alongside the traditional imperatives of reading and writing.

They are engaging in a degree of expression and interaction that we almost cannot grasp. There is a new participatory culture emerging, with low barriers to artistic and personal expression. Young people are sharing their journals, their movies, their musical compositions and performances, their variations on the plots of Harry Potter books and other fiction, and other extensions of their emerging identities not only with their friends but with virtually millions of people—from across the globe.

Through virtual characters and identities—even some that disturb us—they are experimenting through trial and error, making moral choices and learning the consequences of risk-taking, all without real effect on their lives and futures. They seem to be valuing challenge and grasping complexity, even as they assimilate facts and developments at speeds we cannot comprehend.

With the consequences of these changes for individuals, families, institutions and society, we believe that this is indeed a worthy area of investment for MacArthur. We may be at an inflection point, where change accelerates, old ways disappear before our eyes, systems no longer work and indescribable innovation becomes possible. If this is true, let’s understand it and harness it. Let’s put it to work for human potential and a better society.

Check in regularly at for new papers, research reports, dialogue among scholars and practitioners in the field, information about young people themselves as they navigate this new world and other fresh content all the time.

Take a look at the materials available as you leave, including the very provocative white paper on new media literacy and the participatory culture by MIT professor Henry Jenkins.

But here today, let’s explore just one small aspect of this new field. Let’s understand a little more about virtual worlds; their wonders and their worries, and begin to answer some of your important questions.

Thank you.

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