Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.

Living Out Their Social Lives Online

By Sarita Yardi, PhD Candidate, Georgia Tech University. Sarita was a researcher with the Digital Youth Project while completing her Master’s degree in Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley in 2005 and 2006.

As has been well-established throughout the research on digital media and technology, kids move between online and offline worlds with ease. Even kids who have limited access to the Internet, thus lying on the fringe of youth participatory culture, perceive their online environments to have real consequences and meaning for their everyday lives, Throughout my research on the digital youth project, I wanted to understand how we could harness kids understanding and enthusiasm for digital media. As a computer programmer myself, I hoped that encouraging kids to open the black box and explore the environments they participated in might help them become more sophisticated producers and consumers of their everyday media engagements. In 2005- 2006 I carried out a semester-long study of an after-school media literacy program with Sarai Mitnick [1]. We partnered with the YWCA in Berkeley, California, a program designed to empower middle-school aged girls by teaching them to program, design websites and discuss the role of technology in their lives. The program catered primarily to young African-American girls who lived in an economically disenfranchised area of Oakland, California [2].

To carry out the research, we taught the kids to use MicroWorlds, a program introduced by Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. The program was ideal, in theory, in that it was designed as a computationally rich environment for kids, enabling them to construct their own objects using a simple programming language. Yet, we had trouble engaging girls in MicroWorlds. Unlike the immediate feedback, interactivity, and sophisticated visuals that had become accustomed to in their informal online activities, MicroWorlds revolved around the use of turtle shaped objects which could be moved around, given commands, and animated. Many of the girls struggled with it. For example, Denise was unable to type in the right syntax in the MicroWorlds command line, which looks for a specific syntax to move the turtle such as [forward 50 right 90] . The continuous output from the program: [I don’t understand [your command] was increasingly frustrating.

Denise: “Why aren’t you working?”
Computer: [I don’t understand working]
Denise: “Are you stupid?”
Computer: [I don’t understand stupid]
Denise: “What is wrong with you?!???”

We frequently observed them talking to their computers, as if with another animate living entity in the world around them, although these conversations often arose out of anger or frustration.
Kids in our study interacted with the computer in ways that they were very real-life, and very emotionally engaged. During our introductory MicroWorlds lesson, we asked:

Sarita: What do you think you can do with this turtle?
Angie: Feed it and love it and take care of it?”

Angie’s point of reference was Neopets, a popular virtual pet simulation game with over 100 million user accounts. On Neopets, people take care of their virtual pets by buying them food, toys, and clothes using Neopoints. In comparison, the 1995 MicroWorlds version provided by the YWCA was not nearly as flashy as anything they could do on the web:

Ashley: “Ms. Mitnick, what you doing?”
Sarai: “Installing MicroWorlds.”
Ashley: “Why can’t you install the Internet, girl?”

Ashley has only known the computer as part of a connected network on the web—her expectation was that she could connect to her friends in MicroWorlds, as she would in any online site, at one point asking us: “How come you can’t login and make friends with other people on this?”

Seymour Papert may never have dreamed that his turtle would evolve from a black and white turtle shape in a single-user environment, to an animated, globally shared creature with life-like emotions and characteristics. Then again, maybe he did. It is fitting that my current adviser’s 1997 dissertation [3] marked a midpoint in this turtle evolution. Her thesis, Moose Crossing, describes the social ties that kids developed with one another online and with the life-like objects they programmed, such as furnished homes and pet dogs. While kids programmed these objects in a text-based virtual environment, they nonetheless developed contexts for social support just as they would have in their off-line world. Ten years later, these spaces are more blurred, and kids are living out their entire social lives online.

[1] Sarai Mitnick is also a graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Information and former member of the Digital Youth research staff.
[2] Three girls in the program were recent migrants from Mexico who were struggling to learn English.
[3] Bruckman, A. MOOSE Crossing: Construction, Community, and Learning in a Networked Virtual World for Kids Media Lab, MIT, Boston, 1997

Yardi, Sarita. 2008. Living Out Their Social Lives Online. June 12, 2008.