By Christie Cho, Kate Cochrane, Kenneth Lewin, Karen Reuter
Black, R. W. (2010). The language of Webkinz: Early childhood literacy in an online virtual world. Digital Culture & Education, 2:1, 7-24.
With the abundance of technological advancements our increasingly digital world is enjoying, new types of virtual worlds are being used for learning in innovative ways. “Shared virtual environments (SVEs) offer particularly compelling examples of the new forms of learning, literacy, and social developments that youth are engaging with online” (Black, 7). Although research efforts exploring the relationship between virtual worlds and knowledge acquisition abound, there is a gap in our understanding of the effect of virtual worlds on children’s learning. Rebecca Black’s article seeks to address this gap in research by offering a case study of Webkinz World (http://www.webkinz.com). Webkinz World is a highly popular SVE targeting children ages 6–13 and attracts roughly 3 million users annually. Using data from participant observation and a qualitative content analysis of the Webkinz World SVE, Black is able to create a map of the site’s contents and help us better understand how users navigate, communicate, and play within this virtual environment.
This study used a qualitative analysis of the the WebKinz website as a starting point for a future qualitative analysis of multiple Share Virtual Environments (SVEs). The analysis focused on mapping the contents of the Webkinz website while also evaluating both the design of the site and its literacy-related features. At the time of the study, the authors had not yet evaluated other SVEs for comparison or for further analysis of the technological and literacy-related features.
The author finds that the Webkinz virtual world inconsistently applies principles of pedagogical design appropriate for the interested demographic. For instance, using vocabulary and content retention speed for an appropriate age level varies from video to video, and even within videos. The author submits that this is somewhat ameliorated by affordances such as characters glancing or gesturing at referenced icons, and printed text appearing along with spoken words, but might suggest a need for developer attention.
The author also makes note of the consumer-centric ethos that pervades the world, specifically mentioning the acquisition of material goods equating to caring for one’s pet. Black asserts that this attitude will have a (negative) impact on impressionable young users’ cultural conceptions. In a similar vein, the author argues that educational potential of this virtual world is squandered by “rampant in-game self-advertising” (Black, 2010, p. 20). The theme of the user being a passive onlooker (reminiscent of dated pedagogical beliefs), rather than an active creative participant in the virtual world, is also expressed. Black references Lankshear & Knobel in this regard, who refer to such passive interaction as “bookspace,” implying a pre-approved interaction with surroundings that stifles creativity and active learning.
Questions and Directions for Further Research:
Though the Webkinz World site appears on the surface to be replete with new literacies technologies, these technologies, instead of following a true new literacies approach, are used for knowledge acquisition based on conventional forms of learning. Learning and collaboration opportunities using the chat functions are severely limited by the dictionary of words to which children are limited. Though internet safety may dictate these constraints since there are not many ways to ensure safe interaction for young children on the internet, the current messaging system and vocabulary were formulated by adults working in a corporate context who may not understand the interests and values of the young players (Black, R. W., 2010). Increasing the dictionary of available words may also help children communicate more freely while maintaining safety.
Another avenue for exploration may be to assess the impact on learning for children using the free options only vs. children who can pay for the deluxe membership. Questions that may be explored through such a study might include:
–Do socioeconomic status differences impact online learning through sites such as these the same way that they do in schools in many communities?
–Do the limitations to collaboration and static content keep learning differences to a minimum?
The author mentions that ancillary fan sites, not those run by corporations, offer many more opportunities for collaborative, networked learning and interaction that is associated with new literacies (Black 2010). It would be interesting to explore the differences between corporate run sites for children and ancillary fan sites to see how new literacies are used on the different types of sites.