Tag Archives: virtual worlds

The language of Webkinz: Early childhood literacy in an online virtual world.

By Christie Cho, Kate Cochrane, Kenneth Lewin, Karen Reuter

Link to article: http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/volume-2/the-language-of-webkinz-early-childhood-literacy-in-an-online-virtual-world/

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.

Digital Curation and Education

By Carla Axume, Adrienne Domasin, Mia Faulk, Kai Forsley, and Heather Poundstone

Link to article: http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/dce1028_black_2010.pdf

Digital Curation and Education
Black, R. (2010) The language of Webkinz: Early childhood literacy in an online virtual world. University of California, Irvine. Online Publication 31 May 2010.

A- Article synopsis and core research question(s)- Adrienne
In this article the author intends to fill a gap in the research on virtual worlds intended for early childhood populations. Using the popular and frequently visited virtual space Webkinz World as a case study, Rebecca Black analyzes the content in the Webkinz World in an effort to determine the viability of the content as it pertains to language development and childhood literacy, as well as whether the content is appropriate for the learning processes among the intended age groups. Black concluded that the design of Webkinz World is limited in its learning outcomes and literacy learning initiatives due to its profit-driven nature and Internet security safeguards both of which inhibit language development. Black also indicates that the socio-cultural messages promoted within the Webkinz World necessitate a thorough examination because the life lessons promoted in the interface do not engage the daily learning and development of children in a realistic manner. Black seeks to demonstrate the shortcomings of the Webkinz World site in order to inform parents of children interacting in this virtual world of the literacies that are actually being used versus those that are marketed by Webkinz World. The author also seeks to inform educators and literacy researchers of any attitudinal shifts from children interacting in these virtual spaces and their learning behavior in the classroom environment.

B- Methods used to answer research question(s)-Carla
The method employed in this case study approach is based on data gathered from participant observations and a qualitative content analysis. Part of this analysis also deals with a cross case analysis of the literacy and developmental features of several Shared Virtual Environments focusing on early childhood populations. Black was able to gather data by creating a map of the site content and gathering information from the rules, frequently asked questions, tutorials, activities, and the collection of artifacts. From this point, the content analysis was conducted using open ended, qualitative protocol, and literacy related artifacts of the site. The participant observations were aimed at gaining a sense of navigation, communication, and gameplay in the Shared Virtual Environment. Part of the analysis included a game called Webkinz, which are stuffed animals that come with a unique code in order for the player to have access to Webkinz world in the SVE. Here children are able to participate by purchasing items to furnish their pets room, food, toys and clothes. Overall, the online multimodal format of the site provides children with access to new literacy providing language development, social meanings, values and life lessons.

C- Findings and conclusions- Kai
With any new type of literacy, there will be learning curves. Within Shared Virtual Environments (SVE), there are many opportunities to engage the spatial abilities of visitors to the site. Rebecca Black praises the prospect of SVEs being useful communication tools. Specifically looking at online platforms, like Webkinz World, there are some concerns. First, there are benefits including gaining hands-on computer technology experiences in terms of learning how to navigate an online environment and navigating the computer’s hard and software. However the content and interactions with the content seems to be of concern. There are blatant consumerist practices and direct marketing to youth. The term “immersive advertising” is used to describe the constant bombardment of advertising mechanisms to the user. Within Webkinz World, there seems to be a specified correlation between well-being in the virtual world and actual financial expenditures, which Black believes does not activate the best use of a literacy tool effectively. Black seems to conclude that while many positive attributes can be extracted from the model of SVEs like Webkinz World, the overall execution of this one may not be in the best interest of the user. The positives include direct learning in terms grammar, reading and as well as other traditional literacies, as well as contextualized learning that happens as you traverse the scenarios in the game. Nevertheless, Black believes that corporate develops, not educators, are creating content for SVE tools such as Webkinz. This divergence between “useful tool” and “tainted content” seems to be apparent in Webkinz World. She also concludes that the digital literacies employed within SVEs should be actual digital literacies and not simply traditional literacies captured in digital format, thus providing the user with an optimal learning experience.

D-Unanswered questions you have and what future research might address-Mia
More research is needed on, “…how children’s activities, relationships, and immediate social and cultural contexts affect their learning and development” (Black, 8). Today’s young students are operating in a cyberspatial-postindustrial mindset, so:
What will these students need most to be successful within these spaces?
How do adults set about understanding the “social and cultural contexts of these spaces, as well as the tensions between new and traditional literacies as they shape, influence, and even curtail children’s learning” (Black, 9)?
Are these commercialized spaces, with marketing messages, detrimental to kids?
Have we entered a dimension of A Brave New World where children are being conditioned to think within prescribed limits?
Is this a coercive quasi dictatorship, telling kids what they should think vs. allowing them to create and think freely? “While there are ample opportunities for early readers and writers to be immersed in contextualized print, there are far fewer opportunities for early readers and writers to engage deeply with literacy materials and develop expressive language skills” (Black, 14).
Future research should address how to create the best online learning environment for young children that is much more robust, interactive, and engaging, rather than reverting to traditional literacy methods.

E- A thoughtful attempt to answer your own questions- Heather
Students will need several things to be able to successfully navigate sites such as Webkinz, the most important being literacy and technology skills. Online tutorials would be helpful to guide students through the various components of the site. Adults must understand the importance of new literacies and their importance in children’s literacy development. They must engage in sites like Webkinz in order to understand how to support students. Sites like Webkinz should exercise caution with the marketing messages they allow so that children are protected. For instance, advertisements that promote junk food should not be allowed. There should be a minimum amount of marketing for the children who have already purchased the stuffed animal. There could be an option to allow children access to the site without purchasing the animal. Webkinz does somewhat condition children to think within prescribed limits due to the safety measures in place that do not allow students to creatively add their own dialogue. This site could expand on its creative aspect by allowing students to create their own animals, attributes, stories, videos, etc. in order to allow them to think and explore freely.

Tags- Webkinz, childhood literacy, virtual worlds, literacy, early childhood, language development, children, social network, learn, play, digital literacy, new literacies, Webkinz World, Shared virtual environments, SVE, SVEs, direct instruction, online gaming, consumerism, digital learning, internet safety, child development