Far from dumbing down – working on elearning for children really helps Can Studios up its game. As the The Children’s Media Conference 2018 highlighted, we must be critical, questioning and creative when we’re educating and entertaining youngsters.

A couple of years ago we at Can Studios realised the majority of our work was now corporate training and adult elearning – and we made a conscious decision to do more work for children. Why? Because if you really want to push the latest learning technology to its limits or flex your creative content muscles, one of the best tests you can set yourself is building an environment for children that blends education with entertainment, an environment that is social and still secure.

Our free Maths Practice website is as much a classroom for our developers as a place for children to get to grips with core mathematical concepts. Kids can practise basic maths with frogs, potions and Egyptian mummies while we test the latest JavaScript frameworks or a new graphics library.

The keynote speeches at TCMC 2018 were a reminder – for all of us who are involved in content for kids – of the imperative to keep on upping our game.

Broadcaster and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen’s opening keynote expressed concern at:

  • an education system that teaches children how to pass tests at the expense of their ability to ask questions of the world around them
  • a digital media world that is largely unregulated and creates dangerous places for children.

He called on the children’s media industry to work together to find solutions and create safe spaces for children online.

In her creative keynote address Beeban Kidron OBE, award-winning film and television director, talked about her moment of realisation that the internet:

  • was designed to be a place with no one gatekeeper, and equality for all
  • treats children the same as adults, in a digital environment never really designed for them.

From this the 5Rights campaign was born, developing a framework to transpose the rights of children to the digital environment.

If we’re to address the urgent challenges around children’s safety, learning experiences and digital literacy that the conference highlighted, there are three vital questions anyone commissioning or creating elearning for children should ask:

  1. Will this product support (not replace) face-to-face learning?
    A frequent argument against use of elearning is that children need skilled, human teachers not software. I couldn’t agree more! Which is why a guiding principle for our work is to make elearning that empowers the flesh and blood teachers to do more of what they’re best at – connecting with kids. We’ve helped Doddle achieve that when we built them a custom platform to save teachers hours of work by eliminating much of the burden associated with planning and teaching resources, marking and data management.
  2. Have we made safety the default position?
    Michael Rosen’s characterisation of the internet as a tiger with an insatiable appetite and an audience all too eager to be eaten reminded me of an experience we had with Maths Practice. The site records no personal data, but for children to track and compare scores they need a username. This should not be your real name – the instruction was very clear. Guess what? A few days in we spotted some players were using their own name. We have now removed the user input and generate all usernames at random with a fun animal theme, to ensure no identifying information is shared. As Baroness Beeban highlighted – we can’t assume that what works for adults is fit for children: that means being sure to test what happens in the real world and refine until we create an environment that works for them.
  3. Are we providing space for imagination to grow – rather than stifling it?
    We love working with 3D animation and creating a fully immersive learning experience. But we also recognise there are times and places to leave space for imagination. Take Gravity Well for example – a game I designed to help children explore force, trajectory, orbits and gravity by launching and catapulting Commander Sanders around a planetary system. It looks like the simple computer games of my own childhood, which makes it easy to see the lines and patterns traced by Commander Sanders’ flight. But what I like most is that it gives players freedom to imagine flying through space and paint their own mental pictures. (It also meant I could work in one last twist – Commander Sanders is a woman: it’s equally gratifying and saddening how often that does surprise players!)

In his speech Michael Rosen said we need to equip children to question, be critical and be creative to save their state of mind from the educational treadmill. I think as kids’ content professionals we need to make sure we do that for each other and our own work too.

We love a client who gives us a challenge; and we’re willing to ask them and each other tough questions too. Ultimately everything has to be about what’s best for the learner – especially when that learner is a child.

Notes

Read more about The Children’s Media Conference – which happens in Sheffield each July.