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A Conversation with Barry Joseph

By Lisa Guernsey

Barry Joseph is director of the Online Leadership Program for Global Kids, which runs afterschool programs for young people at 20 public middle schools and high schools in New York City and elsewhere. In the online program, teens create an array of media, including video games and virtual worlds, to promote global awareness and civic involvement among their peers. Joseph serves on the steering committee of the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, and his writings about the program appeared last year in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, by MIT Press.

Your program specializes in promoting global awareness. Tell me a story about a young person who has become "globally aware."

I'll tell you about DeWayne. He went to South Shore High School, one of the worst schools in the city. As he describes it, he was one of those people who would be on the street corners who you would want to avoid.

He went to our Playing 4 Keeps program. Over the course of the year, he and the students decided to create a game from a human rights perspective, exploring how youth in impoverished situations don't have the same access and opportunities other youth do. He thought he was going to be learning about youth somewhere else. But the more we focused on youth in the game -- in Haiti -- the more it made him think that what he was experiencing was similar to what they were experiencing.

As he put it, that was what made him think from a global perspective. On the one hand, he learned how the youth in Haiti had similar struggles. And on the other hand, he got to learn about the control they didn't have and the control he did have in America.

And he not only got to make a game about education for impoverished youth -- which is called Ayiti: the Cost of Life -- he got to be part of putting it out into the world. He got to speak to education leaders at a conference put on by Microsoft.

He came in to the program thinking he was just going to be playing some games. By end of the year he saw himself as a global citizen and as a game producer who could use games as a vehicle to put out a message in the world.

What is DeWayne up to now?

He graduated, went on to college. He is in a community college right now.

By comparing Haiti and the control he saw he had in the United States, did that influence him in going on to college?

I would say the program gave him what he needed: the framework, goals, a supportive environment that could encourage him on this path.

Some might say that any afterschool program could do that, providing mentors, guidance, goal-setting. What made this different?

QuoteMost youth experience digital media outside the school system. Young people like Dewayne aren't even allowed to take a cell phone into their school, and they are frisked when they go to school like they are getting on an airplane.

So when you have a program in the school system that can speak to that divide, that can say, "No, we want to help you use that media in your lives" -- whether it is professionally or more generically (like a student in college understanding how to go to Wikipedia) -- it's a very powerful lure. It leaves them with a powerful set of learning skills they don't otherwise get.

You write that many people cast a cynical eye on the idea that video games can be valuable. Have you ever had your own doubts?

I'm a middle class kid who grew up with a computer in my home, learned how to program computers at the local college when I was 12 and had game consoles like Atari.

When the web boom started, it was started by people in my generation who had similar backgrounds to myself. And it wasn't because we were using those Ataris, but because in growing up with that media we taught ourselves how to use. We went from a generation seen as slackers to a generation of entrepreneurs.

QuoteThat is what motivates me to teach kids today who haven't had those opportunities. I grew up with gaming that taught me a whole array of skills. When you learn to program something that doesn't work, you learn how to debug it, you learn how to localize the problem and find a solution.

Do you see learning happening with all the games that are played today?

People who aren't familiar with games, if they are just thinking of Pac Man from the '80s as a model, if that is what they are imagining today, that would be absurd.

With games today, the kids who play them haven't read the rules first. They jump right into it. The game itself has to be the educator. What you have is an immersive space that teaches you about learning.

To borrow from James Paul Gee, in the classroom if you work with someone else to do your tests, that means you're cheating. In the workplace, that means you are collaborating. Most games, they teach you an array of skills: Systems. How things are constructed. How to manage resources. How to teach yourself. Those are valuable skills. Those are things you are not learning in schools.

No matter the content?

Games that have content that we might see as objectionable can still be good games for the learning process.

The question is, when youth are playing games that might not have social value, how do we as educators and parents figure out how to set up boundaries around this game and help them build up a meta-cognition or awareness of the learning that is going on?

I love the example you give in "Why Johnny Can't Fly," where you write about a 12-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto. The boy, you observed, took on the role of taxi driver and ran right over people in the street before stopping to pick them up. When you questioned him about this tactic, he said it was just "dumb A.I." (artificial intelligence); the programmers, apparently, didn't provide any other option for picking up fares. The boy was not only aware of how the game was made, but confident enough to play the role of critic.

QuoteIf we want our youth to be engaged citizens, the first thing to learn is that the world is constructed and how is it constructed. We have to understand what the rules are. That youth understands what the rules are and understands where the holes are. Not that the young person is automatically going to be a social change agent. But that young person is in the path of being able to do so.

So I go back to the fact, that it is us, as adults, who need to help them make connections.

Give me an example of a game that the kids wanted to make but that didn't quite work.

What usually happens is, they are split on a topic. In one case, half the room wanted to focus on Hurricane Katrina, half wanted to focus on the war in Iraq. They came to: The Impact of the War in Iraq on Recovery After Katrina. That would have been a dissertation topic in itself. But one part of it started fading away and they settled on the recovery after Katrina.

They always pick the hardest ones. And what does that tell you? We should never underestimate youth and the passion they have to make a difference.

Are there certain types of children, though, who are at more risk of sinking into a passive, non-creative and non-critical consumption of media and technology?

Someone like James Paul Gee would say there is no such thing as being passively involved. You have to be actively involved at all moments. You need to be making decisions throughout and assessing the situation and reacting to it.

I think about what Steven Johnson wrote in his book, Everything Bad is Good For You. What if it was the other way around? What if we saw people with books and said, what are these people doing just sitting here staring at this page?

With games, a young person gets into a state of optimal engagement. There is an incredible amount of mental processing going on, and it's often quite thrilling.

For someone who is outside that experience, they are just seeing a young person fixating on the screen. The challenge for adults and educators is not to presume that they are shutting down.

Should adults, instead, become mentors for youth in using the technology?

QuoteThat is one of the interesting things for youth online. We are amazingly concerned about youth being safe online and so we keep adults out. Yet some of the most amazing experiences for youth are in mixed-age groups, like in World of Warcraft, where youth are in guilds and being with adults they can learn from that context.

It can be challenging to set them up, but when you do, using online games in closed settings like Global Kids or museums, you know who the adults are.

Many online worlds for kids are about spending "points" in virtual shopping centers. Is there too much emphasis on consumerism?

We've started, the hub for learning in virtual worlds, with almost 700 members. It's for practitioners, people who are in schools, out of schools. We have a podcast series, discussion of best practices. It's an online community.

In September, we'll release the first print version, Ethics in Virtual Worlds. And it raises a lot of these questions. One of the things a lot of people talk about is the predatory nature of gaming companies that try to figure out how to get money out of the kids' piggybanks. This is something that the virtual world community should be concerned about and the educators should be concerned about: to not have the amoral nature of this taint the possibilities of this space.

One afternoon, my 6-year-old found PollyWorld, started playing a Polly pool party game and now she wants the Polly Pocket Pool set for Christmas.

We should be thinking about the predatory behavior of companies. But currencies aren't a bad thing. Are they supporting a youth economy? That can be incredibly valuable.

You've had first-hand experience in Teen Second Life. Are there differences between the way children interact in an online world versus the real world?

There is a subgroup of those in Teen Second Life that one might describe as socially awkward. It provides them opportunities to interact and try things out. For example, we have a RezEd podcast with a 16 year old. He says using Teen Second Life he learned to be more social. He used to shut people out and be very abrasive. When I first met him, he was yelling at me. He had made some graffiti and told me to leave.

An online space allows you to be both safer and experiment more intimately at the same time. And learn not to be as belligerent when you are interacting with someone you have met for the first time. It just becomes a playground for youth to experiment and play socially.

You have a 2-year-old. As a new father, how have you pledged to approach technology and media around him?

It's around me all the time. So it's around him all the time. We play with an MP3 player or go to Boohbah online all the time. I don't think it's especially brilliant, but we've given him access to the technology and let him learn how to learn.


About the Author
Lisa Guernsey is author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, Sept 2007).


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