Sunday, 7 May 2017

21st Century Spelling


Spilling had never bin maw impotent

Spelling has never been more important, as my example above attempts to illustrate. In an age dominated by screens, misspelling is tantamount to an admission of idiocy—but the way we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment. Please note that none of the words in the title are actually misspellings, but mistakes they are, and a right twazzock you will look if you spell in a way that is overly reliant on proofreading tools as a safety net. It's time we took account of the fact that in a world where screens are ubiquitous, the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment.

These days the likelihood of interacting via text with others in a digital environment is commonplace. Even more critical, people who misspell in these environments are generally assumed to be less intelligent, less articulate, and despite their possible intelligence/experience, any perspective they offer is then likely to be dismissed or demeaned if it is littered with misspellings.

It has never been more important to master the ability to spell correctly. 


Unfortunately most schools, despite the criticality of spelling in the 21st-century, still rely on 19th century strategies to teach spelling. This really does need to change. So, with that in mind...

Critical considerations:

  1. Children (and adults) can only spell words they know, sounds obvious, but so many of the spelling lists that are used with students contain words they do not know, so could not possibly be able to spell, other than through guesswork, which leads us to... The corollary to this is the simple fact that the skill of knowing or suspecting that a spelling is wrong is an essential aspect of learning how to spell, especially in a world where checking a spelling is as easy as 'searching it up' in Google, or just asking your smartphone to spell it for you. 
  2. There is a much greater validity to the skill of being able "guesstimate" in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), and ‘phonological awareness’ is more essential than ever, as an accurate phonetical estimation is relied on by computers to substitute for a correct spelling. A student who cannot phonetically 'approach' a word is unlikely to be able to approximate something that a computer can correct. Related to this is the critical importance of being able to spell the first half of a word correctly, most modern computing devices can now auto complete a word if a student is able to spell the first half of it correctly. Apple's 'QuickType' in iOS 8, and apps like "SwiftKey" utilise this approach very effectively, and the power of Dictation (speech to text) has never been greater, but it will still struggle with homophones (same sound different spelling and meaning). An alternative approach in a traditional 'spelling test' context is to award 2 marks to each word, one mark for being able to spell the word phonetically correctly, or for spelling the first half correctly, and 2 marks if the word is perfect. 
  3. Stop using spelling tests for whole classes with lists of words, this is a nonsensical approach, considering the sheer quantity of words in the typical English dictionary, somewhere in excess of 400,000 words. The words that children learn should be unique and curated from their own literacy life, related to their own writing, reading and speaking, and viewing and listening experiences, or related to specific vocabulary that they are using/used will need to use.
  4. Wordlists curated by students should be seen as a source of vocabulary expansion, not just for spelling. Becoming a personal thesaurus/glossary that they should review regularly when writing to enhance the richness of their prose; use it or lose it.
  5. Listening matters just as much than looking (Riesenhuber, 2013). If you can see the word before you spell it, then you're not learning how to spell, you're practising short term recall. Listening is also essential for checking spelling, now computers have the option to speak any word you can type, select the word and have the computer read it out loud, is this the word you were trying to spell?
  6. Less reliance upon "spelling rules" which are very rarely consistent, and in many cases can lead to a great deal of confusion. Like when students are asked to note the position of a certain vowel in a word and its impact upon other vowels or consonants within that word, also using acrostics like 'big elephants can always understand...' you get the idea, and of course they only work for one word… Instead focus on more reliance on building familiarity with the way words look and the way words sound, so 'look say cover write check' still works well as a useful skill/drill practice, (or better still: listen say type look) but with fewer words, more often. This is strongly related to the student's reading life as a synergetic enabler in their spelling life. This becomes a context where students are encouraged to see words as 'friends' and building a large community of 'familiar faces' ie, the more they see these words the more likely they are to be able to spell them, or arguably just as important in the 21st-century, to recognise when the word is not spelt properly, ‘it just doesn't look right'. We see words like faces? Yes, believe it or not, this is exactly what neuroscience (McCandliss et al, 2003) has taught us, more on that phenomenon below... 
  7. Skill drill tasks (practise makes permanent) should also be related to an activity that reinforces their comprehension of the meaning of the word, so ideally students should also invent (not copy) a sentence that uses the word, or even better, more than one of the words in the same sentence, that clearly demonstrates that they can use the word/s with an understanding of it/them. After all, what is the point of learning how to spell a word if you don't know how to use it? For some students it might be better for them to make an oral recording of them speaking the sentence rather than writing a sentence, if the writing is a challenge to reluctant writers, as the focus is on understanding meaning, and oral recall can be just as effective for building meaning, this is especially important with homophones.
  8. More recognition of the kinds of spellings that are particularly tricky in a screen centred writing environment, this means a greater emphasis on distinguishing between words with similar sounds and different patterns, homophones, homonyms, homographs.
  9. Making smarter use of digital tools to facilitate this kind of practice, while spelling games that are built on skill drill using pre-set wordlists are useful, but you should also encourage spelling drills that are built on individually curated wordlists. However these kinds of Apps are not very common, but at least one that does this very well is Squeebles SP, more on this below...
  10. Use any text app or word processor to spell check, before using a teacher. This could be a simple as a notes app on a mobile device, this will enable students to check spellings without the tedium of using a dictionary. Then a far more appropriate use of teacher time is to review spellings for careless mistakes, or more likely mistakes resulting from misconceptions about phonetics/word structure, especially spellings that alter the meaning of a sentence. Students need to be empowered to build habits of capturing/collecting words that they know, but cannot spell in their curated lists. The point is, it is better for the student to attempt to type the word in a text application and have the computer suggest corrections than it is for them to try and search for it in a dictionary. While the latter is still helpful, the former is a better cognitive process for learning the spelling of a word, and is also more relevant/likely as an activity or skill set in the 21st-century. Very few adults look up words in a dictionary, most rely on the prompt given by the computer in a word processing environment. Even better, if this list is 'situated' or cloud synced (Google Doc, iCloud Notes) they can access, add to and augment that list from home or school. 
  11. Encourage students to learn how to use the "define:" search term in Google, effectively turning any Google search window into a handy Dictionary, eg - define:magnificent
  12. Digital technologies are changing which words are traditionally understood to be "tricky" words/sneaky spellings… so for example any word typed in a text environment will automatically switch the 'ie' in a word like receive, but will not be able to distinguish between homonyms.

Don't teach, facilitate

Neuroscience over the past decade* reveals fascinating insights into the way our brains learn words. Studies indicate that we use the same parts of brain (both left and right) to process face recognition that we use to process word recognition. So much so in fact, that as we move from early childhood into adulthood and become more proficient in word recognition, our capacity to recognise and process faces is diminished—such is the veracity of the connection. 

The parts of our brain (The Visual Word Form Area) that recognise and process faces are the same parts that recognise and process words. This emphasises the fact that spelling is primarily visual and aural, so a rote learning, rule based model is less effective than building an awareness of the unique formation of every word through familiarity, not drilling lists.

Even more fascinating, the VWFA area, "when volunteers listened to spoken sentences, all their brains showed similar responses." When we read, we recognise words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud, we literally “hear” written words in our head (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011).

Words are fundamentally processed and catalogued by their basic sounds and shapes, through visual and aural practice. Think of the way we learn to recognise faces, and pronounce words—certainly not by processing and practising lists of them, we learned them through exposure, and continued feedback, and it just so happens that screens are ideal for immediate, context specific feedback, in way that spelling on paper can never hope to provide. Provide lots of opportunities for students to learn how to spell through this kind of exposure, not through drilling them in lists that have little or no relevance to their own reading, writing, listening or speaking experiences. 

Squeebles Showcase

Squeebles Spelling - multimodal drill and practice
I'm not usually one to emphasise a tool, but from time to time a tool emerges that has affordances that are ridiculous to ignore, Squeebles Spelling is one of those. Digital tools like Squeebles can transform spelling practice by making traditional equivalents pale in comparison, consider the following:

Flexibility


Click to see Squeebles in action in 2BSc! 
Kids can 'masquerade' as a parent or teacher to curate their own lists, careless errors are mitigated by the built in spell check—obviously this feature is not activated when they are actually practising! Alternatively, there are a wide range of built in word lists to choose from that cater to all skill levels.

Multimodality and meaning

It's not enough to spell a word, they need to know how it sounds and understand the meaning. In Squeebles kids can record the sound of the word, as well place it in a sentence, eg "Pear. I like the taste of a pear better than an apple. Pear." Better still make it fun by having the kids make up silly sentences, as long as it shows they understand the meaning anything goes! This makes the activity aural and oral - this way the kids say the word, hear the word, and see the word. 

Immediate feedback - differentiated

No need to wait for a teacher to collect in all the spelling tests, then wait a few days to get them all back, even then, actually acting on the spelling errors is a chore, never mind tracking these over time. Squeebles provides immediate feedback, but even better keeps a record of any errors in a collection called 'Tricky Words' that reflect the words that this individual is struggling with.

Motivation

Last and maybe least, Squeebles 'gamifies' the successes into mini games, so kids feels a tangible sense of reward, over and above the real reward—improved spelling.



Further reading

http://doverliteracy.blogspot.sg/2014/09/individualised-spelling-practice.html

http://mrsevonsthirdgrade.blogspot.sg/2014/08/words-thier-way-spelling-11-classroom.html

http://smartblogs.com/education/2014/02/03/5-reasons-to-teach-spelling-handwriting-in-the-new-year/

A summary of the neuroscientific research is available here, with links to the original sources.

Chevillet, M. A., Jiang, X., Rauschecker, J. P., & Riesenhuber, M. (2013). Automatic phoneme category selectivity in the dorsal auditory stream. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(12), 5208-5215.

Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(6), 254-262.

McCandliss, B. D., Cohen, L., & Dehaene, S. (2003). The visual word form area: expertise for reading in the fusiform gyrus. Trends in cognitive sciences, 7(7), 293-299.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

iPads, Radiation & Airplane Mode


From time to time articles or videos appear with alarming headlines that connect mobile devices with harmful effects on children. It is of course completely understandable that parents become concerned when they see these things. The College places the safety and well being of our students above all other considerations and we monitor official advice around all aspects of safety that affect our students. Most recently, a video has been circulating among our parents about the possible harmful effects of radiation from mobile devices like iPads.

When looking at any health or safety issue we need to make careful decisions about where we gather our data from. In this day and age it is an easy process for an individual to present a specific viewpoint and to easily spread that message via the Internet. We also need to bear in mind that there are reasons for people and organisations to do this other than a genuine concern for public welfare. An article with a dramatic headline or video with lurid claims, attracts traffic and that traffic can generate revenue from advertising for example.

As an example of how individual sources can easily contradict each other, consider this Forbes article and this article from Wired Science, which both offer a strong counterpoint to the video mentioned previously.

The underlying issue here is, given that individual representations or newspaper articles are not necessarily reliable or often contradictory, where does the College look for direction?

Two places:

  • Large bodies of collated research, generally called meta-analyses
  • Expert advice from leading health authorities such as Ministries of Health and the World Health Organisation


We are not aware of any large body of research that shows a causal link between mobile device usage and radiation that result in any negative impact on people’s health. Furthermore there is currently no advice from any world health body that we are aware of that advises that children be protected from such radiation emitted by wireless devices such as iPads.

We take this issue seriously and monitor the medical advice from recognised institutions around this issue. The welfare of the children in our care is paramount to us and we will respond appropriately in the event that the advice from the leading health authorities changes at any point.

As a college we understand why parents might have concerns about the potential negative effects of using mobile devices after watching videos like the one linked above. A parent's concern for their children's welfare is of course understandable, but please rest assured that we take this issue seriously and monitor the medical advice from recognised institutions around this issue. The welfare of the children in our care is paramount to us and we will respond appropriately in the event that the advice from the leading health authorities changes at any point.


Here are some further points that may be helpful in setting the overall context:

Screen time

The actual percentage of the school day our students use these devices is relatively small. A common misconception is that the provision of a device per child increased the amount of time our children spend using a device, but that is not why we have 1:1 devices. We use 1:1 devices so it is easier to manage student content, and so students don't accidentally delete the work of other students, for more about this please see this post.

Students certainly never use the devices in close proximity to their heads, which is one basis of the research that makes claims about damaging radiation from mobile devices, nor do our iPads contain mobile SIMs that generate GSM frequencies.

Airplane Mode

Having the College iPads in Airplane mode is not practical. We rely on wireless connectivity to manage and monitor these devices, as well as to share children's learning with parents via platforms like Seesaw. This will also have a minimal impact on the overall amount of waves in the air, given the large number of services being beamed around the island to support mobile phones, wireless, television, etc.


Ben Morgan & Seán McHugh

Monday, 27 February 2017

Coding, Integrated: Shape & Scratch



It won't come as a surprise to discover that there is a lot of talk these days about coding, and to hear the calls in panicked tones from some quarters, parents are often curious to know if or when we intend to drop everything and add this new subject (it's not really new, it was called Control and taught in IT lessons in labs in the 1980s) to the curriculum. This request is generally completely oblivious of the logistical nightmare that attempting to restructure the school day to find time for another subject would be. Understandably this answer doesn't necessarily satisfy parents especially if they have had difficulties getting a space for children to attend one of the Coding ECAs I facilitate, or more often by parents who are unable to get a place in the activity for their child.

I'm an advocate for coding, but not to prepare kids for a new 21st 'literacy' of programming, as I explain in this post, I think this is a myth; I'm not the only one. So I don't think, like TTS and the UK, that we should be trying to teach it as a discrete subject.

That said, I can see how it makes sense to enrich our curriculum where it makes sense using coding experiences, you can see an example of that from this week in Grade 4 here and here, we have lots of others. I am working with our Primary School Maths Coach to explore opportunities to do more of this within Maths, as that is the subject where the opportunities are most likely/authentic.

Coding Polygons in Grade 4






Coding Coordinates in Grade 5


Ultimately, I don't see coding as any more essential a tech skill than, say video editing, or working with spreadsheets which are also important tech skills that we try to integrate naturally into the curriculum. As with all of these, I'd like to see authentic opportunities to code every year, throughout the college from K-12, and hopefully one day we will!


Until then, we are working hard to provide many opportunities for coding (far more than for video editing or spreadsheets!) as part of the Activities programme, and there are also a host of opportunities being organised by the Ideas Hub, coming very soon. Melanie Tan (melanieuwc@uwcsea.edu.sg) has more details about opportunities to participate in coding activities for all ages if you're interested.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Should all Children Learn to Code?

That is a good question—one I am commonly asked by both parents and teachers, but mainly parents.

The answer is no; not all. Should all children have the opportunity to experience coding, and possible discover they have a gift for it? Yes.

Via Techcrunch.com "Please don't learn to code'. 

I'm not convinced that encouraging kids to become coders (actually computer programmers—coding is more of a slang term) is a great idea, I think they should learn to code, if they're keen, but only so they can understand it better, so they can be creative with it. You see you can employ coders, they are a dime a dozen, they're all over the web. It's the creative 'big picture' aspect that is lacking, ie what to code, not so much how.

That said... It's hard to know what you can do if you don't know how. Basically you don't need to be the best coder, you need to be good enough to really know what its potential is.
"Someday, the understanding of computational processes may be indispensable for people in all occupations. But it’s not yet clear when we’ll cross that bridge from nice-to-know to must-know." 
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/business/computer-science-for-non-majors-takes-many-forms


"But is it really crucial to be able to code? Many content producers use technology virtually every waking hour of their life, and they don't know a variable from an identifier, or an integer from a string. Personally, I'm conflicted: I have a technical background, but for most people I just don't see how being able to compile code is going to prove useful."  
http://m.gizmodo.com/5897020/is-learning-to-code-more-popular-than-learning-a-foreign-language
"Coding is not a goal. It’s a tool for solving problems. [...] However, much of the “learn to code” frenzy seems to spring from the idea that you can achieve fame and riches by starting a tech company and you need to actually code something first. Programming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Even if you do hit the jackpot, the CEOs of successful tech companies do not spend a lot of time coding, even if they started out behind a keyboard. There are simply too many other tasks involved in running a company. So if coding is what you really love to do, you probably wouldn't want to be a CEO in the first place.."  
http://www.fastcolabs.com/3020126/no-you-dont-need-to-learn-to-code

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …
• Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
• Communicate effectively with other human beings.
These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life.  
http://gizmodo.com/5910497/please-dont-learn-to-code 

..."engineering and programming are important skills. But only in the right context, and only for the type of person willing to put in the necessary blood, sweat and tears to succeed. The same could be said of many other skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn to program than I would urge everyone to learn to plumb." 
https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/10/please-dont-learn-to-code/ 

Clearly there is no shortage of people that want to code, and those that have the predilection will. I mean, the point is it's not hard to act on it, to make it happen, and ... if you can't, then coding is probably not an option for you.

Compare that to say … learning the oboe, well that's not quite so easy to learn if you only have a computer and an internet connection. But there are millions of people out there who do, and are honing their abilities every day, and they don't expect to be paid as much for it as you might think.

So - how do we learn this stuff?

All the people I know who are competent users of IT and ICTs (yes, there is a difference) are those who basically taught themselves (including myself). It's almost a rite of passage. My instinct tells me that the kind of kids who can code WILL code, and if they can't find ways to teach themselves using the plethora of resources online, then... they probably haven’t got what it takes to code. Despite the glowing 'FUN, FUN, FUN!' messages that proliferate from some quarters of the web, the truth is, if you want to code, really code, you will need to work hard, you will need to persevere, nothing that is worth having comes easy, and coding is no exception. It is as simple as that.

"Top companies expect you to know what a recent comp-sci graduate would know, which could include SQL vs. NoSQL databases, the time complexity of some algorithm, or how to implement binary search. ... opportunities are few and far between."

"While there are some excellent companies willing to hire driven and intelligent self-taught engineers, they lie in the minority. Many companies pass over candidates without a formal degree in computer science before reading on; the stigma of low experience is a hard one to break in any industry but especially in those involving technical abilities."

http://qz.com/193896/no-three-month-course-can-teach-you-how-to-code/

I have never been taught 'IT' but I had to teach myself HTML to design web pages, and ActionScript to create Flash animations—at its best, that is what things like coding 'computer science' and subjects like DT teaches kids - YOU can solve your own problems, and you can teach yourself how to do it. It's all about the WWWHWW of getting from A to B, even if it means going through D, H and X to get there. The first time.

That's another argument for coding, not so much as a skills for the workplace, but the process, the rationale it demands, here's a quote from my colleague Helen Leeming who teaches IT in MS and HS, from an email exchange we had on this subject: This point about developing critical/analytical thinking through coding is powerful - (my emphasis)

"It isn't the coding… it's the critical thinking… they don't need to code any more than they need to be able to do quadratic equations - for most people either would be redundant the minute they walk out of school. But they do need to have stretched their minds, to have made their thoughts work in a different way, which both of those will. Almost none of them need to code (or indeed use a lot of what we teach them in school - oxbow lakes for example), but the ability to problem solve is essential. It could be taught through other things, it simply isn't in many cases… And people rarely choose to learn critical thinking unless they are an 'IT geek' and they are the ones that probably can already do it."

I don't understand why people question that this needs to be taught as people won't be coders, while we still do teach algebra and the periodic table to kids that will not be mathematicians or chemists. Education is not about learning a set of knowledge or practical skills that you can use later, it is about teaching you to think, to think in many different ways, to play with ideas in many different ways and to have a toolbox of techniques to address puzzles or problems you meet later. Abstract, critical thinking is one of the tools…"
It should be remembered that one the best ways to get to grips with the kind of logistical thinking skills demanded by coding is by using spreadsheet functions, such as google spreadsheets, right there in the browser, and then move on to writing your own formulae, to solve basic mathematical problems, that right there is the basis of writing code. Starting with a formula as simple as =A1+B1 to things like IF functions:

=IF(A1<B1, "awesome",IF(B1<A1,"amazing"))


So, my advice to potential coders would be learn to walk before you run, or more precisely, learn to walk (scratch) run (stencyl) jump (alice) then you can really get creative 'dance' with the source code:



All of the the tools below are free, come with great support materials, tutorials, and communities to get you from A to B, even if you have to travel via N and X.

Coding for kids

Some of the iPad Apps we use to introduce kids to coding

Here's a great set of Apps you can use to introduce our child to coding, even from Kindergarten, this is my suggested sequence of progression, from games that teach the kind of logical thinking needed for coding, to Apps that allow free form creation:


  1. Daisy the Dinosaur
  2. Tynker
  3. Lightbot
  4. Move the Turtle
  5. Hopscotch
  6. Scratch Jr 

Do it yourself...

  1. Start with iPads to learn the basics of control, computer programming thinking, Apps like Daisy the Dinosaur, Hopscotch, Move the Turtle. Apps like these use a drag and drop interface will intuitively grasp the basics of objects, sequencing, loops and events by solving app challenges. 
  2. Move to Code.org,  Scratch http://scratch.mit.edu/, or www.tynker.com 
  3. Progress to Stencyl http://www.stencyl.com/ for iOS App coding using a similar 'block' interface, or alternatively App Inventor.

Coding vs Programming

Despite the hype that is common around this area, the fact is that no matter what you may have been told, the block interface that is at heart of most, if not all the apps that purport to be teaching coding, are not really. This article from Quartz clarifies this issue:
"The light and fluffy version of computer science—which is proliferating as a superficial response to the increased need for coders in the workplace—is a phenomenon I refer to as “pop computing.” ... This accessible attraction can be catchy, it may not lead to harder projects that deepen understanding.
... an important distinction must be drawn between learning “coding tutorials” and learning “computer science.” I think of it as playing with coding apps as compared to learning to design an app using code. Building an app takes time and requires multi-dimensional learning contexts, pathways and projects. One thing is for sure, it can’t be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops and clicks." 
American schools are teaching our kids how to code all wrong - Quartz

So to avoid any confusion, I refer to the control activities that rely on blocks as 'coding'—the blocks act as a code that represents the actual syntax you would normally use with a programming language. So let's call programming, programming; and while the block 'pop computing' 'coding' interface serves as a useful preliminary experience, the actual skill of programming is very different. When a student feels ready, here's a path they could take:
  1. Khan Academy has a great online course for introducing kids to programming (not coding), the introduction to JavaScript is a great place to begin.
  2. Apple have a fantastic app that teaches Swift coding, called Swift Playgrounds, but it only runs on recent gen iPads
  3. For developing apps, you can download the Xcode App for free from the App store if they feel they are ready to actually use Xcode, there are many online tutorials that can help with this, such as this one.
  4. Try http://www.codecademy.com/ for learning a range of programming languages. 
  5. Then possibly Alice http://www.alice.org/ 
By then you should be ready for the source code, this site hackerbuddies http://hackerbuddy.com/ will help with this final stage... One-on-one mentoring for startup hackers.

… but even then, which language?

C
Python
JavaScript
PHP
C++
Java

or Xcode for coding iOS Apps

And there are many more ... http://langpop.com/

But I would imagine for most kids the biggest motivator would be to create an app, using xCode (a free App from the App store). Which you can port to from Stencyl, but you have to pay $150 to enable that feature, so you can learn for free, you only need to pay when/if you're ready to put into the market place. Clearly it is the desire to create 'Apps' that is driving the current resurgence in interest in coding. For more on this phenomenon, read this article.


We now also facilitate the UWCSEA coding community through our ECA programme, for MS and HS students. If your child is in Primary and impatient to get going, learning Scratch and Stencyl will ensure they are more than ready by Grade 6, and of course from Grade 9 students have the option of choosing to follow a course in Computing, all the way through to grade 12 if they so choose. Middle school includes a module of coding through Lego Mindstorms in DT and we offer IGCSE Computing and IGCSE IT, and IB Computer Science in High School.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Video Games & Playgrounds


One of the most profound shifts in terms of childhood in a digital age, is the rise of online gaming. Once the preserve of teenage and tween geeks and nerds in darkened LAN rooms, now it is a common pastime for younger children, certainly many of our Junior School children regularly engage in these pursuits as a regular pastime. This is not a post about whether or not this kind of activity is one we should encourage, (I think we should) that is a subject I have written about elsewhere, and present a parent workshop about gaming every year. No, this is about providing some advice for the many parents who, for whatever reason, have kids who like to play online.

There is a growing collection of video games that fall into the category of multiplayer online game, from Clash of Clans to Club Penguin, to Minecraft, Roblox and Overwatch, and many more.

21st Century Playgrounds

As is often the case these days/this century, parents and teachers often find themselves faced with trying to relate to a child, whose normative childhood experience bears little resemblance to their own, but let me reassure you—while the medium has changed—the message and the meaning, and the opportunities and obstacles that surround group play have not.

The main place and space you are likely to encounter this is at home, as playing video games in class is generally not something kids will have time to do. There may be exceptions, eg possibly as a one off iTime project, but even then, the objective of creating something that they are accountable for in terms of achievement would need to be paramount. This is the stance we take with these kinds of gaming experiences, like Minecraft and Roblox. That said of course, there may be teachers who find this to be a useful strategy as a reward for hard work for example. If so they will take the necessary precautions, just as they would if sending kids to play on the playground.

Safe Play

When it comes to games for kids, Roblox is a great game, just like its progenitor Minecraft, however—as with all making, creating, playing, social experiences there is always the potential for inappropriate use, and experiences, whether the playground is virtual or actual. The solution, much as we would advocate for any 'multi-player' 'off screen' play—from playing tag or handball, to playing football, to swimming or having a sleepover, is to make sure there a​re​ clear parameters, and appropriate supervision, to ensure that we are minimising the likelihood of potentially harmful or unpleasant encounters.

Online maker spaces like Roblox and Minecraft are unique in terms of the sheer potential they offer in terms of unbridled creativity, and are also very familiar in terms of their potentials and pitfalls.

With all of these kinds of games the same safeguards we would have applied to playgrounds as children apply, ie be aware of the other people who are playing in this online arena or space, and the extent to which this space is effectively supervised, or moderated. If, as kids, we had been permitted to play unsupervised at nearby playground (I was, in London in the 70s, that seemed to be quite normal). We would have taken appropriate action if, for example, there were bullies in the playground, making life miserable for everyone. The same is true of these online spaces, which are very much similar to playgrounds, only on a screen, instead of in a park.

Safeguards

The developers behind games like Roblox and Minecraft are very aware of this, and design in safeguards for children, but this only works if the child has been honest about their age when creating the account, whether it's a Roblox account, or an Instagram account. Whenever a child creates an online account, like any other internet account, it's important that they set these up with the parent, or with the parents permission, otherwise they can 'accidentally' end up effectively creating an account for adults which could result in their being exposed to content that is inappropriate. Ideally a teacher or parent should be involved in the account setup and in ensuring that the child plays/uses the account responsibly—this is a skill that will serve them w​e​ll for the rest of their lives, in all sorts of online environments.

Roblox, for example, have a very clear commitment to safeguarding children; but it can be all too easy for children to create adult accounts, thereby effectively bypass any and all safeguards that would automatically be applied in the case of younger children. This usually happens if a child 'accidentally' enters the 'wrong' year of birth when registering their account, then the system assumes that are older than 13. In the event that this happens, my advice is for the parent to have a close look at the child's account settings, if Roblox or Minecraft knows that a user is under 13 there are a slew of safeguards that will be applied to the account to ensure the child's welfare, eg:

"For users age 12 and under, however, we take extra precaution to ensure their safety and privacy by automatically enforcing more restricted settings so they can only directly message other users that are accepted as friends on Roblox." 
"Players age 12 and younger have locked privacy settings to prevent contact from people they don't know. These players must first become friends with another user before certain activities are allowed, such as messaging, following into game, and playing in private servers."

Have Fun!

There are advocates in some quarters who encourage parents to join their child and play with them, to be honest, I think you'll find that most kids are less than enthusiastic about this idea.... Would you play tag, or have a sleepover with your kids and their friends? Probably not, so why would online play be any different?

Last but not least, the best thing you can do as a parent is be consistent; online and offline play are rich experiences that are enjoyable and highly beneficial provided some basic precautions are followed; for more on the potential benefits of gaming, see the following on video games as 'sandboxes'.