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Game On? Doctoral Candidate Kelly Whitney

Kelly Whitney (Photo by Evan Whitney)When a parent walks into a store today, they may be overwhelmed by the number of digital toys and games on the market touted as “educational.” However, little research considers the actual educational value of these products. As part of her dissertation, doctoral candidate Kelly Whitney, Ed.M.’06, is investigating preschoolers’ digital toys and games, and exploring the extent to which parents consider these products an educational aspect of their children’s lives.

“What’s lacking in research about these toys and games is what’s happening on an intimate level: how engaged and interested children are, how much parents are helping, and how much access children have to media,” she says.

Recently, Whitney received a $10,000 Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship – a tribute to the beloved late star of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Foundation to help fund her dissertation, a qualitative study of 12 families with preschool-aged children that will focus on parents’ beliefs and practices with educational digital toys and games designed for home use.

“This was hugely meaningful to me,” Whitney says. “If I could have chosen any one scholarship to receive, it would be this one. He believed in mass media’s ability to reach children, educate them, and build self-esteem.”

Whitney’s interest in educational media products grew out of her own work in children’s television. Following graduation from Northwestern University’s theater program, she relocated to New York City and worked in children’s television development and production for channels like Nickelodeon and Discovery Kids. Through this work, Whitney became fascinated by the work of educational consultants, who were referenced for show development. “I always found them interesting and engaging,” she says, noting that they encouraged her to take classes on the subject matter. Through classes and her work developing new media projects, she began asking questions about how media impacts children’s minds and how to better enhance children’s lives with this technology.

“The fact that you can reach millions of children at any time on air has always felt like an opportunity to me,” she says. “I’m interested in the opportunity to create smart educational products.”

This interest in what she considers “nontraditional learning” brought her to HGSE. After all, the Ed School uniquely collaborated and embraced educational media, Whitney says, citing late Professor Gerald Lesser’s work on Sesame Street and the collaborative media work of current faculty such as Associate Professor Tina Grotzer and Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt. It was while earning a master’s degree in Special Studies at HGSE and working on the MacArthur-funded Project New Media Literacies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that Whitney’s interest in children’s digital toys and games grew.

Whitney’s dissertation will look at high-income earning families, particularly their beliefs about technology, how effective it is, and what they are buying, as well as the children’s interest and engagement in the toys. In a market that is flooded with educational media, Whitney says that there are really no guidelines or restrictions, so there is no way for parents to know whether something is actually educationally beneficial or simply claiming to be.

Whitney, who plans to continue to work with emerging children’s media as a researcher and to contribute to the potential that media and technology has to empower young learners, hopes that her dissertation research provides some answers to questions surrounding “educational” toys.

“You will hear parents say they need to have a certain digital educational system, such as Leapfrog or VTech, for their children but one of the questions that remains is whether this helps kids,” she says. “Does it affect school readiness or have longer term effects on their education, for better or for worse?”