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Lessons For Life
E-learning technologies can be used to make a difference in children's lives

By Jenny Preece / June 2003

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Many adults are troubled by what happened in Iraq, the recent terrorist attacks, and threats of more violence. The images of guns, tanks, and scared or angry faces continue to disturb long after the television has been switched off. Children sometimes feel even worse--especially when they don't understand what's happening. How can those of us who work in e-learning-related fields help? First, by steering kids towards meaningful, high-quality content on the Web; second, by considering how we adults can work with kids to use everyday Web- and learning-related technologies to foster communication and understanding on a global scale.

Kids want to know what is going on but they don't want to read long newspaper articles. Instead, they require engaging, carefully written and well-targeted material, with easy access to additional details. Several news sites try to provide this service, including Kid's Times, MamaMedia, CBBC Newsround, and Yahooligans. But couldn't those of us with the appropriate skills provide additional resources in this area? Kids need tools that enable them to create, discuss, respond, and analyze news and stories. Easy access to safe forums, blogs, and moderated chats could make a difference.

Community-oriented projects, especially those that require true collaboration, can help kids develop positive attitudes about themselves and each other. The Web can help make this easy. For example, students can develop sites for not-for-profits such as parent-teacher organizations, health-advocacy, and environmental protection groups. One winning strategy is to give each child a distinct role on which the success of the project depends. Skilled adults can use their knowledge and experience to validate and provide much-needed support for such endeavors.

Once we get involved with kids on this level, it becomes much easier to see what really needs to be done. One organization, CompuMentor, helps connect volunteer IT professionals with community-based organizations and schools that need their expertise. A similar brokering organization is needed to support parents, teachers, faculty, and students who want to work on socially-oriented projects. Such an organization could even partner young people and their mentors with communities in distant parts of the world. This would require special care and tremendous effort. But aren't kids worth it?

Jenny Preece is a Professor of Information Systems. She researches and teaches human-computer interaction and online communities at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Jenny gives seminars and keynotes on online communities and she is author of eight books and numerous articles. Two recent books are: Online Communities: Designing usability, supporting sociability (2000, John Wiley & Sons,, and Interaction Design: Beyond human-computer interaction (2002, John Wiley & Sons,, co-authored with Yvonne Rogers and Helen Sharp. Jenny can be reached at [email protected]


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