Dell has partnered with Nickelodeon and Whyville.net to give life to its latest version of the Mini10v. According to Dell, the kids' Netbook has been designed with safe computing, education, and entertainment in mind. At a glance, Dell is only trying to reach another market (children), but if you look a little closer, the Netbook may represent a change in the way the next generation of preteens and children will learn to socialize and develop their decision-making skills.
The Netbook comes with desktop animations which link to Whyville.net, a virtual world where kids of all ages chat, shop, and visit places in town that engage them in science, nutrition, art, and business activities.
One of the most interesting locations is the cafeteria, where Whyvillians can pick a food item, view its nutritional facts, and select a meal based on an educated decision. If their character eats more fattening, high-calorie items, the cartoon character will see the effects as it becomes fatter and unhealthy. Likewise, if the character doesn't eat enough, he will become frail and sickly. A lack of vitamin C will cause scurvy sores, and a lack of calcium will cause weak bones and a bandaged head. As a result, the child may be advised that his Whyvillian should see the Whyville nutritionist.
In an interview with BusinessWire, Jen Sun, who is the director of the WhyEat project said: "It's extremely alarming to see that the number of overweight children and adolescents is on the rise; in fact, the prevalence of obesity in children 6-11 years old is three times what it was in the 1970s,...It is pretty clear that lecturing kids about nutrition isn't going to solve the problem. In Whyville, kids are given the tools to figure it out for themselves - with a little help from us, of course."
In a time when answers are just a self-driven Google search away, it only makes sense that children and preteens can access these educational resources, too. In a study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation, researchers found that "New media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults. Their efforts are also largely self-directed, and the outcome emerges through exploration, in contrast to classroom learning that is oriented by set, predefined goals."
Online activities are often self-directed--children are learning, exploring, and socializing because they choose to. So, are Dell and Whyville.net onto something?
The answer lies in another question: Will these virtual decisions and educational activities translate into real-life skills?
If it's anything like the activity we've seen from teenagers and twentysomethings on MySpace and Facebook, where users create a semifictional version of themselves, existing only on these social networks, then Whyville may be a huge success. In a previous piece, I mentioned that profiles on social networks tend to reflect how the person wants to be perceived, rather than who they really are.
That being said, it's possible that children and preteens will develop this sad habit of creating a better, virtual version of themselves early on. Can such young minds make a fluid connection between their Whyvillian's eating habits and their own? It's unclear whether it's possible, but there may be a way to make it happen.
It is up to the parents to execute this process, exploring Whyville and other virtual worlds with their child. Most importantly, it's up to them to help their child emulate their Whyvillian's activities, like checking the nutrition label.
Perhaps this is simply giving the next generation a head-start in the digital world, or maybe now is our chance to teach the next generation that learning and education are best obtained from people, books, and hands-on activities.
The price of the 10.1-inch Nickelodeon Netbook hasn't been announced, but it will be available for purchase at Dell.com and Walmart stores in October.