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An international digital library for children

Michael Trucano's picture

reading times, they are a-changing ... (image courtesy Deutsches Bundesarchiv)What will reading be like for children around the world in the digital age? 

Ben Bederson thinks this is a question we should be asking children themselves.

Bederson, a professor at the University of Maryland (USA) and the co-founder (with Allison Druin) of the International Children's Digital Library (ICDL), was the keynote presenter at an event in Hangzhou, China earlier this week sponsored by UNESCO, the World Bank, the Korean Education & Research Information Service and a number of other partners.  The ICDL (not to be confused with the International Computer Driving Licence, which shares the same acronym) is dedicated to building a collection of "outstanding children's books from around the world and supporting communities of children and adults in exploring and using this literature through innovative technology designed in close partnership with children for children". The ICDL, which is part of the World Bank-funded READ project in Mongolia, currently features children's books in over 50 languages and receives over 100,000 visitors a month to its web site.

At the heart of Bederson's wide-ranging talk (and indeed at the heart of the ICDL itself) is a belief in the value and importance of child-centered design. Notably (and rather famously, in some quarters) the ICDL utilizes children as design partners in the development of the digital library, and how it is used.  Adopting this approach sometimes yields approaches that, at least for many in the audience in Hangzhou, were rather surprising.

How should collections of children's books be organized to enable children to find the book(s) they want?  A typical way to do so is by author's name and by level of reading ability.  The ICDL is finding that children don't look for books this way. "I want a book that makes me happy." "I want a blue book about dogs that isn't too long." "I want a book from where grandma's from."  These are representative questions of some of the desires for books that children express to the ICDL, and its on-line presence is organized and searchable in a way that can help meet such demands.   Observing that children are not well served by most existing dictionaries, Bederson and his colleagues use definitions from children themselves, and then enable children to rate each other's definitions. By incorporating teams of children into all stages of the design and development of the various component parts of the library, the ICDL team is able to be guided by what children want, and how children act.  Given the strong research focus of project principals, findings from the ICDL experience are being well documented and made publicly available.

Acknowledging that information access via small mobile digital devices (like smart phones) is going to becoming increasingly important, the ICDL team released a free application for the iPhone as a way to explore what this particular form factor, with its various affordances and design challenges, might mean for children's reading.  Challenging many preconceived notions, Bederson noted that "Mobile is a place not only for consumption, but also for creative expression" and so earleir this year the ICDL also released a free iPhone app called StoryKit that allows children to author stories right on their (or presumably their parent's!) mobile phone.  (Bederson demonstrated that yes, this is indeed possible -- and not all that difficult!) 

While much of the audience in China was captivated by the technology discussed, Bederson concluded by noting that, while technological innovation in this area will continue to occur (quite rapidly), what is already available today (and becoming increasingly less expensive) can be harnessed to very useful ends, if only we are prepared to think in news ways about how and why it can be used, and by whom.  He finished by challenging the thousand or so educators in the audience, saying that "All the tools are here. Trust the learners. Start with your own creativity."

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Note: The image at the top of this blog entry of a kindergarten class in Potsdam, Germany comes from the Deutsches Bundesarchiv was obtained via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Germany License.