New Rating System Targets Media's Education Potential

Common Sense Media plans to expand its review system

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A nonprofit group aimed at helping educators and parents shape children’s media consumption will move beyond rating movies, video games, and websites for appropriateness and begin evaluating those same media offerings’ educational potential.

San Francisco-based Common Sense Media, a frequent adviser to the U.S. Department of Education on matters of media and digital literacy, announced the launch of its new education ratings and review program last week. The program will be financed through a partnership with the Susan Crown Exchange, a Chicago-based philanthropy founded by its namesake that is focused on finding “innovative ways of driving social change,” according to its website.

Liz Perle, the editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media, said the aim is to eventually give parents, teachers, and students the ability to select a skill they wish to learn and be driven to a list of resources that provide opportunities for learning that skill. In a perfect world, she said, the initiative could spark producers of commercial media for children—websites, videos, or games—to scaffold more educational value into their products.

“It will put pressure on media creators to create better and better media that help kids build skills more and more,” said Ms. Perle, who acknowledged that the project is still several months from its first iteration, which will come toward the end of this year. “Whenever you make somebody accountable, most of these people want to live up to it. Most people want to help kids learn more. It’s in their best interest if they’ve got a game kids can learn from and also enjoy playing.”

But others—particularly those in the digital-gaming industry—question the methods Common Sense Media has used to rate content for appropriateness, its capacity to produce enough volume of reviews to affect media industries, and its relative lack of expertise in identifying educational elements.

Although Common Sense Media distributes a free digital-literacy curriculum for students in grades 4-8, and in its new venture will work from criteria created from “in-depth discussions” with more than 20 experts across disciplines ranging from education theory to video-game making, Susan Crown said the service would be focused toward highlighting educational potential rather than guaranteeing results. ("New Elementary Digital Literacy Curriculum Out," November 23, 2010.)

“We’re not attempting to rate learning content. We’re trying to rate learning opportunities,” said Ms. Crown, who is also an officer with the Chicago investment firm Henry Crown and Co. “You can’t just say your kid’s going to be a genius if you play this game, but you can say this is an extremely good game for problem-solving.”

Ms. Crown called her philanthropy’s contribution to the effort a “large, multiyear grant,” but would not elaborate on its price tag.

Ms. Perle added that, when looking at which videos, games, and sites to evaluate first, the media group will operate on the “80-20 rule,” meaning that it will focus first on the 20 percent of the products that it says make up 80 percent of the market. The same rule, she said, has driven other Common Sense Media endeavors.

Understanding the Criteria

Common Sense Media’s current reviews include written descriptions as well as ratings on a scale of zero to 5 for an assortment of elements that include “the good stuff,” like ease of play for games or thematic messages for movies, and “the bad stuff,” such as violent, sexual, or commercial content. Each reviewed product is then given a minimum age-appropriateness level. And all of the reviews are available for free.

While outside observers note that Common Sense Media’s analysis is perhaps more balanced and descriptive than that of other media watchdog groups, they also express concern that users have little information to discern the exact criteria used to arrive at those ratings. And they say determining the educational potential of media, particularly games, and particularly in the classroom instead of at home, is a far more difficult process.

Further, Richard N. Van Eck, an associate professor and graduate director of instructional design and technology at the University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks, doubts game makers would pay much attention to the rating system unless it were found to significantly affect sales. And other than with games designed expressly for educational purposes, he said, it’s possible game makers may actually fear that a positive rating would negatively affect the business image, because educational gaming has the reputation for being boring.

“They kind of have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with this,” Mr. Van Eck said. “They say, ‘If you want to use us in an educational setting, great, but don’t call us an educational game.’ ”

Ms. Crown said she understands the experimental and uncertain nature of the project, but stressed that both she and Common Sense Media Chief Education and Strategy Officer Linda Burch see the importance of at least establishing a framework that can evolve and be refined over time.

“It’s not going to be absolutely right, but we’ve got to put something down on paper and get it started,” Ms. Crown said. “Is it realistic? Who knows? I hope it’s useful enough to parents and helps us bring up the quality level, or at least lets us know what the quality level is.”

Mr. Van Eck conceded that Common Sense Media’s mainstream appeal could provide a boost to the educational use of commercial media, since other groups that review media for educational content are better known by industry insiders than by parents and teachers.

Vol. 30, Issue 32, Page 8

Published in Print: May 25, 2011, as Ed. Potential of Digital Content to Be Rated
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A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Linda Burch’s professional title. She is Common Sense Media's chief education and strategy officer.

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