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Jun 14

Nine-year-old David Olson reads "The Heroes of Greek Myths" by Farley Court on his Kindle in his bedroom in Somerset Township, Wis., on Tuesday evening. He says he reads for about two hours each evening before bed. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)

Like many boys, David Olson wanted a Nintendo DS portable video game system for his 9th birthday.

His parents got him an e-book reader instead.

"When I tell people we got him a Kindle, they look confused," says Tim Olson, the boy's dad. "They ask, 'Was he all right with that?' "

Oh, yeah. He was. He is.

"I used to read 50 minutes a day. Now I read maybe 120," says David, who just finished third grade in Osceola, Wis. "I don't know why I read more now. I guess I've just gotten in the habit of reading two hours a night, sitting in bed, curled up in a ball, reading with the Kindle light on."

Just in time for summer vacation, digital reading devices have begun trickling down to kids.

Or at least, more parents are now saying "maybe."

(Which we all know usually means "yes.")

For Mary Knox, the tipping point was when her employer, the St. Paul Public Library, began loaning e-books two months ago. She figured it was time to finally start using the Nook Color from Barnes & Noble that Grandma had given her 8-year-old son for Christmas.

"My child has never been alive without the Internet. He is a native," says Knox, a library associate in Youth Services at the Central Library. "He will read these things in a different way than I ever have: If he is reading on his Nook Color and comes across a word he doesn't know, he can click on it, and it connects him to a dictionary. He's in the second grade now. I can't imagine what the world will be like by the

time he goes off to college, but as his parent, I consider reading online as part of his digital literacy. It's a tool, and I want him to have as many tools as possible." When Amazon debuted the Kindle just in time for the holidays in November 2007, it sold out in 5-1/2 hours.


Back then, there weren't many e-books available for kids. That's slowly changing, especially with the recent advent of the Nook Color and its ability to display children's picture books. But some of the most popular series for kids are not currently available as e-books, including "Harry Potter" and "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

"Parents should look up the big books for kids this summer, the best-sellers on Amazon, as well as any required reading for school, to see which ones are available and on which device," says Eileen Wacker, a children's book author, as well as a mom, who has gone digital.

Wacker, who has four children ages 7 to 13, recommends different devices for different levels of reading.

"I would go for a Kindle for an older child who is reading chapter books with no illustrations," she says. "There are so many more books available, it's easy on the eyes in the sun (it is not backlit like a computer screen), and it's an allowable device in many schools because it's so much like a regular book. The Nook Color is a great option for younger kids.

"But if you have the budget, I'm going to make a big play here and recommend going for the iPad for the family," she says. "It's the most exciting reading device out there. Kids love it, and you can download the Kindle app for iPad. Also, have you heard of something called iTunes? Once Apple decides to start competing with Barnes & Noble and Amazon in terms of selling books, this could be the way to go, especially since Apple makes it so easy to sync everything."

One Minnesota reading specialist says it might not be necessary for families to buy dedicated reading devices (which can range from $99 to $250 or more) to get kids started.

"You may already own what you need. There is not a monolithic approach to reading digitally," says Scott Voss, a reading specialist at Apple Valley High School who has used digital readers in class and is working on a doctorate in reading research with an emphasis on digital research from the University of Minnesota.

"There are e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, the Sony e-reader and the Barnes & Noble Nook, which is a good chunk of the market," says Voss, who is also president-elect of the Minnesota Reading Association. "But my daughter, who is in the second grade, has an iPod touch she uses to download free 'Archie' comics. There are also ones you can buy for $1.99 to $6.99 a book.

"I ran into a gentleman who reads extensively off his iPod. He downloaded the Stieg Larsson trilogy, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' so that's 1,800 pages of text," Voss says. "There are also cellphone novels (a literary genre first developed in Japan), that people download to their phones to read during commutes- - books with content specifically written and designed to be read off a cellphone instead of paper.

"My point this that there is no single format or platform that is universal for reading this way."


Janet Waller loves watching children discover new technology.

"I always tell the book-fair coordinators to let parents know that the kids can look at the Nooks,'" says Waller, the community relations manager for Barnes & Noble at Har Mar Mall in Roseville. "I hate to hear parents say, 'Don't touch it!' We want kids to be able to use it and look at it. And they just swarm around it. It's fun for them because it's new, and these kids have grown up with computers."

Julia Carter, 9, began saving up for a Nook Color of her own after a cousin introduced her to the technology.

"It just seems cool," says the Bloomington girl. "I've never had anything like it before."

In the meantime, her mother has arranged to borrow a Kindle for the family to use this summer.

"I am not sure how she will like it compared to a traditional book," says Katie Carter.

Julia, who gobbles up books, doesn't care so much about the technology; she just hopes it will be a way to read more this summer.

"I've basically read all but one of my books at home, and I can't bike to the library every day," she says.

David Olson of Wisconsin also goes through books quickly - one reason his parents purchased a Kindle.

"We live in the country, both of us work, and we don't live close to the library," says Kate Olson. "David really likes to read, and we thought this would be a convenient way to have access to a lot of different books quickly."

Still, it is an investment.

"One thing I'm not crazy about is that we have to buy the books," says Tim Olson. "They cost less than a hard copy would, but some of the newer books he likes, like the Percy Jackson series, are $10 apiece."

Olson has found a way to keep costs down, though.

"The older books are less money --- or sometimes even free," he says. "So now I'll tell him I'll buy his book if he reads one of my choices. To be honest, I think 'Old Yeller' would have been a tough sell before. Now I have some leverage."


By Molly Guthrey 

Jun 17

Click to play

As computers become ever more complicated, there are concerns that schools and universities are not teaching the basic programming skills that underpin some of Britain's most successful industries.

The UK's video games sector is bigger than either its film or music industries with over £2bn in global sales.

Just one best-selling game series, Tomb Raider made by British company Eidos has had sales of over 35 million.

Peter Molyneux
Peter Molyneux, creative director of Microsoft Game Studios, Europe

It actually started back in 1989 when me and a friend sat down and we had this crazy idea for a game. It took about nine months to develop, mainly because we were lazy.

This game came out and was fantastically successful and we could eventually afford to eat.

The UK has been amazingly influential in the history of computer games, no doubt about it. We've had a rocky ride of being the most influential on Earth to dipping down when things got a bit tough, but guess what's happening now?

Just around where I live in Guildford, there are around four or five small developers just set up in the last 12 months so I suspect there's some great talent just waiting to sprout up there.

There are so many more independent gamers like I was 22 years ago who are in the same situation. I can already see some games coming up you can point to and say 'those are going to be super successful'.

I am absolutely convinced that the huge creative talent that is going to help this industry move forward is in the independent gaming community at the moment.

But with games becoming increasingly complicated to make, the programmers used to make the games are in high demand.

And there are concerns about where the talent of the future is going to come from.

From primary school to university, the skill of writing even basic programs has been largely displaced by lessons in how to use a computer.

"[Children] learn about Word and Powerpoint and Excel. They learn how to use the applications but don't have the skills to make them," says Ian Livingstone, life president of Eidos and government skills champion.

"It's the difference between reading and writing. We're teaching them how to read, we're not teaching them how to write.

"The narrowness of how we teach children about computers risks creating a generation of digital illiterates."

Livingstone is campaigning for computer science to become a separate subject on the school national curriculum. And its current omission is something that the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) believes is having a drastic impact on the digital industries.

"This skills gap is a threat not just to the future of the video games industry but also to any business that has computer technology at its core," says Daniel Wood, of Ukie.

"Some companies [in the UK] are actually turning away work because they don't have the staff with the skills and it's only going to get worse."

There is no shortage of university courses related to computer games - 84 institutions are offering 228 courses between them in 2011. But few match up to what the industry needs.

Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for the creative industry currently only gives accreditation to 10 of these courses.

'Bums on seats'

While keen to point out that not being accredited is not an absolute indication of whether a course is good or bad, Skillset says that a number of university courses are not up to scratch.

Between two thirds and three quarters of courses that apply to the council get refused.

Tomb Raider - a Survivor is Born screenshot
Tomb Raider is one of the world's most successful games franchises

"The accreditation process is really rigorous and robust," says Saint John Walker, Skillset's computer games manager.

"It means those who get through really have been through the mill in terms of being inspected.

Walker fears universities are too focussed on attracting students to fill their courses, not on giving them skills for the workplace.

"Some of our industry's council call it the 'bums on seats' mentality. In other words, a course has to be popular to make economic sense."

"You'd imagine that the university detects a demand and would speak to the industry and ensure that the course had the industry at the centre of it, but unfortunately that's not the way it happens.

A £15 solution

Many think that a return to the days where simpler computers filled the classroom could change things. When all computers were basic, children could understand them more easily and mess around with them from a very early age.

"Even 20 years ago, the BBC Micro was in schools and was the cornerstone of computing in the classroom and when people went home from school or work, they also had their Spectrum so could also do programming," says Livingstone.

One foundation in particular is looking to bring on that change. A tiny device called the Raspberry Pi is a whole computer squeezed onto a single circuit board, about the same size as a USB disc.

Space Invaders displayed at The Game On exhibition at the Science Museum
Computer games in the past required a lot less code that modern games

It costs around £15 and can be plugged into a TV with the aim of making a computer cheap and simple enough to allow anyone to write programmes.

"Hopefully it will bring a solution to a generation of kids who can have the advantages that I had as a kid so they can learn to program and do great things," says David Braben of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

Although computer programming is not on the national curriculum, many schools have taken the decision themselves to bring it back into the classroom.

"A lot of the children don't sort of understand the world of Commodores and Ataris back in the 80s," says Ian Addison, of St John the Baptist Primary School in Hampshire.

"What we're trying to do with our game design is show them that you can teach them games, you can make some games and you can create them and share them with other people.

"Some of the children get into computers and they're getting interested in how games work. They're only young - our eldest are 11 - but if we can inspire a few of them, then we've done a good job."

By Alex Hudson 
BBC Click

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