Hundreds of college students trade textbooks for e-babies

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This article was originally posted on June 26,2017

E-babies by the hundreds

This fall, in college classrooms across the country, hundreds of students studying psychology will say goodbye to traditional textbooks and hello to a virtual child.

These new parents won’t raise their children in their dorm rooms, but rather on their laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

This unique “parenting” experience is made possible by a brand-new digital learning product called The Dynamic Child.

Students raise their child from birth to age 18 and see how their parenting choices affect the child over time.

A big idea, and a joint effort

“The Dynamic Child” is the invention of Dr. Frank Manis, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California.

After years of teaching child development courses with traditional textbooks, he began to brainstorm ways to make the material more engaging to students, most of whom had never been parents.

It took dozens of educators and researchers more than five years to develop “The Dynamic Child.”

Amber, an Executive Editor in Psychology, works with higher education professors to create the learning materials used to teach psychology courses nationwide.

“Our shared goal is to create and promote materials that help educators teach child development and other subjects in the most innovative, exciting ways possible.”

Erin is an expert in what’s called “learning design.”

“The course material is important, but the learner’s experience is equally significant. I’m there to make sure it’s always top-of-mind.”

A chicken-and-the-egg predicament

One of the biggest challenges along the way, Amber says, was deciding if students should read the online course material and then raise their virtual child, or vice versa.

“Raise first or read first? It was a true chicken-and-the-egg moment for me,” she says.

“It may sound like a little thing, but the way you sequence learning objectives for a course can have a huge impact on how much and how deeply the students learn.”

Thankfully, Amber says, she knew exactly who could help her answer her question: Erin.

“I introduced Amber to the research concept of ‘anchored instruction,’” Erin says.

“It tells us that there are cognitive benefits of having an experience first and then learning the theories and research that support it afterward.”

“In this case, the research suggests that ‘anchoring’ the course material in the real-world experience of raising a virtual child was the way to go.”

How it happens

For students using “The Dynamic Child,” the parenting process starts with a personality questionnaire.

It has 25 questions and takes about 30 minutes to complete, Amber says.

Students are asked things like, “What were your favorite subjects in elementary school?” and “In high school, did you prefer to socialize in small or large groups?”

All that data is used to create a unique personality profile for the student’s virtual child, Amber says.

Students can pre-select physical characteristics for their child, but the gender is determined randomly by the program.

After the child is “born,” students give him or her a name, Amber says.

“That helps the student develop an emotional bond with their child,” adds Erin.

“Research says that such an emotional investment leads to better learning outcomes.”

Making decisions as a parent

For the duration of the parenting experience, an avatar of the growing child takes up the right half of the student’s screen.

On the left side, students are presented with dozens of realistic parenting scenarios related to their child’s physical, mental, and social growth.

“Topics include sleep training, dealing with shyness, and overcoming adversity in academic, musical, and sporting endeavors.

“Students select from four different courses of action at each decision point, so there are an infinite number of eventual personality outcomes, and no two students will have identical children,” Amber says.

Over the course of the semester, the virtual children grow from birth to age 18.

The effects of a student’s parenting style can be seen in the child’s behavior over time, Amber says.

“The child is responding to the parent and vice versa.”

“It’s bi-directional—a two-way street—just like a parent-child relationship is in real life.”

A full launch this fall

This fall, more than 60 college professors across the country will teach child development courses exclusively via the “The Dynamic Child” product.

Pearson will host the learning experiences through its Revel platform.

Students can access the “Dynamic Child” portal from any device.

“In addition to getting to learn course material in an innovative and engaging way,” Amber says, ‘The Dynamic Child’ costs just $80—significantly less than most traditional psychology textbooks.”

Erin and Amber say they have high hopes for The Dynamic Child.

“We love the product,” Amber says, “and we think students and professors will, too.”

“We spent months and months reviewing the research on anchored learning and incorporating it into the final product design,” Erin says.

“We think it’s the type of homework students will truly be excited to do.”

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