The teenage girl in the ABC sitcom The Middle asks her mother (played by Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame) where she could learn about love, seeing as Valentine’s Day was around the corner. The mother, exasperated and annoyed, dismisses the girl with a “Just google it,” then takes a moment’s pause and says, “May be not…don’t google it.” Where then do young adults and children go online to learn about love, the Arab Spring or the economic crisis? Where can parents go online to steer their children towards accessible, safe and reliable information?
Deepa Gopal, the founder and visionary behind U.S Based Youngzine started the website as a way to bring world affairs to the attention of her young son who had outgrown kiddie websites like Disney but was still not mature enough to get onWikipedia. “Most mainstream media assumes some level of understanding. So, when we did not find any [websites] that fit the bill, we decided to start one!” Sites like National Geographic Kids, while very resourceful for general knowledge, may not provide much kid friendly content on current, international and political affairs. Deepa often found herself “tailoring content for [her son’s] schools assignments.” Barkha Madan, of Our Little Earth had similar motivations. She found herself culling stories from the Internet and tweaking them just so her nieces could read about the world in accessible and easy-to-understand language. The website and e-newspaper was born when Barkha’s edited stories were being forwarded to friends and family. Meera Dolasia’sDOGOnews (dogo means young or small in Swahili) was a response to the amount of research that her then second grader’s weekly homework assignments required on a daily basis. Why not start a website that does just that, Meera thought. And so, DOGOnews was born.
Deepa’s passion was so strong that she quit her full-time job at Cisco after a 17 year-long career in computer hardware. With much technical and intellectual support from Deepa’s husband, Youngzine went live September 2010. Meera’s engineering background helped her set up Our Little Earth but with additional support from developers. DOGOnews had a modest start as a regular email update with PDF attachments which later led to a blog and then six months later, a fully-featured website.
When sourcing articles for the websites the writers start their research online on mainstream news, politics, science and technology. “I continuously scour the web for interesting content that could be intriguing, educational and appropriate for my young audiences,” says Meera. Youngzine’s Deepa tries to reach beyond mere expository text to explain the socio-political and cultural context that shapes the world’s news. This angle enables teachers to foster critical thinking amongst students. For instance, a recent article on the Arab Spring described not just the events but also the historical and political context surrounding the events in simple and crisp language. Deepa is quick to point out that in selecting topics, “avoid sensational articles that take center stage in mainstream media as there really is no value in those for children.”
Our Little Earth covers ten main stories each month and like Youngzine, “has a bias towards stories that provides an opportunity to talk about the rich historical and cultural backdrop on the region being covered.” The audiences for all three websites are children and young teens in the 9-14 age groups, school teachers and ESL learners. Studies show that the biggest drop off in academics happens in the middle school years, says Deepa, so the websites finds a way to sustain interest in that crucial age-group.
The websites are being increasingly sought after by schools, both within the US and internationally as a source of reference and teaching material. Schools from over 30 countries have already subscribed to Our Little Earth. Youngzine has already been recognized by the American Library Association as a “Great website for kids.” DOGOnews’ growth has been mostly organic, with parents and teachers spreading the word about website.
Parents, probably as critical an audience for the websites as the children themselves, have been very receptive to the websites, say Deepa and Barkha. They find it a safe source for news that is stripped clean of sensationalism. “Since the portals cover current affairs children are able to read and follow what adults around them are discussing at any given point,” says Deepa, “thus making it easier for parents to keep their children informed.” “Is it more work for parents? Let’s face reality,” says Meera. While parents would like to spend much time with their wards the reality is that few of us have the time for it. The articles are written in such a way that children require little guidance from parents making it that much easier for parents.
Teachers, too, have been a very receptive audience. “Youngzine’s content often provides source material for reading and comprehension skills,” says Deepa. The website now has a classroom portal to provide a closed forum for online discussions between teachers and students. Our Little Earth is made available as an online resource in local libraries and teachers hand out printed versions of select articles. DOGOnews has evolved to a point where both teachers and students now visit the website for networking with their peers.
DOGO for Teachers allows teachers to create an online classroom and select content from the website while DOGO for Students allows students to create avatars, link with others, earn points and bookmark content as well as maintaining a virtual bookshelf.
Youngzine has big plans for expansion with region-specific content, smartphone and tablet applications to make access easier. DOGOnews plans to add educational games and videos as additional content and Our Little Earth will focus more on schools in the coming months.
While Youngzine and DOGOnews are currently free for all users, Our Little Earth has three levels of subscription for the bi-weekly newsletters, with a basic edition that is offered free of cost. Deepa says that as the website grows, they will continue to look for grants and explore premium content as a way to sustain the growth.
DOGOnews recently added the menu option, Books, a community around children’s books, allowing kids to earn points and badges for reading, reviewing and commenting on books. In beta mode for three months, over 25,000 books have been read and over 2,100 book reviews have been written and published by website users. Our Little Earth will soon explore social media outlets for publicizing their work and enable features that allow users to lead online discussions about stories covered. Unique visits to Youngzine have tripled since the start of this year and in the 2011-12 school-year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of schools using the website.
Websites like those featured here save parents and teachers from hours of trolling the web for kid-friendly information by offering up up-to-date content in child-appropriate language. The social networking aspects of these portals allow for children to continue to be engaged with their peers and teachers in meaningful ways by sharing book reviews, comments on articles and participating in educational games and quizzes. Ultimately, as Deepa puts it eloquently, websites such as Youngzine, DOGOnews and Our Little Earth “help children become engaged and contributing citizens of tomorrow.”
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in international development. Her writings can be found in a variety of online and print publications.