Meet Warren Buckleitner

Education Geek Culture


Credit: Ellen Wolock
Credit: Ellen Wolock

As the start of an ongoing series of interviews with movers and shakers in the world of educational kids technology, I offer you an interview with Warren Buckleitner. Warren runs the Dust or Magic conference series, and is a writer, teacher, and founding editor of Children’s Technology Review.

Tell GeekDad what you do. In 21 words, please.

I review and rate children’s interactive media: apps — video games, sites and tech toys — as the editor of Children’s Technology Review.

What are you looking for in these reviews and ratings?

Powerful, quality experiences that empower children. I’m also interested in the nuts and bolts stuff (price, release, and platform) as well as the larger overall quality, from an educational and a usability point of view. After 15,275 reviews since 1993, I’m able to contextualize new products. My mission is to provide quality information to help publishers, researchers, and parents do a better job for children.

What kids do you have?

Two daughters, both now in college.

Let’s say you’ve lost your shirt in a Vegas casino and are selling off your daughters’ electronics. (I think we’ve all been in this situation.) What will you leave them with?

Their MacBook Airs, with iPhones and ebuds. These are the hub of their social and academic lives. Before they left the nest, we made sure they had lots of supervised experimentation with a lot of types of technology: from Pokémon, moviemaking and social media. Today, these two devices are their pipelines to these types of experiences; and now to us.

Did your supervised experimentation work?

I think so. They’re good problem solvers and are able to hack a new printer or get onto an obscure wi-fi network. They can beat me at Assassins Creed, and drive a stick shift. And they won’t let me use my iPhone when I drive. What more could a father want?

What do kids need to know (but may not know they need to know it)?

Many of us old folks think that all young people are naturally at ease with technology. I think that’s a myth. Many of the kids I talk to are fenced in by such things as platform, data plan, game genre or income, and these invisible barriers keep them from understanding that there are wide varieties of digital media to master. Schools, libraries and parents should provide well-rounded, liberal arts-style exposure to lots of types of digital media, from Toca Boca to Scratch. They should be able to outwit Siri, geocache, refine a Google search and — we can only hope — hum the theme song to Zelda. Too many kids get locked into a Halo or Minecraftcentric world, and never find their way out.

And for the more geekish parents?

Embrace constructivism (Google Jean Piaget) when it comes to technology, and understand that programming is more than coding. I think children should not just be consumers of media, but makers of media. It starts with digital drawing, editing photos, Scratch and Hopscotch and goes up to making their own movies and apps.

Science fiction promised us so much: a life in Lycra one-piece suits, powdered food, and doors with no door handles. How has the future let you down?

Perhaps that explains my penchant for flying toys, such as the quadcopters at Toy Fair this year. But now that it’s 2014 and we have the connected smart devices that we used to dream about, I guess I’m disappointed by the number of people that are using such high-powered technology for low powered things. Too many children never graduate from some free bird-related addicting game.

You host many conferences, looking for the magic or dust that emerges each year. Where’s the real magic right now?


What kid’s movie would you watch again?

Last night I watched the original Journey to the Center of the Earth that I watched when I was a kid with my brothers. I love adventure movies. There’s nothing better than snuggling up with one of your kids and watching a great adventure movie.

How are you keeping your childhood alive today?

Well… I just reviewed the LEGO movie video game. And I made a treeless tree house with hidden compartments, an internal staircase, skylights and an elevator for cats.

Treehouse: Artist's Impression, Copyright WGBH 2014
Treehouse: Artist’s Impression, Copyright WGBH 2014

Ok, let’s say Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin are visiting your tree house. But the elevator is moving cats, so you have a few minutes to give them some investment advice. What should they buy next?

I love this question. Wouldn’t it be great if Facebook bought ETS (Education Testing Service)? What if Facebook technology were used to create the ultimate student portfolio?  As you know, ETS makes the SAT, and they know a lot about measurement. If you’re a parent, your kid is going to take the SAT some day, and trust me, it can be a less-than-joyful end to a K-12 education. At it’s worst, the three-hour mental marathon is real life nightmare, where you try to justify your entire life of learning in just 3 hours, with a #2 pencil. Yet, despite it’s questionable validity, we continue to inflict our high school juniors with this rite of passage, exactly when they are most stressed about things like proms, friends and college.

Google and Facebook now have incredible cloud-based assessment technology for collecting both qualitative and quantitative information about a developing human. They could apply this knowledge to minimize the importance of the big test.

How does this play out?

Simple. New parents create a specialized Facebook (or G+) page for their new baby (free with diaper ads), to start accumulating all sorts of video and anecdotal information. The wizards of Google work with teachers to make visual rubrics, to help novice parents understand how life experiences align to the common core standards. So now a future teacher, or employer, can see a video of that babies child’s first steps, piano recital or woodshop project. It should start with birth records, and continue into life, forming a portfolio of life accomplishments where key adults serve on the friends list. By the time a child leaves high school, this collection of information will help a college admissions officer or employer better understand a child’s true competencies; potentially reducing the need for “the big test.”

It’s exciting to think that every teachers, librarian, friend, uncle or grandparent could play a valid part as a child’s tutor, and everyone in the community becomes responsible for that child as an emerging learner. This tool follows a child, from school to school, or town to town.

Both Facebook and Google have solved the tricky problem of monetizing tiered access to a secure profile, and Google and Facebook have the cloud technology to back up such a system.

And finally, what would a reality TV show starring you be called?

15,000 Reviews Can Give You Such a Crick in the Neck.

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