UI software makes it easier for kids to talk about abuse
Children who've been victimized, whether abused at home or bullied on the playground, often have a hard time discussing their experiences.
Yet adults need the information to be able to understand and assist kids.
A University of Illinois project might make it easier for children to tell their stories by doing it in a format that's fun, as much as relating a personal painful experience can be, and also educational – by making, in essence, their own cartoons.
Software developed by UI professors Sharon Tettegah, Brian Bailey and Carolyn Anderson and graduate student Terry Bradley allows kids to easily construct "animated narrative vignette simulations" that look something like a "South Park" episode, only with a serious purpose.
"(The program is) basically drag and drop, something simple that anyone can do," Tettegah, a UI curriculum and instruction professor, said recently.
The software, called Clover, allows a user to write a narrative, script dialogue, lay out a story line and graphics, and add animation and sound, all in one package. The name comes from the four modules, like the four leaves in a lucky clover.
Tettegah, whose research focuses on the use of simulations and virtual worlds in education, has found that Clover can be useful with adults as well as kids.
She's employed animated vignettes created using the software to assess how empathetic teachers and others who might work with victimized children are in such cases.
In one study of college education majors training to be teachers, she and Anderson, an educational psychologist, found that one in 10 expressed a high degree of empathy for the victim, often focusing instead on punishing the perpetrator.
Tettegah defines empathy as expressing concern for a victim and being supportive, "letting them know you feel their pain, so to speak," and working out ways to manage the situation and solve the problem with their participation.
In contrast, her studies have found that victims often don't even get mentioned by those in authority when recounting an incident.
"We tend to deal with the perpetrator (or) want to deal with a parent," she said.
Tettegah thinks the findings point to a need for empathy training for teachers, something she noted already is common for medical professionals.
"We are missing that completely," she said.
A former elementary school teacher, Tettegah got interested in the idea of using animated stories as a result of her research and professional interactions and of her own experiences as a teacher and mother.
She started out working with Word, PowerPoint and Photoshop and then Flash animation software, but she came to see a need for an integrated tool designed with kids in mind.
That led her to a collaboration with Bailey, a UI computer science professor whose focus is human and computer interaction, including computer interfaces that make it easier for people to tailor things to meet their needs.
Bailey characterized Clover as software designed to support "the process of telling a story," with a kid-friendly way of working that was one of the major challenges.
"Most cases we design interfaces and actually assume they're going to be for an adult audience," he said. "We pretty much started from square one."
Bradley wrote the bulk of the software for his master's thesis, although it remains a work in progress. Among other things, the developers want to make the animation process simpler and improve the ability of users to work collaboratively on stories, Bailey said.
He and Tettegah said the software has the added advantage of teaching kids useful technology skills, along with writing and critical thinking, while allowing them to tell their stories.
Those stories also can be used anonymously, even shared via the Web, to illustrate"character education" lessons designed to curtail bullying, teasing and other negative interactions among people, Bailey said.
Tettegah said it's important to address such issues because abuse – physical and sexual, obviously, but also seemingly less serious activities like teasing and name calling – can have long-term damaging effects.
"This stuff happens almost on a daily basis in classrooms," Tettegah said. " 'You're too fat.' 'I don't want to work with you, your black skin might rub off on me.' Children become adults. Those old wounds ... they don't leave us."