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Kids, technology focus of $50 million grant

Nonprofit foundation's donation intended to study how technology affects children and how they learn.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation plans to devote $50 million to study how technology is affecting children and how they learn, in what could be the largest research grant into the topic yet.

The nonprofit foundation plans to announce the grant, which will be allotted over five years, at a press conference on Thursday. Some of the funds are already earmarked for various projects, including a new Web portal on digital media and learning, and a book series on the same topics. Next year, about $2 million of the overall grant will go toward competitive research and writing projects.

Technology is changing the culture so fast that it be easy to overlook questions of how digital media affects the way kids think, their perceptions and values, their sense of identity and their ideas of civic duty, said Connie Yowell, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Foundation will attempt to create a body of research, from its own efforts and those of grantees, that answers these questions.

"If kids are spending 6.5 hours a day with digital media, the next question to ask is what are they doing and what is the effect," Yowell said.

The MacArthur Foundation has also funded research at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California, which are conducting a broad study of the digital generation. Their work will examine technology's influence on the generation's peer groups and family life, as well as how they play and how they look for information.

The Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory at The University of Wisconsin-Madison has also received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The lab is developing a software application called "Game Designer," which encourages kids to create new games, and in the process, they learn about ethics, aesthetic design, systemic thinking and collaborative problem solving.

"One of the thing that's fascinating about video games is they give kids feedback on how to fail and learn from their mistakes. We'll study that," Yowell said.