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Bringing Up (Cyber)Baby

An innovative teaching tool is the brainchild of USC College psychologist Frank Manis

Bringing Up (Cyber)Baby

Meet Joseph. He turned 18 this summer. In the fall, this honor student will be attending a very selective university on a baseball scholarship. An ever-inquisitive child, he showed an early aptitude for math and science and developed an interest in writing and art as a teen.

The road wasn’t easy, though. Throughout elementary school, teachers urged his family to medicate the easily-distractible child. In his moody teen years he and his father worked through issues of alcohol use, reckless driving and drug experimentation.

All in all, of course, Joseph has made his dad proud.

But you won’t be seeing Joseph on the collegiate baseball diamond or drowsily dragging himself across campus to early-morning classes.  

Joseph exists only on a computer server at USC. He’s a “virtual child,” a product of an online educational tool created by USC College psychologist Frank Manis and programmer Mike Radford.

Manis recently published The Virtual Child (Prentice Hall, 2006), a text-based interactive simulation in which students play the role of a parent raising a child from birth to 18. He road-tested it with his Psychology 336 class over the past four years, incorporating feedback from his students.

“Basically it’s an all-in-one program,” said Manis. “By going through it, students can learn, ‘What does a typical three-month-old do?’  Well, they laugh, they show more interest in the environment. The books don’t often say that.”

Descriptions of situations and life events alternate with screens that prompt for multiple-choice “parenting decisions.”

“The choices generally fall into three categories,” said Manis. “There’s the laissez-faire parent, the strict parent and the person who really wants to match his parenting to the child’s personality and needs.”

Manis smiled. “Most people who take my course choose the matching.”

Dealing with infant illness, potty-training, planning play time, the eventual teenage battle for the car keys — the virtual parent has many decisions to make.

For instance, at 18 months of age, future slugger Joseph begins to play make-believe with his toys and sometimes talks to himself.  

The virtual parent may encourage Joseph to make the play more concrete by introducing blocks. Or he can join the child in his make-believe games. Another choice is to let him play on his own so as not to interfere with the development of his imagination. Or the parent may try to channel Joseph’s play away from talking to himself and make it more interactive.

Manis’ brainchild is set for wide use in classes nationwide this fall. The Virtual Child will be a companion piece to Prentice Hall’s updated developmental psychology textbook, and a password granting access to the site will be distributed with each copy.

At certain milestones, The Virtual Child provides feedback and advice on a student’s choices via evaluations of the child’s development.

In Joseph’s case, at age two-and-a-half, he paid a visit to a child development specialist. The session yielded such comments as, “Joseph was pretty cooperative with the other kids, but became somewhat aggressive over a favorite toy.” And, “Joseph is above average in solving problems with more than two steps, and grouping objects together in categories. The specialist recommended that you respond to Joseph’s interests.”

Along the way, a student/virtual parent is prompted with questions relating her child-rearing experience to the developmental theories she’ll read about and hear about in lectures. The Virtual Child simulates something most undergraduates will not have experience with, or access to — a growing child.

“College students don’t have a lot of contact with children,” said Manis, father of three daughters who has taught developmental psychology at the College for 25 years. “They are reading about the stuff in books, and what I wanted for them is to have what I have as a parent — to see a child from birth to 18 years — within one semester.”

Typically, developmental psychology students are asked to observe children of different ages. The Virtual Child presents an innovative, more accessible alternative.

“It fills a need that I thought was always there,” said Manis. “We talk about research, but the students don’t actually experience it directly. So it’s still book learning, abstract stuff. I thought, what better way to make it real than to actually say, ‘You raise the child.’ “

A Virtual Child’s “baby” starts with certain randomly-generated attributes that form a predisposition toward a certain type of personality and level of intelligence. Each will differ in traits such as activity level, friendliness and verbal intelligence.

“We can’t fully simulate a real child,” said Manis, “so we picked certain dimensions that we know about in research and that students will hear about in the textbook.

“The students’ parenting choices slowly, gradually affect the child.”

The Virtual Child reflects the current state of research about the elements that influence a child’s development. It’s a complex mixture of biology, child-rearing, and the influence of peers and of the culture as a whole.

“Text books should have less of the traditional stuff,” said Manis, “more of the new dynamic stuff, which is how genes and environment interact. The old theories don’t work.”

So between nature, nurture and culture, none wins out as a primary influence in the development of a virtual child.

“I tried to strike a balance,” Manis explained. “That’s actually the way the field is going.

“The field started as just mother-child. Now we realize there’re some kids who are more resilient. How do these kids in bad environments turn out fine? And then there’re kids who are at risk. Their environment has to be good for them to turn out OK.”

Learning disorders, Manis’ research specialty, are also built into The Virtual Child. There is a small-percentage possibility that a given virtual child will have to struggle with dyslexia or attention deficit disorder.

“It’s sneaky the way it happens,” said Manis. “It doesn’t immediately tell you your child has dyslexia. It starts saying things like, ‘Your child doesn’t want to listen to stories,’ or ‘Your child has trouble understanding rhyming.’ It’s stuff that comes from my research over the years.”

In addition to his research expertise, Manis’ skills as an instructor have earned kudos. He is a Fellow of USC’s Center for Excellence in Teaching (CET). In 2002, at the proposal stage, The Virtual Child received a highly competitive grant from the CET’s Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching.

“It’s total student engagement,” said CET director Danielle Mihram. “Having a virtual child, and having problems that you need to solve using what you’ve learned in the lectures and your reading, allows you to acquire a far greater understanding of the material.

“What’s especially wonderful — and rare — is that The Virtual Child allows students to interact with technology, while the technology itself remains transparent to a large extent,” she continued. “The technology is a facilitator to learning. You really get to understand your ‘child’ in a very personal way.”

And Manis sees potential for a wider application of his simulation, which was originally inspired by the electronic baby dolls used to show high school students the manifold responsibilities involved in parenting.

“It could be used with parents. There are all kinds of books on parenting and all kinds of varying advice, but nothing like this — nothing where you actually say: ‘You’re thinking of having a baby? Well, why don’t you try this out for a couple of months?’ “