Information about the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine can be challenging to communicate to children. The purpose of this study is to understand how a children’s eBook can help facilitate conversations between children, families and educators about the pandemic.
A children’s eBook Q-Bot: The Quarantine Robot was shared by the researcher with parents and teachers through social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). The story provides information (based on CDC guidelines) on the best health and hygiene practices to avoid catching the virus, while also drawing attention to the hardworking people who are helping us through this experience. Data was collected as public comments on the eBook. Secondary data included other children’s eBooks available on the same theme and their public reviews.
Through open coding of comments, the researcher found that the children’s eBook helped in facilitation of discussion between children, parents and teachers; around the pandemic’s effects on health and hygiene practices; and remote learning experiences. A content analysis of other children’s books on this theme revealed a set of guidelines for designing helpful eBooks for pandemic quarantine situations in general.
Education, media and health researchers may find this study helpful in understanding the potential of children’s eBooks as probes, prompts or communication tools.
Experts in pandemic-related issues, educators, illustrators and authors may find this study helpful in understanding guidelines for creating educational children’s eBooks for similar situations in the future.
Both theoretical and practical values are addressed through this study, as it provides helpful literature from past research, offers new insights from current study and guidelines for future work in narrative media design for the pandemic and other similar situations.
Tiwari, S. (2020), "Q-Bot, the Quarantine Robot: Joint-media engagement between children and adults about quarantine living experiences", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 5/6, pp. 401-409. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0075Download as .RIS
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited
Recent research on the psychological impact of quarantine reveals that some of the key ways to reduce stress during longer quarantine duration, is by providing clear reasoning for quarantine, creating a sense of altruism through describing benefits of quarantine to society at large, and providing clear protocols to follow during quarantine (Brooks et al., 2020). In the context of children in particular, some researchers believe that adults need to be more authentic about the uncertainty of the pandemic, and expand their conversations from scientific and practical information about the virus to include emotion-focused conversations (Dalton et al., 2020).
One way of sharing COVID-19 related information with children is through illustrated eBooks. Since the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, several organizations such as St Jude’s Children’s Hospital and Oxford Press, health-care professionals such as Block and Block (2020), and other author/illustrators interested in supporting children through these challenging times, have designed free eBooks for children, families and educators.
Children’s educational media such as television series, short films, games, eBooks, etc. can be used as tools to facilitate conversations between children, families and educators about the COVID-19 pandemic and other situations where health-related information can be overwhelming for young children. This interaction between adults and children around the use of media can be studied from the theoretical lens of Joint Media Engagement (JME).
Joint media engagement
Stevens and Penuel (2010) suggest that JME refers to shared experiences of people using media together naturally or by design. JME can happen anytime and anywhere, where there is interaction between media and multiple people. JME interactions can involve viewing, playing, searching, reading and creating, with digital media (ebooks, games, coding, etc.) or traditional media (books, radio, television, etc.). JME can facilitate making sense of particular situations for all participants.
Examples of JME are parents and children watching television together, children playing minecraft as a group of friends, or children engaging with ScratchJr at a coding camp. Some researchers have focused on JME in home settings between parents and children (Penuel et al., 2009), while others have focused on JME between children and their peers (Niemeyer and Gerber, 2015; Tissenbaum et al., 2017).
In the context of this case study, JME as a theoretical lens is used to study shared experiences of parents and children, and educators and children, who read an educational eBook about the coronavirus together. The eBook itself is designed keeping in mind the age appropriateness, design language appealing to children, context of the pandemic, etc. These factors could be better understood with the theoretical lens of the 3Cs: child, content and context.
3Cs of children’s media design: child, content and context
Guernsey (2007) summarized the 3Cs: child, content and context as factors that influence children’s learning from media. Research suggests that a child engages with the content of media only if they understand the key details easily (Anderson et al., 1981). Content of educational media can be more efficient when it is moderately complex, novel, and within children’s capacity to understand (Rice et al., 1982). Context factors suggest that repeated viewing of the same educational content can offer children the opportunity to learn and imitate the information (Crawley et al., 1999; Linebarger and Vaala, 2010).
An interactive eBook for children titled “Q-Bot the Quarantine Robot” was authored and illustrated by the researcher (Tiwari, 2020), and shared with parents and teachers through social media (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter).
Q-Bot is the story of a quarantine robot designed to help humans feel comfortable and happy during the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine (Figure 1) The story provides information (based on CDC guidelines) on the best health and hygiene practices to avoid catching the virus, while also drawing attention to the hardworking people who are helping us through this experience.
A link to the eBook was shared on social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) targeting parents and teachers supporting homeschooling during the pandemic. Posts were made in several parenting and education related public groups on Facebook, and using specific hash tags such as #quarantinelife, #quarantineteacher and #homeschooling2020 were used on Twitter and Instagram to reach out to families and teachers engaging in quarantine-related content on social media.
Discussion prompts were included by the researcher along with the eBook link, requesting viewers to share their experiences (as public comments) based on using the Q-Bot story to facilitate conversations around every day quarantine life during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data was collected as public comments on the eBook. The reason for using comments as data was to get a quick and brief response from parents and educators from diverse backgrounds, in understanding how they used the eBook to facilitate conversations with children about quarantine experiences. In all, 60 comments were gathered from all three social media platforms over the course of 4 weeks, of which 40 were by parents of children in elementary school, and 20 were from elementary school teachers in US, UK, Canada, and India. Roughly 40% of the commenters were the researcher’s personal contacts, as they happened to be some of the first people to respond out of familiarity with the researcher.
Other Children’s eBooks on the theme of COVID-19 pandemic were collected through public databases, including public reviews of those books. A total of 15 books were collected. The purpose of this secondary data was to understand multiple perspectives around the pandemic by authors and illustrators, and potentially generate design and content guidelines for future eBooks.
Comments from all social media platforms were combined in one document for analysis. Comments were saved in the form of threads, such as researcher’s prompt and responses by commenters. Through open coding, these comments were analyzed to generate emerging themes.
Content analysis of other eBooks was performed by creating an organized database of their theme, storyline, main characters, visual style, learning goals, types of interaction (such as coloring-in, crafting, reading, writing), and supporting materials (such as author narrated videos, short films, follow-up games, printable activities etc.).
Open coding of comments on Q-Bot: The Quarantine Robot and content analysis of other eBooks generated the following emerging themes:
Supporting JME through relatable content
While jointly reading the Q-Bot eBook, some parents reported that conversations were led by interests of children, based on how they related with certain illustrations and text, or what they found interesting. A parent of an 8 year old mentioned:
My daughter talked about how she misses school but also enjoys hanging out with her friends on Zoom. Like on the page where Q-Bot is on a video conference call.
Another parent mentioned:
My son particularly enjoyed the part where the kid washes his hands and the virus is dead with cartoon X on its eyes. Now he remembers to wash his hands for 20 seconds and at the end of it declares Adios, Corona! like in the book.
Abstract ideas and age appropriateness
One parent commented that the Q-Bot as an imaginary character or an idea that lives within us, would be hard to understand for younger kids. She says “Q-Bot being an “idea” is pretty subjective, open-ended concept for kids K-3 […].not an impossible concept for some older students to get, but almost certainly a difficult one to understand in the kindergarten age range”. Another parent said:
My 4 year old absolutely loved the Q-Bot character, but also thought it can be purchased on Amazon (she thought it was real information or advertisement about an actual robot).
A possible solution to this challenge of designing a children’s book that is comprehensible for a wider age range, could be to offer multiple age-related versions of the same eBook. The version for younger kids could use more simple language, shorter information, and removal of any abstract ideas.
Other children’s eBooks (Figure 2) such as Kelly Stays Home (Block and Block, 2020) and King COVID and the Kids Who Cared (Rim, 2020) offer two versions of their eBooks - for ages 4–6 and 7–9. Re-interpreting the content to match the child’s comprehensibility helps them make the most of their experience with the eBook, as seen from Guernsey’s (2007) ideas on designing the media by considering the child, content, and context.
Uses as communication tool, probe or prompt
The Q-Bot eBook was used as a communication tool by some parents and teachers, such as for talking to children about small actionable steps they could take to prevent the virus from spreading. One commenter mentioned how:
[…] the book was a good visual reminder of the things I already tell my kids everyday, we talk about washing hands and social distancing, wearing our cute handmade masks when we go outside, and keeping ourselves busy with things we like, and enjoying the extra family time. Those are things they hear from me anyway and then they see it in the book too, so it’s familiar but also new.
Other eBooks such as My Name is Coronavirus (Molina, 2020) act as probes for parents or teachers to find out how the children are feeling. The book (Figure 3) allows children to select emojis to represent how they are feeling, or can draw a facial expression to share how they are feeling. eBooks can also be used as prompts for conversations, for example, the ebook titled Learn about the Coronavirus and COVID-19 by St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, prompts children to talk to others if they are feeling worried about the virus “[…] If you are worried, sad, or upset, don’t be afraid to tell someone or ask for help.”
Interactivity as time for reflection, revision and expression
While the Q-Bot book did not have any interactivity, content analysis of other eBooks on this theme reveal that opportunities for children to represent their own feelings or knowledge about COVID-19 could be a potential way to understand their thought-process. For example, St. Jude Children’s Hospital (2020) designed an activity book for children, in which they offer information about the Coronavirus and COVID-19 through infographics, coloring-sheets with images of healthy habits such as washing hands, crossword puzzles and quizzes to help revise knowledge of key terms. My Name is Coronavirus (Molina, 2020) allows children to express through drawing, writing, coloring to represent their feelings.
Of the 15 eBooks that were used for content analysis, even though all books were Covid-19 themed, the perspectives explored by authors were unique. For example, Q-Bot was designed for the purpose of facilitating conversations between children and adults (family, educators), by calling attention to actionable steps and highlighting some positive aspects of quarantine.
Another children’s eBook Kelly Stays Home (Block and Block, 2020), the authors focused on the science behind the virus, they describe their motivation to write the book came from the need to explain in-depth “[…] science behind the spread of coronavirus, how the virus causes the symptoms it does, and how vaccines contribute to herd immunity”.
Author/illustrator Jon Burgerman (2020) wrote the book Everybody Worries, which aims to normalize worries in the changed environment of quarantine, and some steps to bring those worries under control.
Wording and perception
Wording of sentences in eBooks about health or emergency situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic can become intimidating for children if not paid attention to. One teacher pointed out a part in the Q-Bot eBook where the robot recommends children not to touch their faces:
[…] I do have a child who would have nightmares after reading this, thinking that they were going to get the virus if they touched their face. And again, the language used here (and in a few other spots) almost makes Q-Bot seem like an enforcer, rather than a helper.
After this feedback, the wording was revised to be more gentle.
Individual preparation for adults
During JME with the Q-Bot ebook, some parents felt the need to be more prepared for any questions the child may have. For example, Q-Bot talks about viruses in general but does not explain the difference between a family of viruses (such as the coronavirus) and a specific virus such as COVID-19. One parent mentions:
At this point there is so much information out there, and it changes everyday. So I need to do my homework before reading something as simple as a children’s book, in case my curious kid has some questions.
The eBook by St Jude Children’s Hospital (2020) goes in-depth into the science behind COVID-19. Adults may need to use a combination of multiple books to facilitate different types of conversations around the pandemic - to cover both emotional challenges and scientific information.
Visual design and perception
Visual Design of the eBook - such as the colors, backgrounds, characters, can have an emotional response for the children. While there were several comments praising the cute and friendly design of Q-Bot, one commenter mentioned that “.he seems large for a ‘helper’ robot. (For example, on the page that says ‘Adios Corona,’ and large looming robot standing over a small child as he washes his hands seems less like a helpful, friendly robot, and more like an enforcer.” Based on this feedback, Q-Bot size was reduced in the updated version of the eBook.
Emerging design guidelines
Based on the analysis of comments on the Q-Bot eBook, and content analysis of other eBooks on this theme, some design guidelines for future work have emerged. Specifically, design guidelines for children’s educational media in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other similar situations:
design relatable, easy to comprehend and developmentally appropriate media content;
consider wording of content to deliver complex information in a gentle, non-threatening way;
add prompts for JME, such as open ended discussion questions for reflection, or collaborative activities;
consider character design to be friendly and not overpowering or enforcing;
provide additional information for adults to support their understanding and prepare them for answering any potential follow-up questions from children;
provide multiple versions of the media, to match developmentally appropriate needs of age-groups, for e.g. simpler information and easy language for younger children, and detailed information for older children;
provide a printer-friendly version of eBooks (such as with black and white outlines of art) in case families/educators would like to work with hard copies of eBooks as part of hands-on activities;
add activities that allow expression of emotions and feelings, such as choosing emojis, coloring-in and drawing-in; and
add quizzes, crossword puzzles and word associations to help revise information at self-pace.
This case study based on Q-Bot and content analysis based on other eBooks, provided an overview of usefulness, strengths, and weaknesses of using an eBook to facilitate conversations between children, families, and educators. Key findings suggest that Children’s eBooks can be an effective tool for JME, and can act as prompts, probes, or communication tools. Guidelines for designing eBooks and other children’s media to support conversations around the pandemic, emerged from analysis of existing eBooks on this theme. These guidelines can potentially help educators, authors, illustrators and researchers in designing better learning experiences for children using media.
A key challenge with this study was the limited number of comments collected over the course of 4 weeks. In the future, a larger data set could be considered. Video observations could be made of families jointly engaging with the eBook, and more detailed questions could be asked using questionnaires, to better understand success and challenges of using eBooks to support JME. A longer ethnographic study could be conducted to study how using the eBook brought about changes in healthy habits and supported emotional stability over the course of time. It is also possible to study how similar eBooks can support other forms of Quarantine, such as due to health or safety concerns. Overall, the study provided a preliminary view of the potential of eBooks in helping children navigate difficult situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine.
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This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 toward pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.