As the coronavirus pandemic forces schools' continued reliance on remote learning, a coalition of child advocates has accused a popular math game platform of engaging in "deceptive and unfair practices" that exacerbate inequality and do little to improve educational outcomes.
The groups are calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch a probe into the platform, Prodigy.
"Instead of being designed to get kids excited about math, Prodigy is designed to make money," explains the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Children (CCFC) in a resource about why to "say no" to the platform.
CCFC drafted the complaint (pdf) which was filed with the FTC on Friday. Other signatories include the Badass Teachers Association, Network for Public Education, and ParentsTogether Foundation.
"It's bad enough when commercial apps deliberately frustrate and manipulate children into desiring in-game purchases, but Prodigy's insidious business model is creating a new form of inequality in classrooms," said CCFC executive director Josh Golin in a statement.
"Parents are trying to make the most of the educational tools at their disposal during this unprecedented time, and many are struggling to make ends meet," said Golin. He accused Prodigy of "taking advantage of this vulnerability, and in the process, creating a clear line between the haves and have-nots in the classroom."
The FTC complaint details a range of problems with the role-playing game—targeted for users grades 1 to 8—including how learners are pressured into not staying with the free version but into buying a vastly different premium membership, which, if paid monthly, would come out to over $100 per year.
The document explains in part that many "of the most interesting and/or desirable items are only available to Premium members, regardless of how much currency a player has earned, and non-members are often shown items that they cannot access unless they purchase the membership." In addition, "Students are consistently reminded of what others are doing and purchasing and of whether they are Premium members or not," with colorful, child-friendly graphics.
While there is an in-school version, kids who have the premium membership enjoy those benefits even while playing at school. Furthermore, "Prodigy Education encourages teachers to invite students to play at home to continue their practice."
"Students playing the in-school version also receive messages like 'come back after 4 PM to spin this prize wheel' to encourage them to play additional hours on the 'home' version," the groups wrote in the complaint.
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Then there's question of increased screen time:
Prodigy is designed to promote engagement for long periods of time. Prodigy Education asserts that "[t]he longer students play, the more questions they answer. This is why engagement is key to increasing math practice." But that longer time in the game also exposes students to more advertising, and our research found that students can see up to four times more advertisements than math battles during their time in the game. As discussed below, teachers have expressed concern that oversight is necessary to limit children's time in the game.
The groups add that the platform also fails to deliver on the most fundamental issue.
"Prodigy does not instruct children on math skills in any way—it only offers practice at answering math questions," the complaint says.
The groups cite creative play expert Dr. Susan Linn, Ed. D. who has been researching Prodigy for a forthcoming cook in which she wrote:
Since I could find no research proving that Prodigy is more effective in helping kids learn math than any other technique, or that kids playing Prodigy learn to love math, I called the company's support line to ask whether they had any. They don't. I’m not surprised. There are lots of ways of helping kids learn to enjoy math—or at least experience its usefulness and its connection to their lives and activities. Depending on children's ages these could include building with blocks, conducting surveys, measuring themselves, each other and things around them, constructing models and more. In these activities working with numbers, measures, diagrams, scales, and number concepts is essential to the experience. In Prodigy, despite the fact that solving math problems is the way to win battles, math is something to be gotten through in order to have fun in the rest of the game. In fact, one message children could take from Prodigy is that math must be like medicine disguised in applesauce or pudding—so distasteful that the only palatable way to consume it is if it's immersed in something much more appealing.
CCFC board member Criscillia Benford, Ph.D. likened Prodigy to "a sugary cereal."
"All kids deserve to practice math without enduring virtual distractions designed to shame or otherwise prod them into nagging their caregivers for memberships priced high enough to break many family budgets."
—Criscillia Benford, CCFC board member"It is a highly-engaging video game filled with revenue-generating devices masquerading as tools for math practice," said Benford. "Prodigy capitalizes on the desires of caregivers and educators to support kids' achievement, and despicably monetizes kids' desire to feel admired and included by their peers."
"All kids deserve to practice math without enduring virtual distractions designed to shame or otherwise prod them into nagging their caregivers for memberships priced high enough to break many family budgets," Benford added.
CCFC has also provided parent and caretakers with a resource encouraging them to express their concerns about Prodigy with their school districts. "Your voice makes a difference in helping schools to rid themselves of programs like Prodigy that work against our kids," the group said.