Children’s Educational Technology: Partnerships, Products and Prototypes – Guest Post by Julie BrannonThis post originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of The Social Media Monthly. Author Julie Brannon is a marketing specialist with a focus on book apps.
People often disagree about which subjects schools should teach, but nearly everyone agrees that children must learn reading, writing and arithmetic. The United States invests considerable resources in making sure that students are learning these basic subjects, and yet schools still fall behind – especially schools with a higher percentage of lower income children.
In a 2010 report called Raising Readers: A Story of Success, published by PBS KIDS in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and funded by the United States Department of Education Ready to Learn grant (RTL), researchers report great success using digital media to teach children literacy skills. It also explains that during fourth grade (ages 9-10 years) schools begin to move from teaching children to “learn to read” to teaching children to “read to learn,” while focusing on additional subjects such as history and science. If children do not learn to read at grade level by this time, they are at a lifetime disadvantage. Researchers are finding that many children are not ready for fourth grade.
This lack of readiness has been called the “fourth grade reading slump.” (See Getting Over the Slump, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, 2008.) The Raising Readers report also states, “Fourth grade literacy rates are directly tied to high school dropout rates, which are the most cited predictors of crime, low income and reliance on social services.” The message is that students must learn these basic skills early and then they must be engaged and motivated to stay in school and continue learning. There is great hope that new programs, along with innovations in technology, can help with both.
Fortunately, there are a number of new public and private entities that have recently come together to try to change America’s falling status in global education. Some of the most visible are the partnerships being made by Sesame Workshop with software developers. The focus of many of these initiatives is to teach children literacy skills and math skills. Most of these projects are transmedia projects, meaning that they are not only multi-media – existing on various platforms – but also that the individual components support each other so that as a whole they are more powerful and richer tools for learning.
Ready to Learn
A big player in the educational technology arena is the United States Department of Education. Its five-year Ready to Learn grants support the development of not only educational television, but also digital media targeted to lower income preschool and elementary children and their teachers, parents and caregivers. These grants promote reading and math skills for early learning and school readiness. For the 2010-2015 period three Ready to Learn grants have been awarded for transmedia projects.
The first 2010 Ready to Learn grant was awarded to Callaway Digital Arts (CDA) an application (app) producer, which is partnering with the Michael Cohen Group, a children’s research group, and Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network (HITN) with a project called the LAMP (Learning Apps Media Partnership) Project. Together they are creating cross-platform properties using the existing characters from CDA’s “Miss Spider” series. It will be open source content developed for books, a website, television programs, CDs, DVDs, tablets/iPads, smartphones, game consoles, hand-held game devices, and other mobile devices. It’s a true transmedia project with the aim of closing the achievement gap. Before this initiative was announced, CDA already had great success with the charming children’s book app “Monster at the End of this Book” featuring Sesame Street’s Grover character.
The second 2010 Ready to Learn grant was awarded to Window to the World Communications, Inc. (WTTW) in Chicago to create a math learning transmedia product for at-risk low-income children ages 2-8. The company is working with the Michael Cohen Group, which recommended a partnership with Wildbrain, the children’s television developers.
WTTW is the developer of the existing television program that focuses on literacy for children called “WordWorld,” and its spinoff app, Build A Word. Wildbrain is known for its “Yo Gabba Gabba” children’s television program. Together they will create UMIGO: You Make Me Go. According to Julia Maish at WTTW11 it will be “an interactive destination that will provide kids with the digital paint, glue, blocks and other tools that will allow them not only to learn the basic principles of mathematics, but also to develop and refine their abilities to think creatively, invent and work collaboratively.” Planned transmedia platforms for UMIGO will include mobile games, a website, animated TV, music videos, books, ebooks, music, playing cards, board games, and other platform games. This project is currently in development and does not yet a have a release date.
PBS KIDS and Sesame Workshop
The third 2010 Ready to Learn grant was awarded to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) for its project called Expanded Learning Through Transmedia Content. CPB is a major funder for PBS children’s media (called PBS KIDS) as well as for Sesame Workshop (producers of “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company” children’s television programs). CPB is currently funding a wealth of children’s learning games with various properties.
According to David Lowenstein, Senior Director, Ready to Learn at PBS, the previous Ready to Learn initiative called Raising Readers showed that kids watching the Ready to Learn funded show called “Super WHY” scored 46 percent higher on standardized tests than those who didn’t watch the show. PBS Ready to Learn is building on that success with new projects. Teaming with the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of its Campaign on Grade Level Reading, the company is developing an app for low-income parents to develop their own math and early reading skills so that they will be better equipped to help get their children on a trajectory of reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
PBS KIDS has also developed an innovative iOS app featuring its “Fetch with Ruff Ruffman” television property. The app is called Fetch! Lunch Rush and is an augmented reality math skills app. In this game, Ruff Ruffman, the canine host of the television series, is on a busy film set and the player must help him keep up with all the sushi orders from the film crew. The game comes with a PDF that must be printed on paper and cut into pieces to be used as markers for the game. These paper game piece markers are placed in the real-world environment. As part of the game children search their environment and use the device camera to scan and click on the markers as a way of answering math questions and solving other puzzles.
PBS KIDS is also developing a cutting-edge 3-D rendered collaborative game featuring the Ruff Ruffman character. In this 3-D world the player helps Ruff Ruffman measure different world famous monuments like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower in order to build a virtual online golf course where they can then play mini-golf with him. Through this app children can learn measurement and basic rules of physics.
A new release called Dinosaur Train Camera Catch! is an augmented reality app for the smartphone or other pocket device that allows kids to move the device around their actual environment to “catch” flying dinosaurs of various sizes and colors. The purpose is to teach pattern recognition. The app shows a series of colors at the top of the screen and then the player must “catch,” using the device camera, the color dinosaur that would come next in the pattern. PBS warns that this game involves lots of real life spinning around and that the adults may want to leave the dizzying fun to the kids.
As part of its emphasis on co-play, PBS KIDS is also developing a two-player iPad app called Dinosaur All Aboard. In this game, the players try to fit differently sized dinosaurs in various sized train cars as they arrive at the station. It, too, involves learning measurement and spatial sense, and it can be played with other children or with parents.
Nokia & Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop is now producing a large number of its own apps as well. The company recently collaborated on a new series of apps with Nokia and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, called 100th Day of School, Big Block Party, Color Carnival, and Abby in Wonderland. These are co-reading apps for children and parents to read together while modeling effective literacy nurturing for the parents.
Scott Chambers, Senior Vice President Worldwide Media Sesame Workshop, explains the Nokia app: “Elmo prompts the child and the parent to think about what they just read. You can interact with Elmo separately but in conjunction with what is on the page behind him. The idea is not only to teach kids how to read but to teach their caregivers how to read with them so it prompts them to think about the content on the page. It prompts them to ask questions of their child about what they just read. Our approach has always been to try to not only address the children, but to engage the parents because if the parents and caregivers are engaged that’s when the kids really start to learn.”
The Electric Company
Last year, CPB and Sesame Workshop had great success with “The Electric Company” transmedia project. They took their long-running kids educational television show called “The Electric Company” and at the end of each show added an animated version of the TV show’s characters. In these new endings, the animated characters engaged in activities that left the story in a cliffhanger at the end of a two-minute feature.
“The kids then went online and were able to create their own avatar and join the animated Electric Company characters in their quest to solve whatever puzzle that they had to solve, but it was all steeped in math and literacy skill building,” Debra Sanchez, Senior Vice President, Education and Children’s Content Operations at the CPB, said. “We saw a huge uptake in the rate at which the web traffic grew as a result of kids making the connection of what kids were watching on TV and then wanted to see online…it was pretty remarkable.” David Lowenstein, Senior Director of Ready to Learn at PBS, reports that kids who went through The Electric Company summer program had significant gains with their knowledge of math vocabulary, numeric skills, and phonics skills.
PBS KIDS Lab
Another notable PBS transmedia project is PBS KIDS Lab. PBS created 77 interactive online games that it calls transmedia suites. They were built on a curriculum framework that matches a mapped system of necessary skill sets with actual games that develop a set of those skills. These are available on the PBS KIDS website, which states that every new technology is an opportunity for learning. Again, this project seeks to include parents in the process of teaching kids. The site even includes games that are not at all technological –including real-world cutting and pasting – that kids can do with their parents.
Microsoft Kinect & Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop is also partnering on projects unrelated to the Ready to Learn Grant. At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Microsoft demonstrated a prototype for a gesture-based educational game that uses the Kinect motion sensing input technology for Xbox 360 game consoles and features content from Sesame Workshop.
In the game, children will be able to move their bodies in the real world to interact with Sesame Street characters on the screen by using the Kinect game console. One CES demo showed a child throwing imaginary coconuts at the screen while Elmo counted them on the screen.
Expect to see the fruits of a Kinect and National Geographic Society partnership in the fall with Kinect Nat Geo TV. Kids will be able to interact with the Nat Geo “WILD TV” program as it turns their own living rooms into forests and transforms kids into animals for role-play games. Another CES demo showed a girl waving her arms in front of the screen to cause rainbow after-effects as she interacted with jungle animals in the game.
Qualcomm Vuforia & Sesame Workshop
In addition, Qualcomm announced a prototype of their Vuforia augmented reality playset wherein real-life toy figurines of Sesame Street characters are placed on a patterned mat.
When a tablet camera is pointed at the characters, the characters “come to life” on the tablet screen and children can interact with this augmented reality world by moving the characters on the mat.
Sesame Workshop has done some testing to see if there would be educational value in such a product and they do find that children both enjoy and learn from such a product. At this point the Qualcomm playset is just in the proof-of-concept stage, but it is an interesting glimpse into what could be a more common medium for education in the future.
Publishers of children’s content have the option of developing transmedia properties in-house but many of them are opting to partner as well with developers. Ruckus Media partnered with Scholastic last year to move some of their properties to print. The new imprint will develop single properties for digital and print as well as full transmedia properties that are likely to include film, online, gaming and other interactive formats.
Expect to see more learning apps for older students. We are sure to see more learning software and interactive textbooks such as the ones recently launched through Apple by McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The overall trend is toward more partnerships that will bring together content creators and software developers.
Regarding the future direction of Ready to Learn and PBS, Lowenstein explains:“We’ve been America’s largest classroom for more than 40 years, providing on-air, on-line, and on-the-ground content that children love and parents and educators trust. As we look ahead, we see every new technology as an opportunity for learning, and we remain committed to creating cutting-edge resources for anywhere, anytime learning. Our focus is still to serve as the bridge between the home, the school and the neighborhood, especially for underserved children. So you’ll continue to see us push hard at the frontiers of educational technology while leveraging the unique infrastructure and capacity of public television stations and their community partners to ensure that our innovative content reaches the children who need it most.”
About this guest post:
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of the Social Media Monthly and is part 1 of a 2-part series. Part two is about children’s educational technology trends and includes further excerpts from interviews with PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and others. It will appear in this blog in two weeks. For more information and to subscribe: www.thesocialmediamonthly.com
The “Teach” images in this post are very special. WNYC’s Studio 360 asked the design studio Hyperakt to rebrand the profession of teaching. They felt that images like chalkboards, apples, and the ABC’s do not do justice to the current role of teachers. Hyperakt created these magnificent images that visually capture the excitement of activating the potential that is innate in students. They chose a connect-the-dots theme in school bus yellow. Connecting dots can be found in letter tracing, games, brainstorming, maps, molecular structures and more. These images are a great visual language for expressing the important roll of teachers in education which is the key to human progress.
Julie Brannon is a marketing specialist who has twenty years of experience. She specializes in children’s book apps, educational technology, publishing, and financial marketing. She has previously worked with publishers and developers including Cambridge University Press, Disney Publishing, Pearson Education, One Hundred Robots, Adventure House Communications Group, and Noble Beast. Find her on Twitter: @Julia_Brannon
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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