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The idea of using mass media for educational purposes is by no means a new one. Books, songs, games: all of these are forms of media that have served as effective educational tools for centuries. In the case of electronic media, however, many discussions of the media’s impact on children focus only on negative effects, such as the influences of violent media. However, such discussions do not, by any means, comprise the entire range of media effects. Just as negative media content can give rise to negative effects, positive media content can – and does – give rise to positive effects as well.
Educational media have been employed and studied in the context of many different settings and purposes. For example, the term infotainment typically is used to refer to “lite” educational content embedded in media that are intended primarily to entertain, whereas instructional television often refers to material produced for classroom use and entertainment-education often refers to global, media-based health initiatives.
This article reviews the topic of educational television and interactive media as tools for informal education (i.e., substantive educational content delivered primarily outside the classroom). It examines the topic from several perspectives: processes through which educational media are produced, empirical research on the impact of such media, theories to explain children’s comprehension and learning, and production features that contribute to the effectiveness of educational television programs and computer games.
Production of Educational Media
Beyond the aspects of production that are common to all media, there is a tremendous range of processes through which educational media are produced. On one end of the spectrum, some producers create media based entirely on their own creative instincts, with little or no support from educational content experts or empirical research.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the model used by production companies such as Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street) – a model that has come to be known as the CTW Model or Sesame Workshop Model. Under this model, production staff, educational content experts, and researchers collaborate closely at all stages of production. Content experts define the educational curricula that guide the project, and subsequently provide input (e.g., via review of scripts and storyboards) to ensure that the content is executed in ways that are educationally valid. Researchers inform production through an ongoing program of formative research throughout the course of development and production. For example, needs assessment research might evaluate children’s prior knowledge of and misconceptions about a topic so that the material can address these misconceptions directly. Potential character designs might be tested for appeal. Television scripts or rough cuts might be tested for comprehensibility and appeal, so that improvements can be made before the final product reaches the air. Prototypes of interactive games might be subjected to usability testing, to ensure that the interface will be easily usable by its target audience. And so on. By impacting directly on the development of material, formative research makes the voice of the target audience an integral part of the production process.
Most educational media are produced via processes that fall somewhere between these two extremes. The choice of a production model typically is determined not only by the nature of the project and educational content, but also by the corporate culture of the production company, the size of the production budget (i.e., the scope of resources that are available to support content and research), and any requirements set by broadcasters or funding agencies.
Children’s Learning from Educational Television
Decades of research have demonstrated clearly that both preschool and school-age children learn from educational television series. In contrast to the formative research mentioned earlier, these types of studies typically fall within the realm of summative research – that is, in-depth research that assesses the impact of these series on their viewers over time (often by comparing the performance of children before and after viewing, or by comparing viewers of the series to nonviewers).
Perhaps the most prominent – and certainly the most extensively researched – example of an educationally effective television series is Sesame Street. A number of major summative research studies have examined both immediate and long-term effects of Sesame Street on its viewers. Together, these studies demonstrate that extended viewing of Sesame Street produces significant immediate effects on a wide range of academic skills among preschool children (e.g., knowledge of the alphabet, vocabulary size, letter–word knowledge, math skills, sorting and classification, knowledge of shapes and body parts, relational terms, time spent reading and in educational activities, telling connected stories when pretending to read). Outside the US, comparable effects have been found for international co-productions of Sesame Street in countries such as Mexico, Turkey, Portugal, and Russia.
In addition, several longitudinal studies have found long-term effects of the US series as well; for example, preschool viewers of Sesame Street were found to be more likely to read storybooks on their own and less likely to require remedial reading instruction three years later, when they subsequently entered first or second grade. Moreover, in the longest-term study to date, even high school students who had watched more educational television – and Sesame Street in particular – as preschoolers had significantly higher grades in English, mathematics, and science in junior high or high school. They also used books more often, showed higher academic self-esteem, and placed a higher value on academic performance (see Fisch & Truglio 2001 for a review of these and other studies).
Beyond this powerful evidence for the educational effectiveness of Sesame Street, numerous other studies show that Sesame Street is not alone in helping children learn. Summative studies on other educational series for preschool and school-age children have shown that educational television can enhance children’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes in a wide variety of subject areas. These include effects of US series such as Between the Lions and The Electric Company on children’s language and literacy skills; Square One TV and Cyberchase on children’s use of mathematics and problem-solving; 3– 2 –1 Contact and Bill Nye the Science Guy on children’s understanding of science and technology; children’s news programs on knowledge of current events; and preschool series such as Blue’s Clues and Barney & Friends on more general school readiness. Consistent effects of educational television have been found in other parts of the world, too, as seen in effects of Al Manaahil (Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia) on children’s literacy; Owl TV (UK) or Australia Naturally (Australia) on knowledge of science; or Jeugdjournaal (Netherlands) on knowledge of current events. Many other examples exist (see Fisch 2004 for a review).
Children’s Learning from Interactive Media
Because interactive media are newer media than educational television, less research is currently available to evaluate their impact on children’s learning. However, some research does exist to gauge the reach of such media and their impact on users’ knowledge. Specifically, consider two aspects of interactive media: children’s use of the Internet as an informational resource, and their learning from educational computer games.
Thanks in part to nationwide efforts to wire US schools with computers, by the year 2000, nearly 90 percent of 6to 17-year-olds had physical access to computers at either home, school, or both (Newburger 2001). In the United States, national surveys have shown that as many as 94 percent of American adolescents now use the Internet to do research for school, and 71 percent report that they rely on the Internet even more than on traditional sources such as books (Pew Internet & American Life Project 2001). Similarly, an Australian survey found that the most common use of the Internet among 6 to 17-year-olds (reported by 88 percent of children) was for homework or study (NetRatings Australia Pty 2005), although only 41 percent of a Swedish sample of 9 to 16-year-olds said they usually use the Internet for homework (Medierådet 2005).
Students’ use of the Internet as an informational resource opens the opportunity for unprecedented access to material on a tremendous range of topics. Yet, students’ reliance on online information is also a matter of some concern, because much of the information posted on the Internet is not subject to the same sort of review or validation as material published in a book or newspaper. As a result, information found online may be subject to blatant inaccuracy or bias that children fail to recognize. For this reason, agencies and organizations such as the US Department of Education and the American Library Association have stressed the critical need to train children in information literacy – that is, the ability to recognize when information is needed, to find it (either online or offline), evaluate its relevance and credibility, and use it effectively. Children need to learn how to think critically about online information, weighing criteria such as its objectivity and the qualifications of its author (e.g., Alexander & Tate 1998). To date, however, no empirical research has been conducted to assess the degree to which children do so.
Educational applications of interactive technology reach beyond homework support as well. Leading scholars such as Seymour Papert (1998), Henry Jenkins (2002), and James Gee (2003) have argued that computer games provide a compelling context for children’s learning. Indeed, several empirical studies have shown that children can acquire knowledge in areas as diverse as prehistory and asthma education from playing relevant computer games (Lieberman 1999; Paquin 2002). Analyses of existing games and case studies of individual users have lent additional (albeit anecdotal) support to the view that educational games can not only motivate children but also provide a framework for exploring, and engaging with, serious academic content (e.g., Gee 2003; Squire 2004). Thus, it seems that well-designed computer games can serve as useful tools for both formal (i.e., classroom) and informal (i.e., outside the classroom) education.
In contrast to the extensive empirical research literature, there have been far fewer attempts to construct theoretical models of the cognitive processing responsible for such effects. Fisch’s capacity model has its roots in information processing theory and cognitive psychology. From this perspective, all television programs can be seen as complex audiovisual stimuli that require viewers to integrate a range of visual and auditory information in real time as they watch. Educational television programs pose even greater processing demands, because these programs typically present narrative (i.e., story) content and educational content simultaneously, so that the two must compete for the limited resources available in working memory. Thus, the model predicts that comprehension of educational content will be stronger, not only when the resource demands for processing the educational content are low, but when the resource demands for processing the narrative content are low as well.
In addition, the model argues that comprehension is affected by distance, the degree to which the educational content is tangential to the narrative (in which case the two must compete for working memory resources) or integral to it (in which case the two complement each other, so competition is reduced). Thus, comprehension of educational content typically would be stronger when the educational content is integral to the narrative than when it is tangential to it.
Like the capacity model in the context of television, Mayer & Moreno’s (2003) cognitive theory of learning from media (CTLM) approach to high-tech multimedia is also grounded in the integration of information and the limitations of working memory. In this case, however, the challenge for learners stems, not from the integration of different types of content, but from the integration of multiple streams of information. According to this model, users learning from multimedia must attend to and acquire information from multiple sensory modalities (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.), and their ability to do so is constrained by the limitations of working memory. Thus, users can select only a few bits of information to process at any given time. Moreover, working memory limitations also affect the ways in which bits of information are connected, organized, and integrated, guided by information retrieved from long-term memory. Once the learned information is integrated in the learner’s long-term memory, it can be retrieved subsequently as a schema to facilitate further learning. The use of such schemas becomes increasingly automatic with practice, thus reducing the demands of processing new information as the learner’s knowledge base expands.
Both of the above models are concerned primarily with cognitive processing that occurs immediately while children interact with media, to explain their initial comprehension of the material. However, they are not sufficient to explain longer-term effects, particularly if the eventual outcomes bear little resemblance to the educational content that was presented on television (as in, e.g., effects of preschool viewing of Sesame Street on high school performance). Huston et al.’s (2001) early learning model focuses on the long-term effects of educational media, and how such media might interact with all of the other influences in children’s lives. Under this model, three facets of early development are proposed as pathways by which long-term effects can result: (a) learning preacademic skills, particularly those related to language and literacy, (b) developing motivation and interest, and (c) acquiring behavioral patterns of attentiveness, concentration, nonaggressiveness, and absence of restlessness or distractibility. These factors contribute to early success in school, which then plays a significant role in determining children’s long-term academic trajectories (e.g., placement in higher ability groups, more attention from teachers, greater motivation to do well). In addition, these early successes may also affect the types of activities in which children choose to engage; for example, good readers may choose to read more on their own. Each of these outcomes can then result in further success over time. In this way, the model posits a cascading effect in which early exposure to educational television leads to early academic success, which in turn contributes to a long-term trajectory of success that can endure for years.
Characteristics of Effective Programs
As noted earlier, all of the above theory and research supports the fact that children learn from educational television. Yet, that is not to say that all educational television programs are equally effective, or have an equally strong impact on their audience. What causes some educational programs to be more powerful than others? Looking across research on a wide variety of educational television series, we can identify a number of features that have contributed to the effectiveness of existing series – and that producers can build into new productions to make them as educationally powerful as possible. These features include:
- engaging children via the use of appealing elements such as humor (with the caveat that children find different kinds of humor funny at different ages), mysteries, and games, among others;
- choosing age-appropriate topics (for both stories and educational content) that are inherently interesting to children and relevant to their lives;
- presenting content via age-appropriate language and at levels of difficulty that are tailored to children’s knowledge and developmental level;
- handling educational content in ways that are clear, direct, and explicit; keeping the educational content “on the plotline” – that is, making the educational content central, rather than tangential, to the narrative plotline (e.g., using a scientific principle to uncover the crucial clue that solves a mystery);
- focusing an individual episode or segment tightly on conveying a small number of ideas;
- reinforcing concepts by repeating them over the course of an episode or segment;
- drawing explicit connections among conceptually related segments, to encourage children to see how similar concepts can be applied to different problems or situations;
- using engaging or action-filled visuals, rather than static visuals or “talking heads”;
- including characters whom viewers see as competent and intelligent, and with whom they can identify;
- encouraging children to actively engage in the educational content themselves through viewer participation (e.g., during a game show, or by attempting to solve a problem before the on-screen characters solve it);
- motivating children to carry their learning forward via activities that extend the experience after viewing (e.g., by trying out hands-on experiments or activities they’ve seen on-screen, or through online games or resources that provide further opportunities for learning).
Naturally, this list is by no means exhaustive. It illustrates just a few of the many ways in which research has contributed to both researchers’ and producers’ understanding of what “works” in creating educational television programs.
Despite critics who claim (without any substantive evidence) that television destroys children’s attention spans or turns them into “zombie viewers,” research has shown that television is inherently neither good nor bad for children. Rather, the effects of a television program depend on its content. As the late researcher John Wright was fond of saying, “Marshall McLuhan appears to have been wrong. The medium is not the message. The message is the message!” (Anderson et al. 2001, 134).
Research on educational television has been invaluable in demonstrating that such programming can hold significant benefits for its viewers. On one level, of course, data on the impact of any particular series are of great interest to its production team, who want to gauge the degree to which their efforts have been successful. At the same time, evidence of children’s learning from educational television has also been critical for funding agencies interested in accountability and in the evolution of public policy regarding children’s television.
Yet, perhaps the most important impact of such research lies in its ability to inform the production of new programming. By identifying what “works” – the approaches and production techniques that contribute to the effectiveness of existing programming – research can help producers build on the most effective techniques as they create new material. When used well, research brings the voice of children into the production process, so that material can be tailored directly to the needs, interests, and abilities of the target audience. In this way, research can help to ensure that future educational television series will continue to be as appealing, age-appropriate, and educationally powerful as possible.
- Alexander, J. E., & Tate, M. A. (1999). Web wisdom: How to evaluate and create information quality on the web. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Anderson, D. R., Huston, A. C., Schmitt, K. L., Linebarger, D. L., & Wright, J. C. (2001). Early childhood television viewing and adolescent behavior. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 66(1).
- Fisch, S. M. (2000). A capacity model of children’s comprehension of educational content on television. Media Psychology, 2(1), 63 – 91.
- Fisch, S. M. (2004). Children’s learning from educational television: Sesame Street and beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Fisch, S. M., & Truglio, R. T. (eds.) (2001). “G” is for “growing”: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Huston, A. C., Anderson, D. R., Wright, J. C., Linebarger, D. L., & Schmitt, K. L. (2001). Sesame Street viewers as adolescents: The recontact study. In S. M. Fisch & R. T. Truglio (eds.), “G” is for “growing”: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 131–144.
- Jenkins, H. (2002). Game theory: How should we teach kids Newtonian physics? Simple. Play computer games. Technology Review (29 March). At https://www.technologyreview.com/s/401394/game-theory/.
- Lieberman, D. (1999). The researcher’s role in the design of children’s media and technology. In A. Druin (ed.), The design of children’s technology. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufman, pp. 73 – 97.
- Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43 –52.
- Medierådet (Swedish Media Council) (2005). Ungar & Medier 2005 [Kids & media, 2005]. Stockholm: Author.
- NetRatings Australia Pty (2005). kidsonline@home: Internet use in Australian homes. At https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/3509539.
- Newburger, E. C. (2001). Home computers and internet use in the United States: August 2000. Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, US Census Bureau.
- Papert, S. (1998). Does easy do it? Children, games, and learning. Game Developer (June), 88.
- Paquin, M. (2002). Effects of a museum interactive CD-ROM on knowledge and attitude of secondary school students in Ontario. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29, 101–111.
- Pew Internet & American Life Project (2001). The Internet and education: Findings of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Washington, DC: Author.
- Squire, K. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing Civilization III. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Indiana University School of Education, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. At https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259532960_Replaying_History_Learning_World_History_through_playing_Civilization_III.
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