Educational media content refers to mediated messages designed to teach or provide opportunities for learning. The nature of mediated education varies greatly, ranging from formal curriculum-based message systems designed for classroom consumption to informal or pro-social media messages with the potential for producing incidental learning or pro-social change.
Brief History of Educational Media Content
Education has been an important goal and function of print media from their earliest formulations. Whether the words and other significant instructional symbols were carved into clay or writ onto papyrus or vellum, many of the earliest extant media message systems were educational in nature, with contents ranging from an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh’s instructional manual on effective communication (McCroskey & Richmond 1996) to canons of early religious communities (e.g., Bible, Torah, Koran), which were employed both to help convert unbelievers and to instruct the converted.
Even today, print media in the form of textbooks, reference books, scholarly monographs, scholarly and professional journals, educational magazines, newsletters, and other educational media are an invaluable portion of the lesson plans for teachers from primary school through postgraduate education, and they are a major source of revenue for publishing conglomerates worldwide.
The story is similar for the place of education and instruction in the history of film, although the transition from the celluloid medium to diverse forms of electronic educational media is more complete than for its print cousins. The initial function of early films was largely entertainment, as is the case for current manifestations of this emotionally powerful medium. However, educational and instructional films were a vital part of the midlife of this medium, and 16-mm film projectors are gathering dust in the media centers of schoolhouses around the globe.
Educational radio began when, in 1922, the British Broadcasting Company (later the British Broadcasting Corporation) was formed under the leadership of John Reith to enable independent British broadcasters to utilize wireless communication to educate, inform, and entertain all British citizens, free from political interference and commercial pressure. In part, the educational philosophy of the BBC was a reaction to the frontier mentality of America’s unregulated commercial radio, which dominated to Britain’s west, and the Soviet Union’s state-controlled authoritarian system, which held sway to their east (History of the BBC 2006). With this development, electronic education via media began. In 1924, the BBC initiated its first national educational broadcasts to schools, supplementing home educational services via wireless. By the late 1930s, the BBC’s educational broadcasts were regularly heard in more than 8,000 schools (History of the BBC 2006). This established a legacy of the centrality of education in publicservice broadcasting, a model that would be emulated and extended in countries around the world (Public Broadcasting 2006). Even into the twenty-first century, educational radio is an important part of the media landscape in many locales, although the delivery of educational radio today is as likely to be via the Internet or satellite as from traditional broadcasts.
Unlike educational radio, many of the historically significant developments in educational television were initiated in the US. The development of educational television was greatly facilitated by a television station license “freeze” in the US between 1948 and 1952, during which time the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) paused from a period of frenzied development in television’s early history to engage in a number of important deliberations that would ultimately shape the future of educational television in the US and, to a lesser extent, worldwide. The concept of educational television programming was extremely controversial at this time. Commercial broadcasters claimed that the reservation of noncommercial channels was not necessary, because their programs already served the educational needs of the audience. Such an industry view had prevailed during the discussion of public radio leading up to the US Communications Act of 1934.
An important voice crying in this electronic wilderness played a pivotal role in shifting the ground rules for television away from radio’s prevailing model of pure commercialism. Frieda B. Hennock, the first woman FCC Commissioner, argued eloquently and forcefully that 10 percent of television channels should be reserved for educational television. Thanks to an effective public-communication campaign initiated by Commissioner Hennock, when the FCC issued its Sixth Report and Order in April 1952, the license allocation plan included 242 specific channel reservations for nonprofit educational licenses.
The evolution of educational and informational programming – defined by the FCC in 1996 as “any television programming that furthers the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including children’s intellectual/ cognitive or social/emotional needs” – has evolved rather dramatically from the 1950s to the present, and the models developed in the US greatly influenced educational programming around the globe.
The 1950s saw major developments in both computing and telecommunications, which fused to inaugurate the information age by digital media that was to truly revolutionize the role and form of educational media. The introduction of educational videos and DVDs, the maturing of distance education, and the explosion of video and computer games, as well as the remarkable diffusion and adoption of the Internet as a vehicle for teaching / learning, have created an educational media landscape that is undergoing remarkably rapid evolution and reformulation.
Educational Television Content
Trend-Setting Educational Programming in The US
In considering educational media content, our emphasis will be on electronic media. During the 1950s and early 1960s, as educational television stations struggled through a formative period in the US, most of the educational programs introduced for children featured adult “talking heads,” adult characters interacting with child audiences in a television studio, assorted puppet shows, make-believe vignettes, and other relatively primitive means of instruction and edification. Targeted narrative children’s programming, such as Friendly Giant and Tales of Poindexter, did not occupy a large percentage of programming time on these educational stations, and the programs of this type that were presented were typically low-budget productions. Moreover, new forms and formats for educational television were not given much consideration on the emerging state-and national educational-programming networks.
Because many leading educators, as well as parent opinion leaders, were not very satisfied with these early programming developments for children, the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic organizations not only supported capital facility grants to community and educational organizations, which helped dramatically expand the number of educational stations, they joined with federal education agencies to support a number of remarkable programming initiatives during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. As a result, a number of innovative and popular programs were developed and broadcast domestically and internationally, including the perennially popular and educationally effective Sesame Street, developed by the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now Sesame Workshop).
CTW programming revolutionized children’s educational television, in part because CTW President Joan Ganz Cooney developed an innovative program-development model that brought together producers, educational advisors, and researchers to create innovative and effective educational programming. Not only did the CTW team fuse previously independent forces, they programmed for the developmental level of their programs’ targeted audiences, and they harnessed the formal features of the television medium to meet specific instructional goals, while also addressing critical societal needs, such as getting young children reading for school (e.g., Sesame Street), improving the reading skills of school-aged children (e.g., The Electric Company), and guiding girls toward career interests in science (e.g., 3 –2–1 Contact).
Other programming and production companies successfully imitated the program development and production model of CTW and launched other noteworthy programs like Freestyle and Vegetable Soup, essentially turning the late 1960s and the 1970s into the first golden age of children’s educational television. This period also featured the evolution of programming from “educational” to “public” (or “public service”) television, which culminated in the US Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
The 1980s were to witness a setback in educational programming in the US, because of President Ronald Reagan’s “marketplace approach” to broadcast regulation. Specifically, the FCC no longer required stations or networks to broadcast children’s programming. Only financially secure and extremely popular children’s programs, such as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, were to survive in the era of Reaganomics.
Three developments revived children’s educational programming efforts in the US during the 1990s and through the portals of the twenty-first century. The first was the Children’s Television Act of 1990, through which Congress took a stand to advocate children’s rights to receive educational and instructional programming. The second was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which reinforced and strengthened the tenets that children’s educational programming was a “public good” and specified particular guidelines for broadcasters to follow regarding educational television. The third was the increased advocacy of parents, caregivers, and child advocates, which led cable and satellite programming channels like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel to effectively create and market curriculum-based programming that could and would be educationally valid and commercially successful domestically and worldwide in the new era of narrowcasting and highly targeted programming.
Educational Television Outside of The US
It is difficult to examine educational television, especially children’s educational programming, without focusing on the US. Not only have most of the dominant educational programming developments worldwide been derived from US formats and models, many of the most popular children’s educational programs in other countries are co-productions with US agencies and corporations like PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney. Moreover, other successful educational television-program production and distribution houses with a worldwide reach, such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Television, are based in the US. Finally, many television programming organizations and networks located outside of the US that have a stated focus on children’s and educational programming, such as TV Ontario, still telecast more educational programs from US providers than they produce and distribute themselves.
Given these caveats, most countries with any sort of public-service broadcasting initiative have created their own educational and children’s programs, and many are successful educationally, financially, and in terms of quality. Perhaps the best way to highlight this claim is to profile the programs that won the Prix Jeunesse International awards in 2006. Prix Jeunesse is a foundation that was established in 1964, whose primary aim is to improve television for children and adolescents worldwide, and it has proven to be a major force for cultural diversity internationally (Kleeman 2001). The winners of the 2006 Prix Jeunesse competition included A Slippery Tale (Germany), “a heartbreaking story about a frog who falls in love with a slipper”; Eva’s Winterplaster (Sweden), “which tells the story of the journey of the poo”; The Scepter (Poland), “a wonderful story about a magic branch and the ups and downs of friendship”; Amigo (Denmark), “an extraordinary, fine-produced game-show for children in which the studio audience can’t stop laughing”; and Stark! Kevin – Hear Me Out (Germany), “a very moving and touching story about a boy who wants to overcome his stuttering.” Runner-up awards went to programs produced in the US, UK, Japan, Estonia, Canada, India, South Korea, Venezuela, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Jerusalem (Prix Jeunesse International 2006). The diversity of topics and countries of origin provides evidence that quality educational and children’s programming is being produced around the world.
More general examples of advancements in children’s educational television abound worldwide. For example, in 1997 the German public broadcasting stations founded the KinderKanal (or “KiKa” – the “children’s channel”), a channel devoted exclusively to programs for children, including educational programs. The founding of this channel was an explicit reaction to the introduction of commercial television in Germany.
Research Evidence On the Content Of Educational Television
Very few studies have systematically examined the content of educational television. In examining the three most popular children’s educational television programs of the 1970s – Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and The Electric Company – and comparing them with the perennially popular commercial children’s program Captain Kangaroo, Bryant et al. (1979) determined that the quantity of formal education content in the programs varied widely.
Because little or no molar evidence is available to complement such molecular examinations of the content of educational television, a systematic examination of one composite week’s programming was developed by compiling the program schedules of six PBS affiliates in the US, thereby creating a normative public television program schedule. When this composite week’s programming was categorized by target audience (children, general audience), it was found that an average of 11.5 hours of programming per day was devoted to children or adolescents, and an average of 12.5 hours was dedicated to general audience programming. Using a very general content-categorization scheme, it was found that approximately 2 hours per day were devoted to formal education (e.g., GED preparation), 11.5 hours to children’s education/information (Educational/Informational, or E/I, e.g., Arthur), 3 hours to general audience news and public affairs (e.g., The Newshour), 3.5 hours to general audience E/I programming (e.g., This Old House), and the remaining 4 hours to general audience entertainment (e.g., Mystery) and/or special programming associated with fundraising (e.g., Celtic Women), or to on-air fundraising per se.
With the passage of the US Children’s Television Act of 1990 and the US Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress strongly encouraged commercial broadcasters to join public broadcasters in increasing the quantity and quality of educational children’s television programs. Specifically, the FCC indicated that commercial broadcasters who wanted to have their license renewal applications expedited must air three hours of core educational programming each week; this is therefore commonly known as the “ThreeHour Rule.”
The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a series of investigations into the impact of this legislation on the quantity and quality of television programming specifically designed for children. Among their abundant research findings were: educational programming appearing on commercial stations that was designed for preschoolers was sparse, but typically not very enriching, and programming for teens had increased in quantity but decreased in quality since the three-hour rule had taken effect; taken as a whole, 77 percent of the E/I episodes were judged to be educationally sound, but 23 percent were judged to be “minimally educational”; and many parents remained unaware of the existence or educational intent of E/I programs (Jordan 2000).
Educational Videos and DVDs, Computer Software, And Video Games
The twenty-first century has witnessed an explosion in electronic educational media, including media with quality production values that target preschoolers and are designed for home use. With names like “Baby Einstein” (video/DVD series), “JumpStart Baby” (computer programs), “V.Smile” (toddler-friendly video game console), “InteracTV” (interactive DVD series), and “Leapster” (hand-held video game systems), these new media products and platforms are specifically designed for very young children and targeted to their “upwardly educational” parents. Moreover, their promotion is typically accompanied by claims that the usage of these products will improve or accelerate children’s cognitive development. For example, 16 computer software titles for children between one and two years were listed on Amazon.com in June 2005; all 16 made educational claims, as did all of the top 20 best-selling products for two-year olds (Garrison & Christakis 2005).
The use of such products by young children typically countervails the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations that babies under age two have no screen time whatsoever, and that other preschoolers have no more than two hours per day of screen time.
Because of this potential developmental problem, and because of rather hyperbolic claims made in the advertising and promotion of some of these products, the Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a report to investigate these so-called educational media. Garrison and Christakis’s (2005) research found that educational claims for these juvenile media products were exceedingly common. However, no published studies on any of the products examined were found, nor could the authors find any more general peerreviewed studies on the cognitive benefits of using any educational videos, computer software programs, or video games for children under six years. In other words, the results of the study were caveat emptor.
The Reality of Convergence in Educational Media Content
In reality, as the twenty-first century unfolds, rarely is it valid to consider one educational medium in isolation, because convergence has produced an amalgamation of educational media message systems of all types, typically anchored on the backbone of the Internet. As one example, consider the BBC Learning homepage (bbc.co.uk /learning/). Obviously the BBC has long presented educational radio and television programs. Today, those are merely the most public face of what the BBC Learning homepage provides access to. A click on “Course Searches” grants users access to almost any conceivable course for adult learning, delivered in almost any way imaginable; moreover, a related link labeled “Course Materials” lets those who do sign up for a course order instructional supplies, including textbooks, with a very few clicks of the mouse. Learning-success case studies are available for users to model under “Ready to Learn,” and “Learning Zone” grants access to BBC 2’s record and play services. “Spherox” provides access to an engaging educational game; “Ma France” enables you to brush up on French; “RaW Quick Reads” gives you access to the first chapter of a book; “Computer Tutor” is self-explanatory and excellent; “Hotcourses” lets you find courses anywhere within the UK, from beginners to postgraduate; and “BBC Training” links to free TV and radio courses for those who want a career in broadcasting. Seemingly appealing to the rebels among users, “State of Debate” provides a game that lets you use your English skills to get around immigration laws.
The “Children’s Learning” page offers abundant stimulation and education for children of all ages. “BBC Jam” is an interactive learning service for 5 to 16-year-olds; 5 to 7-yearolds are encouraged to tour the world with “Barnaby Bear”; 6 to 12-year-olds interested in art activities (with downloads galore) are invited to visit “CBBC – Art”; if 5 to 11-yearolds want interactive science experiments, they are invited to click on “Science Clips.” On the same page, “Curriculum Online” helps teachers find multimedia resources, and “National Geographic for Kids” offers pictures, maps, and articles to help with geography homework. These examples account for fewer than half of the resources available on this one web page to help children learn and give them an opportunity to love learning.
Convergence has enabled educational media to provide worlds previously unavailable and even unknown to those who would learn. We can only hope that the world’s young citizens are open to these educational possibilities.
- Bryant, J., Hezel, R., & Zillmann, D. (1979). Humor in children’s educational television. Communication Education, 28, 49 –59.
- Garrison, M. M., & Christakis, D. A. (2005). A teacher in the living room? Educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation.
- History of the BBC (2006). At https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc.
- Jordan, A. B. (2000). Is the three-hour rule living up to its potential? An analysis of educational television for children in the 1999/2000 broadcast season. Philadelphia: The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
- Kleeman, D. W. (2001). Prix Jeunesse as a force for cultural diversity. In D. G. Singer & J. L. Singer (eds.), Handbook of children and the media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 521–531.
- McCroskey, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1996). Human communication theory and research: Traditions and models. In M. B. Salwen & D. W. Stacks (eds.), An integrated approach to communication theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 233 –242.
- Prix Jeunesse International (October 4, 2006). At https://prixjeunesse.de/.
- Public Broadcasting (2006). At https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_broadcasting.
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