Looking Back to Move Ahead: Some Reflections on 2010

by Michael H. Levine, PhD
December 22, 2010

This past year has been a difficult one for many families, especially for the nation’s most vulnerable children. By some estimates, nearly half of all young children in the U.S. are at risk of falling into poverty should their parents face more economic stress. And the litany of disturbing statistics that were released this past year — only 14 percent of African-American children are proficient readers by the 4th grade, and more than one-half of Latino youth drop out of inner-city schools, to name but two — should make all of us pause to reflect. Unfortunately, education issues took a back seat on our national agenda to historically high unemployment rates, the debate over health care reform, and the rise of the Tea Party Movement.

Lost in the maelstrom has been the need to focus fresh attention on the potential of a new educational approach to help children who are struggling learners get back on track. That is where the Cooney Center will be redoubling our efforts in 2011: We intend to do our part to ensure that all children, especially those in the “forgotten half,” have access to high quality educational media content that can promote the next generation’s healthy development and learning. Here are a few recent highlights and a brief look ahead.


Program Update
In 2010 the Center launched and advanced several of our signature programs. With help from the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) we began the Cooney Center Prizes for Excellence in Children’s Educational Media and awarded the first round of awards at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles. For the competition’s second year, we are delighted to be partnering with OSTP, E-Line Media, AMD Foundation, ESA, and Microsoft on the National STEM Video Game Competition, which aims to promote both new products to raise the bar on children’s STEM learning, but also to give children themselves the tools to create innovative new games that aid in their understanding of vital STEM concepts. Last year’s winners have had good success in the newly vibrant apps marketplace, with grand prize winner Project NOAH gaining strong financial backing and critical acclaim (see Yasser Ansar’s presentation at the 2010 Pop Tech Living Systems Salon in D.C.). Next year’s winners will be announced at an event in Washington, D.C. in mid-March 2011 — stay tuned for further details.

Our digital children’s research fund gained important new momentum this past year under the leadership of research director Dr. Lori Takeuchi and the Center’s research fellows and partners. We completed several important research reports, including a review of the media multitasking phenomenon, our own original research on mobile apps, and the launch of the center’s line of research on “the new co-viewing.” Important inter-generational prototypes of both the mobile and games-based variety that hold promise for advancing struggling readers’ skills development have been created and will be rolled out in 2011. Collaborators and important supporters of the mobile work have been the Nokia Research Lab in Palo Alto under the direction of Drs. John Shen, Mirjana Spasojevic, Tico Ballegas and Hayes Raffle. The Center’s Senior Fellow Dr. Glenda Revelle and Sesame Workhop’s VP for Digital Media Miles Ludwig have given essential direction to the work. We are also delighted to have continued our work with the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, and the University of Michigan’s School of Education and Learning Sciences, with whom we released the report Can Video Games Promote Intergenerational Play and Literacy Learning?. That project was supported by CPB and the U.S. Department of Education. Most recently, with support from PBS and the U.S. Department of Education and under the leadership of Center research staff member Dr. Cynthia Chiong and industry fellow Carly Shuler, the Center released Learning: Is there an App for That?, our first attempt to make sense of the explosion of new mobile applications that are leading parents to “pass back” their smart phone devices to younger and younger kids. We have also recently convened a research workshop on “joint media engagement” with support from the Digital Media and Learning Hub at University of California, and colleagues at the LIFE Center (Stanford, University of Washington, and Northwestern). A report of the workshop will be available this Spring.

Our newly launched professional practice and model development work focused attention on how practitioners can improve their capacity to deliver focused and effective digital learning opportunities to children in the preschool and primary grades. The work of the Digital Age Teacher Preparation Council, a task force comprised of leaders in teacher education, early childhood, public media and technology, which is supported generously by the Joyce Foundation and co-convened by the Center and Professors Linda Darling-Hammond and Brigid Barron of Stanford University is coming to a close. The council’s final report will be released in the first quarter of 2011. In addition, with generous support from Microsoft, we have launched a collaborative model design project with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, intended to help update and scale-up their Club Tech program, which now reaches children in over 3000 communities across the United States. New “Centers of Excellence” are being developed in selected cities, and the Center will help document progress and serve as a design partner for the new effort.

And finally, we have continued our Cooney Center Forums, intended to prod policymakers, philanthropy, practitioners and scholars to do business in a different, more collaborative way. The Breakthrough Learning Forum, launched one year ago at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, will focus this Spring on a new theme: Learning from Hollywood: Can Entertainment Media Ignite a New Learning Revolution? This invitation-only meeting, planned in collaboration with the USC School of Cinema, will be organized around provocative challenges and feature local and state action groups for follow-up. Stay tuned for more details about the 2011 Forum.

Cooney Center in the News
It has been a very gratifying year by way of national recognition of our work by major mass communications leaders, ranging from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CBS News, CNN, Education Week, Huffington Post, and the blogosphere. Of special note were two New York Times pieces (see “Learning by Playing” and “Growing Up Digitial, Wired for Distraction“) that cited the Center’s work as important context for the current debate over innovations in learning. To catch up on the Center’s press outreach, you can view articles here.

Staff Update
The Center has gained credibility as a “go-to” expert on young children’s digital media and learning due to its wonderful and productive staff members. This past month marked one important transition for a key leader, the Center’s Assistant Director (and second employee!) Ann My Thai. With extraordinary energy, a passion for new knowledge and an entrepreneurial spirit, Ann helped to grow the Center’s capacity in myriad ways. We are delighted that she has taken a new position in the Bay Area (where she relocated in late 2009) with Apple Inc., working on their mobile and educational strategy. A national search for her successor is now underway. We are also delighted to welcome our new Director of Web and Strategic Communications, Catherine Jhee, who was most recently at PBS’s POV, to lead our digital media and dissemination strategy. Ms. Jhee, a journalist and expert on digital technologies who has also worked on academic research, will be a strong addition to the Center team. We have also recently welcomed Dr. Rebecca Herr-Stephenson as the Center’s Research Fellow. Becky is well known to the digital media and learning community for her work on pioneering research projects under the direction of Mimi Ito, and for her own writing about diverse topics in communications, learning and digital media, including a remarkable expertise on Harry Potter! She is the lead planner with USC Annenberg School graduate student Meryl Alper on the Learning from Hollywood Forum. Becky joins Dr. Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges, who has led the centers’ work on the National STEM Video Games Competition and Digital Age Teacher Council, as well as Carly Shuler (now on maternity leave but returning in January) as part of the line of Cooney Center Fellows who have produced all of our reports under the direction of myself and Dr. Takeuchi. Finally, I leave perhaps the most important staff members who run the Cooney ship for recognition. Lili Toutounas, our administrative manager, handles all of the day-to-day running of the Center along with our colleague Caitlin Skopac, Events Manager, who has overseen much of the outreach and logistical support needed to fulfill our signature programs. Kudos to all for a most productive year.

As always, we so appreciate your spirited comments, suggestions for improving our work, and collegial support. Let’s redouble our commitment so that as the economy recovers in the year ahead, we will help find new strategies to advance education for the children and families who have struggled most. They are counting on all of us!