From Slide Projectors to Touch Screens

by Frances Nankin
May 2, 2011

Frances Nankin, Executive Producer and Editorial Director of Cyberchase, has been developing children’s media for 30 years. She is both an educator and a media producer who sees great potential in emerging media platforms to boost kids’ learning.

Cooney Center: What excites you about the potential of new technologies to support learning?

Frances Nankin: My first experience with kids’ media was when I was a first-grade teacher and there was a slide projector in the library where kids who behaved themselves could watch a presentation about colonial history. Books were the preferred classroom medium for entertaining and educational content. At home, Sesame Street was a quiet phenomenon, revolutionizing the speed at which kids were learning to read, but there wasn’t much acknowledgment or discussion in schools about what more could be done with TV as a delivery platform.

Years later, I watched kids in focus groups view early segments of Magic School Bus. I sat behind a two-way mirror with a direct view of the kids’ faces. Their eyes wide and mouths open, they were mesmerized, elbowing each other when they knew what was coming next, mouthing responses to Ms. Frizzle’s questions. “Informal education” took on new meaning as it became obvious that kids’ brains were deeply engaged by what they were seeing and hearing on the TV.

That’s old news now. For years, educational media projects have been multi-platform — TV, web and now mobile — and research is showing gratifying results in learning outcomes. A recent three-year study, based on Cyberchase, found that users of Cyberchase media showed significantly greater gains in problem-solving performance than non-users. While working on problem-solving tasks, they used a wider variety of strategies, applied them more effectively, worked well in groups, demonstrated persistence and engaged in top-down planning. (!)

As a media producer and an educator, I’m excited by this emerging “palette,” if you will, of software technology and hardware delivery platforms. A mix of these has the potential to boost learning as we find ways to embed these interactive elements into conceptually scaffolded story narrative. The story motivates active learning as it sets up a character or characters with a problem to solve. Kids lose themselves as they engage the problem, using whatever tools they’ve acquired, adopting new ones as they are presented. Using a touch screen, they even can enter the story as they manipulate layered assets, separating and sorting to think concretely about concepts like operations with numbers, geometry, data analysis, etc. They find out first hand what it is like to be a mathematician, to be a scientist, to be a writer.

We’ve come a long way from that slide projector!

Are the fields of entertainment or creative media at cross-purposes with education?

I think not, at least no more than television was at cross purposes with education back in the 50s and 60s. The hurdles we face are probably not much different than they were back then either. As producers, we still have much to learn about working with educators and researchers to create effective learning opportunities. We truly have to insist that what we are doing with creative media will have greater impact than what is already in practice. And as educators, we still have much to learn about using “creative media” in the classroom. A large part of emerging educational practice means learning to facilitate, to take a back seat as the learner takes the wheel, and we need to know more about that before we can comfortably adopt.

Frances Nankin is the Executive Producer and Editorial Director of Cyberchase. She is an Emmy award-winning producer and editor with more than 30 years experience developing multiple media educational materials for children and adults. In addition to her work with Cyberchase, she developed the Early Math section of PBS.org/Parents website. Prior to Cyberchase, she was Co-Director of Science Content for The Magic School Bus television series. She has written several science books for kids, including a textbook for Harcourt Science and an Eyes on Nature book for Kidsbooks, was the start-up editor for an American history series of books for kids (Walker and Company), two Scholastic magazines, Search and SuperScience, and was the founding editor of Cobblestone Magazine, the history magazine for kids now in its 31st year of publication.