The Wall Must Come Down

This May, a group of leaders from the creative media industries, education, research, policy, and philanthropy will come together at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Leadership Forum, where we will spend two days considering innovative ways to support young people’s learning with and through media. 


gary_gil vakinEntertainment is often considered the antithesis of education. Children go to school and learn; then they come home and “relax” or “unwind.” The dichotomy between entertaining content and educational content is presupposed — a wall of the church-and-state variety.

As we reinvent education for children of the 21st century, this wall must come down. The entertainment industry has understood the power of media for decades. When Sesame Street debuted over 40 years ago, it was hardly the only television program geared toward children. But it was a first-of-its-kind educational program for children. That – broadcast-only – is a solution that doesn’t do enough today. The media-as-entertainment industry is moving toward interactive, platform agnostic solutions – content which is available 24/7, blends the viewer’s feedback into the product, and increasingly expands to include the views and opinions of the viewer’s social circle as well.

This is natural progression which travels in tandem with advancements in technology. In today’s world, not only are children “always connected,” but they’re also expecting a very different media environment than in generations prior. No longer is media broadcast-only. There is a back-and-forth, and that back and forth is expected by the user.

Children engage with content via a cornucopia of media options at their fingertips. Video games, MP3 players, television, DVD players, movies on demand, computers, iPads, etc. are ubiquitous and are used as much as seven and a half hours a day by children. That’s as much time as they spend in school! And if we’re going to compete for the minds and attention of children, we have to be just as engaging as the other content out there.

And it will be necessary in the classroom.

At the end of February, Karen Cator, Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, announced that the Obama administration wanted to move away from paper-and-ink textbooks and toward 1s and 0s — in her words, “from a predominantly print environment to a digital one.” But she made specific effort to note that the goal is not a mere translation from paper into, say, PDF. Rather, Cator stated that the Administration wanted to take advantage of a core, inherent trait of digital tools: interactivity.

That’s the direction we’re moving in. From iPhone applications which allow child-initiated play (in an educational way!) and console-based games which are both fun and foster learning, Sesame Workshop is striving to meet the adapting needs of today’s child. We’re turning books into e-books which allow children to play with Grover, not just read his story. And we are constantly looking at new ways to get engaging, educational content on every platform in a child’s life.

But we can only do so much. We hope that those who are already in the business of producing interactive, entertaining content – Hollywood, so to speak – join us in making sure that children’s media, regardless of platform, is as educational as it is engaging.




Gary E. Knell is President and Chief Executive Officer of Sesame Workshop. Mr. Knell leads the nonprofit educational organization in its mission to create innovative, engaging content that maximizes the educational power of all media to help children reach their highest potential.

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