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A new study evaluating the Ready To Learn initiative outlines how educational digital media will change to influence children and content producers

While digital educational media can continue to have a substantial impact on children, the size of that impact is directly proportional to a commitment to equity, according to a study examining five years of the CPB-PBS Ready to Learn Initiative, which represents $72 million in taxpayer dollars.

Interviews with 26 prominent children’s media researchers, producers, and thought leaders were conducted as part of the study.

The study reflects on the initiative’s progress over time and offers examples of how digital educational media have influenced learning.

Educational media’s new promise

When adults had easy access to and became dependent upon mobile devices, this access trickled down to children, who soon became a target market for content producers. The report notes that early learning apps grew faster than any other app category.

And when digital technologies and digital media became available, expectations about how they could be used in learning grew and became more robust.

Next page: How “developmentally appropriate” became a focal point

Bill Isler, CEO of the Fred Rogers Company and one of the interviewees in the report, said, “To me, it’s not whether or not children should be exposed to media, it’s that we should be creating quality media for children so that those parents who want to take advantage of it can make decisions based on quality and developmental appropriateness.”

The rise of “developmentally appropriate

In the span between 2010 and 2015, the terms “developmentally appropriate” and “educational” both became associated with children’s apps.

“Now, over the past five years, there’s been a growing awareness from developers that games aren’t going to be effective in supporting learning if learning science is not taken into account in the pedagogy, instruction, and sequencing of the games,” said Dr. Betsy McCarthy, Senior Research Associate at WestEd, in the study.

Though developmentally-appropriate educational apps were the goal, not all apps met high-quality standards set by various groups, such as Common Sense Media and apps produced with Ready To Learn funds.

Public media’s commitment to serve all children

Public media stations attempted to engage children in all groups, including those in low-income households, English language learners, and those with connectivity challenges.

Ready To Learn resources helped stations, though success levels varied. Still, many stations said their efforts helped them establish relationships with families and communities.

How learning outside of school changed

Learning time outside of school became a big focus, especially as mobile devices and digital media made it possible for learning to extend outside school walls and outside of typical school hours.

“Because you have mobile platforms,” said Kim Berglund, then Director of Development and Research in Early Mathematics at Stanford University, “kids don’t have to go home to engage in children’s media or be somewhere where there is a TV or a desktop.”

These anytime, anywhere technologies helped children and families access content across various settings, though concerns about screen time and overexposure remained a concern.

Changes to learning in schools

Educators’ sometimes ambivalent relationship with technology has changed, as digital media and digital educational teaching resources have improved.

Early learning technology also saw significant investments.

The report notes that economically advantaged families accustomed to using media in their home tended to demand the same digital tools be used in classrooms, causing a trickle-down effect for digital media’s integration into early learning classrooms.

However, this led to a disparity between students from economically advantaged homes who entered kindergarten and first grade with more experiences and better-developed skills than students from low-income homes.

The study also makes predictions about trends expected to continue.

1. Meaningful innovation will come from a better understanding of the languages and cultures, along with the media and technology habits, of families across the country. Many families will require additional supports and interventions to help their children learn and succeed.

2. Adult support will be a major catalyst for children’s playful learning. Adults should play a supporting role, and not a gatekeeper role, when it comes to media consumption.

3. Families will become partners in the making of new public educational media. More children and adults will engage with digital media in a creation mode instead of a more passive consumption mode.

4. Personalization will succeed only if it embraces the social nature of educational media. Learning experiences can be deeper if they include a social component.

5. Making connections to learning that is physical and outdoors will be essential. For instance, wearables will bring new possibilities to real and digital learning experiences.

6. Educational media innovations that focus on storytelling, character, and new forms of play will create powerful learning opportunities across content areas. New innovations will play a large role here.

7. Delivery systems will continue to morph and multiply, which will place an even greater emphasis on the characteristics that contribute to high-quality media experiences.

8. Media producers who rely on educators and learning scientists will be more effective at creating captivating media that also support learning. For instance, design teams might include members who have backgrounds in instructional design, child development and learning science.

The Ready to Learn initiative’s two focuses–prioritizing high-quality multi-media productions and related resources in nearly all U.S. households, and focusing on the needs of children in low-income households–make it “worthy of greater attention as a model for educational media and community engagement,” the authors wrote.

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