SCE Executive Director Ryan Blitstein participated in a panel on educational standards at the Cooney Leadership Forum. Here are some raw notes of things Ryan was planning to talk about before the panel ran out of time. (Questions in italics from moderator Kevin Clark.)
• What should stand for evidence in media companies’ assertions that products have educational value?
There is a hierarchy of evidence, just like in academic research or a court of law. The basic evidence is anecdote: The average kid can tell in five minutes whether a product is engaging or not; and if it’s not engaging, the educational value is zero. The average adult can tell fairly quickly whether something is terrible or, at least, possibly useful. The levels of rigor go up from there: experts or quasi-experts (like learning sciences graduate students or chemistry teachers) can spend an hour or two with a product and review it; or they can analyze the inputs—who built this, did they use evidence-based design, or is it similar to an existing product that works well? And then there are assessments and efficacy trials, which are strongest when there are no ethical conflicts, large numbers of child users, trustworthy tests, and randomization.
• Who is responsible for helping not only students, but also teachers, afterschool providers, and parents, with media literacy skill development?
We are all responsible for helping students. The digital divide is not just an infrastructure issue; it is a knowledge and skills issue. Children who don’t become digital natives at an early age are at a huge disadvantage. If you are working with children today, you need to find a way to acquire digital media literacy skills. If you manage or spend time helping adults that work with children—from principals to pediatricians— you have a responsibility to acquire these skills, and work to find a budget to help train others in them. If you’re funding these organizations, either fund this skill development or help your grantees find another entity that can.
• Might educational (teacher/caregiver/parent) guides that could accompany apps be feasible, possible, and/or useful?
This is an idea that has been around for some time, and it does have potential. We see successful analogues in parent or teacher guides that come with children’s books, in annotated versions of classic books, or even book club questions in the back of novels. You can even do this in real time—PBS Digital, for instance, has some user interfaces for parents that actually surround the child’s content on the screen. As digital natives become adults, it will be more realistic to have digital dashboards that help parents or educators track and guide kids’ use of apps.
· How can we make evaluation of impact and a research component more feasible?
The sector needs to work to increase the demand for high-quality, research-tested products. This will incentivize companies to pay to test their products.
Until we can change the market dynamics, the organizations that can afford to pay for research need to step up. So school systems evaluate the products they use, and share the results with others. Foundations need to include more evaluation dollars in their development grants. And publishers that take corporate social responsibility seriously must incorporate more research into their product pipelines.
• What types of incentives can be offered industry to produce both entertaining and educational media?
• Are there new ways to incent “kids first content” in the apps marketplace?
- I don’t know that there are new ways, but there are plenty of methods that have worked in other markets that no one has really pushed in the digital learning media sector yet—and they can come from the public, private, or citizen sector. It’s no secret that the marketplace responds to profit potential, and the public-interest community can provide incentives all along the innovation pipeline.
- Large, ambitious prizes have been shown to drive pathbreaking innovation and surface new ideas.
- Advance market commitments—basically, aggregating demand for products with too little supply—have worked in the pharmaceuticals world.
- Foundations could use program-related investments or government could use matching grants to bring more private capital in at the commercialization stage.
- Ratings, certifications, and trustmarks (like the Good Housekeeping seal) can shift consumer buying behavior toward higher-quality products.
- And, of course, there is regulation, which when done wrong can stifle innovation, but at its best can protect children from the low-quality products that the free market sometimes produces.
Is there a role for government?
Yes, there are plenty of useful roles for government:
· Regulation, of course. If policymakers can cut outdated regulations—for instance, seat-time requirements, or curriculum regulations that favor textbooks over digital media—they can make a huge impact
· The public sector has huge amounts of money to scale up the most effective, innovative programs and practices
· Government can also invest in research and early-stage innovation that the private sector sees as too risky, and provide common platforms to build off of (such as the Internet and broadband systems)