TV set

Educate Me, Television – Can TV be a positive force for education, beyond well-crafted shows?

TV set

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Marco Masoni. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of the social learning network He’s taught high school, trained teachers, designed learning platforms and previously co-founded a video sharing site (dscoop) in the pre-YouTube era. You can connect with Marco on Twitter or LinkedIn.

My kids (twin 2 ½ year olds and a 4 year old) watch a fair amount of TV, certainly more than I did when I was their ages, growing up in a household with a black and white television that barely got 5 channels. While it’s still far less than the average child watches in the U.S., I’m pretty sure that they’re getting more TV time than many of my progressive neighbors and friends in Santa Monica, California, allow their children. Does this bother me? Nope, not really.

As a household headed by two educators –I have an education startup and my wife is a public school teacher– you’d think I would be worried, if not more responsible. At the very least, my wife and I should be restricting our kids to a TV diet of Sesame Street. After all, Elmo is kind of cute in an annoying way and helps teach social skills (even though he always talks in the third person), and who can resist counting along with Count von Count!

As much as I love the smart antics of Sesame Street, I don’t feel that it’s necessary to restrict my children to watching it, alone. My earliest memories are of shows like The Wild Wild West (pre- Will Smith) and Star Trek (the Captain Kirk generation). This was many years before the age of DVRs so Sesame Street wasn’t even an option since it didn’t fit our family’s schedule. What I got out of those two shows was a weakness for westerns and sci-fi that eventually led to a love of reading, exploration and cultural diversity. Not a bad result.

Today’s kids also have a much wider selection of shows available to them, which can stimulate interesting choices on their part. For instance, my four-year old daughter surprised me recently by finding the animated series, Iron Man, through our iPad Netflix app and getting hooked on it. Before that, she had been mainly focused on the usual princess stories with the occasional dinosaur thrown in for good measure. At first, I balked at Iron Man, even though I grew up on superhero tales and still appreciate them today. Then I realized that (a) the Iron Man shows aren’t at all bad and (b) this is a terrific conduit for us to teach my daughter reading by introducing her to Iron Man comic books.

Other than straight up fun shows like Iron Man, these days there are also many more TV series that do a nice job of combining entertainment with education. Super Why, Curious George, Bubble Guppies, Yo Gabba Gabba! and Team Umizoomi, to name a few, are not only fun but they help teach important skills, such as problem solving, letter identification, vocabulary and reading comprehension. The shows are designed to elicit interaction and I can attest to the fact that my kids, who often watch them together, actually do talk back to the TV screen, in addition to engaging in the occasional on-point sidebar with each other.

All of this is to say that I’m in the camp of people who believe that TV is not the enemy. At least, not in my household. But that’s stating things as a negative. Instead of being somewhat defensive about TV viewing, what if I could positively encourage my kids to watch TV because it is a truly educational medium? What if TV became a friend and educator, not only for my family, but for households throughout the world? What if the ubiquity of TV could be turned into an educational asset?

It looks like the future might just have that in store for us. I’ve started a short, and far from exhaustive, list of interesting examples of TV as an educational medium. Feel free to add more in the comments section or disagree with me, entirely.

YouTube for Schools: Wild Wild West Tamed?

I get YouTube on my television, as many people increasingly do through their Internet connected televisions. At one point, my kids were obsessed with garbage trucks. Showing them YouTube videos, via TV, of plain old garbage trucks picking up cans of refuse and recyclables was the only way we could get them to sit still and eat. Eventually, we moved on to YouTube videos that were in Italian, since I speak Italian and am trying to get my kids to learn it, also. The problem is that finding quality, age appropriate educational videos is a grind. For some time, I had been asking myself why YouTube didn’t offer curated selections of educational videos? Enter, YouTube For Schools. They compile playlists according to topic and age level, screening out all of the inappropriate stuff, so that schools can get right to the educational content. And if you thought it was just for schools, I’ve got a little secret for you. Go to You Tube For Teachers and you’ll get access to many of the same educational videos. To get you started, here’s a playlist I found on “long vowels.”

TVTextbook: Interactive TV

For those of you who, similar to Iain Maclaren, prefer your TV education to be interactive, AT&T is partnering with TVTextbook, to wirelessly deliver interactive educational materials for grades K-12 to a device that connects to basic television sets. The initial target market is school districts but it’s not hard to see how this could be opened up to home schoolers and plain old educational TV lovers, like myself. Another advantage is that no computer or software is needed, just a TV and, of course, the TVTextbook device that includes a wireless keyboard and mouse. Since the percentage of households with TVs still exceeds the percentage with Internet connected computers, this just might help democratize educational access, assuming, of course, proper support from educators and parents.

Text2Teach: Making Education Accessible via Mobile & TV

Developing countries, like the Philippines, have also caught onto the possibilities of education delivered via TV and mobile. Major telecom company, Globe Telecom, has partnered with Nokia to pilot test a program called Text2Teach. Similar to how TVTextbook works, teachers wirelessly download educational audio and video content to a device connected to a classroom TV. They then use this to both augment and supplement their teaching, particularly in areas where they might lack subject matter expertise, such as math and science. What’s also interesting is that the students can continue their learning by accessing the same or additional materials through their mobile devices. This is particularly significant in developing countries, where mobile devices tend to be more widespread than computers and, even, televisions.

Khan TV: A Global Curriculum

As I was watching the noted education expert, Stephen Heppell, riff about learning spaces the other day, I latched onto his idea that we might be moving toward a global curriculum. In other words, instead of teaching algebra 101 using a thousand different methods, we might find it more efficient and effective to teach it in just a few ways, albeit tailored to different learners through customizable modules. The popularity of Khan Academy, which explains concepts using one easily understood (and, some say, cookie cutter) approach for all learners, seems to support the notion that education is getting globalized. If you add to the mix the delivery of Khan Academy- type videos via television, which has already started to happen, then you open up all kinds of possibilities for a global curriculum, including the rise of superstar teachers, such as Salman Khan. Already, some of the top tutors in South Korea have achieved riches and celebrity by rebroadcasting their videotaped lessons online and in classrooms.

Netflix, Blockbuster and Tablets

Has anyone else taken the time to search for educational videos available for streaming on Netflix and Blockbuster? Other than some interesting documentaries, all you find on Netflix is one video for “Homework Help” and an assortment of instructional baby videos. The same pretty much goes for Blockbuster, which doesn’t even have an “education” movie category. Unless there’s something in the works that hasn’t been pushed to production, it looks like these companies have yet to subscribe to television as a medium for streaming educational videos to millions of households. This seems especially shortsighted given that more and more of us are buying tablet computers and using them to access video content, free and subscription based. Instead of driving me to an educational video application, Netflix and Blockbuster should be trying to figure out how to hook me (and my kids) with their own educational video content.

An Education Video Startup Opportunity?

If I were an entrepreneur in the education space (who doesn’t already have a startup!), I would seriously consider doing something along the lines that I suggested over a year ago — create a series of very high caliber courses that could be streamed, for a price, to households and classrooms across the world. Better yet, I would explore the possibility of setting up a shop, like Maker Studios has for viral video entertainment, where the whole point is to help teacher-producers make quality educational videos economically. If you can make good educational videos fast and cheap, then you’ve got a real shot at, not only televising the revolution, but also turning it into a “teachable moment” video that can be broadcast via TV, throughout the world. Add social media interaction to that video broadcast and you’ve got the means to teach students everywhere about the Arab Spring or Russian Winter in something approaching real time. How cool is that?

Picture: by Pablo Gonzales Vargas

Marco Masoni is the Co-Founder and CEO of the social learning network He's taught high school, trained teachers, designed learning platforms and previously co-founded a video sharing site (dscoop) in the pre-YouTube era. You can connect with Marco on Twitter or LinkedIn.