The Ready to Learn Program: A Q-and-A with Shelley Pasnik

A leading researcher of educational media talks about the impact of a federal grant program now at risk
Blog Post
April 20, 2017

Last month, the Trump Administration proposed to decrease federal funding to the U.S. Department of Education by 14 percent, according to the Washington Post. This potential budget cut may negatively impact the Ready to Learn Television program, a Title IV initiative in the Every Student Succeeds Act that supports the development of research-based media that promote early learning and school readiness, particularly for children in low-income communities. (You can read more about the Ready to Learn program here.) 

In addition, the Administration proposed the elimination of federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is a Ready to Learn program grantee. If enacted, both of these federal budget cuts will limit the ability of public media organizations to serve low-income communities and provide free, widely accessible, high-quality media tools for young children and their families. 

In December, New America conducted an interview with Shelley Pasnik, director of the Center for Children & Technology and vice president of the Education Development Center (EDC). Pasnik has served as the principal investigator for multiple studies on the the impact of the Ready to Learn (RTL) program. The following interview dives into the evidence base and explores the uncertain  direction of the RTL program, as well as the future of public media research and development as a whole.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.)

Shelley Pasnik

Q: What do you think is the importance of the Ready to Learn Initiative, particularly as we move into the next Administration?

Ready to Learn has this history of asking big important questions about the role that digital media in general, and public media in particular, can play in supporting children’s healthy development. I think that’s the question that is before us as a country. [Grant programs like Ready to Learn ensure] there is a commitment to a high quality production that has underneath it a strong research base.

Q: With the release of the new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, do you think that there will be greater momentum around the shift in public opinion towards media for young children? How do you think that these new guidelines will impact the early childhood field or families?

I think recognition coming from formal bodies like the American Academy of Pediatrics is always good, but parents and their needs really need to be present in any conversation around kids and their well-being. Ideally, we would have multiple sectors working together. We’d have formal health professionals, like the pediatricians, working with educational systems, and organizations of parents.

Q: As you know well, one of the most recent Ready to Learn projects was centered on Peg + Cat, a series of media products designed for early math learning. Your research organization conducted the research on this. What are some of the most interesting findings from your Peg + Cat studies for parents, caregivers, and children? (You can learn more about Peg + Cat, here.)

Whenever you think about children’s learning it’s really important to think about the adults who are helping make that learning possible. There are organizations like the Aspen Institute that have put a name on what they call multi-generational or two-generational learning. That came out in the Peg + Cat study: it’s not simply the experience that the kids are having engaging with digital resources. It’s also the choice making that parents are doing and how they are engaging alongside of their kids.

Q: It can be very difficult for parents and caregivers to change their routines. Yet one of the findings from your study is that parents have begun to change their routines to foster more learning opportunities at home due to shows like Peg + Cat. What would you ascribe to that change in routine over time?

Change happens often because of a number of factors. One is a change in perception. Parents having the view that digital media can support learning. That’s really important. And two, having an attitude that is positive, thinking that not only can digital media support learning, but they have a role to play. And then, there is behavioral change. I think that behavioral change was supported over time [through the regular delivery of the Peg + Cat materials]. It’s not just a single event. It’s having access to high-quality materials week after week and being able to and encourage to use those materials together with their kids.

Q: When the U.S. Department of Education designed the latest iteration of the Ready to Learn program, it emphasized the use of “transmedia.” Would you please define transmedia and how it is used to foster learning?

Transmedia is the idea that you can create resources that exist in different media that support learning. In the case of public media, of course, the framework is always learning. For example, Curious George is a character and has other characters around him. He is going to behave in ways that are consistent whether he is in a book or in a videogame, or on television. The idea is that for a designer or a developer of media that producer is thinking what can each medium do. For instance, television is a powerful storytelling medium. Digital games can be a powerful interactive medium where you can get a lot of feedback. Hands-on materials have benefits as well in that you can manipulate items. You’re cutting out paper or gluing paper. It’s tactile. Transmedia has these characters and these stories that cross these different platforms and media.       

Q: Do you think that because there are so many different platforms and ways to engage with the media that that is helping to close gaps in school readiness? Is it the fact that there are more avenues to engage with these concepts?

Design always has to be thoughtful. Just having more alone isn’t sufficient to create positive learning experiences for kids. When media are thoughtfully designed to create experiences that build off of one another that can foster learning. For example, in the studies that we have done, we are really paying attention to sequencing, we’re thinking about mediation and repetition so that children and their parents cycle through experiences and then return to those same experiences. They have opportunities to practice and to transfer what they are doing in a game to a conversation.

Q: In 2010, the introduction of touchscreens changed how media programs under Ready to Learn were created. Do you think a similar transformation will take place now that virtual reality is becoming more accessible?

Possibly. Ready to Learn is a historical program. It’s lasted for several decades and it originally began as a television program. In fact, it has the word television in its formal title at the U.S. Department of Education. When touch screens became not only available, but nearly ubiquitous that was a real transformation because all of a sudden you had a very powerful learning device that traveled with you. They were tucked in parents’ backpacks and could go on bus rides. A parent could pull it out at the laundromat. With virtual reality, there is a lot of potential surrounding those technologies, but it’s yet to be seen or yet to be realized when it comes to young children, especially. There are experiments going on right now, but we don’t know what virtual reality or augmented reality will do for the human relationships that young children have with the teacher, caregiver, or parent, which is the essential component of learning for young children. It’s very relationship driven.

Q: What should researchers who are interested in engaging and creating positive learning experiences for families and children know before developing media or technology tools, like text messaging?

When designing a study, I think that it’s important not to do research to a community or to families. I recommend thinking about research in partnership with the people who are participating in the study. That comes from a foundation of respect. For example, are your instruments designed with different languages in mind? Also, thinking about, what are the sensitivities within a community?

So, coming from an outside perspective never works. It’s best to, as much as possible, be co-designers of a study. It’s not to say that researchers don’t have a certain level of training thinking about methodological rigor, but very early on in the design of the study think about how participants are going to have experience of being involved in the research.

Q: What are some key insights that researchers, like yourself, can give to practitioners concerning media in general, but specifically public media? What should early childhood providers know from the research around public media? How can we bridge the gap between what the research says and practice?

I think that it would be helpful for researchers and practitioners to have better lines of communication because it is important to make instructional decisions based on what’s good for kids and what evidence supports the decisions that a center director might be making.

Researchers haven’t always been strong in making their research findings knowable. Really opening up the lines of communication would be helpful.

Q: Should federal or state policies be written to make sure research is open and “knowable”? Or is this something to be done at the local level?

Both. I think policy also happens, sometimes, in the absence of evidence. And, I don’t think evidence needs to be partisan. It’s always good to have a strong base of evidence and from that place you make decisions about how to create more supportive learning environments, rather than making guesses. In the case of digital media, digital media can be a part of the set of tools that support learning, but simply making tech purchases in the absence of professional training and learning doesn’t make sense.

Q: How do local public media stations and their work with the community help to magnify the impact of public media?

The way that the public media system is set up is that there are national resources (there are on-air broadcasts) And then, there is another layer of local involvement. It’s local public media stations that have partnerships within individual communities (working with health clinics, housing authorities, and libraries – in other words, direct service providers and cultural institutions). All of these partners are working in concert to support families. That is very different than only relying on national distribution. The local public media stations have real relationships and they can be a trusted partner.

What public media can do is deliver high-quality media resources that sometimes are a beginning point. They get families excited about a particular topic, maybe get them trying something that they haven’t tried before. Right now, there are family workshops that are going on where parents and kids are engaging in projects side-by-side.

Q: How does public media fill in school readiness gaps, especially in communities with high-poverty rates? How can we help connect schools with public media?

Many kids who are in low-income communities where there aren’t a lot of economic resources are not in formal daycare environments. Public media is freely available in nearly every home in the United States. There is an access component. The materials are high-quality and educational. As much as possible these materials are meant to speak to both kids and the adults in their lives. One of the studies that we did took place in the home to explore that very question. What’s the value of, in this case it was watching Peg + Cat, over time? What we found was that some of the mathematical skills of kids did grow significantly compared to those kids who didn’t have the same engagement with the Peg + Cat materials. To see that level of improvement over a short period of time is quite significant.

In terms of the school connection, we know that early math is incredibly important. It is one of the best predictors of later academic success. (This is according to studies by Greg Duncan, an education researcher at the University of California at Irvine.). Unfortunately, in many school and daycare settings, there isn’t a lot of math instruction or if there is math instruction it tends to be some of the basic math skills, maybe counting or shape recognition, but it may not go beyond that. Again going back to the study on Peg + Cat, there is an emphasis on two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes. There is also an emphasis on pattern recognition and ordinal numbers (first, second, third). Some of these materials can broaden the mathematical frame which can also be important. It can also give teachers hooks to expand their mathematical repertoire.

Q: How do you think public media differs from other forms of media, like commercial media, that’s geared towards children? There is a saying that public media is the broccoli of children’s media. What are your thoughts around that?

I think public media has a real commitment to kids well-being. From a research perspective recognizing that research is a necessary component of not only the development of the products, but also the question posing that comes after. So, all of these questions of effectiveness are being posed to public media producers in the public media system, and the same just don’t exist in commercial spaces by and large. That’s not to say that there aren’t pockets of thoughtful well done media elsewhere, but having this educational space that is engaging can be quite important for the experience of the kids and the family. It’s what we have been hearing for decades. Public media is a trusted resource. And that is born out in the research that we have done. Very few families follow strict categories. Some of the early research that we do before we do an efficacy study is that we are asking families what types of media they are using, and they are engaging in commercial media and apps. But, public media can be a stand out when it comes to supporting their kids learning.
Related Topics
Ready to Learn Program