'Ready to Learn': Probing How and When Digital Learning Happens

article | February 01, 2012

As digital media and new technologies start to capture the attention of early educators, it’s important to ask: Do we know whether any of these gadgets and gaming programs actually help children learn? 

A dearth of good research makes it nearly impossible to find satisfying answers. But at least one little-known federal program – the Ready to Learn (RTL) Program funded by the U.S. Department of Education – is trying to build an evidence base so that educators can sort through what works and what doesn’t.  As ed-tech enthusiasts celebrate what they are calling the first-ever Digital Learning Day (February 1), policymakers should pay attention to this federal grant program and the research it is making possible.

Ready to Learn Television – the program’s official and hopelessly outdated name – survived the harrowing federal budget negotiations last summer and fall.  In December, Congress appropriated about $27 million for the program – nearly the same amount that it received in fiscal year 2011 minus a tiny cut that was required of most federal spending programs.  (See our recent post on FY2012 funding to see how this stacks up against other federal early ed spending.)

The continuation of funding was a relief to the researchers who worried that the program would be eliminated just as they had started to gather data in a series of new studies.  Researchers are now in the second year of a five-year project that started in late 2010.  

“This funding keeps the lights on through September 2013,” said David Lowenstein, senior director of Ready to Learn at PBS.  “This is a validation that the services that we’re providing to families and educators are a really important investment for our country to make and that we’re on the right track.”

Since the dawn of the RTL program in 1995, the winners of RTL grants have typically included a combination of public media outlets, media creators and independent researchers.   The grants enable media makers to develop television shows and interactive online games for children in preschool and the early grades (ages 2-8), requiring them to focus on building children’s school-readiness skills.

The program also requires evaluations by independent researchers who measure their impact and compare their effects on children who aren’t watching the shows or playing the games. That research component and the publication of results is a critical piece of the program, especially given that commercial media outlets that target young children do not typically distribute results of internal research on their products, if they study their impact on children’s learning at all.  Results from the 2005-2010 program showed that children, particularly those from low-income families, who watched RTL programs such as Super WHY!, Word World and The Electric Company performed better on early literacy assessments than children who had not seen the shows. (For details, see our 2009 analysis of the studies, as well as The Center for Children & Technology’s RTL site, where you can see videos showing RTL materials used in classrooms.)

The winners of the 2010 grants are tasked with focusing on the use of “transmedia,” which the Department defines on its website as “the use of television and other media such as the internet, mobile devices, games, and print in interconnected ways.”  As we noted in a roundup of digital initiatives last year, here are the three winners and the amounts of their five-year grants:

  • The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is creating immersive, 3-D literacy and numeracy games in conjunction with PBS ($71.4 million).
  • Window to the World (WTTW) Communications in Chicago, which is partnering with W!ldbrain to create mathematics content ($32.5 million); and
  • The Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network in New York, which is focusing on materials to engage dual-language learners ($30 million).

The projects are already becoming visible in local communities. At PBS, the project involves 11 local PBS stations who are working with Title I elementary schools, libraries and pre-K programs to introduce children to RTL shows and games and support teachers who may integrate the materials in their lessons.  The CPB-PBS project – which covers a wide swath of already established programming and includes “gaming suites” for shows such as Dinosaur Train, Sid the Science Kid, and The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That! – is also hoping to encourage parents to stay engaged in what their children are learning by developing a “progress tracker” that parents and educators can access online. Meanwhile, teams of evaluators at research institutions (EDC, SRI and WestEd) are preparing to gather data from between 80 and 100 preschool classrooms as part of a randomized, controlled trial to determine the impact of the project's “transmedia” products.  

The Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network is working on Project LAMP, which is building apps using characters from shows such as Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends.  And WTTW is developing a project called UMIGO (YoU Make It GO) that, according to the website, will enable children to engage in content through “multiple entry points,” including “computers, touch screen devices such as tablet computers and smart phones, print and digital books, board games and trading cards.” (The evaluator for these projects is the Michael Cohen Group.)

The data from these research projects will be valuable to educators and policymakers. Technological innovations – from  touchscreen tablets to interactive white boards – are making their way into early childhood classrooms already. Without results from the RTL research, it may only become more difficult to determine the best way to integrate digital media into children’s early learning experiences. We are still a couple of years away from seeing the results of this latest round of research, so let’s hope the program’s funding will be secured next year.

CORRECTED 2/1 at 1:32 p.m.: Due to a note-taking error, the original post included a quote from David Lowenstein saying that the funding "keeps the lights on" through December 2013, instead of the correct date of September 2013. Also, this round of the Ready to Learn program is in its second, not third, year.