Archive for November, 2009

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

[I recently learned an article I wrote late this past summer was picked up in a publication called The State of the School Market Report. Thought I’d share with my blog followers until the time when I post more interviews as promised. Stay tuned!]

Interactive whiteboards are growing in popularity with classroom teachers around the globe.

Over the summer a relative who had just completed her first year of teaching came by for a visit. She was excited to share all the news about her classroom experience. My spouse and I are both teachers so we were excited to hear her news. She’s a smart, energetic and tech savvy person who, during her last visit, shared that she had found a great teaching position in the DC area. What she didn’t know until she started was that she would be the first teacher in her school to receive an interactive whiteboard. Not only was she thrilled to use this new technology, she said her students couldn’t get enough of it.

“What was it about the whiteboard that made your kids so excited?” I asked. She responded “The kids love to get up and interact with the board. It’s really empowering. Even students that show little interest during classroom time wanted to participate.”

“Not only that, ” she continued, “I also received ‘clickers’ with my whiteboard, so I can conduct in-class polls and interactive quizzes in real time. Using the clickers with an interactive whiteboard (IWB) allows me to know who is participating and who is not. Who gets it and who doesn’t. I’m so lucky to have both pieces of technology available to me. Other teachers in the school often poke their head in to see what all the fuss is about. It’s really cool!”

Immediately I thought of that old Chinese proverb:

“Tell me and I’ll forget;
show me and I may remember;
involve me and I’ll understand.”

Could it be that interactive whiteboards have the potential to re-invent and re-invigorate education in a way never experienced before? You bet, but that journey has just begun and there’s a long road ahead.

While following a recent House of Representatives discussion on the Future of Education, I learned more about the successes of interactive whiteboards in the classroom but was surprised to find out that only 16% of classrooms in the US were using interactive whiteboards whereas 70% of UK classrooms were using the same technology. Why was the US so far behind in implementing IWBs into classrooms? This number will most definitely rise in the US, in part due to the ARRA stimulus package that recommends schools invest in interactive whiteboard technology, but still there are more issues at stake here than just universal classroom access.

This past spring, I was surprised to find many education publishers scrambling to figure out what their interactive whiteboard product response would be. They all wanted to be a player in this fast moving ed tech arena, but it felt that not enough serious thought was going into how best to use this new medium. I could hear the publishers thinking out loud; What new products should they consider making? How should they be developed? What states should they target? What relationships need to be formed? It’s clear that there’s huge opportunity here in the IWB product space, and proof could be found in many places. Testimonials from satisfied teachers, IWB visibility at this year’s NECC event, ed newspaper and magazine articles, the projected 700, 000 IWB units to be sold in 2009. However, not all IWB solutions are destined for immediate classroom success.

In the same way that there are differences between what makes a textbook successful and what makes for a great online learning experience, publishers need to pay close attention to what makes an interactive whiteboard applications succeed. Simply converting static text pages into static PDFs is not the answer. That may work for overhead projectors, but doing so turns an interactive whiteboard into a very expensive overhead projector, a huge waste of technology dollars. Instructional specialists need to exploit the opportunities presented by interactivity and student participation. Instruction changes dramatically when you make the shift from linear print or “sage on the stage” lectures to interactive engagement. The IWB products that will succeed are ones that understand this small, but very important difference. It’s a vital component that traditional editorial experts might miss.

Media expert Marshall McLuhen, father of the phrase “The medium is the message, ” quoted years ago that when communication changes as a result of new media technologies. “It is the framework which changes… not just the picture within the frame.” Publishers might easily focus to closely on the content that appears within the frame at the expense of the entire framework. Having an intimate understanding of the framework is what will lead to “frame” successes with interactive whiteboards. Until this concept becomes universally understood by creators and publishers of IWB materials, schools might easily end up purchasing products that will do little to benefit and involve students effectively. The same can be said with any new technology, not just interactive whiteboards.

So, if interactive whiteboards become commonplace in all classrooms and IWB products include meaningful interactions that students can benefit from, our education future looks bright and rosy, yes? Well, almost.

The last piece of the puzzle that will push interactive whiteboard success over the top involves teachers. The language and method of teaching in an interactive manner may prove a challenge at first for some teachers. Not because new technologies introduce technical hurdles that are too big to get over, though that can happen. The delivery of instructional content that is interactive is different. The teaching process can change when you invite student participation and interaction though IWBs. Interactive instruction can include many more two-way conversations, involving students at a deeper level of understanding than through traditional methods. This is a great opportunity, and one that needs to be supported with professional development. Those comfortable with the language of interactivity may thrive whereas teachers who are less familiar making a connection through such interactions with technology will need guidance.

I’m excited by the opportunities that lie ahead for schools that embrace interactive whiteboards. Our young relative is too. She’s eager to return to the classroom, having just accepted a new teaching position at Virginia school that has an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. “That’s fantastic!” we exclaimed! “Yes, it is, ” was her somewhat somber reply “but friends of mine who are just now accepting teaching positions in other areas the country are not so lucky. Many of them are going into schools that have yet to invest in interactive whiteboards. I can’t imagine doing that after the success I had in my own classroom.” I said not to worry. “They will have their chance. This is a change that is moving quickly. If they don’t have whiteboards available this year, I’m betting they will soon, and I’m sure the IWB hardware and software solutions are certain to be even better next year.”

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 297 user reviews.

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Gary Knell,  Sesame Workshop CEO & President

In the last week of October, I was invited to participate in a conference that was held at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA called Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age. While I was at the event I had the opportunity to interview a number of thought leaders involved in the world of technology and learning. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, I thought it fitting to begin with an interview I had with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop. The following is a transcription of our discussion. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity. Stay tuned for more interviews in the coming days and weeks.


When looking at expanding into other mediums, how will you apply the Sesame philosophy?

In terms of metrics, do you see Sesame’s on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Is it more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air?

In regards to testifying on Capitol Hill about the Children’s Television Act, what outcome are you looking for?

Do we need the Children’s Television Act for other media formats?

What is the Cooney Prize?


Scott Traylor: Congratulations on the upcoming 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. It’s amazing to think how far the Sesame Street show has come, a show that is often called the “educational television standard.” When you look at expanding into other mediums, how do you think you will be applying that same Sesame philosophy?

Gary Knell: Well the show was invented 40 years ago and has now won more Emmy Awards than any television show in history. Recently we were awarded the lifetime achievement award at the Emmy’s with a standing ovation from, I think, everyone who ever worked in daytime television. But we know today that children are using applications that weren’t invented back when we started the show, and media and technology is getting faster, smaller, and cheaper. So it’s a world of on demand media, portability, those are places that we have to be because those are the access points to where kids are going to find Sesame Street. This was the first year we have ever seen more people and more children access Sesame Street content off television than on television. That’s through video on demand, that’s through iTunes, that’s through YouTube, that’s through our website. It’s through all of the different ways in which we are spreading our content now because that’s where the audience is going. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: So if you were just looking at the metrics of how viewers are watching Sesame Street, you see on air numbers going down and online numbers going up?

Knell: Well I think you’re generally seeing that across television, and certainly network television and PBS is no exception to that because there are a couple of things happening. Sesame Street was one of two preschool shows in 1988. Today there are 54 preschool shows on television. If you just look at market share, you’re not going to have the same market share today that you did 20 years ago. But more importantly, kids and parents are just accessing media differently today. For example, I was just chatting with someone at the University of California here who told me about her daughter who does not watch television but when she sees mom on her laptop, sits down in her lap and says, “Can we watch Elmo for ten minutes?” And I think that’s what’s happening now. I think you’re finding parents who are trying to have more of a control over their child’s viewing habits and behaviors. The TV becomes less of an available babysitter. Interactive technologies give us all the ability to have a more vibrant, richer learning experience than one-way television. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Do you think it’s more challenging today for creators of younger children’s content to be on air? In part I look at the example of Viacom recently folding the popular preschool channel Noggin into Nick Jr. I see this move as something that’s a detriment to the entire preschool space. It’s too bad there aren’t more outlets like that.

Knell: Yeah, I think there were a combination of factors to that decision which may have had to do mostly with branding, as well as the economics of children’s programming, because there are 54 shows, so I think Nickelodeon probably made the decision that, well, we need to be under this umbrella because it will attract more people to watch our programs. But I agree with you. I think we have to have some safe spaces for children, where moms and dads can leave their kids in a place where they’re not going to be marketed to, where they’re going to be safe from commercial messaging, and it’s a place where kids are going to have a learning experience. Because we do know, even with the youngest kids, that television teaches. As Joan Ganz Cooney always says, “It’s not whether television teaches, it’s what does it teach.” So we’ve got to be in those spaces today just as we were in 1969. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Related to those safe spaces for children, I know earlier this summer you were testifying on Capitol Hill in front of Congress about the Children’s Television Act, a bill that a major children’s media advocate, Peggy Charren, was able to see turn into law many years ago. Could you talk a little bit about your latest efforts and what you hope will be achieved?

Knell: Let’s think about how the world of media has changed in the last 20 years. The Internet did not exist 20 years ago, at least in its popular format. What we were trying to urge senators to do was to take a fresh look at this. Maybe the rules about having three hours of educational television on every broadcast station are sort of irrelevant today. I mean most kids don’t know what NBC is necessarily, or channel 9 versus channel 12. It’s really about shows that they’re watching or their platforms online. And I think you’ve got to redefine the space in terms of protecting children’s health and promoting education. So we were trying to promote the idea that there’s a real gap in educational programming today, especially for 6 to 9 year olds, in fact, a bigger gap than there is for preschoolers. The other thing is to make sure that children’s health and welfare are being taken into account. Things like childhood obesity, which have exploded in America over the last decade, in part, many people feel, because of the commercial messages targeting kids with foods that are less than healthy. These are things we were trying to urge Congress to take a fresh look back, 20 years after the initial act, which has become a little bit irrelevant if you go back and look at it. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: One might argue that it’s a bit of a challenge to think about the mindset of Children’s Television Act and applying it online or in other kinds of digital media delivery systems, that in principal it’s a great place to go, but in order to get everyone on the same page to try to implement it across numerous online media outlets, there’s a real challenge there.

Knell: It’s true. Although, you know, children’s content platforms are still children’s content platforms. And so you have these iconic characters who have a huge influence over children. When a major character on some channel is promoting double cheeseburgers, it has a big influence on a child’s behavior. It doesn’t really matter what the distribution platform happens to be. You’re looking at the use of licensed characters to promote unhealthy lifestyles. And those are the things that those of us who care about children’s health need to do something about, and that’s what we’re focusing on, along with a lot of other people. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: During the Breakthrough Learning event held at Google recently, you announced the Cooney Prize. Could you share a little bit about what you hope it will spark in the years ahead?

Gary Knell: Well we feel that we’re just beginning to unleash the power of digital media in learning applications. There are a lot of people talking about it. This is a way to specifically bring attention to 6 to 9 year olds, which the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is focused on, and try to promote digital learning for literacy using online platforms and also, specifically, mobile learning platforms. The iPod Touch, for example, could be a very powerful learning platform, without the cell phone component. And being able to connect kids to content in unique ways who otherwise disengage from learning could be a way that reaches them more directly. What we’re trying to do is spur innovation by having a prize contest. We will be giving cash awards to the most innovative people who come forward with the most innovative ideas. We hope this contest will spur innovation. We hope that these ideas can be incubated to go to market, and frankly, we hope that other people will copy this. We want to start a movement in which we challenge the conventional wisdom in the gaming community, for instance, that education can’t sell. This is the same challenge that Joan Cooney had before the launch of Sesame Street when she was told that education can’t sell on television. Well we certainly know that is not the case. You now have 54 shows on air, you have six competing networks, and all of this started because of a dinner party in Manhattan decades ago, when two people got together and thought about the idea of using television to teach children something, something more than showing them sugared cereal commercials. And look what happened. Now fast forward to 2009, we think we can spark a similar outcome. What we want to do is jump start this idea a little bit through these awards. (Return to Question Picker)

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 192 user reviews.

Friday, November 6th, 2009

‘Tis the season for a whole new crop of toys to find its way into your home. I’ve noticed that a number of “must have” toy lists have been announced in the past few weeks. These lists include:

I thought it would be interesting to see what could be learned by mashing together all of these lists. After doing so, a few trends did make themselves apparent. From this new mashup list of 44 toys, I could see:

  • a little more than half of the toys are technology-based
  • a little less than a quarter of this list uses well known branded characters
  • four of the toys cited involve some sort of virtual world along with a tangible toy (Dora’s Explorer Girls, Littlest Pet Shop Adoption Center, Liv Dolls, Nanovor Nanoscope)
  • only two toys on the list could be considered educational (Color Me a Song, Zippity Learning System)
  • two toys on the list are video games (Beatles Rock Band, Wii Sports Resort)

I also found that three toys in my mashup list were recommended on three out of the four separate toy lists:

Toy Maker Age Cost FunFare Kmart Time 2 Play Toys R Us
Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid Spin Master 5+ $39.99 * * *
Nerf N-Strike Raider Rapid Fire CS 35 Hasbro 6+ $29.99 * * *
Zhu Zhu Pets Cepia 4+ $9.99 * * *

Bakugan 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid is a toy that folds up, expands, and connects to build a much larger toy. This toy feels a bit like a mashup itself between Transformers and Pokemon. From what I’ve heard from classroom teachers, many 8 year old boys are buzzing about this product.

The Nerf Strike Raider is a full sized, automatic toy machine gun and looks pretty threatening. The Nerf line is a very popular toy product for Hasbro, but I wish that toy guns didn’t make it to the list!

Zhu Zhu Pets are little robotic hamsters that react in some way, with noise or motion, when you touch them. These critters can be sent to live in a super hampster wonderland, similar to the real world animal Habitrail concept, complete with its own hampster ball. This product is just a little misleading. The price of the pet itself is really affordable! What parents will most likely miss is that if you buy the pet, they will also end up spending a fortune on all the accessories. None-the-less, I think this toy will be the hot product for kids under the age of 10, if you can find it. It already looks like stores are already all sold out of this product.

This next list below includes toys found on two of the four lists:

Toy Maker Age Cost FunFare Kmart Time 2 Play Toys R Us
ChixOs Design-A-Luxury Loft Spin Master 4+ $29.99 * *
Crayola Crayon Town Wild Planet 3+ $9.99 * *
Disney NetPal Disney/ASUS 6+ $349.99 * *
Girl Gourmet Sweets Candy Jewelry Factory Jakks Pacific 8+ $29.99 * *
Laugh & Learn Learning Farm Fisher-Price 6m – 36m $79.99 * *
Printies Design Studio Techno Source 6+ $19.99 * *
Transformers Constructicon Devastator Hasbro 5+ $99.99 * *

The toy I think will be a big seller from this list is the Girl Gourmet Sweets Candy Jewelry Factory by Jakks Pacific. It’s a little like the old Easy Bake Oven, but instead of making baked goods, it makes candy jewelry. The catch to be aware of with this product is that it does not come with the special 40 watt bulb you need to make the product work. It has to be purchased separately.

I’m also watching the Printies Design Studio by Techno Source. This is a clever product where a child can create all kinds of unique crafts using a specially prepared (and pre-perfed) paper that your child can design, print, cut out, and then stuff with cotton. It uses low end color printers, like the kind you most people have at home.

Some surprises? First, I was surprised to see the LeapFrog TAG & TAG Jr. reading systems did not make it onto any list. Once I realized that LeapFrog was missing from the list I then noted that not a single toy from VTech was on the list either. Maybe just a bad year for electronic learning products? Also, WowWee, the amazing robotic toy experts did not have a single mention as well. The Nintendo DS and DSi were not on the list either, but that may be more of an issue with toy experts not specializing in reviewing software and gaming platforms than anything else.

I was also surprised not to see more website toy tie ins on the list. There certainly are a number of them out there, but not so many captured on these more traditional toy lists.

If you are interested in my complete mashup toy list, you can download a copy as an Excel file here. Note the tabs on the bottom of the spreadsheet, I have arranged the list by product, age, cost, etc.

Let me know if you see any other trends. I’d enjoy hearing what toys are on the top of your list!

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 156 user reviews.