Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Can Big Bird and Elmo Boost Social-Emotional Learning?

(Market Brief) - One of the biggest companies in the school market, McGraw-Hill Education, has forged an arrangement with the creator of Sesame Street to deliver social-emotional learning and literacy content to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students.

The deal, announced this week, will integrate videos and lessons from Sesame Workshop within McGraw-Hill Education’s Wonders literacy program.

McGraw-Hill officials say the pre-K curriculum is under development, and the K-5 resources will become available during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit media and education organization known for creating the iconic TV show Sesame Street, familiar to generations of children and parents. In a statement, McGraw-Hill and Sesame officials said the new deal “marks an unprecedented level of involvement for Sesame Workshop in the formal learning curriculum-development process.”

The new curriculum infused with Sesame videos and characters will be available only to families in districts that have purchased McGraw-Hill Education’s Wonders program, the latter company said.

Families in school districts that have the program will be able to use the at-home components at no cost, added McGraw-Hill.

Social-emotional learning has seen a huge surge in interest in the nation’s schools over the past few years, and private-sector companies are scrambling to create products to meet that demand.

Many K-12 administrators and advocates see the potential to improve students’ well-being and academic performance by cultivating students’ holistic skills in areas like self-management, communication, and resiliency.

A lot of questions remain, however, about the research surrounding specific classroom strategies and products, and the role that technology should play in schools’ assessments of students’ social-emotional needs.

“Collaborating with Sesame Workshop represents a unique opportunity to work with a pioneer in educational media and social-emotional learning content for young learners,” said Marty Lange, the senior vice president and chief product and operating officer for the school group of McGraw-Hill Education, in a joint statement released by the organizations.

The new arrangement holds the potential for “improving learning outcomes and transforming the school-to-home learning experience,” he added.

Iconic Brand

Sesame Workshop has made previous business arrangements with commercial and nonprofit providers, such as Teachstone LLC and Success for All, among others.

The organization’s vice president and education publisher, Akimi Gibson, said in an e-mail to Education Week that the new deal offers the potential for Sesame Workshop to deliver its content to new audiences, in new formats.

“Throughout Sesame’s fifty-year history, we’ve used the power of media to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder,” she said. “Bringing our proven content into the formal education space on such a large scale—together with an industry-leading partner—will help us extend that impact.”

The content will come to students and families in a variety of forms, in both English and Spanish. The organizations will deliver videos and lessons featuring familiar Sesame Street characters such as Big Bird, Elmo, and Cookie Monster, with content designed to connect literacy skills and social-emotional learning. There will be weekly newsletters for parents designed to help them forge at-home activities around the content, and teacher resources to help educators connect social-emotional learning to situations drawn from daily life.

While bringing valuable educational content to new audiences is always desirable, it remains to be seen if the resources delivered through the just-announced deal will meet that standard for quality, said Warren Buckleitner, the editor and founder of Children’s Technology Review.

Buckleitner said it was disappointing to see Sesame Workshop engage in commercial partnerships, which he fears erodes its nonprofit mission. He was also not convinced that business deals were bringing tangible benefits to the content delivered by Sesame Workshop to families, particularly if the resources are embedded in company platforms like McGraw-Hill Education’s.

It’s also fair to question the extent to which the partnership will result in either side producing a lot of new, truly innovative educational materials—or merely repackaged content, with slick marketing behind them, said Buckleitner, whose organization reviews interactive media and tech products for schools and parents.

“Is this any better than the stuff that was available 10 years ago?” Buckleitner asked. “At the end of the day, the kids don’t care about the commercial relationship. [What matters to them and their families] is the quality on the screen…It’s about quality, quality, quality.”

Sesame Workshop’s Gibson said that while the K-1 curriculum in the new agreement is curated from a library of existing resources, the instructional resources and parents’ supports are entirely new. Additionally, new student-facing multimedia content for grade 1 has been developed, she said.

She said partnerships like the McGraw-Hill Education deal are extensions “of our mission-driven, community-based work to reach the kids and families who need us most.”

The content is top quality based on the organization’s “whole child” curriculum, which is continually being improved through research and revision, Gibson added.

Our curriculum “puts kids first in everything we do,” Gibson said. “By putting our content and resources in the capable hands of educators and parents, we hope to spark valuable real-time interactions both in and outside of school.”