September 24, 2017

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The Early Bird: How Sesame Workshop is adapting its revolutionary educational content for devices

Sesame Street Big Bird

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sasha, a three-year-old girl with light brown hair, is trying to get Elmo back to Grover. It’s 12:35 p.m. on a Friday in early April, and she’s dragging one-inch pieces of virtual railroad track across an iPad screen in an effort to link the two characters. But Sasha is having trouble understanding how to make the pieces connect. Courtney Wong, a research specialist with Sesame Workshop and designated “child whisperer,” encourages her to try again.

“Okay,” says Sasha, now attempting to make the digital Elmo move across the screen—to no avail. Frustrated, she stabs at the image. “C’mon, c’mon, Elmo.”

It’s just a regular day of app testing at Sesame Workshop. Located in two rooms on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, these offices might seem a world removed from the TV show street featuring Oscar’s trash can, Gordon’s stoop, and the ever-cheerful presence of Big Bird. Those enchanted icons are about 20 miles away, on a sound stage at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City, in Queens, NY, where Sesame Street—now in its 44th year—is filmed.

In this office building, a new kind of magic is being crafted: Sesame Workshop’s digital content. Here, and at other locations, the Workshop has run more than 76 tests over two and a half years to understand how children, ages three to five, adopt and adapt to touch devices in their learning. The brand wants to ensure Sesame Street’s continued success—in a new media world.

A young tester puts an app through its paces at the offices of Sesame Workshop.

Capturing the digital audience

Competition for the pre–K digital audience is stiff, with networks from Disney Junior to Nick Jr.—both nonexistent when Sesame Street launched—vying for the opportunity to educate young children with apps. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Dora the Explorer are deep in the game.

So are Ernie and Bert, since Sesame Workshop considers its digital incarnation to be crucial to its original mission. “The goal has never changed from back in 1969, which is to reach children where they are to get them ready for school, and also to reach underserved children,” says Jennifer Perry, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of worldwide publishing. “Anything that becomes a destination for parents, we have to be there.”

In 1969, that destination was TV. Most families had televisions in their homes when Sesame Street first went on the air. Cocreator Joan Ganz Cooney’s idea of using TV for early learning was revolutionary at the time. For decades, Sesame Workshop and its groundbreaking show owned the block on educational television.

Given that history, the Workshop’s entry into digital involves seismic changes for the organization. While TV and books aren’t disappearing, tablets, smartphones, apps, and ebooks are increasingly drawing preschoolers’ attention. Sometimes it’s Dad handing off his Android during a long wait at the doctor’s office. Other times it’s a school media specialist launching a series of iPad literacy apps for kindergarteners.

Surveys confirm that devices are pulling people away from TV, and devices also tend to be cheaper. Americans spent about 127 minutes a day using mobile apps in 2012—up from 94 minutes a day in 2011—compared to the 168 minutes a day they spend watching television, according to Flurry Analytics, an organization that follows mobile app trends. Today, smartphones are practically given away with many mobile plans. Revenue from app sales generated about $15 billion globally in 2012, and is projected to rise to $25 billion by the end of 2013, according to Gartner Inc., a tech research firm.

Sesame Workshop’s digital earnings are up, too. The organization has seen its digital revenue grow from 5 percent of its total in fiscal year 2011 to 13 percent in fiscal year 2012. According to Sesame Workshop, digital is projected to comprise 15 percent of its overall revenue by year-end June 30.

Making the Workshop’s digital content stand out is crucial, given the direct competition and the vast number of apps for sale—more than 300,000 iPad apps in the Apple store alone. On a recent day in April, Nickelodeon held the third and fifth spots among the top paid iPad apps in Apple’s iTunes education section. Disney had eighth place, with Sesame Workshop’s Potty Time with Elmo at number 41. Among paid iPad books, Disney held three of the top 10 slots, Nickelodeon had two, and Sesame Workshop’s The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone (originally published by Golden Books in 1971) appeared at number 11.

Apps

Designing for limited attention spans

Those charged with building the next generation of Sesame Workshop educational tools are doing so with as much thought and research as Cooney invested in the show. But now, more than ever, a three-year-old’s attention waits for no one.

“We have to be nimble,” says Betsy Loredo, editorial director of Sesame Workshop, who is part of the team charged with re-inventing the Sesame Street brand for the digital domain. “Incredibly nimble. That, in some ways, is the antithesis of how we’ve been doing business for a very long time.” Traditionally, that process has been about “testing, testing, testing, and don’t put it out there until it’s perfect,” Loredo says.

“What we are now grappling with is how to balance this thoughtful approach with the incredible speed with which innovation and technology shifts are changing the landscape for kids,” she explains. “I think that’s a struggle every creator of print books currently faces. It’s just compounded for us by this heightened commitment we have to testing and to being a standard bearer for a fun and educational ‘safe space’ for preschoolers.”

An ongoing challenge is figuring out how to make learning fun so that a child doesn’t lose interest and tune out along the way. With that in mind, Sesame Workshop is constantly thinking about how app instructions are delivered to kids. A particular consideration is how long a child must wait before she can launch a story, a game, or any of the 75 live apps the Workshop has available in the marketplace.

“We used to have longer instructs and longer types of prompts,” says Mindy Brooks, Sesame Workshop’s director of education and research. “But now, we’re in this age of immediate responses.” She hits her finger repeatedly on the table, mimicking how a child might interact with a touch device.

Brooks and her colleagues are well aware that if children are comfortable with other apps, they expect to be able to navigate Workshop apps easily, too. They come to the apps thinking, “I can do this,” says Loredo.

“And it’s not responding,” adds Brooks.

“Then it’s broken,” concludes Loredo.

That isn’t the experience Sesame Workshop wants to deliver to the 16.5 million kids and parents it reaches on digital platforms every quarter. As of April, 35 Sesame Workshop book apps live on platform devices including iOS, Chrome, Windows 7, HP, Symbian, and Kindle Fire. And nearly 155,000 book apps have been downloaded so far in 2013, with 1.8 million downloaded since Sesame Workshop launched its first book app in December 2009.

Partnerships with big tech

Sesame Workshop’s dive into digital is aided by partnerships with third-party technology firms, including a $1 million pledge from the software company CA Technologies. That company is working with Sesame Workshop to develop a package featuring videos, lesson plans, and games, including the one three-year-old Sasha was testing, for a future STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) hub on SesameStreet.org.

Another recent partnership, with mobile outfit Qualcomm, focuses on augmented reality tools. For today’s children, this kind of cutting-edge technology is taken for granted, allowing them to play with and explore their surroundings.

At Sesame Workshop’s Upper West Side location, Loredo and Brooks launched a recent smartphone prototype that resulted from the Qualcomm relationship. On a smartphone screen, a grocery list appears for Big Bird. Eggs, carrots, and cereal are items on the list, and the child is charged with finding those same printed words in her environment. Holding the smartphone, the child selects a word and then aims the device at words he or she sees displayed in a grocery store, a restaurant, or wherever she is at that moment. When the phone’s camera sees the right word, such as “milk,” Big Bird exclaims, “Milk, mmm milk.” The screen then pulls up a word tree, providing the child with more context and definition.

Previewed at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the app is expected to launch this fall. It’s already gone through two formative rounds of testing and recently completed a month-long study with about 200 children in a few Head Start Centers in rural Idaho. Sesame Workshop wants to ensure that three- to five-year-olds can enjoy the app without frustration.

From book to app

Sesame Burt & ErnieSesame Workshop’s ebookstore carries more than 160 titles, with approximately 100,000 ebooks downloaded to date. But print books still sell far more—to the tune of 27 million copies in 2011 alone.

Classics like The Monster at the End of This Book have been refashioned for today’s burgeoning reader, who may encounter his first title in electronic form—still, likely, while sitting on a parent’s lap. Almost prescient in its interactivity, the original version of The Monster at the End of This Book features Grover warning the reader not to turn the next page because of the monster at the end. Of course, the curious child turns the pages anyway, tearing down brick walls and infuriating Grover, who, at the book’s closing, reveals himself to be the anticipated monster, albeit a “lovable, furry old” one that the child adores.

In app form, the reader still pages through the story, sliding fingers along the corners where digital pages flap audibly. The on-screen Grover reads each word, but now we see him tying and nailing the pages, building a brick wall and complaining as the child breaks knots and smashes bricks, animated for today’s young digital users.

Molding future tech

Looking ahead, Sesame Workshop is planning to innovate far beyond book- and TV-derived experiences. A team of employees is analyzing cutting-edge technologies to see what learning experiences they might best support—and they’re even pushing developers to tune their new tech to children’s needs. Miles Ludwig, managing director of Sesame Workshop’s Content Innovation Lab, leads a five-person research and development team in pursuing technologies they expect will become available globally to children of all economic levels. Recently, Ludwig shopped a prototype application to firms working on voice recognition. His hope is to partner on a tool that children play with in which they give Cookie Monster clues to guess what animal they’re thinking about. Since voice recognition software is currently optimized for adult men, says Ludwig, it’s not ideal for the high-pitched musical tones and particular pronunciation that can come from a child’s mouth. Sesame Workshop hopes to change that.

As new technology develops, Ludwig and his team are also considering other places around the home where they could potentially interact with children—for instance, on screens that may be in an oven door or on a refrigerator.

“One of the things we’re thinking about now is embedded devices connected to the home, these sorts of concepts of the future, and what does that mean to us,” says Ludwig. An example might be when “Abby just shows up on this refrigerator screen and communicates something about healthy eating.” Another scenario could involve the Count helping a child count the eggs in a refrigerator, an activity based on the “Number of the Day” from that morning’s Sesame Street TV episode.

Delight in learning

As Sesame Workshop focuses on its longevity, its educational stronghold—the pre–K years—remains its primary focus. Back in the testing room, Sasha is on the iPad, tickling a swimming trunk-clad Grover; she sees him holding lightweight objects like flip-flops instead of heavy ones like metal keys. Sasha’s goal is to get him to let go of objects at the right time so the light ones float into the center of an inner tube. Sasha can’t quite time it right—and the objects end up floating outside the target, missing the goal. Wong offers encouragement.

“Let’s try to aim for that tube,” says Wong.
“I will try,” says Sasha. “I missed!”
“Uh oh, did that float?” says Wong, as Sasha selects a heavy object instead.
“Oooooh,” Sasha exclaims.

From another room, the researcher and show producer laugh, watching as Sasha navigates the game with a toddler’s intensity. She slides her finger once again over Grover and—success. She squeals.

“Look Mom!” says Sasha, immersed in the game. A child’s delight, delivered. Sesame Workshop hopes it’s a learning moment, too.

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.

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