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Sesame Workshop

ICTs and Literacy (the old fashioned kind)

Michael Trucano's picture
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am
lego ergo sum, or I read, therefore I am

The Library of Congress recently announced a set of literacy awards to recognize and honor pioneering efforts in the United States and around the world. That's all well and good, you might say, literacy is certainly a worthy cause, but what does this have to do with ICT use in education in developing countries, the topic explored on the EduTech blog? Potentially a lot.

Much is made these days of the need to foster the development of so-called '21st century skills'. Indeed, for the past few years I have sat through few presentations where this particular three word phrase has not been mentioned prominently at some point. Reasonable people may disagree about what these skills are, exactly (but there are lots of ideas), and/or about some of the groups promoting related discussions and initiatives. Whatever one's opinion on such things may be, however, there is no denying that ICTs -- and the ability to use ICTs (productively, effectively) -- are often prominently considered in many related conversations and advocacy efforts, which often also highlight the increasing importance of the acquisition of so-called 'new literacy' skills (variously defined, but often related to the use of ICTs in ways integral and tangential: computer literacy, media literacy, etc.) to ways of life that are increasingly impacted by the emergence of new information and communication technologies.

What it means to be 'literate' in 2013 may be different than it was in 1913 or 1963 (and it will perhaps be different still in 2063). That said, there is little argument that, whatever the year, and wherever you are, basic literacy skills are fundamental to one's education and ability to navigate successfully through life.

What do we know about the use of ICTs
to help promote and develop literacy?

(I am not talking about such things like 'computer literacy', mind you, but rather literacy of the old-fashioned sort: the ability to read and write.)

What Sesame Street Can Teach the World Bank

Michael Trucano's picture

 Plaza SésamoZhima Jie. Takalani Sesame. Galli Galli Sim Sim. Behind the various incarnations of 'Sesame Street' around the world stands the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit group committed to help children (and especially young children) develop literacy and numeracy skills, build the resilience they need to cope with tough times, establish an early foundation for healthy habits, and help fostering respect and understanding.

Sesame claims that it produces the "most studied TV progam in history".  While I don't have hard data to support this assertion, I can't even imagine a potential competitor to this claim.  Long a touchstone for many of us who work in the educational technology field, I would add that it is probably the most studied educational technology initiative in history as well.

Recently a group from Sesame spoke to a packed conference room at the World Bank about what it does around the world, and how it does it.  It was an entertaining presentation -- videos of small children cavorting with the likes of Elmo and Kami do tend to engage people in ways that, say, arguments about multivariate regression analysis do not.  The event was organized by the World Bank's early childhood development (ECD) group, but attracted many people from our more diffuse 'EduTech' thematic community as well.  This led me to wonder: What can those of us of work on educational technology initiatives within large institutions like the World Bank learn from how Sesame Workshop operates? 

While attempting to answer this question for myself, I came away from the entertaining and thought-provoking presentation with quick notes on five core 'lessons' to consider:

The Goal is Sacred Space

Naniette Coleman's picture

When Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal of the World Cup, that beautiful, upper right hand corner net buster, just minutes into the second half, I fell in love. I took to my suburban balcony, danced with wild abandon, and screamed “GOAL SOUTH AFRICA, GOAL BAFANA BAFANA” at the top of my lungs. I celebrated because during the 55th minute, of the first game, of the first World Cup on African soil, we all accomplished something great. No, I did not fall in love with Tshabala or South Africa or Bafana, Bafana per se in those moments. I actually fell in love with the idea of world collaboration all over again.   I fell in love with the idea that if we are all present in one room/stadium and devoted to the same initiative, magic can happen. It was ethereal, and I, I was committed and in love and on top of the world for about 24 hours before reality brought me and all that idealism back to earth. Actually, it was the words escaping the mouths of my fellow Americans during the US vs. England game.

Linking up with Enlaces (Chile)

Michael Trucano's picture

Enlaces logoWith apologies in advance to initiatives in a handful of other countries considered world leaders in this area (including Costa Rica, Namibia, Thailand, Mexico and Brazil):

Of all the programs in middle income and developing countries that have sought to introduce ICTs systematically into the education, the Chilean experience is perhaps the most lauded.  Enlaces has been the subject of much scholarly and policy attention since its inception almost two decades ago (including a publication from the World Bank back in 2004 [pdf]).

The fact that Chile and Enlaces is considered by many to be a global model of good practice presents policymakers in Chile with a(n enviable) challenge:

Where should Chile look for inspiration as it continues to evolve its programs exploring the effective use of ICTs in education?