From Sesame Street to Transmediaville: The Future of Ready to Learn

From its beginnings, the Ready to Learn (RTL) Program in the Office of Innovation and Improvement has both served America’s youngest learners and been a learner itself – of the fast-evolving world of digital communications technology that, in 1995, consisted of television and a nascent World Wide Web. In fact, when initially authorized by Congress 15 years ago, it was named (and still is) the RTL Television Program. Earlier this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced three awards totaling $27 million to support RTL activities for the next five years.

From its beginning, RTL has had two purposes: facilitating student academic achievement through the development and distribution of educational video programming for preschool and elementary school-aged children and their parents; and developing and disseminating educational outreach materials and programs that promote school readiness, offer interactivity, and use multiple innovative technologies and digital media platforms.

As a federal R&D program, RTL uses a multi-year grant cycle, and over the past two cycles, OII has called upon the education and telecommunications communities to identify critical areas for RTL grantees to pursue. Prior to the 2005 competition, a national conference was held to showcase the cutting edge of new media. A partnership between the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and Sesame Workshop resulted from that convening, one that provided short segments of Sesame Street on Sprint cell phones to help young children learn the letters of the alphabet. This project, funded through RTL, was carried out with low-income families in three metropolitan communities. The evaluation results found that parents from low-income households used the cell phones with their children more often than middle-income households. A majority of parents from both groups, however, felt that the cell phones were effective learning tools for early learning.

New competition priorities in 2005 led to requirements for experimentation with new media for low-income children, and between 2005 and 2010, some of the innovations included: the “PBS Island” game site with segments from all of the PBS RTL shows; “Word World in 3-D;” the “Martha Speaks” white boards for classrooms; “Planet 429” premiering on a game platform; “Duck’s Alphabet” webisodes of letter recognition for two-year olds; and “R U There?”

In preparation for the 2010 RTL competition, OII convened a national panel of experts for advice about the new set of program priorities. In addition to recommending that the RTL competition be open to a variety of producers and developers, the recommended priorities included intentional ways of using new media technologies to engage young children in innovative learning experiences.

The result was an invitational priority to highlight transmedia storytelling – conveying content and themes to audiences through the well-planned, connected use of multiple media platforms (e.g., television, websites, cell phones, e-books, electronic games, handheld devices, and other yet to be developed technologies). Simply put, transmedia storytelling transports characters and themes across multiple media. “R U There?,” for instance, was launched earlier this year using transmedia. It begins as a comic book; then the story is expanded through a television special, followed by it moving to a website where students follow the literacy themes and develop their own learning products. By following the characters and learning experience in their own media journey, students fully understand and benefit from the entire literacy message.

The learning experience is enhanced through the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) as part of the new grantees’ outreach activities. This year’s applicants were also encouraged to partner with university media programs, teacher preparation programs, and low-income schools to produce outreach activities that the entire community of learners would be free to adapt and enhance for their own local purpose.