Michael Levine

Growing up Digital… Good for the Kids, or Bad?

VTR Date: April 23, 2011

Dr. Michael Levine discusses his vision for kids growing in the digital age.


GUEST: Dr. Michael Levine
AIR DATE: 04/23/2011
VTR: 01/20/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And it was just a couple of years ago that we celebrated here the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, so cleverly dubbed “The Show That Counts” … indeed, the show that has counted so importantly in teaching kids here and in so many other places around the world since 1969.

With me then was my dear friend and fellow public television old-timer Joan Ganz Cooney, the originator of Sesame Street and co-founder of Children’s Television Workshop, as well as Gary Knell, now its President and CEO.

Of course, we talked at length about Big Bird and friends … about the role they’ve played in teaching kids to count, to learn the alphabet, to become social beings.

But what we emphasized most was the crucial teaching and learning role today and in the future not just of television, but rather of all the digital media that now come as second nature to our youngsters though not to ourselves perhaps.

In the 1960’s we used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”. And today, perhaps we need to draw that out a bit and say “Don’t trust anyone over 30 to know how to relate to the new digital world…for good or for bad.”

Indeed, now the press is flooded with pictures and stories of youngsters with their hands and heads filled with digital equipment – iPhones, iPads, cell phones, what-have-you – anything, it would seem, not to educate, but to distract them.

By now the headlines are quite familiar: “Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction”. Likewise, “In Flood of Texting and Technology, Schools Fight to Keep Students Focused”. Presumably, unsuccessfully.

Even more threatening, assuming an even more negative and longer-lasting digital impact on our kids is the streamer “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price”.

Yet when Open Mind celebrated the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street and CTW, we also learned of the newly endowed Joan Ganz Cooney Center at CTW designed to study both sides now of the digital revolution…to see if and how “growing up digital” can be made to serve not just distraction, but perhaps teaching and learning even more.

Accordingly, today my guest is Dr. Michael Levine, Executive Director of the Center, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll tell us that the Center’s researches provide some digital hope as well as despair.

So, Dr. Levine is there hope as well as despair, ‘cause there’s plenty of the latter.

LEVINE: Dick, I’m very hopeful. Let me tell you why. Despite the fact that the digital explosion has caused concern such as you outlined at the show’s outset … there are lots of elements of the digital promise that will be fulfilled over the next ten years if we’re careful to follow the research and we absolutely explore the ways to connect what kids love to do in their informal time with the more structured time that is now called “school”.

At the Cooney Center we’re trying to do some pioneering research not only with scholars, but with industry who have seen that educational media, based on the Sesame Street experience, can actually be successful both in terms of the financial sustainability as well as the educational impact.

For example, we have a partnership with the Nokia Research Lab. Who knew that Nokia has 700 scholars who are working only on producing research on communication patterns, on family communication patterns.

We have an insight that if you pair together adults using mobile media with children using mobile media and create a dialogue between those children over time and space and those adults, you can actually improve dialogical reading.

We have a partnership with USC and the Carnegie Mellon University Research Labs to think about how gaming can be used for educational value.

The bottom line for all this is that the research is not yet in, but there are promising prototypes and there are little glimmers of hope that the ubiquity of a media culture can be turned from distraction to, I think, unlimited potential.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s really a plus because when one does read the press and when one listens to old-timers like me who are not part of the digital revolution, you get a very, very, very different picture.

LEVINE: I know. Well, look we’re concerned. Everyone’s concerned. Eight year olds are spending seven and a half hours a day consuming media and … let me just say, that’s probably too much. It’s a blend of television, video games, music, mobile media, texting … and they’re doing more than one thing at a time. They’re multi-tasking.

Are they multi-tasking in a way that is going to wire their brains for success? At the moment, perhaps no.

What we’re working on in the Cooney Center is to take a look at those seven and a half hours a day that the eight and nine year olds are, are, are consuming media … or the four or five hours, believe it or not, that four year olds are consuming media …

HEFFNER: Four or five hours a day?

LEVINE: Between four and five hours a day. Mostly television …


LEVINE: … television is still “King” for the pre-school set. It begins to move onto the ‘Net, onto the Internet …


LEVINE: … and into the video game consoles, and now increasingly onto mobile tablets … iPhones, iTouches and things of that sort.

But if we could get those seven and a half hours or those five and a half hours … those, those five hours in a new learning equation, we’d have a shot.

If you even looked at 20% to 30% of that time spent on educational intent it would be a big, big benefit.

One of the things I’ve been worried about since the beginning of the Center is this yawning digital … this, this yawning gap that children have in reading and computing by grade four.

It’s, it’s hard to imagine that we sleep at night knowing that 14% of African Americans in the United States aren’t able to read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade. So if we can think about the unique affordances of digital media, the ability to personalize, the ability to follow levels and games, the abilities to not only consume, but create and share together … there’s a way to flip those seven and a half hours in a different direction and that’s what the Cooney Center is all about.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I was fascinated watching you on a CBS interview when the young woman who was interviewing you wanted to know “yes” or “no” is it good or bad. And when I put the question to you and you say “yes” in terms of potential it’s good. You also say “if” … what indication is there that the requirements that you set down to make the “if” a reality …


HEFFNER: … are being abided by.

LEVINE: Let’s talk about the “if’s”. Parents need to be more vigilant and more involved. And there are ways in which their growing familiarity for the under-30 set, the parents of today’s young children … their knowledge of technology is different than your generation or mine generation. So they … that’s already one “if” that we can kind of begin to engage.

HEFFNER: That comes with time.

LEVINE: It comes with time. What normative behavior is, is in flux right now. So that one of the problems we have with the ways in which educational media are deployed today is that they’re kind of narrowed off. They’re … some kids are watching PBS or some children are involved in consuming the kinds of things that their involved parents give to them in the pre-school time.

But the normative behavior is not to then carry that educational behavior into the school, in terms of deploying digital technology. So the normative behavior right now is “that’s what you do socially”, “that’s what you do to kill time”, “that’s what you do at home”, maybe “that’s what you do for a little bit of a boost when you’re learning Chinese?”.

But it’s not … there’s a moat between what’s going on in the different pathways of children’s lives. It’s one thing over here in …. you know … at home … and if it’s a disorganized home, it’s a lot of TV consumption and not a lot of a ping-pong match going on between that kid and that child, which is very, very necessary in the early years.

You need a rich literacy bath in those early years and in a lot of households that’s not happening. But you’ve got a lot of media consumption over here … some of it good, some it bad.

In school you’ve got … cell phones are banned … you’ve got, you know, the Internet is filtered for lots of, you know, different and good reasons.

But there’s not a connection being made between the different learning spaces that children engage in … and the adults in those learning spaces have all sorts of different rules. It’s confusing.

If we figured out a way … starting in the pre-school time … to, in a sophisticated manner … integrating digital technologies so that it wasn’t something special that you did to kill time, it was something special you did to increase your productivity and was something special you did to activate the early literacy in the math skills … would be …

HEFFNER: What’s the way? What’s the way?

LEVINE: Well …

HEFFNER: To do it …


HEFFNER: … digitally …

LEVINE: … yeah, so … first of all we need better educational standards built into the products. So …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEVINE: … well, we’ve got … I don’t know … maybe $700 million dollars that was spent in the last couple of years on new virtual worlds …


LEVINE: … you’ve got billions of dollars spent on video games. You’ve got tens of thousands, approaching hundreds of thousands of so-called “educational” applications.

None of them are based on research. None of them are actually held to account within the industry to be thinking about how to bake the kind of research and development in that would allow all children to learn when they’re using these digital technologies and applications. And that would allow an extra boost for the children who we worry about … those 14% of kinds who can’t read at grade four that then leads to the tragic trajectory of, of, of poor outcomes that we see in our education system today.

So one you need educational standards built in and you need some amount of incentive for industry and some amount of regulation, frankly, around false marketing claims.

HEFFNER: Now you say … you put it not too tentatively “some amount of regulation frankly”. Speak up … what do you mean?

LEVINE: Well, I mean you can’t … you should not be in position to state that you have an educational product unless there’s some evidence that it’s educational.

We did a study about three years ago which we’re about to undertake the next cycle of … if was called “D is for Digital”.

We took a look at the 288 so-called educational products that were available for children in middle childhood, children ages pre-school through primary grades.

HEFFNER: Labeled “educational”

LEVINE: Labeled “educational”, 288. How many do you think actually had research to back them up? Or actually had a real curriculum that related to educational goals? Two.

So, that’s a problem. I’m not saying that a lot of those products did harm. They don’t …


LEVINE: … they don’t. They’re neutral, they’re fun, a lot of them. They’re well designed; they’re just not educational. You learn things as my mentor, Joan Ganz Cooney has pointed out.

It’s not a question of whether or not media or technology are teaching children. Children are learning all the time.


LEVINE: It’s what they’re learning. So, I’m not someone who’s going to say that kids need to be fed a steady diet of a spinach sundae … that’s an educational (laugh) media application.

It needs to be fun as well as engaging and educational. Groups like Sesame Workshop and others have proven that you can marry the engagement with the education. We need to do more than … more about that.

We need to get teachers thinking about the integration of technology in a different way.

So, you’ve got a new generation of teachers who’ve grown up on digital technologies, but they’re not being trained to deploy them; to individualize instruction; to learn about the world in their classroom; to bring all sorts of different resources that they don’t have access to, via the Internet.

To think about diagnostics that will allow for real time improvement. All these things need to be thought through in terms of the …. education is a sector that is lagging in terms of productivity. Educational media and technology can help if teachers are trained to work on it.

We need to also think a lot about the value of educational media for assessment and we need to think a lot about the value of educational media in making that bridge across that moat between home and school.

HEFFNER: Well of course you …

LEVINE: … all that …

HEFFNER: … you, you lead me to ask two questions. First the question about what I think … what you‘ve said leads me to call “deceptive advertising”. Now, any action along those lines?

LEVINE: Well, I’m not an expert on what deceptive advertising would be, but I, I put to you and your audience that there are many media and technology companies that are trying to make a market in the educational space.

They ought to be transparent about those types of efforts and I call it “the 7% solution”. If they would just spend 7% of their money on research and development and curriculum linkage, we’d be a whole lot better off.

In terms of regulation, I don’t know whose jurisdiction it is. I mean I think it’s certainly something that the FCC and the FTC should be interested in, in terms of some of these marketing claims. Whether or not Congress wants to get involved in thinking about this … I prefer to think about it in the positive side … the incentive side.

There may be a way of creating incentives so that we don’t need to have much more regulation.

HEFFNER: You’re an innocent.

LEVINE: Well, I’m also somebody who sees that there are a number of new technology companies that are getting into the production business.

The Googles, the Intels, the Oracles … the Silicon Valley groups that are actually now very, very interested in content. And also have the delivery platforms. They don’t’ have the habit of advertising to children that a lot of the other media producers have. So, I’m thinking that if these folks create these very, very inexpensive applications and create tools for the community to use these different kinds of applications that even if the, the traditional broadcast … even if the traditional product developers continue to label things as “educational” that are not educational, there’s a whole lot of competition that’s going to begin to come in.

I’ll, I’ll give you one example. We have with some support from President Obama launched the National STEM Video Game Challenge. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Obviously there’s a great crisis in the number of engineers who are prepared to, to compete and to cooperate in our global age, who are being raised here in the United States.

So we’ve decided that in order to create new products that are educational we would “crowd source” a competition with incentive prizes available.

We’ve gotten over 550 applications during this last prize cycle … from kids … from teachers, from developers, from graduate students who actually have developed things that could possible go to the marketplace one day because they have a lot of educational benefit.

HEFFNER: Well, now you’ve been a consultant not only to the Obama Administration, but to the New York City Board of Education … how do you find the reaction to your, your optimism about the possible uses of digital media?

LEVINE: New York is among the pioneers actually in creating models that I hope will influence the national conversation under former Chancellor Joel Klein’s leadership two really interesting new initiatives are underway.

One is a school called Quest to Learn which is in downtown Manhattan, which has been created based on game design principles. It’s a project based learning school in lower Manhattan. Katie Salen at Parsons, the New School and several others have been involved in creating this. It was the subject of a front page story in the New York Times Magazine a couple of months ago.

And what they’re finding is that the types of skills that are learned through game mechanics and game design … the spatial skills, the cooperative skills, the problem solving skills are really interesting bases for a dynamic curriculum. It’s only in the second year, there’s research that’s being conducted on it. We’ll see.

A second model here in New York is called School of One, introduced by a fantastic pioneer by the name of Joel Rose, formerly the Chief Technology Officer for the New York City Department of Education. It’s insight is that every single child needs an individualized instructional plan. And using a whole range of different algorithms around different content that they have introduced they’re able to create a personalized plan for children who are struggling with math. It started as a summer school program and now its spreading out to the different boroughs in different places.

HEFFNER: Well, now, what about CTW? I mean Joan took the bull by the horns all those years ago …

LEVINE: We call it Sesame Workshop now …


LEVINE: … but everybody knows that it’s CTW.

HEFFNER: Okay. She took the bull by the horns, the Carnegie Corporation did. The government did because there was money around at that time. Are you thinking of producing materials yourselves?

LEVINE: We’re doing some work at the Cooney Center that may make it into the sort of national distribution system … we work with the Worship and other educational media organizations around background research on what’s working and what’s not. As well as rapid prototyping.

I, I mentioned before there are two new inter-generational video games … let me explain … that are about to go “live”.

We had this insight that when Joan created the show 41 years ago that it was … we didn’t have this insight … she did … that it would be created on several levels. The genius, and it’s an elegant idea that she had, was to produce for multiple audiences … the celebrity, the music, the ditties, the comedy. Adults and children would naturally come together and learn from each other. What a brilliant idea.

Forty years later you got most Moms and Dads outside of the home, not watching together …


LEVINE: … right … so what is the new co-viewing? So we’ve been working on … is there a way to think about digital technology mobiling games where you could co-view together with Nokia … this program that allows children sitting in one place to read with their grandparents in another place, with Elmo and friends mediating the conversation.

When a four year old speaks to a grandparent … I don’t know whether you’ve had this experience in your life … there is usually some utterances and a minute or two and then some running off.

With this engagement through the Internet or through Skype you can have a mother and a child speaking to a grandparent and learning together, turning the pages of a book, actually seeing and, and reading based on prompts in what’s called dialogic reading, so that’s a product that may go to the market soon.

We’ve just created these inter-generational video games where we sort of split … changing up the action … who’s usually the parent … who’s usually the expert in the game? When you’re playing a game … Candyland or Scrabble … initially it’s the parent who’s judging and guiding and the rule keeper in, in doing the … doing the teaching within that game.

We found that there is a, there’s a switch from expert being the child to tyro being the adult. So we’ve switched up the action within these inter-generational video games in which the adult can actually help the child, but learn from the child at the same time … learning valuable literacy or math skills all along the way. And here we’re working university based scholars who are helping us to devise things.

And hopefully influencing the field to monetize and productize these kinds of essential insights.

HEFFNER: I would assume, therefore, that you would look askance at the headlines, the scare headlines that appear because they can’t be helping you in what you do, scaring doesn’t usually create very much that’s productive.

LEVINE: Well, that is the default, right. The framework of analysis right now in the media is, as you suggested … health and safety concerns.

Cyberbullying, the variety of different worries that school systems have about losing control over what their charges might be looking at during school.

Safety comes first. But we need to flip this on it’s ear because those numbers that I suggested before, Dick, five hours for four year olds? Seven and a half hours … and more … when you count the multi-tasking … up to ten hours according to the Kaiser Family Foundation …what are these kids doing … they’re not sleeping.

If you look at those numbers, you have to be rational about it, you can’t protect kids from all of this, you’ve got to figure out a way … we’ve got to figure out, as a country … a way to flip it around so if there … the ubiquity is already there … the normative behavior is all ready to consume … let’s change the consumption pattern.

I was mentioning earlier today to one of your colleagues that Cookie Monster is on a diet. Cookie Monster has a different point of view about cookies these days … he loves them to death, but he understands that cookies are a “sometimes” food and let’s say vegetables and fruits are anytime foods.

We need a similar kind of media consumption type of formula, right, so we need “anytime” foods in terms of what children and adults can do …that ping-pong match that’s going on. Reading is an “anytime” food. Using technology to assist in reading is an anytime food. There are “sometimes” foods that are entertainment, that aren’t going to harm the child, but they should be more limited than the “anytime” foods.

HEFFNER: You’re a very optimistic person, that’s quite clear. Just between us … how optimistic are you that we’re going to do this in time. I know we started off the program, you said “Yes” …

LEVINE: Yeah. Look …

HEFFNER: … what do you think?

LEVINE: There are big challenges ahead, but when I look at this issue of whether or not we’re going to compete and cooperate and I see the stats on where we are as a nation educationally … I have to look for something new.

So the educational paradigm that exists now is not capitalizing on all the different assets that can increase productivity.

We went up very few points in the last 20 years in terms of international comparisons on our national assessment of educational progress, for example.

We are sliding behind all of our international competitors, who all, by the way, use technology more productively …

HEFFNER: That’s what I want ask … in the minute left … how productive are they?

LEVINE: Well, if you look at our competitors who are beating our socks off …


LEVINE: China, Korea, Singapore, Finland … each of them have a national technology plan. And if you look at a more similar country in terms of the diversity of the population … United Kingdom, for example, they have made much bigger bets on technology and the availability of these productive instruments that I was just talking about … so my conclusion is we are not going to get to Rome if we don’t begin to think about a new way of integrating technology.

Yes, there are challenges. Of course, we’re, we’re, we’re concerned with children’s safety first. But if we don’t flip the learning equation towards the kinds of uses that the Cooney Center is most interested in and others around the country are beginning to focus on … we will not make it to where we need to in the decade ahead.

HEFFNER: Michael Levine, that you for joining me. Let me just say, obviously “God speed, do what you’ve got to do”.

LEVINE: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.” And do visit The Open Mind website at www.thirteen.org/openmind

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.