Clearly it’s a research paper perfectly titled for widespread circulation, combining everyone’s favorite early childhood TV show with one of the most overhyped acronyms in ed-tech: “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street.”

So no surprise, the recent paper by University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine on the educational benefits of Sesame Street has received plenty of media coverage, with many outlets parroting the comparison: Sesame Street as MOOC. “The Original MOOC: Can Sesame Street Replace Preschool?” asks Edsurge. “Sesame Street was the original MOOC,” says the Brookings Institution.

But Sesame Street was not the first MOOC. And really, it is not a MOOC at all. To argue such – to offer that analogy – is historically flawed, erasing other earlier educational media. Furthermore, the analogy erases important differences between the research and design of Sesame Street and that of MOOCs (particularly those MOOCs that have been popularized by the press).

The Research

Here’s the abstract from Kearney and Levine:

Sesame Street is one of the largest early childhood interventions ever to take place. It was introduced in 1969 as an educational, early childhood program with the explicit goal of preparing preschool age children for school entry. Millions of children watched a typical episode in its early years. Well-designed studies at its inception provided evidence that watching the show generated an immediate and sizeable increase in test scores. In this paper we investigate whether the first cohorts of preschool children exposed to Sesame Street experienced improved outcomes subsequently. We implement an instrumental variables strategy exploiting limitations in television technology generated by distance to a broadcast tower and UHF versus VHF transmission to distinguish counties by Sesame Street reception quality. We relate this geographic variation to outcomes in Census data including grade-for-age status in 1980, educational attainment in 1990, and labor market outcomes in 2000. The results indicate that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness; preschool-aged children in areas with better reception when it was introduced were more likely to advance through school as appropriate for their age. This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and non-Hispanic, black children, as well as children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The evidence regarding the impact on ultimate educational attainment and labor market outcomes is inconclusive.

OK. So Sesame Street is awesome. It works. We all knew that already. (Pretty much everyone under age 44 has grown up knowing that.)

But see, there’s no mention of MOOCs in that abstract. In fact, MOOCs are only mentioned briefly in the paper’s introduction and in two footnotes that compare Sesame Street to Khan Academy, with an admission that Khan Academy may or may not be a MOOC. “For our purposes,” write Kearney and Levine, “we are concerned with the general idea of student responses to low cost, electronic educational content and less focused on the specific definition of a MOOC.” That is, the purpose of the research is to ascertain the effectiveness of Sesame Street on educational outcomes in the short- and long-run because Sesame Street is viewed here, like MOOCs, as an ed-tech that “scales” and as such, one that might “provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings.”

Incidentally, the study provides no dollar figures for the cost of developing either MOOCs or Sesame Street. For what it’s worth, the production costs of the former run anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000 per course; the latter costs about $615,000 per episode. "Cheap."

The Origins of MOOCs

As I’ve argued elsewhere, one need only look at the “Talk” page on the Wikipedia entry for MOOCs to see the contested history of “massive open online courses.” Debates about the origins of MOOCs stem in part from the media's crowning of Sebastian Thrun as the “godfather of free online education.”

One version – arguably the most well-known – of MOOCs’ origins goes something like this: in the Fall of 2011, Stanford University artificial intelligence professor (and Google VP) Sebastian Thrun, along with Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig, decided to allow anyone sign up for a free, online version their computer science course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. As it was a graduate level course, the two did not anticipate there would be that much interest. But there was, and after a story in The New York Times, enrollment surged to over 150,000 (and according to Thrun, attendance at the “physical class at Stanford… dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”)

On the heels of Thrun’s decision to offer his AI class online, two of his colleagues in the Stanford CS Department also made their courses freely available via the Web: Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning and Jennifer Widom’s Introduction to Databases. These classes all featured video-taped lectures (broken down into short five- or six-minute long explanations) and accompanying exercises (often multiple choice).

In January 2012, Thrun announced his departure from Stanford and the founding of his MOOC startup Udacity. (He has since left Google as well.) After his experience with his online AI class and its enormous reach, Thrun said he’d concluded that “I can't teach at Stanford again.”

A few months later, Andrew Ng and fellow Stanford AI professor Daphne Koller announced the launch of Coursera, their competing MOOC startup. Udacity and Coursera, and – hot on their heels – Harvard and MIT’s initiative edX kicked off a frenzy in the media, with The New York Times triumphantly declaring 2012 “The Year of the MOOC. The ”original MOOC": Stanford’s.

There’s a different story, of course, about MOOCs’ origins, one that lacks the venture capital funding and the Stanford University pedigree. It’s a story that involves a different set of technologies and pedagogical practices as well. The acronym “MOOC” was actually coined in 2008 by University of Prince Edward Island’s Dave Cormier and applied to an online experiment, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), led by (then) Athabasca University’s George Siemens and Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council.

Siemens offered this reflection of CCK08 on his blog:

It might be helpful to take a quick step back and talk about why Stephen and I started with open online courses. We were both at a Desire2Learn conference in Memphis in 2008. And we were both tired of arguing about connectivism ("is it a theory"). We decided that experiencing networked learning was important to understanding networked learning.

Instead of talking connectivism, we wanted to create an experience that was essentially connectivist: open, distributed, learner-defined, social, and complex.

In designing courses, educators often make important decisions on behalf of learners. The educator forms a "boundary" around the knowledge that will be explored in a particular course. Finding your way through, and making sense of, a chaotic landscape is the learning experience. Traditional learning design tries to reduce complexity. We try to increase awareness of complexity. Duplicating what someone else has decided is important is still a type of learning, but not one that exists outside of classroom settings. Real world learning is messy and chaotic.

We decided that we wanted to do for teaching and learning what MIT had done for content with their OCW initiative.

In our first open course - CCK08 - we emphasized learner's control in orienting themselves to complex information. Many learners found this very confusing. But, when in an environment of abundant information, they began to adopt new approaches for interacting with information and with each other. Social networks became critical to making sense of readings. Creating and sharing artifacts helped learners to communicate how they had come to understand a topic or concept. Language games - negotiating meanings, naming things - also became an important learner-controlled activity. We provided readings each week to start the conversation, but learners largely defined the domain of knowledge exploration by providing resources and shaping the discussion.

We weren't the first to offer open courses. We had played around with open online conferences in 2007 (these conferences contributed significantly to the initial design of CCK08). Alec Couros and David Wiley had both offered open courses in 2007. And, if you look at the literature around open universities, open learning, and distance education, you'll find over 40 years of discussions of similar learning approaches.

Clamoring for “first” misses the point, I’d argue – it certainly ignores the way in which research is built upon previous research, technologies are built upon previous technologies. “Over 40 years of discussions of similar learning approaches.” The similarity that runs through that history, as Siemens makes clear, involves the possibility of open and networked learning. And while PBS is a network, and while Sesame Street is free and openly available to anyone with a television set that can pick up the signal (ostensibly available – not all preschoolers get to decide if or what they watch, of course), I’m not at all convinced that, as Kearney and Levine argue, “In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”

The history of educational television predates Sesame Street. The history of educational film and radio predates Sesame Street. The history of teaching machines predates Sesame Street. The history of correspondence courses predates Sesame Street.

These last two highlight one of the missing elements in the “Sesame Street as MOOC” comparison: students doing something – exercises, assessments – in addition to watching or listening to educational media. (Education researcher Justin Reich has called another TV show Picture Pages “the original toddler proto-MOOC”, for example, as episodes were accompanied by a workbook (available at first from the local supermarket and later through mail-order). “In Picture Pages of course, we see all of the essential elements of contemporary MOOCdom,” Reich argues, “the witty direct instruction lectures from [Bill] Cosby, followed by the more nuanced think-aloud lecture where he demonstrated the assignment, the worksheet where students could complete assignments, and the final function of the video as the answer key.”)

Image credits

The History of Sesame Street

One of the strangest claims in Kearney and Levine’s research isn’t that Sesame Street is “the first MOOC.” It’s that Sesame Street has not been researched, “that perhaps the biggest, yet least costly, early childhood intervention, Sesame Street, has largely gone unnoticed.”

The opposite is true.

As Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Workshop, writes in the foreword to “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street, “Without research, there would be no Sesame Street.”

Indeed, Sesame Street is the most researched television show in history – and not just researched after-the-fact to ascertain how it’s affected students’ literacy and numeracy skills, but researched throughout the design and development process. That’s something that makes Sesame Street quite the antithesis of the venture capital-funded MOOCs and their proponents, many of whom have been openly hostile to educational theory and research. (And seemingly hostile to education history.)

“Don’t think for a minute that we didn’t meet with enormous resistance and worse, ridicule,” Cooney writes.

“Researchers helping producers design a show? You must be kidding!” came the reaction of practically everyone in TV willing to give an honest opinion. Producers believed exclusively in intuition and experience as the means to a successful show – with luck, always luck, as the sine qua non of any big hit.

What we were proposing was something altogether different – that material, as it was produced, be tested on the target audience for both appeal and comprehension, that researchers report back to producers, and that producers modify or discard material based on almost continuous reports from the field. In other words, we were suggesting a kind of informed luck, or at the very least, that luck’s role be lessened by something more akin to science.

Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t the theory of marrying research to production that raised so many doubts as much as it was the thought of the reality – temperamental, creative people working with outside advisors and inside researchers to determine and then accomplish specific educational goals – social scientists telling TV producers what was “good” or “bad” based on the reactions of a small sample, long before the show went on the air where a mass audience would judge it.

Joan Ganz Cooney had first proposed an educational television show designed for preschoolers in a 1966 report to the Carnegie Foundation, recognizing that “disadvantaged children are inadequately stimulated and motivated during the preschool years and the belief that the right kind of early intervention can provide adequate compensation have done much to create the present ferment in cognitive development research and preschool education.”

The Children’s Television Workshop was founded two years later in 1968, backed by $8 million in grant funding for a two year project: its “sole initial mandate,” write Edward Palmer and Shalom Fisch in their history of Sesame Street research, “was to create, broadcast, promote, and evaluate an experimental television series of 130 hour-long programs that would seek to advance the school readiness of 3- to 5-year-old children, with special emphasis on the needs of youngsters from low-income and minority backgrounds.” When the series premiered on November 10, 1969, it had been in research and development for nearly 18 months.

This isn't an example of Silicon Valley's penchant to "move fast and break things." It's a different model altogether.

As a perspective on the scope and intensity of this collaboration [among researchers, screenwriters, and producers], consider that fact that Sesame Street contains about 40 program segments (skits) in each of its 130 hour-long episodes. Allowing for segment repetition, the in-house research group thus would need to contribute to the creation of approximately 2,400 distinct program segments, each addressed to a preassigned educational goal. To accomplish this marathon task, the researchers met frequently with members of the production team on preliminary scripts and animation planning, reviewed and commented on each draft script's educational approach, and screened each script at the draft stage for mistakes such as stereotypic portrayals and inappropriate use of language.

There was formative research and summative assessment. There was attention to repetition and sequencing. There was careful consideration of when to use straightforwardness and when to use fantasy, to how dramatic tension and humor affected comprehension. With a mission of reaching preschoolers of color, Sesame Street cast actors of color. The curriculum was relevant and meaningful and age-appropriate. (In other words, all this went far far beyond the simple A/B testing that MOOCs seem to find so innovative.)

Research informs Sesame Street. Research is not an after-thought. It is constitutive.

Teachers or Teaching Machines

I have some questions too about the design of Kearney and Levine’s research here. They’ve mapped the signal strength of Sesame Street broadcasts – who could receive a UHF signal and who could receive the superior VHF signal – with Census and high school attainment data. “Our primary measure of interest is access to Sesame Street broadcasting, not actual viewership of the show,” they write. “In this sense, our approach identifies an ‘intent to treat’ relationship, not a ‘treatment on the treated.’ If we had better ratings data, we could pursue an approach that would help us address the impact on the marginal viewer.” So it’s not watching Sesame Street that they’re analyzing here for an effect on educational outcomes as much as living in a neighborhood where the signal is available.

In their conclusion, Kearney and Levine compare their findings (positive) to other early childhood education initiatives that originated at the same time, such as Head Start. (This is what The Atlantic picked up on in its coverage: “Sesame Street Is Just As Effective As Head Start.”) But one key significance of Sesame Street, the researchers contend: the television show costs “pennies on the dollar relative to other early childhood interventions.” And as a result, their closing push: we need more “blended learning” in preschool, which I suppose is a sloppy but popular synonym for “MOOC.”

Notably, their call is not for more rigorously researched and designed educational media for preschoolers; it’s just about broadcasting a signal cheaply (“delivering educational content”) and assuming that access “at scale” to that is enough to move the needle.

And that’s not the lesson – not the history lesson, not the educational research lesson, not the pedagogical lesson, not the ed-tech lesson, and not the political or funding lesson – we should learn from Sesame Street.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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