Entertainment? Education? Entercation? Edutainment?

Scott McGibbon is a Project Specialist at the Lear Center.

“I’m dancing all over the place.” Beyoncé describing her new show? A Dancing with the Stars hopeful? Not quite: This is a Pennsylvania middle-school teacher, in a recent New York Times article, describing his attempts to keep his students engaged and paying attention to his lesson work.

A California high school teacher quoted in the article said, “I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” and noted a decline in the “depth and analysis of their written work,” though they’re all advanced students.

This bleeding of entertainment into what was once a distinct, separate domain – in this case, formal education – is one of the prime interests of the Lear Center and exactly what we love focusing our attention on. But with contemporary education, K-12 and above, it seems as if it’s the teachers who are suffering the blood loss.

The New York Times‘ article weighs in on the results of two recent teacher surveys, oneconducted by the PEW Internet Project and the second from Common Sense Media, both of which studied the effect of entertainment media and digital technology on student attention spans and academic performance. Both reports offer a mixed assessment of the impact of media and tech on student learning, with the consensus being that student research skills and self-sufficiency improved with Web and digital tools, but their ability to write, to communicate face-to-face, to employ critical thinking and to complete homework were all hindered under the media and tech onslaught. K-12 teachers, already struggling with ruinous state budget cuts and relentless teach-to-the-test pressure now must also work with tools that undercut some of what they’re trying to accomplish on a daily basis.

What else does the ongoing infusion of entertainment and media into education offer? The Khan Academy, a two-year old, web-based non-profit solution opts to largely remove human teachers from the equation altogether. The brainchild of former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan, this enterprise consists of some 3,400 short instructional videos along with interactive quizzes and teacher tools. These videos feature a digital blackboard, the voice of an instructor, but no onscreen teacher. Some 10 million people worldwide are students of the Kahn Academy, though education experts note that not all people like or can learn in this manner.

But perhaps the most revolutionary change in education is now underway among top universities across the country: MOOC (massive open online courses) a free, evolved version of traditional online courses combines education, entertainment (i.e., gaming) and social networking, often resulting in tens of thousands of online students in each course (46,000 in one Stanford machine learning class last fall.) Coursera, Udacity (both Stanford-sprung) and edX (Harvard and MIT) are the leading MOOC providers. The heart of MOOC is still video-taped lectures, but there’s currently no student-professor contact, no university credit and the effectiveness of the classes seems tied to how interactive students are with each other: are they in local study groups, in online forums, willing to do grading work? Again, numbers tell part of the story: edX, which is the newest MOOC, already has 370,000 students in its first official courses this fall. At least in the MOOC world, media and entertainment haven’t pushed teachers completely out-of-frame — yet.

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