Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

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