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Are educational videos leaving low-income students behind?

High-income kids seem to benefit more from educational videos more than low-income kids, study shows

Photo of Jill Barshay

Proof Points

A series of studies on educational videos found that attention-grabbing gimmicks, slower pacing and plenty of pauses — features employed in the show “Bubble Guppies” depicted above —  helped preschoolers build their vocabulary.

In the land of parenting there are two camps:  those who think educational videos can be good for their kids and those who think they’re a mind-numbing wasteland.

I tended to side with the latter when my daughter was in her preschool years because I was convinced that books and active play were superior. But we’ve all been exhausted at 6 a.m. and streamed videos from YouTube. Let’s just assume that my daughter watched more videos in her early childhood than I care to admit. Over time, I convinced myself that the videos I chose were better than most of the crap out there.

Wrong.

A team of four education researchers, led by Susan B. Neuman at New York University, conducted an in-depth study published in April 2018 of 100 of the most popular videos that claim to be “educational” and stream over Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now and Google Play. They include “Sesame Street,” “Blue’s Clues,” “Martha Speaks” and “Dora the Explorer,” all highly regarded programs that frequently turn up on recommended lists.  The researchers found that the majority of the videos taught specific vocabulary — more educational content than critics might assume. They also found that 4-year-olds were actually paying attention and learning new words.

“There are people who say this is wasted time and are very worried about their children watching these media,” Neuman said. “In our view, it’s a shame because children are learning from it. They think that these are passive. They’re not.”

Related: This program is proven to help moms and babies—so why aren’t we investing in it more?

But Neuman also found a lot of problems with the current field. A full third of the ostensibly educational videos didn’t teach any vocabulary at all. And some of the videos that did taught as little as a single word. (To be sure, some of the streaming segments are quite short.) Often the shows’ writers chose unusual words, such as amphibian or baguette, and did not focus on the most important words for young preschoolers to learn. The pacing was universally too fast for most kids to absorb.

Even more troubling, Neuman found that children who already have strong verbal skills, who tend to be from higher income families, were learning much more from these videos than kids with weak verbal skills.

Educational media “is not going to close the achievement gap,” said Neuman. “It’s probably going to exacerbate the gap.”

This particular study didn’t explain why low-income children weren’t benefiting as much from the videos. Neuman speculates it’s because children who have more background knowledge have a better foundation for learning new things. In effect, they have extra mental branches to hang new knowledge.

This research is important because children are watching more videos on tablets and smartphones, often while commuting in cars or on public transportation or waiting for an appointment. One 2017 survey found that children under age 8 are spending 48 minutes on mobile devices a day in addition to two hours of television. Neuman’s findings not only can help parents select better educational videos for their children but can also advise television producers how to create educational programs that really teach.

Neuman’s end goal is to create an educational video series that is actually effective with low-income children and to model to the entertainment industry the elements that help children learn.

“We think they go after laughs when they could do so much more,” said Neuman.

Related: Preschool’s hidden value may be in combating poverty

One of her specific recommendations is for writers and producers to select their vocabulary words more carefully by referencing existing lists of important words for preschoolers to know. One example is Words Worth Teaching but there are many others.

Eventually she hopes to see videos that are so good that teachers could use them in preschool classrooms. The only popular video series that comes close to her goal is “Bubble Guppies,” Neuman said. It is slower paced than many other programs and provides many pauses for children to guess answers aloud. It repeats new words frequently in different contexts. And it uses a lot of zany attention-grabbing techniques.

Neuman used sophisticated eye trackers in her laboratory to see what children were paying attention to on the video screens. It turns out that the crazy sound effects and visual images that writers and producers use to grab kids’ attentions are very effective. One example would be shouting an exclamation like “Hey!” and putting a pigeon on a character’s head, an irrelevant choice that might seem like a distraction.  It takes longer for children to learn the word this way but once the child’s eyes were focused on it, kids tended to learn the word better through this zany approach than through a direct approach. The direct approach would be to say the word’s definition, perhaps show a picture, and repeat the word. Examples of that approach would be saying “A subway is an underground train” or a character acting out the meaning of a word, such as “Adagio, that means we’re going to go sloooowwww.”

“Sesame Street,” Neuman said, was good at many of these techniques. But according to her research, it’s too fast-paced and much of the humor isn’t appropriate for young children. In her study, she slowed the videos down to 75 percent of their actual speed.

Related: Technology overuse may be the new digital divide

As part of this series of studies, Neuman tested whether watching a video with your child helps your child learn more. She’s seeing mixed results. One still-unpublished study of hers found no benefit at all. Another also by her team found that kids paid attention more when their parents commented about what they were watching together.

“One of the things we’re finding is that what draws our attention as adults is not the same as children,” Neuman said. “That’s why the eye tracking has been so powerful for us. We can really tell where the children are looking.”

So when you’re attempting to curate a playlist for your child, look to the joy on their faces instead of your gut instincts.

This story about educational videos was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay

Jill Barshay is a contributing editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for… See Archive

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