Up from the ground of a television landscape where it seems to be perpetually Easter-judging from the bright greens, yellows, and pastel colors-comes the Voice Trumpet announcing, "Time for Teletubbies! Time for Teletubbies!"
At the summons, toddlers all over the Western World sit down contentedly in front of the family TV and prepare to watch four chubby
Teletubbies-actually four adults in six-foot high costumes sweltering under bright lights-make tubby toast in a large toaster. Near them a machine spurts tubby custard into bowls. Sometimes, the goop goes on the floor by mistake, but a magic vacuum cleaner called Noo-Noo cleans up the mess.
Some of the children watching the Teletubbies may have older brothers and sisters at school, who at that moment might be playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? an interactive video game about geography. Or they might be editing a video essay on plant life cycles on a computer.
Across the hall at the same school, another group of students in a language arts class might be engaged in an activity involving no electronics at all, one that their grandparents would instantly recognize: Scrabble.
Would all these activities qualify as "edutainment?"
The term emerged sometime during the 1990s and quickly found its way into even the most staid dictionaries. At first, definitions of edutainment usually wedded technology to learning, i.e. software, video games, and handheld gadgets that chirped, "That's correct!" when a child pressed the right button.
But today, edutainment is thought of much more broadly. "There's really nothing in that term that specifies technology," says Dave Warlick, a former middle school teacher who is the principal consultant of the Landmark Project, a professional development and Web design firm in Raleigh, N.C. "Edutainment is anything fun that helps students learn-even spelling bees, for instance."
On the other hand, "edutainment is not a pacifier in a student's mouth," says Katherine McNeil, who teaches seventh, eighth, and ninth grade special education at Northwood Junior High in Renton, Wash. McNeil was recently named one of six Washington state educators who will receive the first LearningSpace Achievement Award for outstanding use of technology integration in the classroom.
"Whenever my kids use edutainment, they may believe it's only entertainment, and I may present it as such, because I want to hook their interest. But the purpose is to help them learn," says McNeil.
Bill Burall, coordinator of instructional technology programs for Marshall County Schools in Marshall County, W.V., calls this approach, "stealth-learning-a type of embedded learning in motivational activities that helps kids learn without them knowing it." In 1993, Burall was recognized as IBM's National Technology Teacher of the Year, and in 1999, was named West Virginia Technology Coordinator of the Year.
Kathy Schrock, administrator for technology for the Nauset Public Schools on Cape Cod, Mass., and well-known creator of Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators (school.discovery.com/schrockguide/) would add one caveat to the rather free-wheeling concept that edutainment has become.
"Yes, it can be anything used to support instruction-microscope images that are viewable on computer screens or video editing programs," says Schrock. "But it needs to be available to all students, not just the lucky few."
Teacher vs. Mario
The widespread use of edutainment, not just in schools, but from the very first time toddlers heed the call, "Time for Teletubbies!," has not been embraced enthusiastically by all educators, however. Unlike computers in the classroom, which were generally heralded as tools to reinforce learning, edutainment tends to draw fire from some teachers. A commonly heard complaint is: "These kids were raised on Sesame Street, Super Mario and the rest of it. Because I don't hop around and explode, I seem less interesting by comparison. These kids don't have the attention span necessary for sustained learning."
But Schrock points out an important distinction to keep in mind: "Kids know how to use technology as kids. They look for the excitement. But a teacher needs to introduce them to the educational uses."
In McNeil's special education classroom, for instance, where many of the students are ADD, "they're self-contained for behavioral and emotional disorders, although I don't think of them as disordered. Sure, they would like to 'play' on computers, but I use a variety of methodologies that fit with the purposes of instruction. For some kids who are ADD, holding a pencil and writing the usual way is almost an impossible chore. But pair those kids with a word-processing program-one with a few entertaining features, if possible-and they'll write out their assignments."
Anyway, "You don't need to compete," adds Burall in West Virginia. "Use edutainment as an aide. Teachers need to realize that any lesson plan they've ever developed can be delivered with technology."
How to Choose the Best
Even if you're thinking that might be true-that lesson plans on paper can become edutainment activities-how do you go about choosing software, videos, audio games, and so on, from the welter of products available?
Warren Buckleitner, an editor at Children's Software Revue (www.childrenssoftware.com), recommends you use the same criteria you would when considering any other purchase for your classroom. "You can look at it through the lens of your school district's curriculum," he says. "Educators should have this lens operating in their brains, anyway, making them watch out for lousy pedagogy. Interactive media is like any other educational material-it has to enhance what you're teaching."
"A real common lens is Bloom's taxonomy," Buckleitner says. "Will kids be evaluating and synthesizing? Classic interactive software like Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail, where kids are making decisions based on resources, are good examples of software that reinforce those skills."
Edutainment can address yet another concern, he points out: the bottom line. "Another use of edutainment is expanding the curriculum. It can fight cutbacks in materials in the art program, for instance, by putting paint, paper, film and easels back in the kid's hands through Adobe Photoshop."
"But you need to be able to clearly articulate what you and your students are doing with purchases like these, and how it's measured," Buckleitner says, "In case you have to defend your choice."
Still, there will be teachers-perhaps a colleague sitting next to you in a department meeting-who continue to believe that these sorts of "aides" are in fact distractions and a threat to traditional education. What to do about him or her?
Let Go of the '50s
Dave Warlick of the Landmark Project is uncompromising.
"That teacher needs to change," he says. "We can't hold on to the 1950s. These kids are accustomed to quick messages, interactivity, processing information and choices rapidly, fast communication. And as a teacher, I want to communicate as efficiently as possible, so where's the conflict?"
"Education is serious work," he continues, "but it can be fun. Our students' entire lives are going to be spent learning. To make learning hard work without enjoyment is to send the wrong message. Before, we were preparing students for the routines of the Industrial Age. But the work of the future will be different. It will be a future of workers who adapt to their environment, where creativity is valued, and you learn a lot from solving problems that are game-like in their content. That's why interactivity is part of the core of the new learning. Kids must learn by trying and observing the outcome. A student who creates a video travel brochure of Egypt is going to show it to an authentic audience. That's practical, that's valuable."
Traditional education, with its standards of learning, curricula built on scope and sequences charts, and regular assessment will continue to be the cornerstone of schooling, says Schrock. "But we need to take advantage of these opportunities. And the teacher's role is to make certain the kids drive the technology toward educational goals, not that the technology drives the kids toward the product-makers' goals."
Charles J. Shields, email@example.com, is a freelance writer
and veteran educator who lives in Charlottesville, Va.