Sesame Street: The original MOOC

Children with easy access to program less likely to be held back

The very first MOOC actually debuted 46 years ago, has earned critical praise and is still running, according to a study published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The report declared "Sesame Street" the original MOOC—and found it to be a very effective one at that.

In 1970, between 28% and 35% of children ages 2 to 5 years watched the program, and that level grew to between 33% and 42% the year after.

Researchers found children who lived in regions with easy access to Sesame Street broadcasts were less likely than their peers in other areas to have been held back before starting high school. The effect was especially strong in socioeconomically depressed regions, and among black and male children.

"For a television show that kids watch for an hour a day to have an impact that persists for 10 years or so, that's remarkable," said Phillip Levine, co-author of the paper and an economics professor at Wellesley College.

The researchers examined data from markets with ultra-high-frequency (UHF) or very-high-frequency (VHF) broadcasts of Sesame Street. Because UHF antennas are more difficult to tune, researchers categorized those markets as receiving less exposure to the program than the UHF ones.

Then, they compared it against 1980 U.S. Census data and other measures to determine educational outcomes in various areas. Students in strong reception areas were 3 percentage points more likely to be in their age-appropriate grade compared with those in weak reception regions.

However, watching Sesame Street did not have a discernable effect on high school academic achievement, according to the report, and researchers acknowledged that socio-emotional development also played a part.

"A blended learning environment incorporating both electronic communication of educational content and the human element to affect the 'soft skills' may be preferable, and cost-effective," the authors wrote.

This does not mean that a television program can replace preschool, but rather that "it's all part of an education diet—a healthy array of choices you make for your child," says Jennifer Kolter Clarke, VP of evaluation and research at Sesame Workshop.

Her comments echo those of higher education leaders who support blending online and traditional classroom learning (Samuels, "Early Years," EdWeek, 6/8).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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