ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 3.9 - December 1998
Edutainment and the Internet
by Ted Pedersen & Francis Moss
Spywatch is an example of an educational site that stimulates thought and learning through interactive content. If you have the Shockwave plug-in, you can view an interactive sample of Spywatch. © BBC.
This past June, the White House convened a conference in Los Angeles, California, titled: "Internet Summit: Digital Media for Children & Teens." The Summit held panels on such topics as on-line content, learning on the Internet, and marketing. Later the same month, San Francisco, California hosted "Digital Kids '98," with guest speakers including David Britt, CEO and President of the Children's Television Workshop. Disney Online was a major sponsor of both events.
Do we need more proof that the Internet, once the province of dweebs, nerds, hackers and people without a life, is now on its way to becoming the newest "happiest place on earth?"
The History of the Internet...In 25 Words or Less
(Okay, so we're kidding about the 25 words part!) In the Internet's Pleistocene era -- circa 1980s -- only the government and large educational institutions were involved or interested in this worldwide network of linked computers. Then in 1991 an American working in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee came up with a way to transmit images via the Internet, and the World Wide Web was born. The rest, as they say, is too tedious to repeat here.
The PBS Kids site is an interactive extension of the TV channel. © PBS.
Skip forward a few eras "net time," and we find ourselves remarking, "My how the baby has grown!" From only 50 web sites in 1993, the World Wide Web now has 100,000 new web pages going on-line every hour. Before 1995 or so, there were hardly any kids of which to speak of on-line. Today, there are 10 million kids surfing the web, and by the millennium, 20 million kids will be cybersurfing. Based on a recent survey, kids are now spending 11 hours a week watching television and 3.6 hours a week on-line. Interestingly, girls are slightly ahead of the boys; they are on-line an average of 3.7 hours a week, while boys use the Internet an average of 3.5 hours per week.
No one knows where it's going to end, but everyone wants a piece of the action. Educators and entertainers are no exception. Schools are rushing to educate this eager new audience, and entertainment companies are rushing to...well, entertain, and hopefully, to educate as well.
Masters of Their Domain (Names)
Who better to reach kids on the World Wide Web than the companies who've been hugely successful at doing it on television? While many of the Fortune 500 companies are still struggling over how best to use this new medium, companies like Disney, Nickelodeon, and even gray, staid PBS have jumped in with both feet.
The reasoning isn't difficult to fathom. The web is where the kids are. Unlike many grownups, children have no fear of this new technology; on the contrary, they embrace it. The same kids who wore out the joysticks on their Nintendos and Playstations (and wore out their parents in the process), are now mousing and clicking, playing many of the same games on the World Wide Web. In fact, the Web is beginning to successfully compete for the audience that used to watch Saturday morning cartoons. As a result, the entertainment companies have had to adapt. They did so by creating entertainment, with a bit of education, on the World Wide Web.
Mixing entertainment and education is not a new concept. Television has been doing it for years in some of their Saturday morning animated shows, like Fat Albert and Captain Planet. With the advent of cable channels, like Discovery and The Learning Channel, and new FCC educational regulations, these kind of educational-entertainment shows have multiplied. Now similar programming is blossoming on the Internet.
Disney's Blast Online. © Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Disney On the Web
The 800-pound gorilla of children's entertainment companies is, of course, Disney. As befits their standing in traditional entertainment -- theme parks, television, film, cable channels -- they are also the largest presence on the World Wide Web, with a separate entity, Disney Online, overseeing their two separate Web sites (the new buzzword is "portals"), Disney.com (www.disney.com), a free site, and a subscription-based site, Disney Blast. At the Digital Kids Conference, guest speaker Jake Weinbaum, President of Buena Vista Internet Services, said that today's kids are the Internet Generation, and they are growing up in an interactive world. They are learning, thinking, and analyzing in a non-linear way. Disney Online wants to provide content to meet their needs, offering games and activities for kids on both their free site and their subscription site.
Disney isn't just for children however. According to Disney spokesperson Rebecca Anderson, Disney.com is "the number one parenting web site on the Internet," due to "Family" (www.family.com), an on-line parenting resource with advice on nutrition, recipes and activities for families.
Disney has figured out how to provide what kids like, Anderson explains, by bringing Disney's classic cartoon personalities to the new medium. "Characters are our heart and soul," Anderson states. "We don't just want to recycle television shows or films, but find new ways to bring our characters to the web."
Nickelodeon on the Web
If Disney Online is the 800 pound gorilla of the `net, Nickelodeon (www.nick.com) is the large orangutan. Although its reputation for edgier kids' shows sets it apart from even-your-grandmother-would-approve Disney, the Nickelodeon web site at nick.com is as safe as grandma's house. Along with its own Nickelodeon pages featuring its signature characters and shows, there's Nick Jr. for younger kids, and Nick-At-Nite, with clips and broadcast schedules about shows running on Nickelodeon's cable channel. Nickelodeon is rapidly building a brand loyalty on the Internet to rival Disney Online.
Cartoon Network's site primarily touts the network's programming, however, there is also a lot of information on how cartoons are created, as well as interactive content. © 1998 Cartoon Network.
Everybody's Doing It
Even PBS is getting into the act. Visit the kids' section (www.pbs.org/kids) of their web site and you can drop anchor in "The Big Harbor" with this newly redesigned companion site to the popular PBS children's program, Theodore Tugboat. Here you can download coloring pages, activity sheets, a screensaver and wallpaper, read the new story "Hank and the Hug," play an on-line memory game, and color your favorite characters with a Java coloring tool.
Turner Learning, the educational division of Turner Broadcasting (learning.turner.com), uses the Internet "to promote company programming, Cartoon Network being a good example of an overwhelming success with over 2 million page views daily. The future of the Internet is uncertain at this point, but it would be reasonable to assume that programming on-demand, games and other children-based activities will be perfect for this type of environment."
On the other side of the pond in the U.K., Tom Calthrop, of Smudge (www.bbc.co.uk/education/laac/story/sb2.htm), creates web sites that are targeted toward learning experiences. The interactive adventures and games are featured on the BBC educational web site and typically star cartoon characters. The goal is to create a fun, entertaining, and educational experience. Their sites appeal to parents by having rich content. Calthrop believes that many parents still watch cartoons alongside their children. "We encourage parents and teachers to participate. Parents do like our sites and we think it's important that children are not left for hours in front of the computer -- or TV for that matter."
When discussing whether the Internet may be used, like cable, for reruns of popular cartoon shows, Calthrop doesn't think TV reruns would be that successful: "It's important to remember that the web is fully interactive, and until TV gets there the web provides the potential as a better learning environment." An example is Smudge's participation in the BBC's animal activity center on the web. Their goal is to get five year-olds to use computers and learn control of the mouse.
The Darker Side of the Web
While we have so far painted the bright side of the Internet, there is a dark side. We're not talking about the dangers of sex and violence that seem to invade most discussions of kids and the web. Indeed those dangers do exist, but they are like the back streets of any large city -- they can be avoided with a little knowledge. In the view of Dr. John Richards, Senior Vice President of Turner Learning, "The problem with the Internet is that it is a collection of information with little definition or no restrictions -- this is both its strength and greatest weakness."
At the Digital Kids conference in San Francisco, Joanne Roberts, a former teacher who now creates web sites for teenagers, remarked, "There's a lot of negative press about the Internet. It's really a very valuable experience for kids, and as long as you teach them basic safe behavior outside of the house, the same rules can apply inside the house, using the Internet. Give them information about safety, but don't become paranoid."
The problem facing everyone who creates content for the web is how to police the net without creating a police state. What should worry those who worry about the future of their kids, is the potential for non-learning on the web. Kids understand safety on the Internet. What they don't understand is critical thinking -- how to analyze the information that engulfs them, how to judge what they experience on-line, how to ask the proper questions.
The Future of the Web
Everyone agrees that content is the key to success on the Internet. But there is little agreement on what makes good content. Based on our research, the keys to good edutainment web content for children seem to be:
- Providing a "safe harbor" for kids to enter.
- Providing an opportunity to learn skills.
- Offering characters and content familiar to kids.
- Providing a way to interact with the larger community.
Clearly kids today are part of a new generation -- a post-television generation. A few short years ago, kids were consumers. Today they are participants in the web experience, and they create as well as consume. Scott Webb, senior vice president of Nickelodeon Media Works, has said, "I think kids are thirsty to understand how the world works, and television can do only so much of that. The Web is a medium that requires thinking and doing, and that's what kids are wired for...the Web is the perfect medium for kids."
Ted Pedersen and Francis Moss have collaborated on more than 100 animated TV episodes -- from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the current Pocket Dragons. They are also the authors of two Internet books for kids: Internet For Kids and Make Your Own Web Page! A Guide for Kids, both published by the Price Stern Sloan imprint of Penguin Putnam.
Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
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