Can academia and industry find common ground?

Can research give a bottom line on how to connect with my audience? It depends. Can it say what kids want from new technologies? Depends. What tricks do kids media-makers use to so consistently turn out sticky, catchy content? Depends. Maybe there were no firm answers at the recent Bridge Under Construction industry event, but there were respectful exchange about similarities and differences in goals and practices.
December 5, 2013

Can research give a “bottom line” on how to connect with my audience? It depends.  Can it say what kids want from new technologies?  Depends.  What tricks do kids media-makers use to so consistently turn out sticky, catchy content?  Depends.

Maybe there were no firm answers at the “Bridge Under Construction” evening, presented by PlayCollective and the Children’s Media Association; however, there was healthy, respectful exchange about similarities and differences in goals, practices, timelines and perspectives.

This event was inspired by a Facebook post from kid culture consultant Amy Kraft, following the 2013 Interaction Design and Children conference.  She wrote:

“Mention of Toca Boca was met with blank stares; many of the academics hadn’t heard of Toca Boca. To play out my question, I surveyed a handful of industry colleagues today to ask if they knew who Seymour Papert was. They didn’t.  How can we better merge the minds from academia with those from industry?”

To respond to Amy’s question, we invited leading content creators and top researchers to share expertise and ask questions of one another, toward building more effective relationships between industry and academia.  Sharing the stage on November 20 were Fordham Associate Professor Fran Blumberg, Nickelodeon Digital VP Sean McEvoy, Education for the 21st Century President Renee Cherow-O’Leary, Ph.D., Fremantle Media EVP Bob Higgins, Rutgers Assistant Professor Vikki Katz, and Cartoon Network VP Alice Cahn.  PlayCollective CEO Alison Bryant moderated, and our Quizmaster (watch the event video to fully understand) was Every Baby Co President Stephen Gass.

Early discussion focused on the disconnection between process-based research and outcomes-based industry.

Vikki Katz:  I develop detailed assessments and explanations of why there is variation across a group of people, why they not homogeneous, and I need that to be understood.  The outcomes are not predetermined; they emerge.

Industry, on the other hand, wants best practices – what is the best simplest way for me to reach this population?  It depends.  You want one sentence?  I can write you a book.  What’s the salable solution?  You want me to sell something to these people; I want you to understand their lives!

We want the same things, but…when academics think all industry wants is a bottom line and something they can sell (and that’s not all industry wants), and industry thinks, “they’re going to write me another book-length treatment that’s going to tell me ‘it depends’,” we’re speaking across each other.

Renee Cherow-O’Leary:  Ideally, the educator should work from the time of the creation of the bible, because then there’s an alignment of the creative vision with the education.  Liking and respecting each other is key; it’s not enough to give notes.

Sean McEvoy: When we’re thinking about games for kids that are demographically appropriate, we’re more focused on being sure that there’s a game design that undergirds that.  We’re seeing a time when game design is an academic pursuit – we’re seeing degreed game designers coming through who are great complements to the business that we do.

Bob Higgins: We would love nothing more than for research to tell us “this is what is going to work, this is what the kids like, this is how they like it.”  We as an industry are living in fear of not finding that thing, and panicked to ensure that we find that thing first.

Alice Cahn: We read an enormous amount of research, whether child development research or when we’re working on a project and have to become subject matter experts, so we can talk to children about it in words of less than three syllables.  That said, in the final product, your research has been translated into another product.

Closely related to process is pace: industry panelists noted the pressure they face from accelerating technology change, and asked, “how quickly can your research keep up with that, so that what you’re researching is actually usable?

Fran Blumberg: Regardless of what the gadget is, or what the technology may be, there does remain for a lot of us the core question: what are you getting from the media experience, that has relevance to you in another context?

Vikki Katz: One way of looking at a media environment – and this is something that I’ve done now in projects over time – is having children draw out their home environment and describe what’s in it…where all the different media devices are, and then asking them to pick in each room which one they think is the most important, who uses it the most, with whom, in what language, for what purposes and so on.  You learn a lot about the way kids see these different things in relation to each another.

Looking at just the shiny gadget, outside the context of the larger media environment, we’re gonna miss it, because it’s moving too quickly.  It’s not the way people live – people don’t use a gadget in a vacuum.  And they don’t just use the gadget, it’s the emotional attachment that comes with the gadget.

Of course, in the end, industry’s need for and use of research varies based on company goals.  Two panelists noted that everyone on the industry side of the stage came from commercial companies.

CahnI don’t think there’s this great divide…we produce entertainment programming, not educational.  If Linda Simensky [PBS] was sitting here or Sandy Wax [Sprout], you’d have a different conversation, because they have a specific purpose for their programming.  They want to teach literacy or numeracy or STEM.  But, my goal is to make sure that I engage children with developmentally-appropriate entertainment that gets them to want to spend even more time with me, which I think is a good thing.

Anne Wood said it best: Our job is to provide children with a window and a mirror.  And in that mirror they should see themselves – to have their own dreams and their own ideas reflected – and in that window they should see people and places and things and ideas that they haven’t yet experienced.

HigginsSomeone referred to “pride that we’ll create something that kids will benefit from.”  My question is what’s the benefit – is it always “ABC 123″?  When Alice and I were at Cartoon Network, we started a preschool block called “Tickle You.” The concept was that kids benefit from laughter, from a mental break from the day.

Sometimes it’s the phrasing: You said, “build better programming.”  What does “better” mean?  For me, it means the most kids watching at any one time.  If they get something out of it that’s awesome, but if they don’t and they watch…that’s really good, too.  If they can watch it, and hug it in a tactile form, that’s pretty awesome, too.

The industry panel asked the academics for examples of effective, productive research/industry collaborations, and got responses entirely from preschool TV, predominantly “Sesame Street.”  Let me turn the question to you, dear readers:  what are your favorite instances of outstanding media developed with aid from academic research?

Word of the Post, courtesy of Renee Cherow-O’Leary:

“Zone of Proximal Development:” From education theorist Lev Vygotsky, this is something that’s just a little bit beyond the child’s current capability, providing an aspirational aspect to learning.

About The Author
Analyst/strategist/writer/speaker David Kleeman travels the world as SVP of Global Trends for kids research consultancy/digital studio @Dubit. Home is an aisle seat near the front. Follow: @davidkleeman.


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