• 04.10.12

Transforming The Market For Kids’ Media By Rating Its Educational Value

As part of a $10 million program, experts will rate the educational value of online games, apps, and videos so that parents know if their kids are absorbing lessons–or just rotting their brains.

American kids spend 7.5 hours a day consuming media from screens large and small–more time than they spend in school, when you factor in the weekends. Low-income and minority kids consume even more. If only a little bit of that media were more Khan Academy and less Angry Birds, the learning potential would be enormous. A new rating system unveiled this week aims to nudge the market in that direction.


Common Sense Media, a nonprofit, already rates thousands of movies, video games, books, and apps for age-appropriateness on things like sex, violence, and language. Their new ratings, created by a cadre of PhDs, aims to measure something more complicated: the educational value of a video, app, or game–not just according to the Common Core academic standards on things like math and reading, but also on even more difficult-to-evaluate qualities like social and emotional intelligence and creativity. “We created a fairly detailed rubric based on factors shown to be important to kids’ learning in any setting–things like, is the learning baked-in vs. extraneous to the material? Is there feedback present, and does the child experience build in their performance?” says Seeta Pai, managing director for education and research at Common Sense. Parents, teachers, and young people will be able to annotate the ratings with their own feedback.

The debate about what, exactly, constitutes educational value in media and whether it’s possible to measure is a huge can of worms. For all the hype about game-based learning, too much of what’s produced in this space is “chocolate-covered broccoli”–a subpar media experience with lessons awkwardly shoehorned in.

What’s potentially even more interesting than this project is the funder behind it: Chicago-based SCEFDN, created by philanthropist Susan Crown as a spinoff of her family foundation. They plan to pour over $10 million into digital learning initiatives over the next several years, putting them in the same ballpark with much better-known names like Macarthur, Gates, and Hewlett. “We want to influence the market so better stuff is created and the best stuff is getting to the most kids,” says Ryan Blitstein, who heads up these initiatives. “We’re trying to incent some VCs.” Their next project, to be announced later this month, will focus on distribution channels.

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.