The Information Equity Initiative has signed Sesame Workshop as its first content partner for distribution over its datacasting network.
By next June, videos and interactive content from the nonprofit educational media company will be available to parents and children at kiosks in 300 health centers across Pennsylvania. The federally qualified centers serve 900,000 clients annually, including nearly a quarter-million children under age 18. The touchscreen kiosks play video content and can print out information.
Utilizing data bandwidth from public television stations, IEI began working during the pandemic to bring educational content to students in areas lacking broadband service. The mission quickly expanded into other underserved communities, such as people in prison and their families and now patients of health centers. Located in underserved rural and urban areas across the state, these centers provide medical, dental, vision and mental-health care to Pennsylvanians who would otherwise lack access to care.
“We’ve gone from K-12 to not just incarceration but also youth and adult public health, early childhood, and we’re starting to look at how we can serve migrant farmworker communities,” said Erik Langner, IEI CEO. “How can we empower PBS stations to reimagine and repurpose their infrastructure that’s already built, in order to directly serve communities in a whole new way?”
With its track record of creating high-quality and beloved educational media for children, Sesame Workshop was an obvious partner, Langner said. “They have such amazing content, everything from literacy and social and emotional learning to public health,” he said.
IEI began talking with the Workshop a year ago, as IEI launched as a joint venture of Pennsylvania public broadcasters WLVT and WITF and South Carolina ETV.
“The partnership model is key to everything we do,” Langer said.
It was a good fit from the Workshop’s side, too, said Akimi Gibson, VP and education publisher.
IEI and the Workshop share a focus on serving children and families who lack reliable broadband access, Gibson said. The IEI partnership falls under the Workshop’s “Sesame Street in the Communities” project, which is rooted in Sesame Street’s origins in 1969, when educational television became a new medium for preparing young children from underserved communities for school.
Those needs remain acute today, even as the technology to reach those communities has changed.
Sesame Workshop’s content for IEI will focus on several “content buckets” beyond school readiness, Gibson said. Those include resilience, learning to handle emergencies, “tough topics,” incarceration, learning through play, “moving our bodies,” family bonding and public health with a focus on COVID prevention.
Many of those topics have become even more important for early learning curricula as a result of the pandemic, especially for today’s preschoolers who were born during COVID.
“Little ones are too young to think of it as learning loss, but we know their lives have been interrupted,” Gibson said. “We’re keenly interested in making sure socialization skills, pro-social concepts, how to transition from home to school — that those competencies are in place.”
Sesame Workshop’s content will teach life skills that children may not have learned during pandemic isolation, such as spatial relationships.
“Teachers have to take time to help children learn … skills of how to move about in a classroom,” Gibson said. “They’re widening spaces between tables, for example, because for the first three years, little ones didn’t have a lot of space to roam around.” Social skills a child typically learns at the playground or from playmates — such as negotiating who takes the next turn on the slide — are the types of experiential learning that they missed.
“Those are skills that children didn’t need for the first three years of their lives,” Gibson said.
IEI’s platform allows customization of content according to local needs, Langner said. An individual public health officer will be able to work in the platform to curate content for their waiting room.
“Each of those facilities has different communities that they serve,” Langner said, including refugee communities that have specific language requirements or may specialize in pediatric or geriatric services. “It allows for that hyperlocal curation.”
Sesame Workshop’s familiar characters will appear in some of the IEI content, Gibson said.
“We have a range of genres,” Gibson said. “Sometimes there’s live action with our Muppets, sometimes there’s animation without our Muppets, and sometimes with our Muppets and celebrities. We have songs, we have stories, we have animated videos that we’ll be providing.”
Sesame’s resources will also include printables and other support materials for parents and educators as part of what Gibson calls a “360 approach” to make content more accessible in homes and schools.
For IEI, Sesame Workshop is just the first of what Langner hopes will be a broad range of content providers as the organization expands.
For stations that join the group, Langner sees three pathways for revenue growth: philanthropic support for providing a range of educational services to communities, including programs for incarceration, K–12 and early education, and public health; project-management contracts for deploying datacasting services; and, eventually, the ability to lease datacasting capacity for commercial use.
IEI is also looking to expand beyond U.S. broadcasters. Its technology is compatible with digital broadcast services reaching 82% of the world’s population, Langner said. That flexibility has propelled him into conversations with foreign governments and educational ministries.
“We’re in talks right now in Brazil, where there are 26,000 schools that lack internet, 5,000 of which lack electricity,” he said. “In many of those instances, the students do not have access to laptops.” Through datacasting and a small projector, those schools can bring in digital curated content at a very low cost, something he says could be a “game changer” in many countries.
A year into its work, IEI is also drawing its own philanthropic support, Langner said. The project has raised more than $1 million in grants from four major funders: Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic initiative of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy, as well as Endless Network, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation.
“Everyone is focused on universal access to affordable broadband,” Langner said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted key examples of community-based services that Langner believes will generate philanthropic support for stations. The range of services includes incarceration, K–12 and early education, and public health; it is not limited to incarceration.