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Technologies That Entertain and Educate: How Are They Made?

How "Sesame Street" cracked the code of holistic evidence-building.

Key points

  • Educational technology can have an impact, but only when the technology design and use are of high quality.
  • Inclusive R&D and efficacy trials are vital for developing impactful, sustainable ed-tech solutions.
  • The show "Sesame Street" uses large-scale, global research to build support for ed-tech's capabilities.

There's a widely accepted research consensus that educational technology, or ed-tech, can lead to positive learning outcomes—but only when the technology design and use are of high quality.

Achieving this quality poses challenges due to the many factors influencing a child’s education. These include the learner background knowledge acquired at home, the teachers' skills in effectively integrating technology into their teaching, and a close alignment between an ed-tech tool and the unique learning paths of each student. Finding agreement on how to achieve ed-tech quality requires addressing these multifaceted educational dynamics.

It might sound challenging, but it is achievable: Technologies developed through both inclusive approaches that include teachers and children through participatory research as well as efficacy trials that require controlled testing conditions, have the highest likelihood to positively impact learners long-term. A holistic approach to gathering evidence is the secret to thriving in a market crowded with thousands of apps and learning platforms.

What does such an approach look like in practice? "Sesame Street" media are a good example of how technology companies can approach evidence.

"Sesame Street" and Efficacy Research

"Sesame Street," created by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, is known for its iconic characters and engaging storylines that capture children's imaginations while nurturing their cognitive and emotional development. What sets it apart from many other children's television shows is its rigorous research approach, which spans multiple countries and focuses not only on efficacy but also on cost-effectiveness and its broader impact on learning and social outcomes. It is this comprehensive approach that has underscored its effectiveness across various contexts and its sustained relevance over time.

For example, a recent study evaluated an 11-week remote early learning program (RELP) delivered through WhatsApp to families in Lebanon, including Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese families. Created by Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee in response to COVID-19, the program aimed to provide early education where access to preschool is limited.

The evaluation study looked at two groups: one receiving only RELP and another with RELP plus remote parenting support. Both were compared to a group that waited for RELP. Researchers analyzed how these programs affected child development, parenting, and caregiver well-being.

The researchers found that remote early childhood education programs are effective in promoting early childhood development in regions where traditional schooling is hard to access. The RELP intervention had significant positive effects on key areas of early learning, such as emergent literacy, numeracy skills, motor development, and social-emotional growth.

Beyond Efficacy Studies

Certainly, while efficacy studies provide solid evidence of impact, they don't encompass the full gold standard, especially not in interventions that involve education and technology. Randomized controlled trial (RCT) research has often been portrayed either as championing or condemning technology in the pursuit of equity.

However, it's more productive to view RCTs as one part of a broader spectrum of research methods available to educational researchers. These researchers span various disciplines, including cognitive psychology, learning sciences, qualitative studies, and ethnography, which often uncover intricate learning processes and areas that are challenging to quantify.

From this perspective, the critical question extends beyond whether tools are effective to understanding for whom, when, and why they are effective, addressing the diversity of students and contexts.

"Sesame Street" and Inclusive R&D

While literacy and numeracy outcomes can be readily tested, life skills such as curiosity and perseverance are more complex to measure. These socio-emotional skills are crucial for understanding how a technology tool aligns with diverse children's profiles in the learning process. While life skills may not be easily reduced to standardized tests, qualitative methods provide valuable insights into their impact.

To find out the impact of "Sesame Street" on these other skills, the team engaged in inclusive research and development, with testbed and sandbox methods, where researchers with practitioners or children jointly explore what might work best. For example, in the qualitative studies in Syria and Northern Ireland, the content was refined and developed with the local teachers and parents to improve its cultural relevance and contextual appropriateness.

Once finalized, the content was disseminated through various media platforms, including WhatsApp, to reach the parents impacted by conflict and war and support the social-emotional learning needs of their young children.

Efficacy and Inclusive R&D Are Not Opposites

This integration of efficacy trials and a testbed approach illustrates the transformative potential of technology to both entertain and educate children. Whether categorized as children’s media or "ed-tech," well-crafted technologies can positively impact young learners' lives.

This approach underscores the critical importance of comprehensive research that considers both content and format, embracing ongoing inquiry rather than one-time studies. By embracing the rich diversity of educational research disciplines, both cognitive and non-cognitive, "Sesame Street" exemplifies a commitment to advancing educational practices aligned with the science of learning and inclusive educational principles. This holistic approach not only supports continuous improvement but also exemplifies a robust approach to evidence.


Mares, M. L., & Pan, Z. (2013). Effects of Sesame Street: A meta-analysis of children's learning in 15 countries. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 34(3), 140-151.

Schwartz, K., Michael, D., Torossian, L., Hajal, D., Yoshikawa, H., Abdulrazzak, S., & Behrman, J. (2024). Leveraging Caregivers to Provide Remote Early Childhood Education in Hard-to-Access Settings in Lebanon: Impacts From a Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 1-31.

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