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Big Bird 2.0: Sesame Street Workshop's Miles Ludwig is redefining education for today's youth

Austin Photo Set: News_Mike_klru interview_miles ludwig_sesame street_april 2012_sesame
Courtesy of Sesame Street Wiki
Austin Photo Set: News_Mike_klru interview_miles ludwig_sesame street_april 2012_miles
Miles Ludwig, Managing Director of Content Innovation Lab at Sesame Workshop. Courtesy of KLRU
ACL Live at the Moody Theater
Get Directions - 310 W 2nd Street Austin

In today's rapidly matriculating information culture, plopping the kids in front of the boob tube for hours of educational TV doesn't cut it anymore.

Kids are more proficient than their parents at using the family's iPad, and teachers are struggling to keep up with the interactivity of the internet. If you can learn everything you need to know from Wikipedia, why bother reading a boring, static textbook?

These unique challenges are the type that Miles Ludwig faces in the uphill battle to keep ahead of the internet curve. He and his team at Content Innovation Lab lead the charge on digital and interactive developments for the children's television giant, Sesame Street Workshop, keeping the popular brand relevant and effective in the new digital age. 

Ludwig comes to Austin Tuesday as the next keynote speaker for KLRU's Spark Speaker Series at ACL Live. The Emmy, Webby and Peabody winner will speak to the unique challenges of keeping one step ahead of the kindergarten set, making the internet a tool that equalizes parents, teachers and their wily, technology-savvy students.

Prior to his arrival, we asked Ludwig a few specific questions about his approaches to educational technology and learned a few interesting facts about the man who knows better than anyone how to get to the new Sesame Street. (Here's a hint: it's online.)

CultureMap: With the increasing push toward online mediums in children's education, how does the Sesame Workshop emphasize the relationship between the Sesame Street television show and the Sesame Street website?

Miles Ludwig: When children experience characters, storylines and educational themes across multiple media, they engage more deeply and learn more. So we’ve tried to apply the principles of good ‘transmedia’ to capitalize on this opportunity to expand our impact. For example, when we introduced “Super Grover 2.0” last season to teach STEM — science, engineering, technology and mathematics — we did so on a variety of platforms.

Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are also hip on combining the internet with their television programming. How is the Sesame Street Workshop staying competitive in the heavily saturated children's market while also staying education-focused? Is it tough to negotiate those two principles, especially with the speed at which technology advances?

As a non-profit, we’re not really trying to ‘compete’ with commercial companies. Parents know that our sole goal is to help their children reach their highest potential, so they (hopefully) choose to include Sesame Street in the mix of content that their children enjoy. To some extent, we do have to compete for children’s attention, but fortunately our incredibly talented writers, producers and performers keep our programming ‘must-see’ for a lot of kids!

With all of these options available, do kids still gravitate more to their favorite characters in person, on TV, or in interactive web programming? How do you all capitalize on these preferences?

We do see that students still want [to see their favorite characters] on sesamestreet.org. We designed the site for preschoolers to be able to navigate it by themselves, and by far the most popular ‘search strategy’ that kids use to find content is by character. Kids also love to create their own Muppet characters, and we’ve used interactivity to provide engaging ways for them to do so. One example is the “Elmo’s Monster Maker” app.

It seems the divide grows wider and wider everyday between parents' and children's aptitude on the web. What would you most recommend to parents and teachers to best utilize these new mediums for their child's development? Is it different at various stages of development?

If they can find the time, it’s great when parents and teachers can watch or play with their children. We know from our research that children learn more when an adult watches a show or plays a game along with them.  That’s why we’ve always created Sesame Street content on two levels, so that all ages can enjoy it. We’re doing that now with Xbox Kinect games like “Once Upon A Monster” that are designed to be fun and appropriate for the whole family to play together.

Is your answer any different for lower-income families that may not have access to the internet at home?
 
Reaching all children — with a special emphasis on those children that may be at a disadvantage for one reason or another — is core to our mission and always a priority for us.  We think it’s important to create products and programming for new technologies and devices, because most of them will eventually become ubiquitous and be used by all families, just as the television did. A recent Pew study found that 58 percent of U.S. 18- to 29-year-olds with a household income of less than $30,000 per year are smartphone owners — many of those people are either parents already or will be very soon.
 
I've always been jealous of the brilliant folks who work on and for Sesame Street. You may have one of the most interesting, creatively demanding jobs in the country. If someone wanted to follow down your path, which field(s) of study would you encourage for them?
 
I’m very proud and very fortunate to work for Sesame Workshop.  One thing I’ve learned is that if you want to really make a difference working for a non-profit, it’s best to have experience in the for-profit world. I think almost any field of study can prepare one for work in the worlds of either non-profit or media; what’s been helpful to me is to be realistic about my strengths and limitations, and never go more than a week or two without being challenged at work.
 
What are the best aspects of your job? What do you look forward to the most going to work each day?
 
Well, like most people I grew up with the characters, and they bring me great joy, truly. I’m still moved to laughter or tears by our content all the time, so that’s pretty terrific. 

Along those lines, then, who is your favorite Sesame Street character, and why?
 
I really don’t have a favorite. When I was a kid myself I might have singled out Grover for his enthusiasm and vulnerability, but now perhaps I know them too well, and I love them all.
 
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Miles Ludwig speaks Tuesday at 6:30pm at ACL Live as part of KLRU's Spark Speakers Series. Tickets are $45.00 and available through the KLRU website.

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