Cross-Platform Learning: How Do Children Learn from Multiple Media?


Numerous research studies have demonstrated that children learn from watching well-designed educational television programs. Viewing of educational television has been found to contribute to children’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes regarding subjects such as literacy, mathematics, and science. Other studies have found significant learning from interactive games as well. (For a review of some of this research, see Fisch, 2009.)

Often, however, producers do not create “just” a television series or “just” an interactive game. Amid industry buzzwords such as “multiple platforms” and “transmedia,” it is increasingly common for projects to span several media platforms, so that, for example, an educational television series might be accompanied by a related website, hands-on outreach materials, or even a museum exhibit or live show. From an educational standpoint, producers and funders assume this combination of media yields added benefits for children’s learning, beyond those that might be provided by one medium alone.

Indeed, educational theory suggests that there might be some basis for this assumption. In particular, consider the theoretical and empirical literature regarding transfer of learning—that is, students’ ability to apply concepts or skills acquired in one context to a new problem or context. Several researchers have proposed that transfer can be elicited through varied practice (i.e., providing learners with multiple examples of the same concept or repeated practice of a skill in multiple contexts). Varied practice helps learners create a generalized mental representation of the material that is less context-dependent, and more easily applied to new tasks and situations (e.g., Gick & Holyoak, 1983; Salomon & Perkins, 1989; Singley & Anderson, 1989). Thus, if a child encounters multiple treatments of similar educational content (e.g., a particular mathematical concept) in multiple contexts across different media platforms, the result could be a better grasp of the content, and a greater likelihood that the child will be able to apply the content in new problems.

Still, such arguments are only theoretical. Does learning via multiple media platforms produce added benefits? Past research has focused almost entirely on the impact of one media component, such as a television series or a computer game in isolation, not a group of components that span multiple platforms. The lack of research on learning from multiple media—what we shall refer to as cross-platform learning—leaves open a number of important questions: How do children use multiple media? How does learning from multiple media platforms compare to learning from a single medium? How can cross-platform educational media projects be designed to build on the strengths of each medium, so that the media components best complement and support each other?

To find out, we conducted a two-part study of cross-platform learning that included both a naturalistic study of children’s use of related, multiple media platforms, and an experimental study to assess learning from combined use of these platforms. Materials for the study were taken from Cyberchase, a multiple-media project that promotes mathematical problem-solving and positive attitudes toward mathematics among 8- to 11-year-olds. Produced by Thirteen/WNET, the components of Cyberchase include an animated television series that airs daily in the PBS Kids Go! block, a website that offers interactive games and puzzles (www., and a variety of hands-on games and activities that teachers or parents can use with children (See Figure 14.1). Other components include family activity books and a traveling Cyberchase museum exhibit, among other materials.

A total of 672 children in Michigan and Indiana participated in both the naturalistic and experimental phases of the research. All the children transitioned from third to fourth grade during the study and were fairly evenly divided by gender (52% girls, 48% boys), mathematics ability (31% high, 42% medium, 27% low), and whether mathematics was their favorite school subject before the study (43% yes, 57% no). Approximately 30% were minority children (17% African-American, 6% Latino, 4% Asian, 3% other).

Naturally, unique benefits of cross-platform learning can arise only if children use more than one of the available media platforms. With this in mind, the first phase of the research (the naturalistic phase) investigated children’s spontaneous, everyday use of Cyberchase media. Specific questions of interest were whether children’s use of Cyberchase use was primarily a one-shot experience or sustained over time, and whether use of Cyberchase spanned multiple media platforms, or was typically limited to one medium.

We tracked children’s naturalistic use of Cyberchase via a weekly “Cyberchase journal.” Over a period of three months (half in the spring and half in the fall), children used their journals to record the number of times they used the Cyberchase television series and/or website, the amount of time they spent, and

Proportional reasoning and “body math” (comparing the sizes of different parts of the body) are dealt with in

Figure 14.1 Proportional reasoning and “body math” (comparing the sizes of different parts of the body) are dealt with in: (a) the Cyberchase television series,

(b) an interactive “Sleuths on the Loose” game on the Cyberchase Web site, and (c) a “Cybersaurus Mystery” hands-on activity. (Images © THIRTEEN. All rights reserved).

what (if anything) they did on the website. For comparison, we had them do the same for a highly popular, noneducational series, SpongeBob Squarepants.

After the naturalistic phase concluded, an experimental phase explored children’s learning from Cyberchase, and how cross-platform learning compared to learning from a single medium. For eight weeks, children were divided into five groups:

  • • DVD Only: Each week, this group watched three half-hour episodes of Cyberchase in school (a total of 24 episodes).
  • • Web Only: Each week, this group played a new mathematical game on the Cyberchase website (a total of eight games), but were not shown the television series.
  • • DVD + Web: This group used all of the above video and online materials.
  • • All Materials: This group used all of the above materials, and also did one hands-on Cyberchase outreach activity per week (a total of eight hands-on activities).
  • • No Exposure: This group did not use any Cyberchase materials. Instead, they watched Liberty’s Kids, a series about American history.

Before and after the eight weeks, we measured problem-solving via rich, meaningful problem-solving tasks similar to those used in mathematics education research (e.g., Lesh, Hoover, Hole, Kelly, & Post, 2000). Some of these were hands-on tasks, and others were pencil-and-paper tasks; every task focused on one of two broad mathematical topics, either measurement or organizing data. For example, in one hands-on task, children pretended to be detectives at a crime scene, and had to infer as much as they could about a thief from clues that indicated shoe size, arm span, and head size (by using proportional reasoning and “body math”). One pencil-and-paper task asked children to organize charts of data to find the most effective method to publicize a food drive.

In addition, we developed an innovative new approach to assessment: online tracking software automatically recorded every click children made while playing three games on the Cyberchase website. Detailed coding schemes enabled us to use these data to gain insight into the evolution of children’s mathematical thinking over the course of each game (see Fisch, Lesh, Motoki, Crespo, & Melfi, 2011).

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