What is edutainment? The past, present, and future of this innovative framework

Updated: Apr 18

This post is part of an edutainment series published exclusively on College For The Win.

Imagine this for a moment. You wake up to get ready for school. It’s just an ordinary Wednesday. You sit quietly on the school bus as you try to fully wake up for the day. You finally get to school, and when you walk inside the classroom, you see that the computers are set up and it’s going to be a day of gaming!

Depending on the era that you grew up, that game could be Oregon Trail, or maybe MathBlaster, perhaps even SimCity, or even Minecraft. Regardless of the game, you know it’s going to be a great learning day. Why is that? What makes these games better for learning than a regular textbook and a teacher standing in front of a classroom lecturing?

Minecraft teaches students programming skills as they design their world. Image from flickr

These games follow a framework that experts call edutainment. Edutainment is a mix of the words education and entertainment, combined to create a product that would be considered to be educational entertainment.

The School of Education in American University defines edutainment as a “form of media, games, toys, and experiences that mix fun and learning to motivate students”. The concept is simple: everything that exists falls within the spectrum of educational or entertaining. Some things, like a dry college lecture, could be fully educational but lacking in the entertainment department. A horror movie, by contrast, could be fully entertaining but not have any actual educational value. But then you have everything that falls in between.

Edutainment creation requires the deliberate development of products and ideas that balances that 50/50 education and entertainment line, so that learners are learning while being entertained. The best edutainment products have people learning without realizing that they are learning! I was surprised when I worked as a substitute teacher in a classroom full of fifth graders that understood college-level engineering and programming concepts simply so they could create automated trap doors in the PC game Minecraft. Imagine trying to teach these students programming using a textbook.

The Past of Edutainment: Where did it start?

In a recently-published study reviewing edutainment, readers were introduced to the history of edutainment. While edutainment likely existed centuries ago (such as edutainment plays often performed in ancient Greek theater to teach moral lessons), we started seeing written evidence of edutainment use in the classroom through paper-based games in the 1960s. Also developed in the 1960s was the edutainment behemoth known as Sesame Street, often regarded as the parent of modern edutainment. The overwhelming success of the series resulted in several more edutainment shows for children, including shows like The Electric Company, Reading Rainbow, Wishbone, and countless others.

Sesame Street is often regarded as the parent of modern edutainment. Image from Entertainment Weekly.

Fast-forward several decades, and we see edutainment existing in many forms, including TV shows, movies, books, commercials, video games, and even card games! However, the main limitation of edutainment is that it has primarily been focused on children. Once students aged up, edutainment options became less frequent and learning became more mundane.

The Present of Edutainment: Where are we now?

As technology continued to advance, edutainment also evolved, eventually giving way to adult-friendly edutainment opportunities. This was made possible because technology advances allowed new forms of media to emerge. It was only decades ago when traditional media was limited to broadcast and print that was one-directional. This meant that the media went one way, from a television set, radio, or book, to the viewer, listener, or reader. There was no real way for the consumer to interact with the media besides being a passive recipient.

However, new media, primarily digital media, evolved to include two-way interactivity with the viewer. The emergence of blogs, emails, wikis, and smart phone apps allowed media consumers to actively contribute to the engagement. Rather than just quietly watching, listening, or reading, consumers were able to comment, react, and even create new content for all to see! This provided various new tools perfect for edutainment programming for adults!

New media provides more two-way communication than traditional media, paving the way for new edutainment programs.

I remember that my earliest experience with edutainment, tailored to me as an adult and not a child (who was 18 at the time), was through Microsoft Flight Simulator. Although the game was made to be enjoyed by anyone, the game had a high skill ceiling that allowed older children and adults, particularly those interested in the aviation field, to practice operation of an aircraft with surprisingly-accurate controls. As a student who went to school for aviation and flew actual planes, I would often find myself practicing using the simulator in my dorm room, complete with the optional joystick and rudder controls that you could purchase to simulate the experience even better.

Between 2000 and 2020, edutainment sudden saw a golden era for high school students, college students, and adults, with new edutainment programs being developed left and right to teach a variety of concepts. Some of these programs include:

- Theatre games help preservice teachers develop more multicultural sensitivity

- Radio serial drama in Nigeria to educate on HIV prevention

- Educational card games teaching health sciences

- Soap operas used for social learning and development

- Improvisational theater to teach genetic concepts

- Graphic novel to teach concepts of cell biology in a college classroom

- Medical video games to educate medical students in the classroom

The things that all these programs have in common is that they were created with the edutainment framework in mind. In theory, any form of entertainment can be turned into an edutainment program. Have you ever read a fictional novel and then discussed it at a book club? Did you ever watch a movie and then write an essay about it in school? Those are forms of entertainment that were converted to edutainment program. However, true edutainment programs are built from the ground up to balance the educational and entertainment components, optimizing for learning.

The Future of Edutainment: Where are we going?

This Tedx Talk gives a great overview of Edutainment's past, present, and future. Check out how simple classroom activities can transform education for students.

Transforming Education through Edutainment | Roland Nunez | TEDxLSSC

The future looks bright for edutainment, as more and more programs implement its principles into their curricula. But edutainment program development has to be intentional, specific, and constantly monitored for effectiveness and tweaked as necessary. To build your perfect edutainment program, it requires three main areas of focus: your measure of education, your method of entertainment, and the source used for both.

Education- First and foremost, you want your edutainment program to be educational. Otherwise, what’s the point? To determine whether or not it is educational, you need to have a method for measuring its educational content. This can be done several ways, by creating learning outcomes, measuring retention of information through testing and assessment, or by having participants demonstrate their proficiency of skill. Assessment is crucial for both evaluation of the learning that is taking place in your program and to evaluate the program itself for improvement.

Entertainment- This part of your program development focuses on the participant experience. How engaged are they in your program? You can determine this by measuring their positive and negative attitudes towards your program through assessment, monitoring their behaviors towards the activity, as well as monitoring the length of time they engage with the activity. If the engagement is too low, you will find that they participants won’t be participating for long.

Source- Last, but certainly not least, is the source used for the edutainment program. I often see programs that focus on the balance of education and entertainment, but not enough focus on the source. This is simply the media device used to present the program. Will this be a video game? A book? A film? A simulator? A card game? Teambuilding exercises? There are several factors that go into deciding on your source or media device, which can include:

- The technical complexity of the source used (can you operate it?)

- The learning curve for participants (or the time it takes them to learn how to use it)

- The costs associated with the source (in case you are using something ready-made)

- Return on investment (is the learning you are getting worth the time and money invested?)

All edutainment programs must take these three measures into consideration.

In the next few posts in this edutainment series, I will dive even deeper into the edutainment development process. This includes the use of the edutainment curriculum in a revolutionary new edutainment college prep program for middle and high school students, as well as tips, strategies, and examples so you can create your own edutainment programs in your home or classroom.

Edutainment has only recently become a formal framework of educating learners, but it is here to stay! As it continues to grow and evolve with technology and the creative educators who push boundaries, the learning landscape will continue to be transformed, making education more accessible than ever before.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, How college media affects what students believe about college.

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