The topic of children and television presents a rich variety of research opportunities, attracting scholars from many different fields of study. Anderson is just one of numerous UMass researchers who are helping expand our knowledge of how children respond to television, how the technology can help kids learn, and what broadcasters can do to strengthen their offerings for young viewers.
Education professor George Forman has made a career of pioneering new classroom uses for TV and video, demonstrating that teachers and students alike can benefit from observing themselves on screen. “We’re helping children reflect more deeply on their experience,” Forman explains. In a Skinner Hall preschool affiliated with the School of Education, students and teachers use video equipment to document a variety of activities, from physical exercise to drawing. (“When young children are handling the camera, we use our older equipment,” Foreman laughs.) The reflecting on experience takes place when the kids screen tapes of themselves and look analytically at what they’ve been doing. For example, teachers might ask students to watch a tape of themselves turning somersaults, then draw pictures to illustrate the different positions of their bodies at different stages of the forward roll.

Teachers at Skinner also use video technology to document learning experiences — studying the group dynamics when a number of kids work on a project together, or watching how an individual child goes about figuring something out. With a few keystrokes, Forman calls up on his computer screen some digital video footage of a group of kids drawing with markers on a sheet of clear Plexiglas. Behind this transparent “blackboard” or “easel,” ants scurry about their business on a pile of dirt and grass. Running the video backward and forward until he finds the moment he wants, Forman points out one boy who’s just learning to transform his drawing from random scribbles to meaningful patterns of lines and dots that represent the path of a moving ant.

The School of Education is compiling an archive of such documentary classroom footage. “Each video clip exemplifies a particular principle of child development or a particular principle of teaching,” Forman says. He envisions a vast UMass archive of these clips that early childhood educators around the world could access via the Internet for purposes of research and training.

Behind Forman’s commitment to educational use of video technology lies an unorthodox conviction. “Experience is not the best teacher,” he says. “It sounds like heresy, but when you think about it, experience is not the best teacher. It’s reflection on experience that makes it educational. And video is very useful for that.”

At the UMass Center for Research in Art and Technology, art professor Patricia Galvis Assmus combines experimental work on the frontiers of computer animation with practical development projects for TV production companies. Her students carry their education beyond the classroom by working up animated characters and other concepts for formal presentation to children’s TV producers.
Heading up a research team that spans the spectrum from first-year students to doctoral candidates, Galvis Assmus can’t discuss all the specifics of her current projects, since some ideas from her lab have been snapped up for development by a New York City production company that insists on confidentiality for the time being. But she’s happy to talk about the many capabilities of her computer animation equipment, and to praise the skills of the student researchers who use that equipment to create animated figures from photographs of clay models.

“They’re getting team experience,” she says proudly. “They’ve actually designed characters. They do storyboards and script consultations. They do 3-D animations on the computer. They have to design it so that it’s educationally sound and aesthetically pleasing, and so that you can produce it. They are learning how to put their education to use in its field.”