Image from 'Teachers Are People' released in 1952, produced by Walt Disney Productions
Of course they can. Everyone can learn from Disney, if the Internet is to be believed. With a number of blogs talking about Disney’s secrets of storytelling, marketing, and a whole lot of things, there’s a legacy of digital denizens you’d have to argue against if you believed otherwise.
But this one’s for the teachers themselves, the edtech companies. Even as India’s edtech industry stands at being the 2nd largest in the world, most of its players face a host of basic issues. The most pressing one is engagement. How do you attract and hold the attention of an audience who see your platform as supplementary, rather than as a part of their daily schedules?
Holding engagement with entertainment that’s relevant
If you want to embrace the idea of your brand as being more than just educational, and drive education through entertaining content, Disney might offer a few pointers. The founder of Byju’s, for example, describes his company as being an “education media technology company”. That much is evidenced by the use of gamification, live-action formats and animation in their content. Their videos have been described as being “movie-like” too. Coincidentally enough, Byju’s also directly partnered with Disney in creating their new “Early Learn” app, using Disney characters in videos and games to educate kids between the age of 6 to 8.
What Disney by itself gets right in enrapturing kids are several things that even edtech startups without high venture capital can follow. For one, their strategy is not aimed only at kids. Right from early on, they saw that animation needn’t be limited to young folks - “You’re dead if you aim only for kids.” as Disney’s famous quote goes. This might seem contrary for educational purposes, but when content is made with the intention of being appreciated by adults, you’re more likely to create content that’s a hit with kids too. While what the content explains needs to be created keeping in mind the child’s learning level, how it explains it with visuals or everyday metaphors can be made keeping in mind adults.
There’s the option of creating content that’s not directly part of a lesson series. Provide different kinds of content or content channels that kids can consume that would still keep them within the brand’s universe. Disney has a number of channels, like Oh My Disney and Babble that each provide different kinds of content, such as movie-related quizzes and news for young parents. SparkNotes, for example, has lifestyle content like advice columns and articles centered around everyday life that use educational concepts to bring out their point (14 Shakespearean Ways To Answer The Question “How Was Your Summer”?). While they may not be directly related to lessons, they are still value-adding. They also keep the child on the platform and see it as being more than pure and boring ol’ educational content.
Generating engagement by creating content that’s personally identifiable with
There are other lessons Disney offers for those that prefer to stay clear of the entertainment agenda. Characters that are easily identifiable with, easily memorisable music, and stories that offer multiple perspectives are some of the things that can be borrowed from Disney’s formula. Protagonists and stories are not black and white - they have complex but likeable personalities. Even Khan Academy is known for its personal touch in the way Salman or “Sal” addresses viewers. If your brand involves human interaction, narration, or face-to-face live lessons, encourage tutors to put on distinct personalities that do not distract from the content itself. Content that involves human interaction has also been found to generate more engagement by a few edtech companies.
Then there’s the aspect of data. Disney uses data to push various kinds of content on different devices. They look at usage timings and what kind of characters get more traction. Edtech can start looking at incorporating AI, user analytics and just old school surveys to start designing personalised learning methods. These methods could then suggest content according to the user’s specific learning levels. Using a mix of both vernacular and English to explain concepts might help generate better familiarity as well.
Disney has more insights to offer for edtech companies that offer material for school going audiences than adult learners. Nor does it answer the question of how to change the perception of edtech content as being something for extra credit. You wouldn’t expect it to, considering its function. However, it offers an interesting note on how to make content appeal and stay in kids’ minds, from which edtech could well benefit.