Entrepreneur Scotty Iseri had an a-ha moment as he watched his three-year-old niece (one of nine nieces and nephews he has in all) try to engage with Elmo on Sesame Street, whom she was watching on a television set. This little digital native, so used to tapping and swiping iPad screens and physically interacting with Elmo on a tablet app, went up to the television, reached her little arms out to the television, and started tapping the motionless Elmo on the screen to try to make him move.
It was then Scotty started thinking about content and storytelling, and how it’s changed in the age of technology. For adults like us, storytelling is a leisure activity, one we experience passively. But for kids who grew up engaged with technology, why shouldn’t storytelling be more interactive? Kids are open to exploring and more agile with technology — what they needed was a live action narrative with characters they loved, but also interactive gameplay to go along with it.
Thus, the idea for The Digits was born. The Digits are “the greatest unknown band in the galaxy,” and they’re the stars of an original web series and accompanying app that ties gameplay seamlessly into the narrative, so the outcome of the game directly affects the outcome of the story. The Digits are on a mission to stop their arch nemesis, the evil Marvwell Doomfinger III, who’s the boss at Doomfinger Records and is using music to make the galaxy stupider. The Digits sing rock songs about math concepts to educate the galaxy and in turn their users, children ages 7-11.
With his background in public media, musical theater and children’s theater, a web series felt natural to Scotty, whom we recently met with to learn more about the Portland-based startup, The Digits. He saw the potential for how storytelling could change as technology changed, and came up with a game design that mixes with story and teaches itself. “The best educational games are the ones that teach you how to play themselves,” he said. With narrative woven throughout, The Digits doesn’t teach math through drills but through an understanding of concepts.
“There are a ton of math apps out there,” said Scotty. “A lot of them are just digital flashcards based in memorization, and that doesn’t get you to like math. When you take an existing game and slap math on it, education is viewed as punishment.”
So with the help of a curriculum designer and a 20-year teaching veteran who’s now on staff for the company, Scotty created The Digits to teach math in a fun way. “One of the most important things about education is creating relevance for the kid. With math, they’re almost always going to ask, when will I need this? The Digits provide relevance with the story — what if you’re ever kidnapped by an evil bad man and need to use math to blast asteroids and save the galaxy?”
The game is marketed towards parents of elementary school children, who were intentionally targeted as users because of a gap Scotty saw. “A huge problem is that there’s not a lot out there for kids who are too old for Sesame Street,” he said. “We specialize in an age group very few people do — there’s a giant gap in the market. You go from the fun of Elmo and Big Bird straight to the lessons of Khan Academy.”
In fact, Scotty looks to the Sesame Street model as inspiration for The Digits. “The Sesame Street model is actually pretty amazing,” he said. “It’s been around for 35 years. We’ve been called Sesame Street for the YouTube generation.” Now that they’ve made a partnership with PBS, that statement is no exaggeration, as stations can now air music videos and short episodes from The Digits. PBS does gap analysis of their educational programs, and they’ll ask The Digits to fill holes in their curriculum in order to get more math material on PBS. Although broadcast isn’t the most interesting aspect of the partnership to Scotty: “Kids just aren’t watching TV,” he said.
But they’re certainly on tablets and other mobile devices, which is why YouTube appealed to his business model so much. He markets The Digits to parents as a tool to supplement what their children learn in school. Scotty made it clear though, that the game and series are aligned with Common Core State Standards: “I think it’s critical that we align our material with what kids are doing in class,” he said. “Teachers are very busy, and they have a lot of material to get through every year, so the more boxes we can check for them on their standards alignment, the better.”
And though the game is meant to be a home learning tool, Scotty is still committed to making it available as a classroom resource as well. The company donates The Digits apps to classrooms, and they now have a partnership with Skype so classes can do live talk backs with the characters via videoconferencing. The inspiration to do this came when a third grade classroom in Idaho sent The Digits a video question on comparing discounts. Check out The Digits’ adorable video response below, where they told students which guitar they should buy for the best value:
Connecting The Digits to real life, again creating relevance for the kids using it, is a priority for the company. They’re now sending buttons and stickers to parents, which match the achievements students complete in the app. Parents will receive an email when their child achieves a feat, and are instructed to give them the corresponding button to go with it, like merit badges. “We want to connect the digital learning with something physical,” he said. The company is doing a giveaway of the buttons, pictured
to the left, if parents post a review of The Digits to their website.
Ultimately, what Scotty finds most rewarding is the fact that users are both learning from and loving The Digits. “We have parents saying their children’s math scores actually got better, and that they’re more interested and engaged in math. They can see why it’s interesting, and important. We’re doing something that’s very different. We get attention for it. Our users love us,” he said, smiling shyly. “Parents have sent me pictures of their kids playing with the app. We had some kids dress up as the characters for Halloween last year, which is amazing. I don’t hear people doing that for Khan Academy.”
Check out The Digits’ website here, and teachers and parents — have you used The Digits with your children? Sound off in the comments below, or via Twitter to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.