Students in the U.S. trail children in other countries when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and math (aka STEM), at least according to international benchmark tests like the Programme for International Student Assessment.
Is a partial solution to that problem letting Dora the Explorer or other popular virtual characters like her teach kids math?
A recent study from the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University suggests that the answer might be yes.
Researchers, led by Sandra Calvert, the Center’s director, found that kids ages 3-6 who had a strong parasocial (meaning one-sided) relationship with a virtual character (in this case, Dora from the popular cable series) could master math concepts faster with their help.
That’s because “children form relationships” with characters like Dora. “They become social partners for children, if they have these close para-social relationships with characters they learn better,” Calvert said in an interview. And with the advancements in technology, educators may soon be able to harness that relationship. “What’s changed now is that the characters can respond to kids in ways that they couldn’t before.”
The researchers tested more than 200 children ages 3 to 6 on a basic—but important—math technique: the ability to figure out that adding one to a particular number gets you to the next number. All of the children studied hadn’t mastered that skill before the experiment began. Some of those kids came in with a “relationship” with Dora, perhaps from watching the TV show.
The researchers examined how well students learned when a Digital Dora—controlled by an adult who was hidden from view—taught the children the math concept as part of a virtual game. They also examined whether those skills translated to the non-digital world, where students had to demonstrate their learning using physical objects. And they delved into whether students were able to talk about math at a higher level if they got corrective feedback from the character.
The upshot: Dora proved to be a great math tutor, especially for kids who already had a strong connection with her. The kids who had the strongest “relationship” with Dora and talked to her the most about math had faster and better math responses during the virtual game than those who didn’t. The youngsters were also able to demonstrate what they had learned in the virtual game with physical objects if they learned from the character, as opposed to learning from a disembodied voice. And children who received feedback from the character also performed better.
Of course, having an actual person talking to each individual student is not easily scalable. But developments in artificial intelligence might be able to create an interactive teaching character that would not require an actual person behind the scenes.
That won’t be easy, Calvert acknowledged. “It would be really expensive to make this work,” she said. That’s partly because voice-assisted technology has a tough time understanding small children. “Kids voices have notoriously been difficult to pick up,” she said.
Still, Calvert sees possibilities in the findings. After all, as AI teaching techniques get more sophisticated, kids could be learning math (or social studies or science) from almost any character that they have a strong parasocial relationship with. Parents (or teachers) could choose to have Daniel Tiger teach reading or let Peppa Pig help enforce science concepts.
Dora, Calvert said, “could be swapped out for any character. Whoever it is that your child loves, you could put them into these kinds of settings and get [kids] ready for 21st century learning.”
And it’s possible, Calvert said, that this could even work for older children. (Think of Marvel Comics Captain America as a great civics teacher).
That’s not to say that Cap or Dora or any digital character will ever replace a teacher, Calvert cautioned.
Rather, she emphasized that “this [could be] a tool in their toolkit” to help personalize instruction for students.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.