My kids are not fans of Dora the Explorer. It’s a quality show, no doubt, but they just aren’t into it. I know a lot of kids are though. When I first arrived at Georgetown I met a Psychology professor named Sandra Calvert. She does a lot of work on the psychology of children’s media consumption, and we worked together on an NSF project to find out how children’s familiarity with a character can influence their learning. Presumably, engagement and learning are correlated, and having a pre-existing “parasocial relationship” with a character has been shown to increase learning in some circumstances. At the time my daughters were two and four and so I was personally interested in learning more about their learning (I try to be a good parent sometimes).
Having just arrived, I didn’t have a whole lot of resources at my disposal, but I managed to find a great student, Stevie Chancellor (already way more famous than I), and we cobbled together a game in XNA to test whether the characterization affects student’s ability to learn “subitization” the ability to group numbers into collections instead of counting individually. The major finding here is that voice seems to matter more than character, or at least it’s a major part of the equation. Film and video producers are always fond of saying things like “audio is half of the presentation but gets about 10% of the attention” and its seems like when learning is concerned that’s also a big part of the story.
What I learned most from this was how truly desperate psychologists are for better experimental tools. When I was doing some of my more recent work on multiscale MR I kept coming across all of these psych studies that used VR platforms to test different mental abilities like navigation or spatial awareness. Not only were these extremely rudimentary, but they seemed to make all kinds of assumptions about how similar cognitive functions are between VR and the physical world. I’ve never seem anything that convinces me that putting someone at a desk with a VR helmet is a good analog for physical experience. The resolution is lower, the haptics are nonexistent, proprioception is confused, the list goes on. There are a few FMRI studies I’ve seen that attempt to bridge the gap by showing that spatial awareness in the physical world lights up the same areas as it does in the virtual one, but the results show similarity at best and its the differences that really matter here if we’re trying to generalize from VR out to the physical world. It really comes down to the fact that we need much better and deeper collaboration between these disciplines. Happy to help if anybody is interested….