Why I’m Side‑Eyeing Disney’s Latest Research on Kids and Learning


Jul 11, 2017


And you should, too.

Three studies by Disney Research, a network of labs funded by The Walt Disney Company, have found conversational robots and virtual characters can “enhance learning and expand entertainment options for children, though exactly how these autonomous agents interact with children depends on a child’s age,” according to a recent press release.

Here’s the thing: No doubt this is true. I’m an adult, and the idea of a chatty robot friend has me delighted. (The more it talks, the less time it has to plot my death!) I’m sure a real-life Wall-E, or a virtual Elsa who knows my name, would enhance any learning experience I had. So, it’s not a leap to believe that that’s probably true for kids, too.

But the word “enhance” is what needs to be parsed. Among other things, the studies found:

  • Children were more likely to verbally engage with the program when the virtual character waited for their responses and when unanswered questions were repeated. But feedback about their answers didn’t seem to matter. “You don’t need to worry about speech recognition because kids this age don’t care about the feedback,” said Elizabeth Carter, an associate research scientist with Disney Research, in the press release.
  • Kids between ages 4 to 10 enjoyed getting suggestions from an interactive robot when telling a story, such as “What happens if our hero finds a kitten?” as well as suggestions unrelated to context, such as “How about adding a kitten to our story?”
  • Younger children most enjoyed conversations with an interactive, conversational robot named PIPER, when PIPER didn’t display any memory of previous encounters. But older children were most engaged when PIPER seemed to remember them and shared opinions that were based on knowledge about them.

“Teasing out these nuances is necessary if we are to make the interactions between automated characters and children as engaging as possible,” said Jill Fain Lehman, senior research scientist at Disney Research, in a press release.

So, let’s tease them out, shall we? Enhance, engaging, enjoyed — these words speak to experience, not education; to reaction, not retention. There is no mention of what age-appropriate skills or concepts are best suited to being conveyed via robotic or virtual interaction. There is no mention of whether and for how long kids retained said skills or concepts.

So, let’s not kid about ‘enhancing learning’; when feedback doesn’t matter, learning doesn’t really occur. This research will help Disney make toys that are more entertaining, make the claim that said toys are based on research into how kids learn, and, thus, make a lot more money off of parents wanting educational toys and games for their children. Being entertained and engaged are, of course, prerequisites for learning. But where’s Disney’s research for kids’ actual understanding and retention of knowledge conveyed through the robots and AI buddies in its toys and games?

The fact is, there is none. Instead, there is ample research that shows the downside of electronic toys and screen time on child development and learning. Disney sidesteps this with a hat-tip to parents.

“Though parent-child interaction remains the most important factor in child development, the prospect of automated characters that can interact with children offers exciting opportunities for further enhancing learning and play,” said Markus Gross, vice president at Disney Research, in a press release.

The prospect of automated characters that can interact with children does offer exciting opportunities — but mostly for Disney’s bottom line.



Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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