For kids, the idea of being taught by robots is pretty exciting. Who wouldn’t want to learn astronomy from C-3PO or take P.E. with Astro Boy? But as an adult, the idea sets alarm bells ringing. Can artificial intelligence be trusted to take care of students? How do we leave our children in the hands of machines? Won’t they threaten the jobs of human teachers?
The evidence so far suggests that robots in the classroom make for very effective instructors. They’re tireless, accurate and efficient, with a novelty value that engages children. But the consensus in scientific and educational communities is social interaction is too important a factor for robots to ever replace thinking, feeling human teachers; instead, they’re most effectively employed as classroom resources and innovative assistants.
Meet some of the educational robots leading the charge into classrooms worldwide.
NAO: Teaching Aide and Learning Companion
It might look like an oversized action figure, but the colorful, diminutive humanoid robot NAO is actually a powerful and versatile educational tool. NAO’s flexibility stems from its ability to be programmed by the user, so it can be employed to teach a variety of subjects ranging from mathematics to literature as well as programming basics. It’s capable of visually identifying shapes and faces, recognizing speech in twenty different languages and storing unique data for different users, making each interaction personalized.
Programming NAO allows for great flexibility, but it can also be time-consuming. The robot is generally used as a temporary teaching aide, stepping in to instruct students for simple activities. It can quiz students, react to flash cards and vocal responses and teach short lessons. Part of its effectiveness lies in its novelty: students are, unsurprisingly, often more excited by working with a robot than their ordinary human teacher.
This same eagerness to learn is carried over when the roles of robot and student are switched. A Japanese study investigated NAO’s effectiveness as a “care-receiving” robot – where students are encouraged to deliver instruction to NAO as if they themselves were the teachers – and found that there may be some educational benefits in having children teach robots, particularly when it comes to learning languages.
A special version of NAO called ASK NAO has also been trialled as a resource for the support of autistic children. Accessible, predictable, tireless and easy to interpret, the robot can assist special needs students in developing skills such as interpersonal communication, body awareness, relationship building and recognition of emotions.
Swivl and Telepresence Robots: Classroom Cameramen
Swivl might not be the most complex robot around, but it excels in its field. The little round machine helps teachers make accurate, high-quality audiovisual recordings of lessons which can then be posted online for the benefit of students who are unable to physically attend class – or simply for use as a reviewable archive of content.
Swivl itself isn’t doesn’t make recordings: it’s a robotic stand designed to support a recording device such as an iPad. The teacher carries a marker connected wirelessly to Swivl, allowing the machine to turn or tilt in order to follow the marker’s movement. The marker can be used as a remote to start or pause recording and activate Swivl’s stationery mode.
Telepresence robots like Swivl have been proven very effective in the field of remote education. Studies have found that telepresence robots – capable of physically navigating classrooms on legs or wheels while recording and streaming video – allow speakers of different languages to communicate through movement and physical gestures. Opening these lines of communication can aid in overcoming language barriers to encourage intercultural education, understanding and cooperation.
Students are also more likely to be excited and engaged when given control of a telepresence robot, allowing them to interact remotely with the person on the other side of the screen and become active participants rather than passive observers. The research has strong implications for the potential of remote education, in which student engagement can be a considerable hurdle.
Robosem and RUBI: Language Experts
A telepresence robot itself, Robosem was designed to help teach English in South Korea, where instructors are scarce. Apart from allowing human teachers to teleconference with their students, Robosem also includes built-in lessons through which students can progress. Demand for educational robots is particularly high in South Korea, which has a dedicated robot learning program, and Robosem is one of many English robot teachers that have started to appear in classrooms.
Another language-teaching robot, RUBI, was trialed in San Diego. Simpler than its South Korean counterparts, RUBI was nonetheless found to significantly improve the vocabulary of the toddlers to whom it was teaching Finnish. The robot, which encouraged interaction, was more effective than passively watching a video – and more or less on par with a human teacher.
Where RUBI and its mechanical peers can’t compete with humans, however, is in predicting and adapting to the behaviour of students: after its first day in the classroom, RUBI’s arms had been dismantled and it had to be reprogrammed to cry when students attempted to harm it. Robots might be effective as pure educators, but there’s far more to being a good teacher than high test scores – and that’s something that technology can never simulate.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.