Can robots be beneficial to the classroom? Dr. Maya Dimitrova discusses her thoughts and recent research on this topic.

Can a Robot be a Successful Assistant to the Teacher at School?

By Taylor Chernisky on Jul 13, 2017
Robots in Education
Traditionally, when an individual thinks about school, they imagine a real-life instructor teaching a lesson, either virtually or in person, to a class. The instructor usually has formal training when it comes to teaching, or they have a background in the subject matter and can share their real-world expertise with their students. They can also provide feedback or clarity on matters that may confuse their students, as well as take a different approach if a certain topic seems to be causing learning difficulties.

What would happen if you were to take the human aspect out of this interaction, and leave your education solely up to robots? We recently talked with Dr. Maya Dimitrova, author of “Towards Design of High-Level Synthetic Sensors for Socially-Competent Computing Systems” from Revolutionizing Education through Web-Based Instruction. She shared with us her views and research on how and why robots could be implemented into education.

“We use robots in the classroom with a different socializing function. When a robot (or many of them) is employed for educational purposes then the robot intelligence is trying to mimic teaching or pedagogical abilities, including work as a speech therapist or psychotherapist. In this case, the professionals design scenarios which involve using the robot as assistant to the teacher, or a co-therapist to the psychotherapist, rather than individually,” Dr. Dimitrova states.

“In our studies, we have also attempted to discover novel phenomena, trying to justify the robotic presence in the classroom as a “social” - not just physical – presence,” Dr. Dimitrova explains before outlining the steps of the study conducted.

“We designed a scenario with the robot NAO acting as a zoology teacher. It presented students with a lesson on comparing 2 forest and 2 sea animals, respectively. University students participated as volunteers in the study. After viewing the robot presentation, they were asked to fill in a questionnaire with 4 questions. Questions 1 and 2 were about how much of the presented information the student could recall. Question 3 was about giving comments on robot performance. We looked into the comments and divided them in two groups: (1) positive comments on NAO performance and recommendations; (2) when students were critical about the robot. Question 4 was the so-called by us “social motivation” question. Participants were asked if they preferred to be in the presence of a classmate during the lesson delivered by the NAO robot or if they were indifferent. Based on the reply to the last question, we divided the group of participants into socially-motivated and socially-indifferent groups. We wanted to test the validity of a common assumption that socially-indifferent people may be attracted to robots more than the socially-motivated people. Surprisingly, the result was the opposite. The socially-motivated group gave reliably more positive comments on robot performance and fewer recommendations than the socially-indifferent group.”

So what conclusions were drawn from the study?

“It seems that people, being critical to other people, tend to be critical to robots, too,” Dr. Dimitrova clarifies, adding, “At the same time, socially-motivated people tend to accept the robot as a participant in the social configuration they are involved in. We take the results of this study as providing support to the socializing role of the humanoid robot, in particular in the classroom. This has given us confidence to continue the line of research on novel social phenomena to be encountered with the introduction of robots in standard and special education.”

In this new line of research, robots would provide aid for a teacher rather than acting as the primary educator in a classroom.

“Our social motivation robotic study suggests also that the best role of the robot is as a pedagogical assistant, rather than on its own. As a pedagogical assistant, the robot can participate in predefined scenarios defined by the teacher with distributed roles and smart interactions. Therefore, the best configuration is the triple configuration – teacher – robot – student. The tiring and mundane tasks of the teacher can be transferred to the robot, thereby leaving space for the teacher to pay attention to the individual talents of the students,” Dr. Dimitrova clarifies.

Individualized attention from the teacher is an asset not all children receive in the modern classroom and many could benefit from, especially those with difficulty learning or communicating efficiently. Dr. Dimitrova expands on these benefits, saying, “Our recent experience with introducing robots in special schools suggests that the robot influence on child’s development is on many levels and can be seen as a holistic pedagogical tool. Children with learning difficulties and communicative problems feel much more at ease with a robot, than with a human.”

Having a robot in a classroom may help a child with learning and communication difficulties to open up, which could allow them the possibility to learn without any setbacks.

When asked about the downfalls of robots in a classroom, Dr. Dimitrova believes, “The main downfall would be if in the future some of the schools are deprived of robots, then others. It may be the case that there is a sensitive period for learning to communicate with robots as with introducing other learning skills. But to be certain with the answer to this question, novel studies should be designed and performed.”

Ultimately, allowing robots into our classrooms could allow us to expand the reach and the ability of our teachers. Implementing a program such as this across the board would take further studies and research, but this could be the future of our education.

Would you trust your education, or the education of your children, to a robot? Comment below and tell us your thoughts!
IGI Global would like to thank Dr. Dimitrova for taking the time to share her views on how robots could be beneficial to the classroom based on her recent studies. For further information on educational technologies, please review the publications below:

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.
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Caroline Campbell
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(717) 533-8845, ext. 144
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