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Can Robots Help Students Learn in the Classroom?

Nov 12 2015

Milo is two-feet tall with spiked brown hair and an expressive, almost cartoonish face. But he's not human, he's humanoid — a $5,000 robot whose blend of "real" features and technology make him an ideal tool for teaching autistic children in the classroom, one researcher says.

Autism expert Pamela Rollins, EdD, associate professor of communication disorders at the University of Texas at Dallas, says her research finds that children with autism respond to Milo much more readily than to humans. After all, he can repeat instructions with endless patience, has a video screen built into his chest, and responds to iPad-based responses.

"All children with autism have problems with social interaction, but they are really, really good with technology," Rollins tells CNN. "Milo creates that bridge ... Children on the spectrum are engaged with him." 

Rollins is a consultant with RoboKind, a Texas-based company that manufactures Milo and other robots. About 70 "Milos" are in use in Texas, with most used in Texas schools and treatment centers, says Medpage Today, which also notes that Milo can save money, too: the robot costs about $5,000. Compare that to the annual cost of educating an autistic child — anywhere from $17,000 to $22,000. 

Milo isn't the only type of robot finding its way into today's classrooms. Robots are increasingly being used in K-12 and higher education in many ways, from teaching STEM skills, to fostering literacy, to improving the efficacy of distance learning.

• Kaspar, designed by the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K., is the size of a small child and is being studied to see not only how it can be used to treat children with autism, but also how it can help children with Down's syndrome and ADHD, says The Guardian.

NAO robots, developed in 2006 by France-based Aldebaran Robotics, have primarily been used in STEM classes, but sometimes in others, as well. For example, reports Mind/Shift, an NAO robot is being used to help teach literacy in K-5 classes at Northwoods Elementary School of Technology and Innovation in North Carolina. Sample uses include reading stories out loud to kindergartners, practicing vocabulary with second-graders, and leading quizzes or discussions. 

Northwoods teacher Gretchen Robinson likes the high level of student engagement when using the robot, and has noticed a difference when a robot "teaches" — the students "are more willing to retry answering a question again without argument" compared to when a teacher tells them they got something wrong, she says.

• Dash and Dot are small, relatively inexpensive robots (under $250 for both) made by Wonder Workshop that can help even first graders learn to code. Another robot geared to small children is KIBO, produced by KinderLab Robotics, which was partially funded by a $750,000 National Science Foundation grant supporting robotics in early childhood education. 

• Telepresence robots are a different type entirely. These typically resemble iPads on sticks, mounted on wheels. They allow teachers or students to participate virtually in classroom discussions and other activities via screens, cameras and speakers. Users can direct movement from remote locations using their computers or mobile devices. This allows students who are ill to continue to attend school, even while convalescing — or teachers to reach students even when halfway across the country. 

For example, Thomas Fech teaches high schoolers at a charter school in Columbus, Ohio — without physically being in the classroom. He teaches from his home in Arizona, going online to connect with his students virtually. His face appears on a video screen near the top of a four-foot-tall, wheeled VGo robot

"I was so far away, but with the help of this body, I could walk around the building," Fech tells The Hechinger Report. "I like driving it around and feeling like I am in the school."

The Hechinger Report also points out that the robot "gives the teachers a measure of control," letting them log in and zoom around the school building, using the "eye" on the top of the device to see where they are going.

Similar robots produced by Double Robotics are being used in both K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Sick or injured students can attend class virtually, professors can continue teaching even if they've moved, and library services can give remote tours. 

How effective are robots in the classroom?

Research shows promise when it comes to learning with robots. For example, researchers at Yale University asked 100 college students in 2013 to solve a series of puzzles while guided by a robotic tutor. Some received advice only from a robotic voice, while others were assisted with an onscreen avatar or received no help at all. The result? The students helped by the physically present robot performed "significantly better," say researchers, who concluded that having a robot physically in the classroom can "produce measurable learning gains."

In a 2013 analysis of research findings to date, an international team of scientists from Australia, Taiwan and the Netherlands found that robots could be helpful in the classroom. The researchers called for several improvements before robots "can be fully integrated into our schools." This includes more training for teachers, more well-defined curriculum and learning materials, and increased capabilities of robots to understand speech and reproduce human-like behavior.

That said, the scientists concluded that while robots shouldn't replace human teachers, they had value as "a stimulating, engaging and instructive teaching aid."

Lorna Collier's articles about education and technology have appeared in US News, AARP Bulletin, the Chicago Tribune, Mind/Shift, GetEducated.com, THE Journal, Learning Solutions, MSN.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter @lornacollier.

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