Robots are being programmed to teach children in the classroom
Without mentioning whether they are programmed to follow Asimov’s three laws of robotics, the New York Times recently featured a video on robots programmed to teach kids. Described as “infinitely patient, highly informed instructors,” the robots are intended to be effective in subjects like languages, repetitive therapies or with students with special needs such as autism. The robots are programmed to respond to, interact with, and learn from students in a way that enables them to serve as complementary teaching aides in the classroom.
While preliminary results suggest the students working with robots “do about as well as learning from a human teacher,” the luddites among us might find the use of robots as supplemental teachers alarming. Aren’t kids already inundated with enough computers, smart phones, video games and all things electronic? Do children really need more non-human interaction? OECD research suggests that children strongly prefer learning situations with human contact in comparison to electronic teaching tools. This might not seem surprising, but perhaps we’re underestimating the charisma of the teaching ‘bots.
In a time of tight education budgets, the question isn’t really whether or not the robots succeed in teaching students, but whether the robots result in the most bang for the buck (or Euro, or won…) for their investment. Much of the focus of cheap laptops for children and robot teachers has been on whether or the technology works, not whether they are the most efficient use of education funds. In South Korea, a shortage of English teachers has prompted the government to invest $45 million in robotic English teaching assistants, with the robots being deployed to most preschools and kindergartens by 2013. The approach is innovative, but one might wonder whether spending on robots would be better spent on training additional or existing teachers.
The OECD’s New Millenium Learners project will be exploring the newest generation of learners and the impact of digital technology on learning, skills, and even social values. The project might not give us this millennium’s robotics rules, but it will help us better understand the effect of the ‘bots on our kids and society.
An OECD working paper raises unsolved questions about the cost-effectiveness and educational impacts of 1:1 computing in education. Let us know what you think, are robot teachers a wise educational investment?
See also article on BBC News: Using computers to teach children with no teachers, A 10-year experiment that started with Indian slum children being given access to computers has produced a new concept for education, a conference has heard.