Robots in Education: What’s Here and What’s Coming
By Kristen Hicks on February 9, 2016
Decades before the computer revolution began to spread in earnest, science fiction’s most creative minds sketched out a future most of us never thought we’d see. And yet between self-driving cars and yes, even hoverboards, that future seems closer than ever.
Nowhere is this more of a reality than in the field of robotics. Sure, we may not each have our own robotic besties/slaves as the old sci fi shows predicted we’d have by now, but judging by the many creative ways robotics are used in so many classrooms today, well…We’re pretty close. Let’s take a look at some of the neatest and most inspiring ways Robot Education (RoboEd?) is unfolding today
3 Ways Robots Are Used in Education Today
Many students struggling with cancer or other terminal illnesses can’t reasonably make it to class every day, but they shouldn’t have to miss out on the lessons and social interactions that come with school. VGo robots can solve this problem by helping students attend class from afar.
While Tyler Gibson was undergoing chemotherapy at UT’s MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Children’s Cancer Hospital, his VGo robot served as his eyes and ears in the classroom – and made it possible for him to interact with his friends there. “I could control VEGO from home and see everything that was going on. My friends would wave to me and I could wave back,” he explains.
The VGo isn’t currently accessible to every family with a sick child, as models go for about $6,000, but for those that can afford them they allow students to continue with the normal activities of everyday life in spite of their illness – even if through a not-so normal means. What’s more, the greater the adoption of this technology, the more likely it is that the price will come down, so it’s worth thinking of ways to use this technology now.
2. To teach students with autism
Autistic students often find communicating with other people intimidating and confusing – facial expressions and nonverbal cues that other kids would easily pick up on are just harder to comprehend. Robots can look a little bit like humans, but without all those confusing expressions that distract from what a person is saying.
The Nao robot has been helping kids with autism learn social cues, as well as different educational lessons for a few years with a fair amount of success. Smaller children working with the robot have learned how to identify the different types of animals in their lessons, and slightly older kids can work with the robot (who provides responses to help them understand their progress) to learn basic reading skills.
The robots currently have a price tag of about $8,000 in the United States, so are out of reach for most kids not currently attending a school with access to one, but that price has come down considerably since it was first released, so may continue to do so in years to come.
3. As proxies for teachers
Distance learning is no passing fad; online learning programs are now offered at many of the top universities throughout the country. Technology is what has made distance learning possible and will only continue to make it better.
With telepresence robots, teachers can teach a class from anywhere, which expands the possibilities for distance learning. What’s different here from a run of the mill webcam streamed to Google Hangouts kind of experience is that a distance teacher is streamed into a tablet that a local robot then takes around to students. Students that live in a far flung locale where it’s hard to attract educational talent can still get the benefits of a good teacher – just one they talk to through a roving iPad screen rather than in person. The telepresence robots cost about $2,000 so won’t necessarily be an easy buy for your average school district, but may begin to come more into play in the years to come.
Robots That Are Within Reach for Your Average Teacher
As noted, the examples above won’t be easy for most teachers or students to take advantage of. Technology tends to start off only accessible to a few, and then becomes more affordable over time, so consider what we’ve just covered a glimpse of what’s to come.
In the meantime, teachers have a few options to bring robots into the classroom more affordably:
- LEGO Bricks can be used for robotics, giving your students a hands-on experience with building robots themselves using tools that are affordable (and that many educators already use anyway ). Edison offers an affordable LEGO-compatible bot to help students take things a step further with their LEGO robots.
- Researchers at Harvard built a $10 robot that teaches students programming. Students learn by developing codes that tell the robot to perform different activities. It looks like the AERobot isn’t available for just anyone to purchase yet, but the developer told Robot Magazine last year that they’re working on that.
- Pi-Bot is a $99 kit that allows students to assemble and program their own robot. It’s good for students middle school aged and up. The company offers tutorial videos that can help your students through each step of the process.
How Robots Will Shape Education in the Future
Education has changed enough in the past few years that we all know how little we can predict what it will look like in five or ten. We do know that we can expect many of the technologies that are starting to trickle into classrooms now to become more affordable and potentially become larger components in everyday education.
We can also anticipate that distance learning will only become more prominent in years to come. As people become used to doing more of life’s activities all online, the switch to taking classes online or being taught by someone in another state or country will only come to feel more natural. Robots like those being used in the example above may help this transition along, while also helping to humanize the increasingly digital and remote classroom experience (yes, a robot in human form, potentially carrying around a human face on a tablet counts as “humanizing” the experience)
As with so many types of tech, how useful (and potentially harmful) robots can be to education will have more to do with how educators and students choose to use them than with the technology itself. We may not be on the cusp of having robot teachers like in the Jetsons, but robots have already made their mark in education and will continue to do so.