In this research we describe some of the current and envisaged uses of this broad collection of technologies referred to as robots, within education. This is firstly from the general perspective but then with an emphasis on the benefits they bring to school and university students with disabilities.
Robots have found widespread application in industry and are beginning to increasingly find applications in diverse roles within education. There are many definitions of what constitutes a robot and numerous designs, configurations and types reflecting their broad range of applications. The researcher here takes a free definition and within the scope of this research we consider: manipulators; robot vehicles; automated and remote controlled devices; and robots that might exist only in software.
Possible roles for robots in education
With robots and related automated process having increasing role in industry they are becoming an object for study in their own right in technology and engineering courses at secondary school and university level.
However in this research we mainly consider the wider role of robots more generally in key elements of the learning process. Robots are a great aid to the teaching of especially mathematics and physics because of their power to capture the imagination of many younger people.
Thus they can be employed to elucidate often difficult abstract concepts. With the robot as the focus of the discussion of a wide range of topics can be brought to life: Newtonian mechanics; measurement; task planning; programming; mathematical formulation of a problem; optimization; limits; etc.
Giving something physical in the 3-dimensional “real world” can help many students grasp the fundamentals of a topic more quickly than just using paper/white board and pen. The robot as well as assisting in conceptualization of a problem provides an environment for experimentation.
Possible solutions can be programmed into the robot and then its behavior observed to see if it conforms to that which the student expected. There is then opportunity for iteration towards a correct solution to a particular problem. Thus the power of discovery in effective learning can be readily facilitated through the use of a robot as a teaching aid.
Robots can be an expensive technology with costs ranging from about 100 USD to 10,000 USD. Since the use of robots in education is still in its infancy there are difficulties with staff training, technology reliability and a lack of quantitative studies showing the educational impact. Most work reports anecdotally that there is an educational benefit, but there is usually no reliable measure of what factors are causing the benefit.
However the researcher sees robotics as an increasingly available and affordable technology that can address needs of teachers and learners in established areas of the curriculum. They are not attempting to support a technology push approach to hi-tech learning environments.
A survey of any set curriculum for education from the ages of 8 upwards readily yields key opportunities for the application of robotics to those with experience of the pedagogic advantages of approaches based on these technologies.
Work of Seymour Papert
Seymour Papert, a founding father of this field, supports an approach to learning in the classroom which he calls ’constructionism’, opposed to the traditional style of ’instructionism’.
By this he means that children will do best by finding or ’fishing’ for knowledge by themselves. Improvisational, self-directed, ’playful’ activities should simulate the more ’natural’ way in which children seem to learn outside the classroom. Instead of a one-way and top-down transmission of knowledge from teacher to child (the behaviourist/objectivist approach), appropriate learning environments (’contexts’), could be used as ’personal media’.
This could, according to Papert, empower the child to develop a different relationship to knowledge in a new style of learning, which can account for personal variation in learning styles.
In the mid-1960s Papert developed at the MIT AI-Lab with his colleagues the programming language LOGO, a computer language especially designed for children. This is now widely used in control and robotic activities in the classroom. He also went on to develop a programmable computer-sketching device, called a ’Turtle’ to introduce mathematical concepts of geometry and shape. Again this has become a widespread technology.
Particular roles for robots with disabled students
Educational applications for robots hold particular promise for students or pupils with disabilities in two main ways:
- The robots can be enabling in themselves – students being facilitated to undertake a wide range of tasks that would be otherwise denied them because of their disabilities
- Accessible interfaces to educational robots can lead to disabled students having equal participation with peers in robot based leaning activities
The potential for robots facilitating learning by experiment has already been stated. This approach has added value for the disabled student who may be reduced to an observer role in many conventional student experiments. Provided the appropriate computer interface is available most disabled students can initiate the experiments themselves.
Mobile Robots in Autism
One of the researchers is studying how to use interactive, mobile robots as therapeutic devices for children who have difficulty in co-ordinated interactions with the environment and other people.
The project Aurora (Autonomous robotic platform as a remedial tool for children with autism) is using a commercially available mobile robotic platform. The platform itself is seen as a mediator device, i.e. it is intended to encourage children to interact with the environment. Basic forms of social interaction like attraction and avoidance are elements in the robot’s interaction repertoire.
Robots have great potential for sound pedagogic reasons within education at all levels. They provide particular opportunities for making accessible, for a wide range of disabled students, practical elements of the curriculum.
However the available technology is largely under exploited except by teacher enthusiasts in isolated pioneering centers. If these educational and accessibility benefits are to be realized widely then, alongside further technical development work, activity is required to:
- Raise awareness within the teaching professions as to the potential of robot technology
- Low cost robots and associated software need to be made more widely available
- A wide range of applications need be developed for a common robotic platform so that the investment in the technology is seen to have cost benefits across the curriculum and not just in a few specialized areas
- Teacher resources that integrate the robotic tools with curriculum material need to be produced, evaluated and marketed
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