The robots are coming – to rural schools

Researchers at the University of Auckland have published a study that finds companion robots in rural schools could help children learn.

Researchers at the University of Auckland have published a study that finds companion robots in rural schools could help children learn.

Lead author of the study, associate professor Elizabeth Broadbent of the University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, said: “To date, schools have mainly used robotic kits to teach children how to build and program robots. We were interested in how students and teachers would respond to a different kind of robot, a companion robot. Would it be seen as useful? Would it make students more interested in learning about science and maths?”

In the study 207 students and 22 teachers from pre-school to high-school in the Central Plateau and Buller regions participated in 30-minute sessions with two popular companion robots, Paro and iRobiQ

Paro is a fluffy pet-type robot that is built to resemble a baby harp seal. It can respond to touch, light, and sound with movement and seal noises. Dr Broadbent said there appeared to be no previous research on the use of Paro in schools.

iRobiQ looks more like a traditional robot and is used in early childhood education in Korea to teach English, entertain by singing and dancing, tell nursery rhymes, and deliver other educational content. It has speech and face recognition and can communicate with basic facial expressions and speech.

The sessions started with a brief demonstration of each robot by the research assistant and then participants could use each robot for up to 10 minutes. After interacting with each robot, students and teachers were asked questions about iRobiQ and Paro.

According to the researchers “Students generally had a favourable impression of Paro and iRobiQ. Overall 84 percent of students said they would like to have Paro at school and 80 percent said they would like to have iRobiQ at school. Overall, 83 percent of students said Paro made them more interested in science and 77 percent of students said that iRobiQ did.

“Girls and boys had similar answers to most questions, but on the four questions where there was a gender difference, girls were more positive than boys.”

Ninety one percent of girls said they would like to have Paro at their compared to 78 percent of boys. Ninety percent) of girls wanted iRobiQ at their schools compared to 72 percent of boys.

Broadbent said: “Teachers also had a favourable impression of Paro and iRobiQ, with 68 percent of teachers saying they would like to have Paro at school, 22 percent were not sure, and nine percent did not know.

“Responses were similar for iRobiQ with 60 percent of teachers saying they would like to have iRobiQ at school, 20 percent were unsure and would like to see the robot improved, and 20 percent did not want iRobiQ at school.”

Broadbent concluded: “Given the prevalence of anxiety and depression in school-age children, robots may be a useful tool in school-based approaches to promote mental health. However, further research is needed to test this.”

The research paper  How Could Companion Robots Be Useful in Rural Schools, has been published in the International Journal of Social Robotics.  According to the abstract “Participants wanted the robots to be more interactive, and perceived that the most useful functions were helping children with autism, comforting children in sick bay, and repeating exercises for children who need help.

“This study suggests that in addition to having an assistant teacher role, companion robots may have a useful comforting role. The results inform designers about which applications to develop for robots in rural schools and which age groups to develop them for.”

Robotic aged care forecast

Familiarising today’s children with robot companions might help prepare them for the future. According to a report in the UK’s Guardian Weekly,  Japan’s elderly are being told they will have to accept being looked after by robots.

“With Japan’s ageing society facing a predicted shortfall of 370,000 caregivers by 2025, the government wants to increase community acceptance of technology that could help fill the gap in the nursing workforce,” the report said.

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