Robots are used predominantly in industry. More and more companies are making their production lines automated by the usage of programmed robots. This trend of using robots started way back in 1960s and 1970s and gained popularity in the subsequent decades. Education was one area which was not touched by robotic technology until 10-15 years back. The strong belief was that a robot could not enhance the learning process. In fact introducing a robot in the learning process might make it more mechanical than creative. However, perceptions have changed in the last few years and education field is seeing more and more usage of technology and robots than ever before. This paper will discuss about the use of robot and technologies and its future trends in classroom and its overall impact on the education system and the cognitive and meaningful learning process of students.
Robots and Technology in Classroom
Robots are used in many different ways in the classroom these days. The most interesting of those are definitely VGo.
VGo is a four feet tall robot which is used by the students to attend class remotely. For example, Lexie Kinder is a 9 year old girl with chronic heart disorder. She has a weak immunity system due to which she is not allowed to go out of her home. Her going to school can be very risky for her delicate health. Her parents have bought her a VGo and Lexie dressed her robot up with pink ribbons and a tutu (Brown 2013). Her robot has a camera and it is internet enabled. Lexie can control the movement of her robot from her room using mouse and also she can attend classes through her robot. The camera fitted in the robot helps Lexie see the classroom and other students and teacher.
Her classmates can see Lexie through the screen which is fitted on the robot. This way Lexie can interact with others and study despite being very sick. Currently around 40 to 50 students who are unable to go to school due to ailing health or some other reason are using VGo to attend classes. Every year more than 23,000 students go out of the school system owing to critical illness and accidents. Their health does not permit them to attend school for months or in some cases for many years. Absence from school does not help them garner the same amount of knowledge as others. Ultimately they fall behind academically. This makes a strong case of robots which can assist students suffering from critical illness or disabilities to remain socially active and continue their study from home. Also it has been seen that fellow students adapt to their fellow robot classmate fairly easily and do not feel uncomfortable sitting in a classroom with a robot operated remotely by someone.
VEX robotics toolkit is another sort of robotics tool that helps students have lot of fun as and learn the basic STEM fundamentals without even them knowing that they have learnt it. Vex has different bundles which helps students build robots and then operate them to compete against each other. For example, VEX Swept Away classroom bundle contains elements with clear and easy instructions as to how to build a robot and the things required to build a robot. Once students complete building the robots they can use different commands to operate the robots and see how they function. The kit also has other useful instruments for students to learn about the basic building blocks of motors, programming and design. The whole process and mechanism of this toolkit incorporates teaching the basic STEM principles in a playful manner by combining study and play together and students thoroughly enjoy the whole activity.
In South Korea getting an English teacher to teach students English is difficult and it is also an expensive affair for schools to maintain English teachers. Kindergartens in South Korea now have found a solution. They first started using a fully programmed robot called EngKey (English Jockey) to teach and interact with students. However, due to the robot teacher’s teaching being based on some predefined algorithm the process of learning was becoming mechanical. Now they are using the EngKeys which are operated remotely by English teachers sitting in Philippines. In this way South Korean schools are fulfilling the need for English teachers and also the cost of English teachers in Philippines is low.
Computer teachers or popularly called as robot teachers are used to grade K-12 English papers in 45 states in the United States. However, recently there is a strong debate going on that this way of checking will limit depth, creativity, diversity and richness in writing as computers will check paper based on a fixed and pre-defined algorithm. There are also other online courses available where a computer is used in the virtual classroom to teach students. The students taking these courses actually feel that they are interacting with a real person. These courses are known as Moocs. This type of course definitely helps reduce the cost of education. However, standard of education and learning is still under radar as the technology is not yet comprehensive.
How Robots Work—Case VGo
There are different types of robots which are used in different education fields. Starting from VGo to Barobo, all of those robots help the education system in some way. Since it is not possible to discuss how each of those robots works, the discussion will remain mainly focused on VGo as an example to see how it functions.
VGo is equipped with two balancing wheels and two driving wheels, a series of lights, microphone, sound box, camera and a two way display. It is around 4 feet tall and battery operated. VGo operates if it is powered and has internet connection. The person operating the VGo can make it move remotely using a mouse. The face of the operator can be seen on the display screen of VGo. The operator can see and take photos through the camera fitted in VGo. It is not a complicated robot and works pretty well under most of the circumstances. The only problem it faces is when it loses internet connection. Without internet connection it just stops. In such cases other students may need to move it manually to the classroom or other places. Many do not consider it as robot, as it cannot function in any way on its own and can only be operated by a remote human being. For those robotics purists it is just an advanced assisting device like wheel chair. VGo costs around $6000 plus it requires $1200 per year as maintenance cost. It is definitely not cheap. However, because of the increasing demand and the technology becoming cheaper in future many believe that these robots will be available in the price range of $1000.
Maja Mataric on Robotics
Maja Mataric is an American computer scientist and pioneer in the field of robotics study for social needs. She specializes in identifying the special social needs and then uses robotic functions to assist people with social needs. Her work of study is mainly into helping elderly and children with autism. One of her big research field is how to help children with autism learn at the same pace like normal children. She has done extensive study on robots and came up with a generation of robots called Socially Assisted Robots (SAR). With her robots she has been able to establish that robots actually can engage children with autism more in studies. It is often seen that children with autism do not like to socialize and do not like to interact with others and this do not help them learn or participate in academic programs. However, children with autism do not fear robots and they often find robots as friends. They interact with robots more naturally than some of their fellow friends (Robot Playmates 2008). These findings have encouraged Dr. Maja to develop robots who can help children with autism learn things easily and quickly. She is a strong proponent of the benefits of robotics in education and social interaction especially for people with disabilities.
Cognitive Learning and Robots
There are different theories of learning. In early stages of life children learn by playing. Playing in developmentally appropriate environment like kindergarten helps a child relate to the environment. While playing children also learn new things. The first thing they learn is about size, shape, color, taste etc. As they grow old more complex relationships arise in classrooms. It is by constructing relationships a young person starts elaborating their knowledge and developing intelligence. As children grow they get familiar with social knowledge and start sharing with one another to form a social imagination. Shared activity provides a huge context for learning. Social interaction provides physical and motivational sense.
There are tools which help in the learning process as depicted by the cognitive theorists. Over the years the education system has evolved to use more visual and on the job tools to help students learn easily. It has been seen that seeing a picture helps learn a subject much more quickly than reading a chapter. In this same line cognitive psychologists like Tomasello says that a child’s ability to learn by sharing depends on two factors (Dominey & Warneken). One of them is to ‘read’ or determine the intention of the other partner. In case of a child interacting with a robot it is easier for a child to determine the intention of the partner so the learning process is fast. Introducing robots for certain demonstration of science concepts or display of physics laws in action can make the learning process fast as well as permanent in the mind of a child. However, Carpenter who is a child psychologist says that another part of learning comes from the motivation to share intentions with others. This cannot be achieved with the robots, at least with the robots currently available. So most of the psychologists recommend using robots in the learning process as assisting medium but they should not replace teachers.
Meaningful Learning & Robotics
Meaningful learning is a concept which implies that the knowledge learned is fully perceived by an individual who knows how one specific fact relates to other facts stored in the brain. Psychologist David Ausubel advanced the theory of meaningful learning by contrasting with rote learning. Rote learning refers to the concept of memorizing things without fully understanding how the new information is related to the other stored knowledge in our brain. For instance, if a student learns five facts of math which are related to each other through rote learning, the five facts will remain stored in the brain as distinctly separate items which can be remembered individually only. When that student would try to recall one fact, other four facts would not be activated at that moment. But in meaningful learning the five facts would be stored together in a rational manner because these facts are related to each other. Hence if one fact is recalled, other four facts would become activated one after another at the same time. According to Ausubel, meaningful learners relate the new information to something they already know. This helps students incorporate new ideas into more inclusive ideas. Based on his principles, Novak and Gowan have developed concept maps which are hierarchical in nature. According to them, a cognitive map is a "kind of visual road map showing some of the pathways we may take to connect meanings of concepts" (Hassard). Therefore, more general inclusive concepts should be at the top and more specific ones at the bottom. Concept maps are instrumental for the science teachers to determine the nature of ideas existing in the students. The concept map helps teachers decide upon the key concepts that are to be learned and how the new information could be linked to what the students already know.
Robots can help the STEM teachers enhance the meaningful learning process. In many cases, STEM learning is mostly theoretical and only in some cases some pictures, presentations and demonstrations are used to enhance the learning process. This does not help in the meaningful learning process. Students often store the science theories or laws as individual information and cannot process it or use it at a later point in time comprehensively as remembering one piece of information does not trigger the memory of other information. However, in some schools and colleges teachers are using robots to enhance the logical learning process. Once the theory is taught in class, teachers use a robot to perform different activities which conform to the laws as taught. This visualization of all the laws in action creates a conceptual map in the brain of the student and the learning is stored as a meaningful learning.
Problems of using robots in the learning process
Using robots in learning process or classrooms is beneficial to a large extent but it comes with certain disadvantages as well. Let’s take the example of VGo. VGo is good when it is used for people with disabilities or critical illness who cannot attend school but if a normal person starts using VGo then that will be a problem. Suppose if VGo is introduced to a kid who is physically fully capable of going to school but is mentally lethargic and wishes only to attend classes from home, the outcome will be disastrous. Teachers will be teaching a full line of robots in the classrooms. They may not feel motivated to teach. For students, they will be less social as they actually will not come out of their home and interact with people. Human interaction will decrease substantially and there is a chance that outdoor activities will see a huge decline. This also may impact the overall physical and mental health of a child.
Also there are robots which are used to correct and grade literature papers and essays even up to K-12 standards. The function of these robots or computer programs is based on some predefined algorithm and logic. This will probably work well for most of the cases but this process will not encourage new style of writing, creativity and diverse thoughts. The cost probably is the main factor for using those robots but if this process continues, literature subjects will be more mechanical and will lose its essence in the long run.
Mooc, the online computer-robot teacher, which helps students complete online courses makes the online courses affordable to many students. These courses can now be completed by many students across the country which was cost wise beyond reach for them in pre-Mooc era (Bartlett). We may see more such online robot tutors being introduced in more courses. However, apart from giving cost benefit it does not provide many other benefits. It certainly delivers the basic requirements of the course but fails to provide quality learning and also fails to assist students in their queries which are situation based and not purely academic.
Robots and Future of Education
Definitely in future we will see more robots everywhere. Classrooms will not be any different. In the first wave of learning automation we will see computer programs automating lot of official and educational activities done by teachers currently. This wave will be followed by a second wave with the advent of robotic devices walking in the classroom with the teachers. More and more teachers will use robots and robotic devices to elaborate upon subjects, demonstrate laws and provide trainings in the class. Classes will become a small laboratory with robots performing lot of activities demonstrating the laws of physics or elaborating engineering concepts. Then a third wave of automation will come when few human teaching staff will be replaced by robotic teachers with artificial intelligence who will teach similar to or even better than a human teacher. The knowledge of the robotic teacher will be consistent across all schools and the teaching method used will be similar. Students in some schools will no longer suffer due to poor teaching staff.
All these may or may not happen in future but one thing is clear that there will be lot of experimentation with robots in the learning process. We already have seen something like this in Japan. In Japan, initially the care for elderly was made automatic by the usage of robots. However, that process was soon found to be inefficient. Currently, still robots take care of the elderly but they are operated remotely by a human being. The process evolved. Probably education process will also see lot of those experimentations and will eventually evolve into a process most beneficial for the students. At this point in time it is difficult to say which will be the best option.
Robots are stepping more and more into the classrooms. If the current signs are to be considered, then we can safely say future generation of students will see multitude of robots inside the classrooms as teachers, co-students and laboratory assistants. Already robots like VGo and Barobo are helping students inside the classrooms. There is a slew of robotic assisting devices like VEX that are helping students understand STEM subjects better than before. This trend will continue to grow in the future. Robots will make the education system more efficient and cost effective. However, the only thing of concern will be that in the process of being effective and cost efficient we should not lose focus on the actual learning process and keep the use robots limited to that extent only which enhances the learning process.
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