News, Technology

A Robot Companion for Inclusive Learning

Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer

Engineers at the University of Waterloo have developed ‘socially assistive’ robots that help children with learning disabilities focus better in classrooms.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that nearly 240 million children face compounding challenges due to learning disabilities around the world. Fortunately, technology can be leveraged to help them overcome them. 

Advancements in robotics are slowly making their way into classrooms to enhance inclusivity and equity in learning and development. 

A cohort of engineers, researchers and learning disability experts at the University of Waterloo and the Learning Disabilities Society in Vancouver recently tested a small humanoid robot known as ‘QT’ in the classroom environment to support children with learning disabilities. 

In the study, a group of 16 students with learning disabilities were subdivided into two groups to evaluate the use of QT robots as an assistive tool in one-on-one instructional settings. 

While one group received instruction solely from a human instructor, the other group was instructed by both a human instructor and a QT robot, which was directed using a tablet. The robot was able to autonomously perform various activities using its speech and gestures and was triggered by the instructor to take over at certain times during the session. The robot was able to introduce the session, set goals, and provide self-regulating strategies if necessary. It also employed strategies such as games, riddles, jokes, breathing exercises, and physical movements to redirect students back to the task if their learning process was getting off-track.

(Image: Kenny Eliason on Unsplash)

Dr Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university noted that students “were generally more engaged with their tasks and could complete their tasks at a higher rate” compared to those who were not assisted by QT. 

“There is definitely a great potential for using robots in the public education system,” remarked Dautenhahn. 

Dautenhahn has been involved in investigating the applications of companion robots in the education of children with learning impediments. 

“Overall, the findings imply that the robot has a positive effect on students,” she added. 

At the International Conference on Social Robotics in Florence, Italy, a paper entitled “User Evaluation of Social Robots as a Tool in One-to-one Instructional Settings for Students with Learning Disabilities” was presented, providing an overview of the research findings. 

The research is a landmark case in how humans, robots, and artificial intelligence systems can come together to complement one another in creating an equitable and inclusive learning experience for children. 

Should robots be welcomed into more classrooms? We welcome your thoughts in the comments below.

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