Since Dave is probably the most experienced designer of educational robots on the planet , outside of MIT (he designed the first commercial robot to go into schools (the Turtle) and is still doing it today) he is often asked to review Research Papers on educational robots.
Yesterday he sent me one to look at to see what my reaction was. A Japanese team had developed a robot teacher – larger than life size and very robot looking rather than humanoid. It operated it two modes a) with an operator controlling it and telling it how to react and what to say and b) pre-programmed to mimic human movements like looking at the board when explaining something on it and to explain, ask questions and respond to answers.
So what did I think? Well, as far as I’m concerned for operation a), a teacher might as well cover themselves in aluminium foil and take the lesson – cheaper and more effective. The robot in this mode is pointless and just gimmicky. The kids would quickly tire of the novelty and then it would lose any impact it may initially have had.
As for operation b) I think it is interesting that it was a Japanese team that developed this and it was tested in a Museum setting with a small group of children. It is only valuable if you see the teacher’s role as the purveyor of knowledge and nothing more and only if you have a class of children who will happily sit there in silence taking in your every word and responding only when told to. This is not the European/American school way! My experience is more like chaos theory – a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the classroom and havoc breaks out on the other. How would a robot teacher deal with that?
As far as I am concerned the whole point of robots in the classroom is to provide another weapon to the armoury of the teacher, not to replace them. Roamer, as Seymour Papert so succinctly put it is “an object the think with”. Papert started his whole Mindstorms/Logo proposition with the question of the role of the computer in the classroom – should it be programming the students or should the students be programming it? Exactly the same is true of robots in the classroom – they should be helping students to explore ideas and think, not just funneling knowledge into their brains. Let’s face it, knowledge is growing at an exponential rate and changing all the time so what we may consider to be important today could well be redundant in ten, twenty year’s time. However if we teach children to think we have given them the greatest gift ever and whereas Roamer can help in this process we would never claim it could do it without the teacher. (If you would like to see an example of a Roamer activity where the teacher is guiding the learning then please click here) So by all means dress up as a robot if you think it will grab your students’ attention, but remember you are irreplaceable – and don’t let any robot engineer/futurist tell you otherwise.