What roles could social robots play in the future of education?

Placing robots in classrooms obviously raises several concerns – these concerns are amplified by a multitude of misconceptions

The education sector has experienced a tremendous change during the last 12 months, with traditional classroom teaching moving online in a matter of weeks, even days. While the transition has been remarkable, many students and teachers miss the physical classroom experience. We have learnt that technology and digital tools can be a fantastic complement for teachers, but are we ready to make an even bigger shift and bring physical, social robots into classrooms? What role could they play for the future of education?

Social robots are physical machines, built to interact with humans as we do with each other. This means involving social behaviours such as listening, speaking and expressing emotions. Social robots build upon the advancements within both physical robotics, speech technology and understanding human behaviour over the last hundred years. These factors set them apart from both chatbot and avatars, who can claim to be social but do not take physical form – and also from manufacturing robots, which are often physical but do not exhibit any social skills.

Addressing concerns

Robots are already present in classrooms today – such as AV1, a robot that physically represents children who have to spend significant time at home due to long-term illness. But we are still far from having robots that could assist teachers and take on mentoring roles, and should that be our vision? Placing robots in classrooms obviously raises several concerns such as are they going to replace human teachers? Will they marginalise human values? And would they eliminate social interactions between students? Thankfully, the answer to these questions is ‘no’ – in fact, the truth is quite the opposite.

“Social robots are not meant to replace the precious teachers that we have, but if they can help to fill the gap (as assistants), then perhaps it’s a solution worth exploring”

Children learn best by interacting ‘live’ with the world around them. Babies watch their parents; toddlers play with their toys and each other and model the social interactions they’ve seen. They observe the world and engage socially. By being present and interacting in the physical world, we create a bond and engage with the material in a much more meaningful and relatable way than by reading lessons or solving quizzes on a laptop.

‘Humans are made to engage’

Humans are made to engage and we are at our most engaged, and most active cognitively, when we are interacting with each other. But for a very long time now, our educational system has moved away from collaborative interaction to an impersonal, one-size-fits-all monologue, where students may never even meet their teachers one-on-one. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdowns. On top of that, the tools that students use today don’t really encourage the same level of engagement and interaction that a human teacher can provide. Where is the social element in plodding away at a keyboard, or staring at a flat screen?

social robots

The notion that robots could bring more human and social elements into the classroom can feel somewhat counterintuitive. But it turns out that the physical presence of the robot — as opposed to just being shown on a computer screen or having a voice — triggers cognitive effects in the brain that enhance attention, memory and learning. Imagine each student having their own personal companion to study with them at school and at home, practice languages, have roundtable discussions, and assist in their learning in every way; a robot that can listen, talk, express emotions and show empathy. On a practical level, they offer the closest thing we can create to a one-to-one human teacher besides giving every child a private tutor – a solution that is, unfortunately, out of reach.

For educators, robots can free up precious time, allowing the teacher to focus on what people do best: providing a comprehensive, empathic and rewarding educational experience. How far away are we from realising this vision? And how do we navigate the tricky path of user privacy and bias within technology? Many questions remain to be answered, but we do know that the world is suffering from a shortage of teachers. Social robots are not meant to replace the precious teachers that we have, but if they can help to fill the gap (as assistants), then perhaps it’s a solution worth exploring.


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