Robots in the classroom

Robots could be the key to unlocking learning for pupils with special educational needs

The NAO humanoid robot in actionA team of researchers at two Nottingham universities is investigating the extent to which robots can enhance teaching and learning for children with intellectual disabilities. An EU-funded project (EDUROB), led by Nottingham Trent University, aims to better understand the potential for robotics-based education in motivating and engaging pupils with a wide range of disabilities.
Engagement is the single best predictor of successful learning for children with intellectual disabilities (Iovannone et al., 2003). Yet achieving engagement with pupils who have profound or complex disabilities presents a challenge to educators. Robots have already been used to engage children with autism. But our pilot projects in 2013 involving Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham aimed to investigate whether robots could also engage students with more profound and multiple disabilities.

Power up

In these projects, interviews were carried out with members of teaching staff at the Oak Field School and Sports College in Nottingham and analysed thematically. These identified a range of case studies involving learning the meaning and sequencing of Makaton symbols, encouraging vocalisation, triggering a reaction from the robot and refraining from triggering again until that action was carried out, and controlling the robot independently using their own assistive technology, for example a Jelly Bean Switch. The teacher-pupil pairs spent up to five sessions trying to achieve these learning goals, and the sessions were video recorded and analysed to measure engagement, teacher assistance, and goal achievement. Engagement was also measured using the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (2011) Engagement Scale in a routine classroom setting, and the pupil’s final session using the robot.

Subsequent analysis showed that student engagement when working with the robot was significantly higher than engagement when attempting the same task using traditional methods. The teachers at the school thought working with the robot could benefit and empower their pupils providing they had an appropriate input device to control the robot. They also thought that it was important that the robot aided productive learning and was tailored to individuals’ learning needs.

Extending to Europe

Our new EU project builds on these pilot studies. A team of experts will programme existing robotic platforms – including the autonomous NAO humanoid robot – to interact with pupils across Europe in various educational tasks. The NAO robot has an extensive sensor network including voice and face recognition and pressure and tactile sensors that can respond to touch, making it an ideal learning and communication platform for students with intellectual disabilities. Educating this group of students presents challenges due to cognitive impairments and communication difficulties. These types of robot have the ideal combination of technology to tackle such impairments and difficulties in an engaging way. Their use is becoming more widespread and affordable, with prices tumbling in recent months.

The choice of educational tasks in the project will be informed by our work with teachers in our recent pilot studies, and by interviews with teachers of students with special educational needs throughout Europe. As well as academic subjects such as maths and science, the chosen tasks will aim to challenge pupils with learning objectives including communication improvement, sequencing, understanding cause and effect, and other social and digital competencies. 
The resulting interactions will be analysed to measure pupils’ levels of engagement, goal achievement and the amount of assistance required by teaching staff, and the results will be compared with our original pilot studies to see whether our findings are repeated across different countries and wider populations.

It is hoped that the two and a half year project will provide evidence of the effectiveness of robotics-based teaching and learning for pupils with intellectual disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism. It will also produce an interface for launching various robot-mediated learning interactions that we will develop during the course of the project, together with a curriculum for use and a pedagogical framework to provide a blueprint for the introduction of robotics into special education settings.

Findings from our two completed pilot studies and the new EU project will be shared with special education schools, teachers and parents, policy makers and people with disabilities. Partners in the project are based across Europe and are experienced in education for people with learning disabilities, in interactive technologies and gaming, and in policy making. They include VSI HITECO in Lithuania, AIAS Bologna Onlus and Polo Europeo della Conoscenza both in Italy, Interprojects in Bulgaria, the Suleyman Sah University in Turkey, and the Krakow Autistic Society in Poland.

David Brown is with the computing and technology team at Nottingham Trent University; Penny Standen is in the Division of Rehabilitation and Ageing at the University of Nottingham; David Stewart is head of Oak Field School and Sports College, Nottingham; Dave Rogers is with the computing and technology team at Nottingham Trent University.

  1. Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective Educational Practices for Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18 (3), 150-165.
  2. SSAT (The Special Schools and Academies Trust) (2011). The Complex Learning Difficulties and Disabilities Research Project: Developing Meaningful Pathways to Personalised Learning [PDF]. Executive Summary. London: Schools Network. Accessed 25 July 2012.

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