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Social robots can help students stay focused

Although in recent years, educators have explored the use of social robots to help students learn, they focused mostly on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now, a team of scientists led by the University of Waterloo in Canada has designed a socially assistive robot to help keep students with learning disabilities focused on their work. According to the experts, using this robot was highly successful, with both pupils and their instructors valuing the positive classroom contributions made by the robot.

“There is definitely a great potential for using robots in the public education system,” said study senior author Kerstin Dautenhahn, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Waterloo. “Overall, the findings imply that the robot has a positive effect on students.”

The researchers conducted a series of experiments with a small humanoid robot called QT, which has the ability to perform gestures using its head and hands, accompanied by speech and a variety of facial expressions. To test whether this robot was suitable for use with children with learning disabilities, they divided 16 students into two groups. While in the first group, students worked one-on-one with a human instructor only, in the second one they worked both with the instructor and a QT robot. 

Although the instructor controlled the sessions, the robot took over occasionally, triggered by the instructor, to lead the student. If necessary, the robot set goals and provided self-regulating strategies and, if the learning process was getting off-track, it also used strategies such as games, jokes, riddles, breathing exercises, and physical movements to redirect the students back to their tasks.

“Our qualitative analysis suggests that instructors and students showed positive attitudes towards the social robot in their one-to-one sessions. In addition, the students were more engaged with their task in the presence of the robot, and displayed fewer off-task behaviors in the intervention condition, compared to the control condition. These results suggest that a social robot can be used as an effective educational tool for instructors in boosting engagement and mitigating off-task behaviors for students with learning disabilities,” the authors concluded.

The study is published in the proceedings of the International Conference of Social Robotics from Florence, Italy and can be found here.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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