Robots can learn how to support teachers in class sessions

(31-10-2019) Robots can take just three hours to successfully learn techniques which can be used to support teachers in a classroom environment, according to new research.

The study, published in Science Robotics, saw a robot being programmed to progressively learn autonomous behaviour from human demonstrations and guidance.

It was then able to support young pupils in a range of online activities, with the advice it subsequently provided shown to be consistent with that offered by the teacher.  Researchers say the technique could have a number of benefits to teachers, as they face increasing greater demands on their time, and could be positive for pupils, with research previously showing that using robots alongside teachers in the classroom can have benefits for their education.

They also believe it holds considerable potential for a number of other sensitive applications of social robots, such as in eHealth and assistive robotics.

The study was coordinated by researchers at the University of Plymouth and Ghent University, which has a long history of developing social robots for a range of education and health settings.

Through a series of assessments, it analysed a system called SPARC (Supervised Progressively Autonomous Robot Competencies) and demonstrated that in a little over three hours, the robot successfully learned behaviours which it could then use to support educational activity.

Although the autonomous robot used actions with a different frequency than the teacher, it only used actions already demonstrated, learned the unique dynamics associated to each type of action, and its behaviour had a positive impact on the children similar to the supervised robot.

The researchers say this could prove especially useful in future human-robot interactions because it would enable scientists to bypass the standard approach to designing robotic controllers, which requires multiple conversations between the engineers coding the behaviour and the domain experts.

Professor Tony Belpaeme, from the University of Plymouth and Ghent University, has worked in the field of social robotics for around two decades and was also involved in the study. He added:

“The positives of using robots to help in a classroom setting are there for everyone to see. But how to set them to work so they provide consistent support to pupils, in a way that teachers can trust, is a real challenge. This study is certainly a positive step towards that. However, one unexpected thing it did show is we perhaps need to build greater acceptance and trust among teachers themselves as they said it did not result in a reduction to their workloads.”