Robots as teachers?

Robot teacher

Robots are becoming increasingly used to replace human activity in many areas of modern society. They've  been used for decades in various forms of manufacturing such as car assembly, in medicine and and are even used now in the dairy industry in New Zealand and other parts of the world. Tasks that were once considered too sophisticated and something that humans only could do are now being taken up by the use of robots

Education has long been considered sacred in this regard, with the catch cry "robots will never replace teachers" oft repeated. But consider how the repetitive and routine aspects of a teacher's job are already being replicated in the online world with software that provides adaptive learning experiences for learners, with increasing use of artificial intelligence behind it. In recent years, robots have crept onto the education scene, popping up in American classrooms as toy-like teaching assistants and in Japan as remote-controlled novelties.

And now a school in Columbus Ohio has introduced a new robo-teacher into its classrooms to allow staff in other parts of the country to teach their pupils. The 1.2 metre tall robot features a screen that broadcasts a video of the teacher's face and a camera allows the teacher to see what is going on in the classroom. In some ways this is not robots replacing teachers in the conventional sense, rather, robots enhancing the teacher presence by allowing a teacher in one location to be present with learners in another.

The headline in The Mail Online article reads "Is This the Future of School?" and goes on to describe how ROBOT lets teachers take lessons, check work and talk to students from thousands of miles away. The article lists the following features of the robot teacher:

  • A screen displays a video of their face while a camera allows them to see
  • Pupils say the robot felt weird at first but it made lessons more personal
  • The teacher can see the class and their work using the robot's camera

While the idea if a 'robot teacher' in a classroom conjures up images from sci-fi novels, the concept here is really only a step further from the traditional video conferencing approaches that have been used in education for more than a decade. Rather than crowding into a space to interact with the remote teacher on a screen, the remote teacher can now have a 'presence' in the physical classroom, with tools that allow her or him to act more like the traditional teacher might in the physical space. 

Of course, this is where the intrique reduces for me – as the fundamental premise of the robot as presented in this scenario is simply about replacing the physical teacher – not about changing or adpating the pedagogy in any way. So the robot takes on the role of the traditional instructor, with the one to many pedagogy of the traditional classroom – rather like the images from the jetsons some decades ago! while I can see some potential for this sort of thinking in cases where the persistent presence of a teacher may be required, say with learners with special needs, the concept of am instructionally oriented teacher being replaced by a robot like this doesn't exactly excite me – it's rather like replacing the traditional paper based exam with an online equivalent and calling it an advance in assessment. The arguments for and against the use of technology like this in education has long provoked reaction from a wide range of perspectives, as a recent article by Stephen Heppell in the Sydney Morning Herald illustrates (read in particular the responses at the bottom). We need to beware of the seduction of technology, yet critically aware of the ways in which it is incrementally permeating our lives, creating new opportunities, and new challenges. Education won't be immune. 

Jetsons robot teacher

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