A primary school in Tampere, Finland has had an altogether different supply teacher experience this week. The school has been the venue for a robot teacher trial as part of a pilot to see how effective humanoid machines might be at taking charge of lessons.
Robotic language and maths teachers
Two humanoid robots, Elias and OVObot, were tasked with taking language and maths classes, respectively. On the surface, the two subjects might seem to be very different, but both require an understanding of, and ability to navigate through, logical structures.
The Elias robot can speak and understand 23 different languages. Its software has been designed to help it understand the language levels and specific requirements of each child.
Elias is based on the NAO humanoid companion robot. Educational software company Utelias developed a program especially for the platform to enable it to teach languages to young children.
The NAO machines were originally designed and developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics, now SoftBank Robotics, a division of the Japanese communications giant that now owns Boston Dynamics. The company also makes the emotion-sensing Pepper machine, and humanoid care robot Romeo.
A range of apps can be downloaded onto NAO robots – including storytelling programs, specialist tools for teaching children who are on the autism spectrum, and dances such as Gangnam Style and Thriller – which doubtless makes the learning experience engaging for younger pupils.
OVObot, tasked with teaching maths, is a smaller speech-recognition-based machine that resembles an owl. The robot has been developed in Finland by startup Ovobots, specifically to teach maths skills. It asks questions and awards points according to how well pupils answer them. The platform also supports personalised learning.
Motivating kids with technology
The pilot intends to discover the effect of robots on both the quality of teaching and the progress of children’s maths and language learning. Elias robots and OVObots have been deployed in a number of schools across the country as part of the project.
“I think in the new curriculum the main idea is to get the kids involved and get them motivated and make them active. I see Elias as one of the tools to get different kinds of practice and different kinds of activities into the classroom,” said language teacher Riikka Kolunsarka.
“In that sense, I think robots, and coding the robots and working with them, is definitely something that is according to the new curriculum, and something that we teachers need to be open-minded about.”
Additional reporting: Chris Middleton.
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The use of NAO machines in the classroom has a long history: the robots have a range of educational and storytelling apps that are ideal for younger children, which can be downloaded via the developer community.
However, one challenge is that far more apps are available for older versions of the NAO humanoid, which was originally conceived by Aldeberan Robotics as a research and development platform. Newer versions of the machines, which have improved stability and engineering, are unable to run some of the older code.
The problem seems to be that since the robots have left developers’ labs and made their way into wider, more public applications, enthusiasm for developing new apps seems to have waned among the coder community – a familiar paradox. That said, the robots are easy to program via their own Choreograph (or Choreographe) app.