Monday, July 2, 2018

Robots in Education

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

We may not see much evidence of robots being used for educational purposes yet, but we can expect to see more. AI technology in the global education market is projected to grow about 43% between 2018 and 2022 (Research and Markets, 2018). Also, it has been predicted that AI will be instrumental in solving the challenge of educating children in regions of the world where there is a shortage of teachers that is “severely limiting human potential all across the globe” (Frey, 2016). The shift from a teacher-centered to a learner-centered approach, along with rapid developments in AI technology, has led to a reconceptualization of “places” of learning. As futurist Thomas Frey (2016) stated, “Education is now on the verge of a major transformation and artificial intelligence-based teacherless education systems are quickly taking center stage.”

While it will be exciting to see the future role that AI will likely play in levelling the field for children worldwide, currently AI-based robots are being used in a variety of ways to support and enhance learning.

• Robots are acting as proxies, helping hospitalized children to connect with their school and continue learning at a distance (Klairmont, 2017; Melendez, 2017; van Hooijdonk, 2017). While parents, teachers, and students are generally satisfied with this use of robots, some students are not happy with the extra attention from classmates, and some teachers are concerned about cameras and microphones monitoring everything that happens in the classroom (Melendez, 2017). 
• Robots are helping students with autism to develop social skills (van Hooijdonk, 2017).
• Since around 2004, robots have played a role in teaching foreign languages to children (Han, 2012). They’ve proven to be effective assistants for language teachers in parts of Asia where it is difficult to find native-speaking teachers of the target language (Han, 2012; Hong, Huang, Hsu, & Shen, 2016; Vogt, de Haas, de Jong, Baxter, & Krahmer, 2017). According to Vogt et al. (2017), however, the technology is still somewhat limited in its ability to recognize children’s speech, so more research and development is needed. In Finland, robots are helping to teach languages and mathematics, too (Reuters, 2018).
• Robots are also playing a role as teaching assistants in higher education. Jill Watson, a robot TA for a university class on artificial intelligence, was so efficient at responding to students’ online questions, that it was some time before they realized that she was a robot (Sprinkle, 2017). 

In every context listed above, robots have proven to be effective motivators for students learning traditional subjects. Furthermore, robots can stimulate students’ interest in programming and robotics (van Hooijdonk, 2017). 

As one might imagine, the use of this type of technology has various social and ethical implications.  In a study by Serholt et al. (2017), teachers who were quick to appreciate the benefits of the technology also expressed a number of doubts regarding its use, including:

• How much responsibility/autonomy should robots be allowed? What kinds of boundaries need to be set to prevent teacher and robot roles from blurring?
• Is it possible for robots to affect younger learners in negative ways, e.g., could children become too emotionally attached to robots or could they assume that the robots are alive? How can teachers, who are knowledgeable about the social and emotional development of children, be included in the design of the technology?
• Who would be held accountable if a problem arose?

Clearly, while there is much excitement as to the different ways in which robots will facilitate learning in the near future, there are some valid concerns as well. What does the future hold for this technology? We may not have to wait much longer to find out.


Frey, T. (2016, November 30). Cracking the code for the future of education. Retrieved from 

Hong, Z. W., Huang, Y. M., Hsu, M., & Shen, W. W. (2016). Authoring Robot-Assisted Instructional Materials for Improving Learning Performance and Motivation in EFL Classrooms. Educational Technology & Society, 19(1), pp. 337–349. Retrieved from 

Klairmont, L. (2017, December 17). Kids isolated by cancer connect online. CNN. Retrieved from 

Melendez, S. (2017). Thanks to telepresence robots, kids can attend school from home. Retrieved from 

Research and Markets. (2018, May 9). Global artificial intelligence market in education sector 2018-2022. Retrieved from

Reuters. (2018, March 27). Techno teachers: Finnish school trials robot teachers. Retrieved from 

Serholt, S., Barendregt, W., Vasalou, A., Alves-Oliveira, P., Jones, A., Petisca, S., & Paiva, A. (2017). The case of classroom robots: Teachers’ deliberations on the ethical tensions. AI & Society 32(4), pp. 613-631. DOI: 10.1007/s00146-016-0667-2

Sprinkle, T. (2017, November). Robot teachers transform education. Retrieved from 

van Hooijdonk. R. (2017, February 17). Robots in education are here. And they aren’t going anywhere [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Vogt P, de Haas M, de Jong C, Baxter P and Krahmer E. (2017). Child-Robot Interactions for Second Language Tutoring to Preschool Children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00073

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