Engineering researchers at the University of Waterloo are successfully using a robot to help children with learning disabilities focus on their work.
This was one of the key findings of the new study, which also found that both young people and their teachers appreciate the robot’s positive contribution to the classroom.
“There’s no doubt there’s a lot of potential for using robots in the public education system,” said Dr. Kerstin Dautenhan, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Overall, the findings suggest that the robot has a positive effect on students.”
Doutenhan has worked on robotics in the context of disability for many years and incorporates the principles of equity, inclusion and diversity in research projects.
Students with learning disabilities may benefit from additional learning support, such as one-on-one tutoring and the use of smartphones and tablets.
Educators have explored the use of social robots to help students learn in recent years, but most of their research has focused on children with autism spectrum disorders. As a result, little work has been done on the use of socially supportive robots for students with learning disabilities.
Wattenhan, along with two other engineering researchers and three experts from the Learning Disabilities Association of Vancouver, decided to change that by conducting a series of tests with a humanoid robot called QT.
Doutenhan, a Canada 150 intelligent robotics research chair, says the robot’s gestures using its head and hands, accompanied by speech and facial features, make it very suitable for children with learning disabilities.
Building on earlier promising research, researchers divided 16 students with learning disabilities into two groups. In one group, students did individual work only with the instructor. In the other group, students worked individually with the instructor and the QT robot. In the latter group, the instructor used a tablet to guide the robot, which then performed various actions on its own using its speech and gestures.
While the teacher monitored the sessions, the robot took over at times to guide the student with the teacher’s input.
In addition to presenting the session, the robot set goals and provided self-adjusting strategies when needed. If the learning process got off track, the robot used strategies such as games, puzzles, jokes, breathing exercises and physical movements to redirect the student on task.
Students who worked with the robot, Doutenhan said, “generally were more engaged in their tasks and could complete their tasks at a higher rate compared to students who were not assisted by the robot. Further studies using the robot are planned.
A research paper entitled “User Evaluation of Social Robots as a Tool for Students with Learning Disabilities in One-to-One Learning Settings” was recently presented at the International Conference on Social Robots in Florence, Italy.