Can robots teach better than real teachers?
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University may have programmed ones that can.
In an ongoing six-year program, researchers have built and tested animated children that talk with and teach elementary and middle school students.
The bots helped raise maths, science, and reading test scores significantly in multiple studies, researcher Justine Cassell tells Tech Insider. Her team is testing the bots in public and charter schools in Pittsburgh and hopes to extend the studies over the course of a school year.
For each lesson, the team projects the animated bot “child” on a 52-inch screen. The bot, which the research team calls a “virtual peer,” looks life-size.
In the video below, the lesson is a conversation rather than a lecture. The gender-ambiguous bot, named Alex, asks the third-grade student to think critically about the illustration in front of her.
In this particular study, one student learned alone from Alex, while two other students learned together with Alex.
Before and after, the kids took TELD tests, assessments that measure early language skills. In both cases, their scores improved, Cassell says.
The researchers also found the bots helped improve the childrens’ social skills. In other studies, they compared communication during playtime between real kids after playing with the bot. On average, the children held natural eye contact longer, improved listening skills, and understood when it was their turn to talk.
“Sometimes we make the mistake that tech can only be used to teach STEM — but that’s not the case,” Cassell says. “It can also teach social and emotional skills to help us maintain those aspects of being human that we care about.”
The team has programmed the bot to mimic students between the ages of 8 and 10, Cassell says. It talks and moves like a kid, but looks more like a cartoon than a human. That was done on purpose.
Before each lesson, Cassell’s team asks the students whether the bot is a person, and they can always make the distinction.
“They usually just roll their eyes when we ask them that question,” she says. “They were able to suspend their disbelief about a cartoon with no confusion that it wasn’t real.”
She believes the bot is an effective teacher because it interacts like a kid and collects data about how individual students learn, incorporating that information into the lesson.
A few versions of the the virtual peer have been programmed to work with special needs students, including those with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
To a certain degree, it makes sense virtual peers would be effective teachers, because they look like kids. As a number of education writers have noted, there are some things that students learn better together.
Some American classrooms have been moving toward a more collaborative atmosphere. Sometimes called the “chalk and talk approach,” students take greater control. Instead of the teacher directing the lesson, the children work on projects amongst themselves, and the teacher helps when needed. It’s a teaching style that’s preferred in Chinese classrooms, because it’s supposedly a more active, individualized way to learn.
Although AI could never fully replace teachers, it seems like technology that combines social interaction with machine learning could catch on in classrooms.