October 1, 2014, by Emma Thorne

Robot in the classroom?

With a new generation of digital natives in the classroom, IT in schools is now as commonplace as textbooks and PE kits. But could there be a more radical use for computer technology that could assist in teaching children with profound and multiple disabilities?

Researchers at Nottingham have been investigating the use of a humanoid robot to engage the attention of young children with learning disabilities.

The academics, led by Professor Penny Standen, Professor of Health Psychology and Learning Disabilities in the University’s School of Medicine, in collaboration with colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, worked on the project with teaching staff at the Oak Field School with around 150 pupils aged between five and 20 years old with severe, profound and complex learning and some with physical disabilities too.

Unique challenge

Professor Standen said: “With all the developments in IT for people with disabilities, it is disappointing that few interventions have been designed for people with profound and multiple disabilities. A recent systematic review on the use of iPods, iPod Touch and iPads in teaching programs for people with learning disabilities noted an absence of studies on individuals with profound and multiple disabilities.

“Their explanation for this was that this group presents unique challenges with respect to the design of technology-based interventions, a major one being their lack of sufficient motor control to activate the device and software.”

After viewing a demonstration of the robot, the teachers devised individual learning objectives for a number of pupils who they felt could most benefit from working with the technology. In addition to the robot’s existing capabilities, the teachers also recommended added controls and behaviours focussing on the pupils’ interests and learning style to help them to achieve their goals.

Engaging with praise and reward

In some cases, the robot was used to give commands to the children, asking them to complete physical actions, for example, during physiotherapy sessions, while at other times, the robot used music, dancing and praise to reward children who had followed a teacher’s instructions well.

The innovative research was recently awarded a prize for best long research paper at the 10th International Conference on Disability, Virtual Reality and Associated Technologies.

The research is now continuing, with academics currently developing an application for mobile devices that will allow them to remotely operate different robots and enable teachers to build new behaviours for the robot to meet individual pupil targets. This would be done directly from a tablet or a mobile phone and will also include a set of games and activities based on findings from this and previous studies that will help the development and learning skills of children with learning disabilities through playing with the robot.


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