Robotics or roboteach


Roboteach © Milab - IDC

Kip1: “Roboteach”
© Oren Zuckerman – Milab – IDC

It is striking to observe how robotics influence and determine innovation in education. One of the first MOOCs ever was on robotics – ‘An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ – and the tens of thousands of students that registered online at the time told us of the fascination one feels in front of a machine that can think. The success of robotics education programmes worldwide (VEX for instance) is other evidence of the importance of a hands-on approach to science.

Many of the proposals that we received for the Open Education Challenge were related to robotics, and several made it through to the second phase. Teaching programming and electronics by building robots makes sense. The importance of STEM education for youth employability, coupled with the current deficit of engineering and programming skills, make it necessary to find new ways of teaching and learning.

However robotics is not only a ‘subject’. We are now looking for robots with human qualities that could change the way teachers relate to their students. Isaac Asimov’s vision of technology with personality is coming true. We can almost look robots in the eye, as if they were human beings. The question is then whether a robot could be a teacher, and make education better.

In fact robots are almost there, right in our classrooms. Powerful data systems are put in place to analyse, assess and predict students performance. This is called ‘learning analytics’ and it opens up possibilities for every school to gather students’ data and ‘design’ a personalised learning path, just as if a robot was in charge.

Edtech companies are very careful in presenting learning analytics as a beneficial tool for teachers that will help “regain (in the future) a role of a more Socratic nature: guidance through knowledge.”

According to Knewton (the company with a K!) the future of our classrooms will be more about Plato than Asimov… But are we so sure of this new distribution of roles?

The movie HER centered on a man who started dating an artificially intelligent computer operating system (OS) with a female voice and personality. What about a mentor-robot counselling the students in the classroom? Maybe this is not such a remote possibility.

Many education entrepreneurs and researchers fascinated by technology are recreating the illusion that a machine can think. Oren Zuckerman and his team at Milab have created a “sensitive robot”, a companion that doesn’t listen to what you say but reacts to how you say it. It reflects the conversation’s tone with a physical gesture. If the teacher or the student gets nervous, and their tone of voice suddenly alters, this robot – Kip1 – can make ‘faces’ and contribute to the creation of a peaceful and constructive atmosphere in the classroom. What comes next? Will we ‘roboteach’ our students? What will be left for the teacher?

In his TED conference, Marco Tempest told us that “it’s time for magicians and technologists to collaborate.” In the midst of a technological wave in the field of education , the teacher has to be the magician that makes learning meaningful. It requires a complete change in the learning process, a redefining of the classroom as a studio, and operating a shift of the creative control from teacher to learner. This studio-based approach is well described by a middle school art teacher in a brilliant article where teachers are invited “to step down from the stage and hand the magic wand to the capable young students in their charge.”

Let’s teach then, and not roboteach! This is real magic.

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