Social robots for 21st century skills: The new EdTech frontier?

Goren Gordon and robots
Goren Gordon and robots

Social robots: the missing link in EdTech

Social robots are robots designed to interact with people. In contrast to their manufacturing siblings, social robots are intended to help not with physical activities, but with social interactions. They are usually cute, highly expressive and fun to be around. And like all robots, they can be equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) to help them navigate the complex world of humans.

“EdTech today too often means a student sitting alone, in front of a computer screen.”

After studying the role of social robots in education for the past decade, I believe they are the missing link in educational technology (EdTech). While the field of education has seen tremendous advances in AI, personalization and customized content, giving rise to thousands of companies, intelligent tutoring systems and edutainment apps, most of these innovations are missing a key component in learning: social interaction.

It is widely understood that people learn better when they learn together. Students benefit from social interaction and feedback, from interactions with their teachers, and particularly from peer group learning. However, EdTech today too often means a student sitting alone, in front of a computer screen, learning by herself. She may well be using a state-of-the-art super-optimized, personalized super-smart program, but she is still alone, with no opportunity for social interaction.

“Social robots act as learning tutors and peers.”

Here come social robots to the rescue! For one, social robots act as learning tutors and peers, programed specifically for social interaction. They can speak, engage, communicate non-verbally via gestures and gaze, and offer a reprieve from learning by telling jokes. At the same time, they can be equipped with the most advanced high-tech algorithms that modern educational apps have. Moreover, they can be personalized in ways computers can’t, offering what I call “affective personalization”: They can adjust and modify their social behavior and teaching approach to maximize both learning and engagement. For example, they can learn that one child likes jokes, while another prefers feedback in the form of gestures or smiles. Learning children’s individual preferences has been shown to increase their happiness during second language learning, for example.

More than just content: curiosity, creativity, a growth mindset, collaboration

So far, social robots have been used mainly to deliver content. Some teach math, science, language, nutrition, and a variety of other subjects. Recently, they have begun to be used to teach what I believe are the topics that really matter: 21st century skills.

In one of my first studies with social robots, I found that interacting with a robot that shows curiosity, encourages exploration and seems excited about discovering new things can promote curiosity in children. In a recent study, we integrated artificial curiosity algorithms into a social robot so that it actually is curious; its goal is to learn, and it receives a (computational) reward whenever it does so. Other researchers have shown similar trends in promoting curiosity in science education.

“Interacting with a robot that shows curiosity can promote curiosity in children.”

We also found that a social robot that supplies the right kind of feedback – focusing on praising the process rather than the result – can contribute to a ‘growth mindset’, the belief that you can change if you learn and invest effort. ‘Creativity’ was targeted next. In similar spirit to my curiosity study, creativity was shown to be promoted in children who interacted with a robot that modeled that trait.

My current work focuses on what I consider to be one of the most important 21st century skills: ‘collaboration’. I have already been able to show that post-secondary students can learn when a social robot facilitates small group discussions, and I am now exploring how robots can encourage young children and adolescents, ages 6-18, to collaborate with one another.

The message for educators and policymakers: Embrace the future, with social robots as teaching assistants

I have interviewed dozens of educators, and while some are apprehensive about this new and exciting technology, most acknowledge its potential benefits. I believe it is important to reiterate, social robots are not here to replace teachers, but rather to serve as teaching assistants. Their purpose is to help children adjust to the 21st century and to enable teachers to devote themselves to their primary goals: helping children develop their socio-emotional skills; serving as role models; educating.

“Social robots are not here to replace teachers.”

Social robots offer an exceptional opportunity to combine humanity and technology in new ways within the educational system. Becoming less expensive by the day, they can deliver the best pedagogy educators can offer (by being programmed to do so), making it possible to scale up efforts to teach 21st century skills to everyone. I truly believe they are (an essential) part of the future of education.

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