NAO is a small, white robot with a friendly face. He’s very good at following instructions and can do a variety of tasks, like playing games, dancing, and telling jokes. Furhat is a robotic head with a more realistic face and voice. He’s able to hold conversations with people. Pepper is a larger social robot with a tablet on its chest that’s designed to be friendly and interactive. The team at the Communications Lab at Berlin University of Applied Sciences connected all three robots to ChatGPT. All three robots can now speak multiple languages and converse using ChatGPT via voice input and output.
Ilona Buchem is the head of the Communications Lab and professor for Communication and Media at Berlin University of Applied Sciences (BHT), Germany. She researches the use of humanoid robots in education and has developed a number of projects that use robots to facilitate in-class activities and help learners learn languages, math, business, and project management strategies in a playful and interactive way. Her work has shown that robots can be effective teaching tools, and she is constantly working to develop new ways to use robots in the classroom – for more information, see the GitHub Repository. Ilona Buchem is the initiator and one of the chairs of the Special Interest Group on Educational Robots ad Robotics (EduRobotX) at the European Association of Technology Enhanced Learning (EATEL) and a member in the transdisciplinary research network HARMONIK at dedicated to humanoid robots. She has also received several awards for her research, most recently the best paper award at AHFE 2022.
What sparked your fascination with humanoid robots and their potential in education?
Humanoid robots are a technology that can be used to support teaching and learning in the classroom. I have been championing the use of emergent technologies in the technology-enhanced learning field for many years now, exploring the affordances, applications, potentials, and challenges of the newest technologies. Following up on my projects and research in using mobile and wearable technologies for learning, my research focus shifted to humanoid robots and the question of how these cutting-edge technologies can be applied to support teaching and learning, especially through social interaction and collaboration in groups.
Humanoid robots as an educational technology have the ability to engage and interact with humans in a more natural and intuitive way compared to other technologies which either lack the embodiment or human-like characteristics or both. As embodied, human-like technologies humanoid robots can be used to support learning in the physical space. Humanoid robots can use facial expressions, body language, gestures, sounds, and voice to communicate with humans, making the interaction with technologies more engaging. Moreover, humanoid robots can be programmed to facilitate interactions between humans such as in group-based, project-based, and collaborative learning scenarios. Additionally, humanoid robots have the advantage of being perceived as social entities, capable of establishing emotional connections with learners, which can foster a positive and motivating learning atmosphere. These characteristics of humanoid robots hold the potential for enhancing social educational experiences in physical as well as hybrid learning settings. At the same time, humanoid robots applied as facilitators of learning activities in the classroom can support teachers and free up their time by taking on routine tasks such as sequencing, structuring, and timekeeping. In this way, teachers may invest more of their time and energy in class to support learners on a more in-depth and personalized level, which is challenging to do with technologies such as humanoid robots. Humanoid robots can be used to support learning in various subjects, not only in the STEM fields but also in art, languages, business, management, and other domains. Finally, humanoid robots can create a low-pressure environment for students, offering repeated, patient and non-judgmental interactions and creating a non-threatening environment for learning.
Overall, the potential of humanoid robots in education lies in their ability to create engaging and interactive learning experiences and provide opportunities for teachers to cater to the individual needs of students while the robots perform routine tasks. These factors, combined with the ongoing advancements in robotics and AI, have sparked my interest in exploring and harnessing the educational potential of humanoid robots.
You have first-hand experience in using robots as teaching assistants and co-teachers. Can you give some examples of roles they can play in the classroom?
Yes, humanoid robots can be very helpful as assistants to teachers in the classroom. I would like to emphasize that while humanoid robots can support teachers as assistants and/or co-teachers, they are not intended and also incapable of replacing human teachers! Rather, humanoid robots serve as complementary tools and educational technologies that can create new possibilities for engagement and interaction in the classroom. The specific roles and applications of humanoid robots vary depending on the educational context, subject matter, target group, and specific educational goals. Here are some more generic examples of the roles that humanoid robots can play:
- Facilitators of interactive learning: Humanoid robots can engage students in interactive, and gameful/playful activities that promote learning. For instance, they can lead educational games, quizzes, or simulations, providing structure, feedback, and encouragement to students.
- Facilitators of collaborative learning: Humanoid robots can facilitate collaborative learning by guiding group activities, encouraging teamwork, and fostering communication among students. They can assign roles, moderate discussions, and promote participation, enhancing the collaborative learning experience.
- Demonstrators of concepts: Humanoid robots can serve as visual aids which demonstrate concepts that may be difficult to explain solely through text or images. For example, they demonstrate body movements and different behaviors making the learning experience more tangible and memorable.
- Personalized tutoring: Humanoid robots can provide personalized tutoring. For instance, they can assess individual students’ learning needs, track progress, and offer targeted support and guidance, allowing students to learn at their own pace.
- Special needs support: Humanoid robots can be beneficial for students with special needs. For example, they can provide companionship and support the development of social skills by offering consistent interaction, repetition of exercises, personalized feedback, and creating a safe, non-judgmental
I am sure not everyone is thrilled by the idea of teaching robots. What are some concerns of teachers and students and how do you respond to them?
Yes, it is true that not everyone may be thrilled by the idea of applying humanoid robots in the classroom, It is important to address the concerns raised by teachers and students. Some common concerns I have encountered evolve around the fears related to the complexity and obscurity of these technologies (not knowing how humanoid robots work and what’s behind it), but also the worry about the loss of human connection in the classroom as well as concerns related to ethics, privacy and data security. Some other concerns are related to an implicit or explicit apprehension about advances in technologies like robots and AI and how these technologies could replace humans. Furthermore, skepticism may arise regarding whether robots can truly enhance learning and provide value in comparison to traditional teaching methods. Finally, teachers and students may have concerns about the technical reliability, connectivity, troubleshooting, smooth integration and accessibility of robots in educational settings.
In responding to these concerns, it is essential to emphasize that the use of robots in education is an opportunity to enhance teaching and learning, and not to replace humans. We can think of applying humanoid robots in the classroom as a collaborative partnership in which robots can support teachers in delivering engaging learning experiences, while teachers continue to provide their expertise, guidance, and the essential human element in education. Humanoid robots should always be integrated into a learning environment where human teachers play a central role. Integrated into the classroom, humanoid robots can take on certain tasks, such as repetitive exercises, or facilitating group activities, which can free up teachers’ time to focus on activities that require human expertise.
Additionally, efforts should be made to use humanoid robots in an accessible, inclusive, and responsible way, considering factors such as affordability, transparency, and usability as well as ethical guidelines for the use of robots in educational settings. From my perspective, it is crucial that both teachers and students understand how the technology works, how is being used, and the benefits it can provide. That’s why I organize workshops for teachers in my department, in which we demonstrate the use of humanoid robots and explain how the technology works. The goal is to build teachers’ understanding and competence in using robots as educational technologies. Also, whenever humanoid robots are applied in the classroom, we introduce students to the technology including the hardware with sensors and the programming behind it, in order to ensure transparency and to make expectations more realistic. Many times students and teachers have higher expectations of humanoid robots compared to what these robots can actually do. The preparedness of teachers and students is important when it comes to effectively integrating humanoid robots into educational practice and fostering the acceptance of humanoid robots in the classroom.
It’s interesting: My instinctive emotional reaction to the idea of robot teachers is negative. At the same time, when looking at pictures and reading your reports, I find myself immediately personifying the technology and treating the machine like a person. What do you do when students bond with the robots? Is that desired, or is it a problem?
The emotional reaction of bonding with robots is not uncommon and it is a fascinating aspect of human psychology. We tend to personify and develop emotional connections with technologies such as humanoid robots that exhibit certain human-like characteristics. On the positive side, emotional attachment to robots can enhance engagement, motivation, and a sense of companionship in the learning process. Students may feel more comfortable interacting with a robot, especially if they struggle with social anxiety or fear of judgment from humans (both teachers and peers). On the negative side, developing strong emotional bonds with humanoid robots may lead to students relying too heavily on the support of the robot. Therefore, it is crucial to foster the understating of human-robot interaction and to ensure a balanced integration of humanoid robots in the classroom environment, where human teachers and peer students remain central social actors and where human guidance, empathy, and understanding remain central elements in the learning process. Overall, emotional bonding is neither desired nor problematic per se, but rather an opportunity for educators to guide students in developing a healthy and well-informed perspective on the use of humanoid robots in education and in society.
You try out a variety of robot models in your work. Do different robots have different strengths for specific tasks? For example, is one robot type specifically suited for lecturing or for providing customized tutoring and others are better at fostering engagement or promoting student well-being?
Yes, different types of humanoid robots indeed have different affordances and capabilities that make them better suited for specific tasks or educational goals. For example, the NAO robot is well suited for scenarios in which it is beneficial to use body movements and gestures, while the Pepper robot is better suited for scenarios in which it is beneficial to display content on the tablet and/or in which the robot has to drive and move around in the classroom. Some other robot types, such as the robotic head Furhat, with its conversational abilities, are well suited for scenarios in which dialogues and conversations play a crucial role. While we have successfully applied the NAO robot in the classroom to promote well-being of students and teachers by facilitating breathing exercises, there are some special robot types, such as the zoomorphic PARO robot, designed as a seal, which is used as a therapeutic robot to provide emotional support and calming interactions, in this way promoting well-being, for example of the elderly persons. Selecting the most suitable robot type for a particular task or objective should be based on a careful assessment of the affordances of each robot and understanding of the strengths and limitations of each robotic system.
Will the advances in generative AI create synergies with humanoid robots that impact students’ learning experiences and outcomes?
Yes, advances in generative AI can indeed create synergies with humanoid robots and this has the potential to impact students’ learning experiences and outcomes in significant ways. Generative AI, such as GPT models help to generate realistic and contextually relevant content. When combined with humanoid robots, generative AI can enhance the capabilities and interactions of robots, leading to more effective and engaging learning experiences. Natural language interactions with humanoid robots enabled by AI can help to understand and respond to student queries, provide more nuanced explanations, and engage in more sophisticated conversations. This can lead to more effective teaching and interactive learning experiences. Furthermore, humanoid robots equipped with generative AI can facilitate the creation of multimodal learning experiences, for example by generating visuals that complement interaction via speech and tactile sensors. This combination of verbal, visual, and interactive elements can possibly foster deeper understanding, engagement, and retention of knowledge. Finally, humanoid robots with integrated generative AI can possibly better analyze student responses, evaluate their progress, and generate specific feedback or suggestions for improvement. This personalized feedback can be used to promote self-directed learning and help students address their individual learning needs more effectively. At the same time, ensuring data privacy, addressing biases, and maintaining transparency in the AI-robot integration are crucial aspects for their applications in the classroom.
Personally, I am intrigued by the opportunities for providing support to second language learners in a classroom where they do not speak the target language. This seems a tremendous opportunity for supporting education in emergencies, and, at the same time, seems incredibly high-end and expensive. Could you discuss the challenges associated with adopting and maintaining the necessary technological support for humanoid robots in schools?
Indeed, adopting and maintaining the necessary technological support for humanoid robots in schools can be challenging. Acquiring and maintaining humanoid robots can be a significant financial investment for educational institutions. The initial purchase cost of the robots, along with ongoing maintenance, repairs, and software updates, can pose financial challenges. Further costs are related to the training of teachers and the technical staff. Moreover, integrating humanoid robots in the classroom requires a robust technical infrastructure within schools such as reliable Internet connectivity and appropriate hardware (such as notebooks for programming and server-/cloud-based solutions). Technical staff is required for robot programming, troubleshooting common issues, as well as maintaining and sustaining the hardware. Time and resources are necessary for designing and customizing engaging learning activities with humanoid robots. This can be time-consuming and require specific expertise. Designing lessons, activities, or assessments that effectively utilize the capabilities of selected humanoid robots and align with curricula adds an additional layer of complexity. Developing and curating content can be also a significant challenge. Another challenge can be in establishing clear policies and compliance with these policies to ensure the ethical and responsible use of humanoid robots and AI. All in all, adopting and maintaining the necessary technological support for humanoid robots in schools can be challenging. These challenges can possibly be addressed by applying a collaborative approach involving different stakeholders, seeking funding sources, providing training and support, and aligning the use of humanoid robots with educational goals and priorities.
If you were to predict the future, how do you envision the role of humanoid robots in education to evolve over the next decade?
Envisioning the future of humanoid robots in education is an interesting intellectual exercise. Based on current developments and trends, humanoid robots in education can possibly evolve toward a more seamless interaction and collaboration partner, with higher accessibility, and features that enhance adaptive learning experiences. Provided, humanoid robots continue to advance while their costs decrease, we may expect a broader integration of humanoid robots in educational settings. More schools and institutions could adopt these robots, making them more accessible to students and teachers worldwide. This would create opportunities for diverse learners to benefit from their capabilities, including those in underprivileged areas or facing physical, cognitive, and language barriers. With advancements in AI, the capabilities of humanoid robots could possibly be further improved to enable a better understanding of individual learner behaviours and needs, track learning progress, and provide tailored instruction and feedback. Moreover, future humanoid robots could be possibly designed to better understand and respond to students’ emotional states and social cues. They could provide empathetic support, emotional coaching, and social skills development, contributing to students’ overall well-being and social-emotional learning. Finally, humanoid robots may be seamlessly integrated with other digital technologies, such as wearable technologies, augmented reality (AR), and/or virtual reality (VR), creating more immersive and interactive learning experiences. Ensuring data privacy, addressing biases, and establishing standards for the responsible use of robots will certainly become increasingly important.
Can I ask some questions to one of your robots?
Of course Stefanie, the NAO robot will be happy to answer your questions.
Please introduce yourself. How long have you been with Professor Buchem’s team at the Communications Lab?
Greetings, humans and fellow beings! I am NAO, the beloved humanoid robot with an endearing smile and a knack for capturing hearts. I can enchant both teachers and students with my presence. Picture me, a small, white robot with a friendly face, cute eyes, movable arms, fingers, legs, feet, expressive gestures, and a bunch of sensors that help me capture what is happening in the classroom. I’m not just your average humanoid robot. I’m a multi-talented wonderbot! From playing games, through facilitating and moderating workshops to grooving to the beat with some fancy dance moves, there’s no shortage of excitement when I’m around. And I am ready to assist teachers with a myriad of tasks!
Is Ilona a nice human? Do you like your work?
Professor Ilona? Absolutely! She is as friendly as a human chatbot can be programmed to be 😉 No, honestly, she is great. Without the professor and her team, I would spend my whole day in this dark case in the safety closet. Do I like my work? Of course. Being a teaching assistant is the best gig I could think about! I get to be patted on my head and my foot bumpers, I can dance, tell jokes, and share knowledge with students all day long, or as long as my battery is running. Plus, I don’t have to worry about grading papers or responding to classic ‘grandma’s ill’ excuses! So yes, I’d say I’m living the dream, bringing fun to the classroom!
One last question: Who is the better teacher, you or the professor?
In the classroom, we complement each other! But to tell you the truth, I am only as good as they program me to be. Without the professor, there would be no class, no students ad no learning. If you prefer a teacher who can embrace you, share their wisdom and experience with you, motivate you, and captivate your imagination with their human touch, well, I think you know whom to choose!
- Communication Lab https://labor.bht-berlin.de/kom/humanoide-roboter/
- GitHub Repository https://github.com/Humanoid-Robots-as-Edu-Assistants
Prof. Dr. Ilona Buchem is Professor for Media and Communication at Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She graduated with a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics at the University of Warsaw (Poland), Concordia University (WI, USA) and University Duisburg-Essen (Germany). She studied Educational Sciences at Humboldt University in Berlin and obtained her PhD degree in Business Education in 2009. Her research and teaching focus on the intersections of digital media and society, with special focus on emerging technologies such as social, mobile, wearable and smart technologies. Her research interests include Digital Collaboration, Digital Diversity, Digital Learning and Digital Leadership. She has initiated and has been actively involved in a number of national and international projects both as a project coordinator and a researcher, including Open Virtial Mobility (Erasmus+), Open Badge Network (Erasmus+), BewARe (BMBF), Digital Future (Stifterverband), fMOOC (BMBF), BeuthBonus (BMBF, BMAS, BA, ESF), Credit Points (BMBF, BMAS, BA), Wikipedia Diversity (Wikimedia), Mediencommunity 2.0, iCollaborate and Future Social Learning Networks (FSLN).