What are robots doing in classrooms? is the big question we discuss in this feature with Johanna Hemminki, Founder and CEO of Utelias Technologies, who has a lifelong interest toward robots and a background in teaching.
‘Elias’ robot helps with Language Learning
If we talk about robots used globally in education, the two main cases are robots as a learning support for STEM subjects, and special interest groups (erityisryhmä).
Utelias Technologies has created a digital service for language learning, which consists of a Nao robot platform with software, and a mobile app user interface to control the robot. The ‘Elias’ robot, as they call it, can currently be used to teach English, German, and Finnish as a second language. The Nao robot has been chosen as the platform because of its good availability as well as for being small, versatile, and easy to move around.
The robot is suitable for people with learning disabilities, because no initial literacy skills are needed in order to begin. Users can start by learning to speak the language and practice conversational skills, gradually moving toward the capability to read and write. Moreover, the user can communicate with the robot non-verbally with body positions, which makes the interaction more engaging.
The learning system has been designed to follow the aims of the Finnish National Curriculum. It can teach vocabulary and phrases as well as conversational schemas. The end goal is to make it possible for users to fluently converse with the robot. The main pedagogical method is learning by modelling. The robot acts as a sort of a zone of proximal development for the learner.
The teacher can choose a specific exercise in the app that is connected to the robot. It is also possible to adjust the degree of difficulty by controlling the number of words in the learning dataset. The response from learners has been really encouraging: Elias has the capability to make learners really excited, as well as to guide the learning exercise.
In the recent Horizon 2020 project, the University of Tilburg and the University of Bielefeld have jointly conducted studies that suggest that body postures can enhance learning results. Another interesting finding that has emerged from the test using the Elias platform is that robots tackle the problem of feeling embarrassed to speak in class. With this platform, we can lower the barrier of speaking out loud. A robot does not have unconscious mechanisms of judgement, such as micro expressions, that human teachers often have when students give their answers to questions.
In the future, Utelias Technologies is expanding to target their services to the Asian and UAE markets. For example, Japan is already generally more accepting toward robotics, but what they lack is a good quality language system for English speakers. This presents a good opportunity for Elias to provide assistance.