Robots in the classroom

Sofia Serholt works in the Computer Science & Engineering department at Chalmers University of Technology and is a member of the LIT community in Gothenburg. She is one of the leading European researchers in the area of robots and education. In this interview, Sofia talks with Neil Selwyn about her recent work, and the growing interest being shown in AI and education.

NEIL: So, first off, for the uninitiated, exactly how are robots being used in schools? What sort of technologies are we talking about here?

SOFIA: A big issue in education right now is programming robots – using robots as tools to learn different programming languages. However, my research is mostly focused on robots that actually teach children things and/or learn from them, and perhaps interact with them socially. So, these are humanoid robots that are similar to humans in different ways. Then, we also see robots that can be remotely controlled in classrooms – like Skype on Wheels – and these can be used by children who can’t be in the classroom for different reasons such as if they’re currently undergoing cancer treatment. We have some very rare situations where teachers have remotely controlled robots to be able to teach a class as well. So, that’s basically how the field is right now.

NEIL: Now, this all sounds really kind of futuristic and interesting in theory, but in practice, one of the main issues is how people actually accept these machines, and how they gain trust in them. What have you found out about people’s reactions to these technologies in the classroom?

SOFIA: When it comes to the research that I’ve done in the classroom I have put actual robots in the classroom for several months and studied interactions with them. However, I haven’t done any rigorous research about acceptance in those cases. However, I do see that children are generally optimistic and positive about it … outwardly anyway. And teachers, of course, appreciate having a researcher there and being part of a project, and it’s fun and interesting. But, teachers haven’t been very involved in the actual robot and the interactions. Instead it’s been on the sidelines of what they’re doing. When I talk to teachers and students that are not part of any study, I can see that students are concerned about certain things that robots can do or what they shouldn’t do. And, the privacy issue is one thing that they are very concerned about. For example, they don’t want to be recorded by a robot, which might be necessary for it to be able to interpret different things about the person it’s interacting with. Also children don’t want to be graded by a robot. And, this is something that also teachers resonate with, so they don’t want to give away their authority in that sense. So, there are a lot of open questions right now – for example, how this technology might impact children in the long run. We don’t know very much about this. We know about our children have toys and grow up with toys. But these robots are a new thing – kind of like a social interaction partner that is not really human, but does kind of mirror human behaviour. And also, it has certain restrictions, like it might not be able to speak with a humanlike intonation. So how does that affect children if they were to grow up with these robots? In reality that’s a kind of study we can’t conduct.

NEIL: So, can you just tell us a bit about the research you’ve done yourself on robots in the classroom? 

SOFIA: I’ve looked at interaction breakdowns. In one study I selected situations or instances where children either became notably upset or they became inactive when interacting with the robot. Not because they were bored with the actual game … that didn’t actually happen because it was very engaging and fun. But these were instances when students couldn’t do anything – they couldn’t proceed – and also when they started doing other stuff in the room, or began to talk to their friends instead of working on the topic. And, what I saw was that when the robot doesn’t understand what the child is saying, it generates a situation where on the one hand you have a robot who can express a lot of stuff and tell you what to do. But, if the child can’t ask the robot a question or show uncertainty, it creates a very difficult situation when they’re alone with this robot. And this is what leads to these breakdowns – when students need help from the outside. I looked at six randomly picked students over the course of the three-and-a-half months that I was in the school. And out of those sessions, I spotted 41 breakdowns. Some children were very upset about not understanding what to do, and not being able to move on. Some got really angry at the robot for disrupting and destroying their strategy that they were using.  But, I think the worst case was when the students who’ve actually felt that they were not good enough and they put the blame on themselves. You know, because robots and computers have a lot of authority in the sense. You know, you don’t think that your calculator lies to you?

NEIL: Yeah, yeah.

SOFIA: You trust in your calculator more than your own calculations. And, I spotted this similar tendency here. If the robot broke down when I was with it then it must not like me. And, having to deal with those kinds of situation is ethically problematic, I think.

NEIL: So, is that a design problem? Can we design robots to suddenly be a bit more imprecise, or as you say, not to kind of break down the magic between the student and the machine?

SOFIA: I think we could have obviously accomplished a lot more than what we did in that study.  We used a teaching robot and there were a lot of outside things that affected it. You know, sunlight affects it, heat in the room affects it, how long it’s been going on affects the ability of the robot to work like it should. But, nevertheless we have to kind of ask ourselves how far along that road can we go to uphold this illusion? The illusion that this is a sentient being in the eyes of the student. I think that’s a question for philosophy and ethics really.

NEIL: So, you’ve – you’ve moved very quickly from looking at these things as teaching and learning technologies to ethical questions. These are big kind of issues to be grappling with. So, what are the main ethical questions that we need to be asked here? We’ve got privacy …

SOFIA: Yeah, and we have issues of responsibility.  For example, who is responsible for the robot? We see a lot of companies developing these technologies and selling them. However, where does their responsibility end and where does the teacher’s responsibility begin? And, according to teachers, they want to be the responsible party in terms of what’s going on in the classroom. However, they do feel at the same time that they can’t have this responsibility if they can’t monitor what’s going on. So, the idea with a teaching robot is that it’s supposed to work autonomously, and it’s not supposed to be under the control of teachers. And, often times the teachers don’t know even how it works, right, so they can’t control it.

But one teacher asked how this benefits them … because if they have to walk around and keep an eye on the robot all the time, then what kind of sacrifice is this for their roles as teachers? And, we also have the inevitable fact that robots do break and robots don’t support physical interaction as much as we are led to believe. Because they look humanoid, it is tempting to think you can shake its hand, you can give it a high five, you can give it a hug … but this usually doesn’t work unless the robot is programmed to go along with this.

NEIL: So, this issue of is the robot going along with it leads me to think about questions of deception. If the robot is mimicking certain behaviour, is that an ethical issue as well?

SOFIA: Well, I think it might become an issue if robots have these kind of social interaction features. Of course, there is a level of deception in that, because they’re not social. You can erase the program, you can accidentally erase a log about one child and then the robot won’t remember that child anymore. That’s a big issue that I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of. 

NEIL: So, just backtracking from the ethics for a second, one of the things that spring into mind is why on earth should we be using these machines if there are all these issues. Presumably there are kind of very strong learning and teaching rationales for using robots in the classroom. What sort of things do we know about the learning can take place around a robot? 

SOFIA: We have certain indications that robots are preferred by students over virtual agents –  for example, intelligent tutoring systems that have a virtual agent with different levels of animation in the agent. So, the more humanlike the embodiment of the robot is, the more physical it is, the better the learning outcomes. However, these are not long-term field studies that I’m talking about here.  These findings come from very controlled experiments, often not even with children. And, so we honestly don’t know too much about the learning outcomes. In my study, I had a robot that taught geography and map-reading to children, and also sustainability issues. The learning goal was that the children should be able to reason about sustainability and the economic issues involved, the social issues involved, and it’s a complex interaction. So, we didn’t see any learning outcomes in that regard. In map-reading there was a slight learning improvement, but not as much as one would hope after a month’s worth of interactions with this robot.

 NEIL: So, this is very future focused research, it’s a very future focused area of education, and doing research in this area must be really, really tricky. And also, there’s a lot of hype in this area as well. So, looking forward in the future, what do you realistically think we’ll see in 20 years’ time? And, what is actually hype?

SOFIA: I think as soon as you talk about the social aspects of interaction, then we have a problem. And if we talk about AI as being very clever at certain specific tasks, then yes, we have this already – this is technology that is coming. But, if we talk about a general social intelligence that’s supposed to make its own decisions and deductions based on how you are, and it gets to know you in human terms, and it gets to reason and think, then I’m not sure I believe this is going to happen at all. This would require a very complex form of programming and machine learning, so I guess we’ll see … I’m a bit reluctant to answer that question, because ‘who knows’?

NEIL: Now, I just wanted to finish on a nice easy question. It’s often said that robots and AI actually raise this existential question of ‘what does it mean to be human in a digital age’? I was wondering if your work has led you to any such insights? What will it mean to be human in the 21stcentury? And, what implications might this have for education?

SOFIA: I think we’re going to start to see that there is something else to human nature that technology might not be able to fill. The question is how we want to proceed knowing this. And children are what we define as a vulnerable group in society that we have some sort of duty of care towards. And, if we see all these problems with technology, if we see problems and potential suffering, then maybe we should talk about those issues and not just sweep them under the carpet. I don’t think there’s going to be any revolutionary situation where you see that robots somehow make us question our own sense of being in the world. But, I do think that if we interact with them too much, then we’re going to have problems knowing what we are. So it’s important that we don’t put this technology in the hands of children who are too young to be able to critically assess what’s going on.

Informal learning through online platforms

Neil Selwyn, Professor of Education in the Digital Education Research group at Monash University, produces a podcast called Meet the Education Researcher where he interviews researchers during his travels about the things they are working on and find interesting. A few months ago, Neil, who has been a visiting professor with our research group, came back for a visit. During his visit he interviewed me about the work I am doing on the ways informal learning plays out on online platforms.

NS: Now, first off before we get into projects and things that you’re working on, what’s the big idea that your research addresses? What are the big questions that you’re interested in?

TH: The big thing I’m interested in at the moment is networked learning. I would say my interest has evolved over time and now I realise that I’m quite interested in the phenomenon of collective intelligence and wisdom of the crowd, but not so much at scale. Instead I’m interested in bridging what we know about these phenomena from scale down to the individual level. To try to understand what the experiences of the individual are, and what their relationship is with the systems they use, how the platforms that they use assemble these knowledges and work as a collective … and kind of break down these phenomena in a way that gives us something more tangible we can work with.

NS: So this is a really interesting approach to take to education and technology, and I guess a lot of it is not school-based. So, your background I guess is not in school teaching?

TH: No, it’s not. My background’s actually in industrial design, and I worked as a computer interaction designer and as an industrial designer doing things like furniture and sporting goods and lots of weird things. And, then I worked designing museum exhibits and technologies for education, and then got into graduate school that way, realising that I actually knew nothing about learning or what people were doing, and I was designing for them, and making it up as went along! And that’s where my interest has emerged, and so I do tend to look at a lot of out-of-school learning situations, on the internet, in museums. And, partly I do that because I’m not sure school is actually the best place to look for learning, and I think maybe we can learn a lot of applicable things to formal schooling from so-called ‘informal’ learning.

NS: I wanted to go through some of those examples of informal learning. Now, you’ve done a few projects that I’m aware of that have really fascinated me. The first one is citizen science. Can you explain what citizen science is, and what sort of platforms and networks does it take place on?

TH: Yeah, we had a project studying the phenomenon of citizen science and citizen social science, citizen natural science, citizen humanities … there’s a large umbrella of these projects now. Traditionally citizen science has been people counting birds in their backyard, or using buckets to test the water quality in their local stream. But, in the recent decade or so, online platforms have sprung up and the kind of activity that people are involved in has changed. And, there’s been a lot of classification projects, where scientists have huge data sets that they need analysed in some way, and they ask volunteers to log into platforms online and to code them. So, one of the big ones that we’ve looked at is called Zooniverse, which is a platform for doing lots of different kind of citizen science projects, and in particular it started with this galaxy classifying project. So, people looked at pictures of galaxies, and over time got more and more advanced. People picked out whether there were spirals or circles or what shapes the galaxies were. And, they oriented the scientists in which pictures they should be looking at.

NS: So, presumably, these members of the public identifying galaxies are not all professional astronomers? I mean, how are people actually engaging with this content?

TH: No, mostly they’re not professional at all. In fact interestingly, most of the people that we’ve talked to as part of the project have no background even in amateur astronomy. Most of them were first just interested by the fact that they got to see these pretty pictures. Because, these are quite beautiful pictures of galaxies, and then they develop this interest in astronomy over time. So one of the things we’ve been doing is to study the discussion forums that go on around these activities, and to see what kind of knowledges these people develop over time, kind of to the side of the main activity they’re asked to do. The main activity they’re asked to do is very, very simple. Generally speaking, these citizen science projects build on the fact that you don’t really need a lot of background in order to do the classification work of deciding whether a galaxy is circular or oblong.

NS: So, what are people talking about on the discussion forums?

TH: They’re talking about all kinds of different things. So what’s interesting is often they’re using the pictures they’re presented on the platform, not to go through and classify as many as they can quickly, but to stop and do their own analysis and discuss different scientific databases and the scientific papers they can use to do analysis. There’s even examples of volunteers using the material they find on the system to produce their own scientific articles and get them published. With a colleague, Dick Kasperowski, I’ve recently published a paper looking at how they develop knowledge about the imaging processes. So when the telescopes take these pictures and when the different computational processes process these images, often-times artefacts appear – little errors in the images. And you’ll actually find quite a lot of discussion where people are learning to identify these errors and break them down and learn to read what that tells them about the kind of instruments that have been used to produce the images. And, that’s often a gateway into breaking down images in the way that a professional astronomer would do. So, professional astronomers generally don’t look at the visual images that much, they look at graphs and they look at different wavelengths and it’s a much more complicated process. And, so looking at these errors in the images is often a kind of gateway into looking at different representations of the images and taking a much more analytical approach.

NS: So, these are really powerful forms of informal learning and, as you say, the system is acting as a bridge into these other forms of knowledge.

TH: Exactly, and it’s a completely unexpected form of informal learning. So it’s not at all something planned by the project, or it’s not part of an initiative that the scientists have to inform the public that they’re working with. It’s very much a grass roots re-assemblage of the platform and what’s available to them.

NS: Now, you’ve done another project on teachers’ use of Facebook groups. And, just for anyone thinking that we’re talking about a few hundred people here, I know this Facebook group was 18,000 at its peak.

TH: It got up to about 18,000. When we actually assembled our corpus of data from the group I think it was about 13,500 users. We assembled three years of activity from this Facebook group where teachers talked about a particular kind of pedagogical approach, and we looked at the patterns in their usage, and also the character of their discussions. We did analysis of how the norms in the group functioned and how they were put in place, and the different footings that teachers took in the discussions, and the kind of topics that they worked with.

NS: Now, you’re making this sound very straightforward, but I guess methodologically assembling data from 18,000 teachers on a Facebook group’s quite tricky.

TH: It’s not easy … and I should say, this was pre-Cambridge Analytica when we collected the data, so I’m not even sure you can do it in the same way we did. So I actually wrote code in the Python programming language to query the Facebook database through what’s called the application programming interface – the API – and downloaded the information we wanted. Of course, we had permission from the group owner, and we’d posted in the group to show that we were doing it, and we encouraged members to let us know if they didn’t want to be part of it. If so, we deleted their data from the data set if they wanted to be removed from the project. Now it’s a lot more difficult to get that kind of access to the Facebook database.

NS: So,this is ethically tricky, you had to teach yourself to code. But all those caveats aside, what did you actually find out? What learning was taking place?

TH: A lot of the literature on these kind of social media teacher groups suggests that it’s quite superficial – that it’s a lot of tips and tricks and sharing of apps, and that kind of thing. But, we actually found that if you dig a little deeper into these seemingly superficial threads, you find a lot of exchange of pedagogical ideas and it isn’t uncommon to have quite serious discussions. But we also found that it was very uncommon to see anyone challenging norms of the group. The pedagogical principal that this group was framed around was the Flipped Classroom. Anyone coming in and challenging the Flipped Classroom as an approach really was met with quite a strong response. There was very much an intention to maintaining cohesion in the group.

NS: But there was no trolling or flaming?

TH: There was very little trolling or flaming, and that’s interesting because it’s very different than you would find on a Reddit group or a more general internet discussion forum, where a lot of the moderation is actually policing behaviour. In this kind of professional space, similar to how it is in the Citizen Science projects … possibly because you have this professional or thematic orientation. Most of the moderation work is actually to do with kind of supporting or guiding or mentoring, maintaining certain norms. But not in the ‘hard policing’ of bad behaviour ay that you would expect with a lot of internet forums.

NS: So was this a case of 18,000 teachers all learning, all participating?

TH: No, I’m not sure you could say that. Our data shows that it’s a core group of maybe 25 teachers that are responsible for the vast majority of activity. So, the data breaks down to show that about half the teachers in the group over the three-year period had either posted, commented or liked something. It’s a private group, so you have to apply to be a member and to see the posts. But about half of those members had never actively contributed to the group in any way.

NS: Never clicked at all?

TH: No, and you could construct that as them being ‘Lurkers’. But on the other hand they may be getting a lot out of simply ‘reading’ the group.

NS: That’s really interesting … and then your third project which caught my attention was your research regarding YouTube and informal learning. So, how on earth is learning taking place on YouTube?

TH: Well, it’s a massive area, and what we’re specifically interested in is instructional videos. Instructional video has been something that’s gone on since the dawn of television, but the availability of instructional video is enormous now. The YouTube statistics are that there is 300 hours of footage uploaded every second.

NS: And are these instructional videos uploaded by educational institutions? These are formal offerings?

TH: No, not at all. They’re very rarely that. In fact, they’re mostly people that are interested in a specific topic. It’s generally manual skills – repairing your washing machine, putting on makeup, cutting your hair, doing all these mundane tasks. But it’s this interesting space where people are not just demonstrating, but they’re taking a kind of pedagogical agency and showing other people how to do things, explaining them.

NS: So, what sort of people are uploading videos about how to mend a washing machine or put makeup on? Who are the actual content creators?

TH: It’s interesting. There’s kind of two different types of creators, There are people that have an interest in washing machine repair perhaps, that’s their hobby and they’re just showing people how to do it. And then there are people that are really trying to make a career of doing instructional video. Because actually if you look at instructional video statistics on YouTube, there a relatively small proportion of these videos on YouTube, but they’re the second most viewed category. So, if you produce a successful instructional video, you generally get a lot of views on it, and then you get a lot of advertising revenue from that. For instance, there’s one user we’ve been following. She is a young woman that does makeup videos. She’s gone from being a student to all of a sudden doing about US$4 million a year in advertising revenue. It can be incredibly lucrative if you get a channel that really becomes popular.

NS: And, so what type of learning is taking place? You can earn $4 million doing it but what are people getting out of watching these videos?

TH: Well they’re learning to put makeup on, or they’re learning to get their washing machine working again [laughs]. Sometimes the videos can address a more abstract topic, but most often it’s a very concrete kind of activity. So, whether you’ve actually learnt something or not can be measured in whether you’ve fixed your bike chain or whatever.

NS: Are you finding anything interesting about this learning from the educational perspective?

TH: We’re finding quite a lot about how demonstration works and the sequentiality between telling someone to do something and showing someone to do something. There’s something about demonstration and video that works well. The video provides you with a specific case to work with, but the description that you give provides a general description of the kind of activity that’s going on. So, you have these two levels, with the visual and the audio working together. That provides a situation where, in many cases, you can learn something more than just the video you’re looking at. It’s not just learning how to fix your washing machine, you also learn something about how electrical components work together, because the person telling you is filling in aspects of that while they’re working with the specific concrete case of that specific washing machine.

NS: These are fascinating topics to be looking at in terms of education research. You’ve got millions of people online, engaging in learning every day. I’m interested what you’re going to look at next. You’ve looked at these particular projects, what’s on the horizon?

TH: Well I’m really interested now in these large-scale educational movements which are non-traditional in a sense. So moving away from things like MOOCs being the focus of trying to understand education online. Instead, I’m interested in things like Stack Overflow, where millions of people are learning to program together. There’s a whole suite of stack exchange platforms. And I’m interested by the platform mechanics and what these platforms can teach us about learning in formal LMS systems or classrooms even. I’m interested in looking at the way millions of people who have no extrinsic motivation to learn get engaged and in doing something.

NS: That’s absolutely fascinating … So my final question – as an industrial designer, what do you actually make about education researchers? It’s a very different industry to be working in.

TH: It is an incredibly different industry to be working in. Industrial designers are also a group that sometimes works quite conceptually, but is generally a group that ends up having to produce a product at the end. So you can’t really get away with just problematizing things when you have to actually produce something. I think we’re quite limited in educational research at the moment in the ways that we can represent our findings. Maybe educational researchers can learn something from designers in a sense that designers have tools and methods for reaching audiences in ways that are simple and elegant, and can sometimes cause people to think, but don’t do it in a heavy-handed way. I think that’s something that can be brought to educational research.

NS: But to end on a positive note, you are working as an educational researcher. So why do you do this job? What do you enjoy?

TH: I’m really, really interested in figuring out why and how people learn. This connection between learning and the German word Bildung – this lifelong pursuit of knowledge. I’m interested in everybody feeling that love of learning. I think that’s why I’m interested in these online spaces, because there’s evidence of people with a self-motivated love of learning, and these platforms work for them for some reason. I kind of want to know why.