MWEB

Robot ‘students’ are helping children learn to write

July 6, 2015

There’s no denying education in South Africa is in crisis. A massive intervention is needed to save generations of children from a hopeless future of chronic unemployment and reliance on an already overburdened state.

That massive intervention could come in the form of tech. There is a dearth of technology in South African classrooms with many pupils not being exposed to computers while at school. According to Department of Basic Education statistics, 77% of schools do not have a computer centre. The need for technology in classrooms is desperate.

Researchers in Switzerland could have a solution. They have developed a nifty new robot which learns to write alongside its human classmates. The system, called CoWriter, was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne. The children are asked to teach their robotic friend to write by setting out magnetic letters. The robot then attempts, poorly, to write the letters on a tablet. The children correct the robot’s writing, improving their own skills and gaining confidence. The children think they are teaching, but really they are learning. This is a recognised learning technique often used in classrooms, usually between peers.

“Essentially, the goal is to provide a tool for teachers that is given a new role in the classroom, that of a student who knows even less than the slowest student in the class,” explains Severin Lemaignan, one of the authors of the study. Initial testing has been well received and additional testing is expected to be started soon.

The study reads: “The child is the teacher in this relationship and the robot is the learner: the child must engage in a (meta-) cognitive relationship with the robot to try to understand why the robot fails and how to help it best. Here, the robot is more than just an activity facilitator or orchestrator – its physical presence and embodiment induce agency and anthropomorphising, and cognitively engage the child into the learning activity, which we predict will lead to higher learning efficacy.”

In a country like South Africa, where the majority of classes have too many pupils, a tool like this could prove invaluable to overworked teachers. Government has identified the need for an increased use of technology in South African classrooms to enhance the experience for both teachers and learners. The National Development Plan says teachers should be exposed “to the use of technology in their own training, and train them to use it in their teaching”. “Greater use of technology backed by high-speed broadband could open new opportunities not currently available for learners in disadvantaged schools.”

It is also acknowledged class sizes must be reduced for improved learning as teachers would be able to give more attention to individual pupils. An invention similar to the Swiss robot could take some of the burden off teachers. South African tech entrepreneurs should take advantage of research such as this and find ways to creatively work toward improving education.

*This article originally appeared on MWEB.

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