Teachers are often wary about letting more distracting tech fads into the classroom, but a trial of a social engagement robot in special needs classrooms in Melbourne has proved an early hit with both educators and students.
‘Matilda’ has been deployed in four classrooms at the Waratah Special Development School, where students range in age from 5-years old to 18-years old, and can assist teachers in creating positive social engagement through entertaining learning activities.
Research project manager Dr Seyed Mohammed Sadegh Khaksar, from the university’s Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation, said the personalised robot is designed to be personalised and complement teachers’ work, rather than replace teachers.
“Matilda can recognise human voices and faces, detect emotions, read and recite text, dance and play music,” Dr Khaksar said.
"Our aim is to adapt these features in a way that will complement a teaching environment and provide tailored support to teachers and students.
“This study is about assisting both teachers and students, especially those in special needs education, who can face particular challenges in their learning environments. It will measure how social robots can motivate children with special needs to better learn and engage in the classroom.”
One of the early modules teachers requested to be delivered with the help of Matilda is a bullying support service.
So far, Khaksar said, the results have been immediate and positive.
“As soon as the kids see Matilda in the classroom, their faces light up and they become more interested and engaged.
“Because the robot is patient and non-judgemental – as well as being interactive – the students have been able to form a type of bond with it.”
Matilda can also engage with students on reading exercises, acting out characters from books and readings texts aloud, along with setting tasks.
It can also save teachers from the frustration of endlessly repeating answers to the same questions a hundred times over.
Waratah Special Developmental School principal Jennifer Wallace said Matilda is already showing promise in the trials done so far.
“It’s been a fantastic experience to help develop specific activities and adjustments for the robot, to address the individual needs of our students and monitor their progress,” Wallace said.
“We’ve seen an increase in students’ willingness to engage with the robot and an improvement in communication and social skills. Our students are listening and attending to the robot, responding when their name is called and following the robot’s instructions.
“We’ve found our students are highly motivated to participate in activities facilitated through the robot and they are demonstrating an increased ability to wait and take turns after spending time with the robot."
La Trobe co-created Matilda with the help of NEC, and expects the study into the use of robots in special needs classes to wrap by the end of the year.