Robot teacher helping children with handwriting skills

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

A French-made humanoid robot originally designed to be an in-home companion is now being used in the classroom to help youngsters develop good handwriting skills, unofficially making it the coolest teacher ever. (Because who wouldn’t want a robotic teacher?)

The robot, NAO, is a friendly-looking, nearly two-foot-tall, roughly 12 1/2 pound robot that was created by Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics. It has already been used to help teach computer and science classes from the elementary school to university level in over 70 countries, and also was recently hired as the first non-human employee at Mitsubishi bank, according to reports.

Furthermore, it has reportedly been used to help kids with learning disabilities and emotional and social issues associated with autism and other, similar conditions. Now DOGONews is reporting that the humanoid robot is helping children improve their handwriting skills by pretending to learn from them in the recently-launched NAO CoWriter program, an initiative from Computer-Human Interaction in Learning and Instruction Laboratory (CHILI) in Switzerland.

Students bust out the red pen

In the NAO CoWriter program, students show the robot alphabet magnets of the word they want it to write. It studies the QR coded assigned to each letter, then attempts to write the desired word on a digital tablet and hands it in to the student who is serving as its teacher, the website noted. The youngster then makes corrections as needed and returns it to NAO for a redo on the project.

Using the corrections to improve its writing, the robot tries again, and the process is repeated until both the mechanical student and its instructor are satisfied with its penmanship, DOGONews added. Experts believe that this type of role-reversal will not only improve the student/teacher’s handwriting ability, but will boost his or her overall confidence as well.

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“Of course, while NAO appears quite the novice learner to the students who range from six to eight years in age, the activity is carefully orchestrated,” the website said. “At the very beginning of the ‘learning’ process, NAO scans through the over 1,000 handwriting samples of different letters programmed in its system. It then picks one that best matches the writing of the kid it is working with. This allows the robot to closely mimic the student’s handwriting.”

Testing the robot’s learning success

It also uses special algorithms to match its learning pace with that demonstrated by the student it is working with, to ensure that the youngster receives enough practice without becoming bored with the task and abandoning the penmanship class. NAO CoWriter was officially announced on March 3 at a human-robot interaction conference in Oregon and is still at the prototype stage.

“While the classroom trials to test the long-term effectiveness of its mathematical algorithms were successful, there is still more to be done,” DOGONews said. “In the upcoming summer months, further tests will be conducted to measure the robot’s success in the learning process and also to see if it is user-friendly enough to be incorporated into a daily classroom routine.”

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NAO comes equipped with tactile sensors, two speaker, four microphones, two cameras, four sonar devices, prehensile hands with sensors, and a persistent WiFi connection that allows it to obtain information from the Internet as needed. The first public version of the robot was released in 2008, and currently more than 5,000 units are in use worldwide, according to Aldebaran.

Special thanks to reader Molly Jeane for bringing this story to our attention.

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