Social Learning with Robots
Disability Units integrate Socially Assistive Robots to maximise learning across the curricula for students with Autism and intellectual disabilities. By Dr Christine Roberts-yates, 2017 Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award Winner
THE DISABILITY UNIT STRUCTURE
The Disability Unit (DU) is an integrated ICT- rich learning environment. Eligibility for enrolment is determined by an educational psychologist, and includes students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, language communication disabilities, Autism, Down Syndrome and two students with severe and multiple disabilities.
The student intake is derived from the local primary Special School, and accommodates the learning needs of students aged between 13 and 18 years in two vertically grouped Middle School and Senior classes.
Between 21 and 30 students are enrolled in the DU, all of whom have a One Plan that outlines the educational programs, SMARTAR goals, health care support, accommodations, and transition pathways from school to work and the community. Every student has a laptop, an ipad, a flip camera and a kindle, and an IWB or a Promethean V4 Activpanel is located in each learning space.
Students undertake as appropriate work experience, School-based Apprenticeships and work readiness training with Business Services or Day Options.
THE INTEGRATION OF SARS ACROSS THE LEARNING AREAS
Socially Assistive Robots (SARS) are appealing, engaging social companions for students with intellectual disabilities and Autism because they present as patient, respectful, non judgemental mentors with physical features that reduce sensory overload in the communication process.
Furthermore, they are able to engage Autistic students who are non-verbal with flash cards, provide positive feedback and opportunities for generalisation, encourage active listening and reinforce positive social behavior.
Such ‘cutting edge’ technology inspires an eclectic range of teaching and learning opportunity including digital manipulatives in mathematics, social stories, WHS, construction art, and the expansion of the DU’S STEM pedagogy via the building of model combustion and V8 engines and a self-supporting bridge using the Law of Statics, as well as showcasing student achievement in small business enterprise.
Moreover, the SARS have been invaluable in sharing specific information, stimulating and simplifying the learning process using digitally represented locations and contexts, prompting self-initiated interactions, supporting participation in a range of literacy and numeracy activities, and undertaking instructional mentoring across the learning areas.
For example, Google Cardboard reveals virtual worlds resonant with realism and unexpected juxtapositions; Touch Jet connects students with digital learning resources using any available flat surface; as well as simulated 3D vision from the Holocube.
Just as importantly, the SARS expand opportunities for educators to adapt the educational environment to stimulate learning and engagement within authentic contexts, such as the design and baking of a gingerbread castle; assistance with multiple choice assessments using Promethean Activexpression, and instructional coaching to optimise involvement with Oculus Rift and experience a 3D, 360 degree interactive virtual world.
Furthermore, the SARS have enriched the DU’S smart learning environment by acting as a catalyst for change and new learning within a range of structured physical environments by instructing the safe usage of 3D doodler pens and the design of an ethanol molecule, prompting the basic design steps of cartoon strips using Raspberry Pi, encouraging budding musicians to use Skoog and the virtual piano in Creative Arts and demonstrating Tai Chi and yoga in Health.
Undoubtedly, the SARS coaching, repetition and positive feedback provide additional opportunities for students with disabilities and Autism to expand their social communication skills and achieve specific learning outcomes.
Multiple opportunities to interact with the SARS enable the students to become more aware of the nuances within social learning contexts, thereby gradually increasing the complexity of their social communication spectrum over time.
The integration of the SARS across the DU has encouraged a seamless, imaginative pedagogy unencumbered by the constraints of traditional teaching methodology.
Members of staff have been gradually introduced to the complexities of the new technology, as well as the time to become familiar with the latest software, which otherwise they may have found intimidating.
Firstly, the familiarisation of Choregraphe software is essential in order to program specific applications that achieve the desired learning outcomes for individuals or small groups of students.
Consequently, students are exposed to multiple levels of engagement, progressions of experiential learning and authentic social collaboration that utilise the clues in the learning environment, so that they are able to respond in a more immediate way.
For example, students work with the SARS to practise number and letter recognition using the coordinates in basic chess games, construct pictures using shapes and observe ways to manage emotions and reduce stress.
Furthermore, they use digital styli and paintbrushes to submit entries for the SA Refugee Week Youth Poster Exhibition, after using Google Cardboard to view a virtual refugee camp in Sidra and utilising the SARS application ‘Small Talk’ to share stories about refugees.
In fact, the SARS provide specific guidance to groups of students and encourage the less confident artists to express their ideas, provide positive feedback and showcase their outcomes on Youtube.
THE BENEFITS OF SARS IN THE DISABILITY UNIT
Without doubt, the SARS have enriched the learning experiences of students with an intellectual disability and Autism across the DU.
In fact, the social aspect of the robots is a fundamental component of the SAR applications and may be argued the pivot of its success. The SARS have become rewarding social partners and all the students demonstrate intrinsic interest in the various levels of social interaction with them.
Unquestionably, their humanoid features, endearing design, sensors, cameras, and sonar enable them to recognise their environment with stability and precision, thereby readily engaging all the students.
Students become involved in observational learning by imitating the posture, gestures and movement of the SARS as well as participating, albeit peripherally at times, in the learning activities.
Every opportunity is taken to script and Choregraphe the NAO robots to assist the students with their learning (e.g.) basic coding using Cubetto, building the Kano computer and screen, advancing to Lightbot before proceeding to coding with Raspberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms.
As 21st century learners, students participate in a diverse range of high quality, authentic, rigorous activities that connect existing knowledge with information processing and social cognitive problem solving.
The SARS pre-programmed interactive applications (e.g.) Colour Hunter, Math Power, Guess Emotions and Yoga have been useful in reinforcing basic academic and social interaction skills, as well as encouraging the more diffident students to participate in physical activity.
Overall, the SARS enable the students to formulate actions in advance, and approach tasks in a more organised and strategic manner, thereby increasing attention span and cognitive flexibility essential in changes to daily life routines for students with Autism.
Significantly, the SARS act as social mediators by encouraging joint attention and turn taking with students.
Certainly, students with Autism have difficulty in communication and understanding the different nuances of social interactions, and the SARS, as a result of their human-robot interaction (HRI) architecture, are valuable therapeutic/ educational tools limited only by the imagination and energy of the educational practitioner/programmer.
Indeed, the introduction of the SARS has provided positive feedback, developed
resilience and provided opportunities for generalisation.
They have enabled students to further develop their range of social skills, participation, levels of spatial and social awareness, gestures and body language, exchange of feelings, turn taking and spontaneous interaction.
For example, programming the SARS to reinforce effective social communication skills and safe work practice across the learning areas, not only enriches and adds value to ‘real life’ educational programs, but enables a more successful transition into the community and workplace.
• 2015 - SBS Insight invited us to participate in their program, ‘Trusting Robots’, where two of our students demonstrated how the NAO robots can be integrated in educational program.
• Professor David David (Head of the Australian Craniomaxillofacial Unit) invited us to showcase the SARS to his medical team.
Video clips showcasing the integration of the SARS have been placed on the NAO Robot Facebook page, Youtube and the High School’s Facebook page. We are negotiating a research partnership with the CSIRO in Sydney.
There are few limitations as to the ways in which the SARS can be integrated across the learning areas for students with intellectual disabilities and Autism.
The use of SARS enables educational practitioners to successfully differentiate the curricula to address the diverse needs of students with intellectual disabilities and Autism.
Initially there may be varied reactions when students are introduced to the SARS. It may be argued that SARS are merely computer-based hardware with limited technological abilities and awareness of the physical context in which they are interacting.
However, SARS can be programmed to become critical elements of interactive platforms that provide effective interventions and adjuncts to learning that have therapeutic benefits, stimulate participation, provide real-time feedback, offer positive reinforcement and personalised encouragement, and demonstrate a patient, pleasing communication style across a variety of educational contexts.
It is our experience that most of the students have realistic expectations of the SARS and understand the constraints of their capabilities.
In fact, the majority of students maintain their focus throughout educational activities, and willingly tolerate any attention to malfunctions, reprogramming and replications of interactions required when developing video clips to showcase their learning outcomes.
Importantly, the students are keen to showcase their educational activities with the SARS to the rest of the world and look forward to the challenge of more complex interaction.
IT IS OUR EXPERIENCE THAT MOST OF THE STUDENTS HAVE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS OF THE SARS AND UNDERSTAND THE CONSTRAINTS OF THEIR CAPABILITIES.
Students learning about socially assistive robots.