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 Australian Education Reporter - - ROBOTICS -


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.


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.


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.


Stu­dents learn­ing about so­cially as­sis­tive ro­bots.

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