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Can Robots Help Teach Children How To Write?

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Can pairing children with like-minded robots that they can teach result in the children improving their learning skills?

According to a group of researchers at the école polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, the answer is definitely yes. These researchers recently developed a learning program, CoWriter, based on learning by teaching, which allows students to learn by teaching others, or in this case, robots, about certain subjects.

Researchers designed the robot so that children would see it as an approachable and friendly peer. It comes with writing algorithms that improve over time and draws words on demand, but starts out by using clumsy techniques, much as a child would when first learning how to write. In fact, the robot's database holds a variety of handwriting examples so that it can recreate mistakes that children often make during their writing lessons and practice. Eventually, though, the robot's handwriting improves as the child teaches it.

"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," says Severin Lemaignan, one of the authors of the study.

In this case, researchers created a robot that took on the role of a peer that struggled with writing. The child shows plastic letters to the robot, who seems to struggle with writing the symbols on a tablet of the letters. The child, seeing the robot struggling with writing, then writes out the word, teaching the robot how to do it correctly. That effort actually helps the child improve her own writing skills every time the robot needs help.

"It is also possible to program the robot so that it addresses the particular difficulties of a student, for example, by drawing a 'P' that is barely readable and improving its form over time," says the study's authors.

In its prototype stage, the CoWriter program has helped around 70 primary school students learn better writing skills. So far, though, the researchers' focus is on the robot's technical aspects and the overall effectiveness of the program. However, if successful, more schools could employ the robot to help those students who need it.

Other versions of the program could eventually feature robots that do math, as well as handle other subjects that students often struggle with.

Who knows? The future could eventually see a robot in every classroom.

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