One of the robots used in the University of Plymouth's Robo21c program, which aims to complement to the school curriculum by developing teachers' skills and understanding of robotics and programming. Source: University of PlymouthOne of the robots used in the University of Plymouth's Robo21c program, which aims to complement to the school curriculum by developing teachers' skills and understanding of robotics and programming. Source: University of PlymouthIf there was ever fear that teachers might one day lose their jobs to robots, they can now breathe a sigh of relief thanks to recent findings from a study led by robotics professor Tony Belpaeme from the University of Plymouth and Ghent University.

According to a team of scientists conducting research on the topic, social robots have proven valuable in terms of teaching students subjects like vocabulary and prime numbers, which tend to be narrow by nature. Current technology and its limitations, specifically concerning speech recognition and social interaction, will relegate robots to an assistant role or work in a tutoring capacity, at least for now.

Having worked in the social robotics field for about two decades, Profesor Belpaeme said: "In recent years scientists have started to build robots for the classroom — not the robot kits used to learn about technology and mathematics, but social robots that can actually teach. This is because pressures on teaching budgets, and calls for more personalized teaching, have led to a search for technological solutions.

"In the broadest sense, social robots have the potential to become part of the educational infrastructure just like paper, whiteboards and computer tablets. But a social robot has the potential to support and challenge students in ways unavailable in current resource-limited educational environments. Robots can free up precious time for teachers, allowing the teacher to focus on what people still do best — provide a comprehensive, empathic, and rewarding educational experience."

Combing through more than 100 published articles on the topic of robots in the classroom, the team also looked at data concerning technological limitations as well. Among those limitations, the authors concluded, were concerns about robots understanding the speech patterns of a young child and the potential for some children to rely too much on the robots for help.

The authors added: "Next to the practical considerations of introducing robots in education, there are also ethical issues. How far do we want the education of our children to be delegated to machines? Overall, learners are positive about their experiences, but parents and teaching staff adopt a more cautious attitude.

"Notwithstanding that, robots show great promise when teaching restricted topics with the effects almost matching those of human tutoring. So although the use of robots in educational settings is limited by technical and logistical challenges for now, it is highly likely that classrooms of the future will feature robots that assist a human teacher."

The study is detailed in the journal Science Robotics.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com