Study: Robots @ School

Earlier this year, we announced the kickoff of our latest KIDS study, Robots @ School, a narrative- and illustration-based project designed to let kids express how they’d like to interact with robots in a variety of situations related to school and learning.

In the intervening months, we’ve worked with well over 100 children, ages 8-12, in the United States, South Africa, Australia and the United Kingdom, and have conducted an initial analysis of the results. We’re still in the early stages – launching in France and Germany shortly and planning to expand into East Asia and beyond – but already, we’ve learned a great deal about how kids think about learning, play, creativity and social interaction, generally and, of course, with robots in their lives.

Key Theme: Self-Direction and Personal Empowerment

As we move forward with our analysis (we’re aiming to publish full results soon), we’ll chime in periodically around some of the key themes we’re uncovering. This week, we’ll focus on one in particular: self-direction and personal empowerment.

The stories we’ve received tell us that, overwhelmingly, the children we’ve worked with are extraordinarily motivated to learn, explore and develop new skills, whether in the context of their formal educations or more broadly. Further, they want to be able to do more on their own. At the same time, they’re either implicitly or explicitly aware of various impediments to taking charge of their own learning and development.

These obstacles include:

  •  Social barriers: There are perceived (and often actual) stigmas against being unconventional and being wrong. This is a powerful one-two punch that often holds kids back from taking creative risks, and from admitting when they don’t “get” something and seeking help.
  • Academic pace: For the reasons above (and others, undoubtedly), it can be difficult for kids who lag behind their classmates in certain areas to take the steps needed to improve. On the other end of the spectrum, kids whose progress has outpaced the rest of their class often have nothing to do but wait for their classmates to catch up.
  • Time & patience: Kids can do a lot on their own, but they often rely on teachers and parents for help, particularly when they run into difficulties. Even the most well-intentioned teachers and parents are short on time – and occasionally, on patience – and kids are wary of being perceived as bothersome.

Enter: Robots

So where do robots fit into the picture? First, kids can relate to robots as people (alternatingly, as mentors, friends, teachers, etc.), but without the major limitations of human-human interaction. Robots are non-judgmental, supportive, infinitely patient, and can introduce a variety of incentives to help kids progress. Moreover, they can make learning fun, individualized, and self-paced. One story, in particular, stands out (and note the interesting use of social incentives in the story):

“Larry [the robot] said to me, ‘Look, maths is an important part of your life and you will be using it a lot in the future. If you don’t do maths now with me I won’t be a close friend.’ I said, ‘Ok I will do it,’ so we raced each other with multiplication and he won but I got a better score than I got at school.

I started to get the hang of it so we did it again, and every time we did it I got better and started to kind of like maths. When we finished the maths work, I said to Larry, ‘Thanks for caring about me.’” — Female, 11, Australia

More expansively, and less narrowly rooted in school activities, kids see robots as invaluable partners that can help their creativity flourish. Several of our contributors told stories that described the frustrations of having really good, creative ideas and limited means for expressing them well — and of robots that enabled them to overcome the limits of their communications abilities. For instance:

“RJ is a cool dude robot. He looks like a transformer robot, and with a click of a button he shows me his screen. It then looks like a laptop. I may type my work into the laptop, instead of writing. Then RJ fixes my spelling, and tells me when my sentence is wrong. That way the teacher does not see all the mistakes, but can see how good my idea is.” — Male, 12, South Africa

In this particular instance, the author described his struggles with dyslexia, the most difficult of which was a simultaneous awareness of his intelligence and of his inability to articulate his ideas to peers and teachers, who couldn’t see past his verbal and computational errors. It’s clear, however, that the issue of “translation” isn’t confined to kids with learning disorders.

Robots Remove Limitations

Across the stories we’ve received, kids are quick to recognize their creative and sophisticated thinking skills, and also are incredibly aware of the limitations of their “kidness” where creative expression is concerned. Those limitations can be stifling. While robots might not help kids be more creative (though that’s quite possibly the case), they can certainly remove a major obstacle to creative exploration and risk-taking by helping kids refine, re-frame and communicate their ideas.

While we’ve focused specifically on kids in this study, the findings ring true far more broadly. As a parting note, and very much related to the theme of personal empowerment and self-expression, a recent 60 Minutes episode provided a very moving view of the transformative impact of technology on people with autism, essentially unlocking communications possibilities that weren’t previously possible.

Study lead: Ian Schulte

Latitude is an international research consultancy helping clients create engaging content, software and technology that harness the possibilities of the Web. To learn more about working with Latitude, fill out this form or contact Ian Schulte (