In January 2012, Latitude Research completed a multi-phase innovation study (published in collaboration with LEGO® Learning Institute and Project Synthesis), Robots @ School, asking kids across the world to illustrate and write a story that answers this question: “What would happen if robots were a part of your everyday life—at school and beyond?”
Download the study summary (PDF) here.
“I have a few problems in spelling. The robot shall support me and improve me until I am at the same level as my classmates. The teacher tells the robot where my problems are. The robot is looking for one of his many stored programs and dictates to me. I write what he says and correct it. He can also wrinkle his forehead when something is not right. He continually encourages me even when I have not done so well.” —Girl, 10, Germany
“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.” —Boy, 12, South Africa
Overall, the study found that robots are helping to reveal a potential shift in kids’ social and learning psychologies—moving from acts of knowledge transmission toward acts of exploration, collaboration, and creation. This suggests new opportunities for educators and technologists to better address common frustrations children encounter in the learning process, to inspire self-direction and creative risk-taking, and to enhance kids’ experiences with technology more broadly.
Nearly 350 kid-innovators, ages 8-12, from Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have participated in the Robots @ School study, submitting drawings and text-based narratives of their imagined experiences with robots. (Latitude is currently planning to expand the study to include children in Asia.) An album containing some select submissions from our participants can be viewed here.
Researchers scored kids’ stories on variables relating to human-robot relationships and the dimensions of human-robot activities (e.g., play, learning, creation, and exploration). The infographic below captures some of the insights derived from children’s submissions:
- Smart = Social, Machines Tell UsBy and large, kids (64%) described robots as if they were natural, human-like companions: as humanoid peers that could speak and communicate with ease, came “pre-loaded” with smarts and useful knowledge, and were social naturals. While many of us tend to think of robots as boxy and mechanical in appearance, a full 1/3 of kids explicitly described their robots’ physical form as human-like, and 29% bothered to specify that their robots’ primary mode of interaction was speech.
“My teacher treated my robot just like she was a real human student. My friends treated my robot like a human, too. She is friendly and funny and she fits in with all of us. No one would ever know that she is a robot except that she is made of metal and does not have skin. She is really smart and everyone likes to talk to her. She has a funny voice, but we do not tease her.” —Girl, 8, United States
We know from our previous work with kids that they tend to view technology as something fundamentally human (rather than separate from humanness, as many adults perceive it). Not surprisingly, robots tended to be easily assimilated into kids’ existing peer groups. Unlike most kids in the study’s age range, who are starting to deal with social cliques and the complexities of popularity, robots possess an enviable ability to fit in with other kids—to be natural fixtures in peer groups because, not in spite, of their smarts. In other words, being a nerd is a net positive, not a social stigma, in kids’ story worlds. This is, no doubt, also true in the real world (sans robots) for today’s digital natives—robots simply helped to illuminate what kids value in social scenarios.
- Robots Free Us to Learn and Create in New WaysThe majority of kids’ robots (75%*) acted patient and supportive in educational contexts. Many kids expressed that their parents sometimes didn’t have time to help them with their homework, or couldn’t explain things in the best way, despite their efforts.
“While children imagine robots that are virtually human in many regards, it’s their slight machine-ness that ultimately makes robots such effective partners for learning and creative exploration,” explains Ian Schulte, Latitude’s director of technology and business development, who led the study. “Robots support and encourage, but don’t judge. They don’t run into scheduling conflicts, and they certainly don’t ostracize kids for wrong answers or unconventional thinking. Because they’re just mechanical enough, robots enable kids to grow and explore without regard for social stigmas that so often stifle learning and creativity.” Since robots fulfill a range of emotional needs, they can render learning more fun and “approachable,” making kids eager to tackle even boring or rote material.
“The robot is like a new friend for me. It can [help me with my homework] much better than my parents because it knows exactly how to explain the lessons to a kid like me. The robot is very smart and can answer a lot of questions for me and tell me interesting stories. He always reminds me of all possible things, which I would have otherwise forgotten.” —Boy, 9, Germany
On a practical level, 25% of kids imagined robots that could help with chores or other “low level” responsibilities, freeing them up to pursue higher-order learning and creative activities—two processes (creating and learning) which were strongly linked in kids’ minds.
- Let’s Close the Divide Between Learning and PlayWhile one might expect kids to create more stories about play than learning, an equal number (38%) focused on each of these themes. Kids are quick to see learning and play as related, often overlapping, activities, even if their lives are much more compartmentalized in practice (e.g., school, after-school activities, family obligations, etc.).
They recognize that they shouldn’t have to make trade-offs between learning and playing, and tended not to make hard choices between the two in their narratives; instead, kids (with their robots) moved fluidly between learning and play, and oftentimes participated in activities at the intersection of both. On one end of the spectrum, a robot might help a child make a game out of his or her math homework; on the other end, the act of building a fort can become an educational process. In the middle, kids seek to learn either physical or academic skills because doing so is enjoyable in itself.
Implications and Opportunities
Robots @ School sought to understand kids’ learning psychologies and to identify common hurdles in the educational process where robots (or other tech solutions) could offer them assistance, such as by:
- making academic pacing feel more personalized to each child with intelligent, interactive technologies that feel genuinely “human” in certain respects
- creating a more patient and accepting learning atmosphere by allowing tech—with its limitless time and “superhuman” tenacity—to sometimes fill the role of teacher
- leveraging kids’ “relevance filter” to emphasize to them the importance of gaining certain kinds of knowledge, with the help of technology or without
- offering opportunities for kids to learn in ways that feel more like play—such as through proactive, exploratory, open-ended projects that involve Web technologies: activities which are increasingly valuable for developing internet-age competencies like sharing, remixing, and repurposing others’ work
Download the full report to read more about opportunities for educators, entrepreneurs, technologists, and interactive content creators.
“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. Every time we did it I got better and started to kind of like maths. When we finished, I said to Larry, ‘Thanks for caring about me.’” —Girl, 11, Australia
“Children fall in love with robots because of the bots’ ambiguous nature (between animate and inanimate), relative autonomy (responsive yet with a mind of their own), and singular ‘personality.’ Bots have a way of being that is alien and surprising yet, at the same time, familiar enough to be recognizable, and endearing enough to be ‘be-friended,'” explains Edith Ackermann, an honorary professor of developmental psychology at the University of Aix-Marseille I in France and a visiting scientist at MIT’s Design Lab. “Because robots do things (as if driven from within), they capture our imagination and are treated differently than inert objects; from transitional objects, they become alter egos. A child’s infatuation with robots is at the image of our own endless human quest for renewed identity.”
*This percentage is based on total number of submissions that were possible to code on this variable, rather than total number of study participants.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can click here to download more information about our full range of research and consulting services.
The LEGO® Learning Institute carries out foundational research on creativity, learning, play and child development based on the values of LEGO® play and learning. The institute has an extensive collaboration with academic experts and research institutions, to understand how to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.
Project Synthesis is an Australia-based ideas consultancy working with organisations and individuals to create action and change out of ideas and inspiration. Project Synthesis delivers projects across education, health, community and the third sector.
Image credit: ALIZ-E Project, used with permission.