The future's bright: the future is robots
Robots should be given a central role in educating children with special educational needs because they engage young people and can improve their communication skills, according to the academic leading a major Europe-wide study.
The project, which will examine how different sorts of robots motivate students to learn, will look at their impact on children with conditions including epilepsy, cerebral palsy and profound and multiple learning difficulties.
Eventually the study could lead to the development of a "robot curriculum" that could be used across the continent with pupils who have special needs, according to project director David Brown, a professor at Nottingham Trent University.
The research follows a recent pilot project involving the university, showing that students' engagement was significantly boosted when they were allowed to interact with robots.
"The future of education for pupils with intellectual disabilities is robotics," Professor Brown said. "We intend to demonstrate the advantages of using robots. We're not going to say this is a universal panacea, but we hope this is going to be a really powerful tool.
"Educating young people with intellectual disabilities presents different challenges due to cognitive impairments and communicational difficulties.
"The use of robotics in special education should be explored as these technologies are starting to become more widespread, affordable and highly engaging."
A team of experts will program existing small robots - including the Nao, which costs $4,000-16,000 (pound;2,400-9,500), and Lego Mindstorms retailing for a few hundred pounds - to interact with pupils during various educational tasks, such as learning about cause and effect, patience, communication and operating switches.
Nao robots are equipped with two high-definition cameras for object and face recognition. They also have loudspeakers that can be used to convert text to speech and four microphones for voice recognition. A range of tactile patches mean they can react to being touched. And they can sit, stand, walk, dance and play sound files.
All these features make the 50cm-high, friendly-looking gadget "ideally suited" to the way people with intellectual disabilities and profound and multiple learning difficulties communicate, Professor Brown said.
"[The children] use a bit of natural speech, but they probably gesture or use Makaton symbols, which the robot's cameras can recognise and respond to," he said. "It can recognise voices and gestures; it can assimilate all those different channels of communication and respond in ways that pupils like this naturally communicate."
The ?600,000 (pound;485,000) two-and-a-half-year project, funded by the European Union, will involve 15-20 case studies in seven centres across Bulgaria, Italy, Lithuania, Poland and the UK.
Nottingham Trent academics were involved with two pilot projects in 2012 and 2013 that investigated how the Nao robot increased the engagement of children with a wide range of intellectual disabilities. Children were filmed interacting with the robots during five separate sessions with specific learning goals, such as learning about cause and effect or improving communication skills.
The researchers found that learning with the robot increased engagement "significantly" and helped students to achieve their goals. Analysis of the videos also showed that children achieved their aims consistently over time and that their interest did not wane once the "novelty effect" had worn off.
Academics at the University of Birmingham have conducted separate research into how robots can help autistic children in the classroom.
David Stewart, headteacher of Oak Field School and Sports College in Nottingham, which teaches children who have severe, profound and complex learning and physical needs, took part in the initial Nottingham Trent research. His students were instantly inspired by working with the Nao robot.
"There is lots of wonderful equipment out there, but a lot of it looks like it's for children with learning difficulties and the older children think that it is not cool," Mr Stewart said. "But the robot doesn't look like that - it engages children. There's an excitement about it that goes beyond the novelty factor because they can ask it to do things and it will do them."