Kids learn to write by teaching robots

In pedagogical research, the concept of learning-by-teaching is a recognized and successful technique. The idea is that kids develop greater interest and confidence in a subject when they take on the role of the teacher and instruct someone else.

Researchers at EPFL in Switzerland have shuttled the concept into the robotic realm with their new CoWriter project, introduced this week at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

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The system, still in prototype phase, uses tablet computers and friendly two-foot tall humanoid robots to help teach grade-school students how to write.

Instead of the robots instructing the kids, however, the kids instruct the robots — who are programmed with progressive writing algorithms that mimic human learning.

It's a kind of educational jujitsu move, of course, because the goal is to teach the kids without them even knowing it. The robots' writing is reproduced on a tablet computer, which the kids can then correct using a stylus. The 'bots draw from a vast database of handwriting samples that incorporate common errors for children in the specified learning range.

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The CoWriter pilot program has been tested in primary school classrooms with children from six to eight years old, and also in a separate trial with a six-year-old student getting weekly one-hour teaching sessions.

The long-term objective is to provide an option for educators and parents to use the learning-by-teaching model with a robotic "student" who gradually improves and — perhaps more importantly — never gets tired.

"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 study co-author Séverin Lemaignan on the EPFL project page.