Companion robot trialled in Victorian classrooms

La Trobe University is trialling a class companion robot at a Victorian school to help teachers with special needs students.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

La Trobe University has teamed up with Waratah Special Developmental School in Victoria to trial a robot called Matilda as a classroom companion for students with special needs.

The trial comes at a time when the implementation of robotics and coding technology in schools to teach STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math) has become a growing and controversial trend in education across North America and Europe.

The trial is being run across four classrooms at the school, assisting teachers to create learning activities and social engagement for students.

"Matilda can recognise human voices and faces, detect emotions, read and recite text, dance, and play music," said La Trobe Research Centre for Computers, Communication and Social Innovation (RECCSI) research project manager Dr Seyer Mohammed Sadegh Khaksar.

"Our aim is to adapt these features in a way that will complement a teaching environment and provide tailored support to teachers and students" Dr Khaksar added.

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Throughout the trial, the robots are being personalised by receiving feedback taken from teachers before, during, and after classes to help shape and develop a more effective companion robot.

"The teachers taking part in this trial are able to tell us what it is they need from Matilda and which of the existing services need to be adapted or changed to better suit their needs," Dr Khaksar said.

"For example, one of the services we are co-developing with Waratah Special Developmental School is a bullying support service to be programmed into Matilda."

In addition to teacher feedback, student interaction has proved to be overwhelmingly positive.

"Because the robot is patient and non-judgemental -- as well as being interactive -- the students have been able to form a type of bond with it," Dr Khaksar said.

"The robot can speak to students, read, and act out characters in books, as well as set tasks. But it can also repeat things hundreds of times if necessary and not tire of it."

Waratah Special Developmental School principal Jennifer Wallace said school staff have found working collaboratively with Matilda to be beneficial.

"Our students are listening and attending to the robot, responding when their name is called and following the robot's instructions," Wallace said.

"We've found our students are highly motivated to participate in activities facilitated through the robot, and they are demonstrating an increased ability to wait and take turns after spending time with the robot."

RECCSI research manager and associate professor Dr Mei-Tai Chu said this type of technology is in high demand.

"Our hope is that La Trobe's robotic technology, which delivers emotional assistance and companionship over physical services, will be employed widely across Australia," Dr Chu said.

"Using this personalised approach over a one-size-fits-all model is vital, as it allows users in various contexts to independently develop unique services tailored to their specific needs."

The trialling of Matilda in special needs classes is set for completion in late 2018.

In Queensland, a robot teacher is also being trialled to help students living in isolated locations, ABC News reported in June.

Internationally, Japan's Ministry of Education announced in August that it will be placing English-speaking robots in schools around the country to help improve children's English oral communication skills.

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