So what happens when you can build a robotic teacher that discerns when students are distracted or not paying attention?
The pair programmed a Wakamaru humanoid robot to tell students a story in a one-on-one situation and then tested them afterwards to see how much they had remembered. Engagement levels were monitored using a $200 EEG sensor to monitor the FP1 area of the brain, which manages learning and concentration. When a significant decrease in certain brain signals indicated that the student’s attention level had fallen, the system sent a signal to the robot to trigger a cue. “We can’t do it just at any given moment, we have to try and do it like human teachers do,” says Mutlu.
The robot teacher first told a short story about the animals that make up the Chinese zodiac, in order to get a baseline EEG reading. Next, the robot told a longer 10-minute story based on a little-known Japanese folk tale called My Lord Bag of Rice, which the student was unlikely to have heard before.
During this story the robot raised its voice or used arm gestures to regain the student’s attention if the EEG levels dipped. These included pointing at itself or towards the listener – or using its arms to indicate a high mountain, for example. Two other groups were tested but the robot either gave no cues, or sprinkled them randomly throughout the storytelling. Afterwards, the students were asked a few questions about the Chinese zodiac to distract them before being asked a series of questions about the folk tale.
As the team had expected, the students who were given a cue by the robot when their attention was waning were much better at recalling the story than the other two groups, answering an average of 9 out of 14 questions correctly, as compared with just 6.3 when the robot gave no cues at all. The results were presented at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas, earlier this month.
Maybe I could wire my students up to EEG meters? Or better yet, monitor their chatter to see what’s going on. Oh wait.