The Little Scholars School of Early Learning recently joined forces with Southern Cross University for an innovative project, looking at how children engage and interact with social robots. NAO is a social robot that has been programmed to interact socially with people and this digital tool has the potential to serve as an educational aide in early learning settings.
Little Scholars’ Yatala campus was buzzing with excitement as it welcomed Dr Michelle Neumann, Research Assistant Ruby-Jane Barry, and of course, NAO. The visits were part of an educational initiative that captivated the preschool and kindergarten children, as well as educators. The children couldn’t wait to see if Dr. Neumann and NAO had arrived and would dash to the parent lounge to check, educators reported.
The children had the opportunity for one-on-one interactions with NAO, participating in games like ‘Simon Says’, Q&A sessions, and activities focused on literacy.
Dr. Neumann, who leads the project, is an associate professor in early childhood education at Southern Cross University. She believes that this is a frontier that early learning is just starting to venture into.
Interestingly, Dr. Neumann’s journey into early childhood education began after becoming a mum to five children. With an honours degree in science, she decided to pivot her career towards education and early learning. She went back to university, earned her Graduate Diploma in Education, Bachelor of Primary Education, and then completed her PhD focusing on early literacy development. Her dedication has earned her a recent award for research excellence from Southern Cross University, recognising her work in early literacy, digital technologies (tablets, apps, social robots), child development, parent-child interaction.
Helping with social development
While NAO has been used to support children’s learning about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and coding, social robots also have the potential to be used to support language, literacy and social learning in the classroom, according to Michelle
“As a physically embodied version of a screen, a social robot may help young children from a range of diverse backgrounds develop their language and social skills,” Michelle said.
“Michelle and Ruby were so approachable and more than willing to let our little scholars meet NAO,” says Raylene, lead educator in the senior kindergarten room. “I was fascinated with NAO’s abilities, and the potential social robots could have in a classroom setting. As a lead educator, the benefits of having an additional learning assistant was something I was happy to advocate for, so I was quick to start drumming up more families to participate in the visits.”
Raylene said she had a lot of conversations with children preparing them for NAO’s visit, even conversations that maybe one day, the children might have robot friends to help their teachers in the classrooms.
“This was super exciting for the children. I did have to remind them and to the families that it wasn’t happening straight away, but the concept was well received. Families enjoyed the debates of whether it would take jobs from educators, and I enjoyed discussing this with them. By day two, Michelle and Ruby were needing to organise additional days to attend the service due to the influx of families wanting to participate,” Raylene said.
Raylene said on the first day, it was evident that although the children were excited, there were also plenty of nerves. Most of the children participated well, with a small handful quite shy, she said. As the program continued, the children got used to seeing Michelle, Ruby and NAO in the parent lounge, those children who were a little shy to begin with looked eager to have another turn.
“This was obvious in my own son Tannen. Tannen was one of the few who participated on day one. The whole lead up was a confident ‘I’m having a robot friend’ until he got his robot friend,” Raylene said. “After his turn he told me he didn’t like it a lot because it was scary, however as the days went on, and more friends started to participate, and NAO became a familiar face, all of a sudden he was eager to come to the door to see if they were there yet, and talk to other children on the way in to see if they were going to go and play games with NAO that day. This is the way it unfolded for several children,” Raylene said.
After a few one-on-one visits to introduce NAO to children, Michelle made a final visit to introduce more campus children to NAO and play some games.
“You could see the comfort of the children who were already familiar with NAO, and it acted like a scaffold for the children who hadn’t had the chance yet to interact with him. Comments from children like ‘Oh, that’s just NAO’ and ‘I already played this game and it’s really fun’ to encourage peers along were incredible to hear because it was listening to four- to five-year-olds comforting each other and being confident with the experiences they had just had,” Raylene said.
The future of social robots
Michelle said one day she’d love to introduce a full program which sees social robots in more early learning classrooms. But, she says, these are still relatively early days. Social robots are a work in progress, and she acknowledges they’re limited in what they can currently do. She’d love to also work with children who would benefit from additional language and literacy support. For that to work, NAO’s voice recognition needs development as it would need to have the ability to understand a spectrum of language milestones, she said.
“It would take a lot of time, guidance and professional development for educators… and a lot of support to be able to use the social robot in its current form,” she said. “But they’re working on AI generated social robots and these innovative opportunities may make using social robots more usable in the classroom.”
And, the robots are not cheap. NAO can cost up to $20,000 AUD, which she acknowledges would be financially prohibitive to many early learning settings. Michelle says her hope is that more research to can be done to better understand the role that social robots could play in supporting young children’s early learning experiences. With emerging advances in robotics, it may be possible that the production costs of these devices could one day become a more affordable educational tool.
The collaboration between Little Scholars and Southern Cross University has opened up new avenues for early learning, showcasing the potential of integrating social robots like NAO into educational settings. The overwhelmingly positive response from both children and educators alike underscores the limitless possibilities this technology could offer. As we look to the future, the hope is that advancements in AI and robotics will make these educational tools more accessible and tailored to the unique needs of early learners. This pioneering initiative serves as a testament to the boundless curiosity and adaptability of children, and the commitment of educators like Michelle and Raylene to push the boundaries of what’s possible in early education.
Jae Fraser, founder of Little Scholars, wholeheartedly supports the NAO project with Little Scholars.
“This is such an exciting project for our little scholars to engage in,” he says. “Introducing social robots to Little Scholars, isn’t just a leap in technology; it’s a giant step in nurturing young minds.
“We look forward to where this will go, and how we can use resources like this to continue the learning journey for Little Scholars.”
The potential of social robots in early learning includes:
- Fostering learner engagement and attention to tasks
- Acts as a guide or teaching assistant in the early years classroom
- Reduces educator workload
- Makes learning fun
Potential barriers and obstacles for social robots in early learning:
- Limited functionality of social robots, such as voice recognition, conversational turn taking, understanding context
- Financial and technical maintenance of social robots
- Professional development for educators
- Ethical considerations