Intelligent tutoring systems that use virtual teachers to interact with students could play a crucial role in the expanding field of online education. The trouble with online courses is that it is usually impossible to know whether the student is concentrating and engaging with the lesson. Unlike virtual teachers, human teachers have a series of tricks for keeping their classes focused – changing the pitch or tone of their voice, for example, or gesturing to emphasise points and engage with their audience. Bilge Mutlu and Dan Szafir at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to find out whether a robot could use some of the same techniques to improve how much a student retains.
“We wanted to look at how learning happens in the real world,” says Mutlu. “What do human teachers do and how can we draw on that to build an educational robot that achieves something similar?”
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.