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Front. Robot. AI | doi: 10.3389/frobt.2019.00107

Educators' views on using humanoid robots with autistic learners in special education settings in England

 Alyssa M. Alcorn1*, Eloise Ainger1,  Vicky Charisi2, Stefania Mantinioti1, Suncica Petrovic3,  Bob R. Schadenberg4, Teresa Tavassoli5 and  Elizabeth Pellicano1, 6*
  • 1Centre for Research in Autism and Education, UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom
  • 2European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Belgium
  • 3Other, Serbia
  • 4Human Media Interaction Lab, University of Twente, Netherlands
  • 5School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading, United Kingdom
  • 6Department of Educational Studies, Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia

Researchers, industry, and practitioners are increasingly interested in the potential of social robots in education for learners on the autism spectrum. In this study, we conducted semi-structured interviews and focus groups with educators in England to gain their perspectives on the potential use of humanoid robots with autistic pupils, eliciting ideas and specific examples of potential use. Understanding educator views is essential, because they are key decision-makers for the adoption of robots and would directly facilitate future use with pupils. Educators were provided with several example images (e.g., NAO, KASPAR, Milo), but did not directly interact with robots or receive information on current technical capabilities. The goal was for educators to respond to the general concept of humanoid robots as an educational tool, rather than to focus on the existing uses or behaviour of a particular robot.

Thirty-one autism education staff participated, representing a range of special education settings and age groups as well as multiple professional roles (e.g., teachers, teaching assistants, speech and language therapists). Thematic analysis of the interview transcripts identified four themes: Engagingness of robots, Predictability and consistency, Roles of robots in autism education, and Need for children to interact with people, not robots. Although almost all interviewees were receptive toward using humanoid robots in the classroom, they were not uncritically approving. Rather, they perceived future robot use as likely posing a series of complex cost-benefit trade-offs over time. For example, they felt that a highly motivating, predictable social robot might increase children’s readiness to learn in the classroom, but it could also prevent children from engaging fully with other people or activities. Educator views also assumed that skills learned with a robot would generalise, and that robots’ predictability is beneficial for autistic children – claims that need further supporting evidence. These interview results offer many points of guidance to the HRI research community about how humanoid robots could meet the specific needs of autistic learners, as well as identifying issues that will need to be resolved for robots to be both acceptable and successfully deployed in special education contexts.

Keywords: Education, Children, humanoid robot, Schools (practice issues), teachers, autism, special education (school), social robot

Received: 31 May 2019; Accepted: 11 Oct 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Alcorn, Ainger, Charisi, Mantinioti, Petrovic, Schadenberg, Tavassoli and Pellicano. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence:
Dr. Alyssa M. Alcorn, Centre for Research in Autism and Education, UCL Institute of Education, London, WC1H 0NU, United Kingdom,
Prof. Elizabeth Pellicano, Department of Educational Studies, Faculty of Human Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia,