"Robots can be teachers' assistants: they can help structure the class, ask questions and keep track of the time"
 Ilona Buchem

Professor Ilona Buchem researches the use of humanoid robots as teaching and learning assistants.

Desirée Gómez Cardosa
Olga Fernández Castro
Professor Ilona Buchem teaches media and communication in the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences (Germany)


Artificial intelligence (AI) is now present in all areas of our lives: in the media, with the generation of images or information (ChatGPT); in healthcare, with applications that enable different pathologies to be diagnosed and monitored; and in education, where AI assists teachers in their work, and helps students clear up their doubts. To learn more about the impact that AI is having on education and how it can be assimilated into students' learning processes, the Educational Trends and Innovation Observatory of the eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC) at the UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) interviewed Professor Ilona Buchem, whose research focuses on precisely this area. Buchem, who studied Communication Sciences at Concordia University Wisconsin (USA) and Education Sciences at the University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany), heads the Communications Lab at Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, where she researches the use of humanoid robots as teaching and learning assistants.

Generative artificial intelligence is all the rage. What do you think about its application in education?

AI is currently the buzzword on everyone's lips. The technology everyone's talking about is obviously going to change our lives somehow, so it's a question we're also asking ourselves in education: how will it change education? I'm generally very optimistic about technologies, so I'm also very optimistic about AI and how we're going to use it in this area, because I honestly trust the goals of the educators and the people who are going to apply it in this field. I think this is really the point that we can decide as educators how we're going to apply it, how we're going to prepare our learners, how we're going to prepare ourselves and what we want to do. It's up to us to create a space where it can be used in a safe but also critical way, where we can discuss matters like what is true and what is not true about what artificial intelligence is creating. I also think that generative AI will be beneficial for us in expressing ourselves, for instance, beyond ChatGPT, tools like Midjourney, apps where we can create images. We can use these tools to express our ideas and imagine things. For example, in architecture, where we can think about very futuristic designs and communicate them to each other much more easily than before, because not everybody has high-level skills in drawing or painting.

Do you think it will be beneficial for learning processes?

I think it'll be beneficial on many levels, also as support technologies. AI is just one more technology that is adding to this goal that we have to change education to make it more accessible to everybody and make it more adapted to our individual needs.

The combination of AI and robots may be a powerful model in the future. How do you envision AI-powered robots in the classroom?

It's really not an easy question to answer, because we don't know what the future will bring. But based on social and humanoid robots, we can envision the use of generative AI to create new designs for the robots, and a lot of exciting applications in the classroom and also in everyday life. For instance, the things that we've been doing at my university in the Communications Lab is using robots as teaching assistants in the classroom. We can also imagine using robots as members of students' working groups in collaborative learning. A robot could not only moderate the group work, but also be a member of the group, presenting a new perspective or encouraging the students to argue, negotiate and be critical. I hope that, in the future, robots will be more accessible in terms of cost, but also in terms of the skills that we need to program them, so that students and teachers could program them easily.

What projects are you researching for use in the classroom?

In the Communications Lab we're experimenting with various robots to see how we can apply them in different roles in the classroom. For example, we have the Pepper robot to support students working in groups. The idea is to see how a robot can support the teacher in the classroom, with a lot of students working in small teams, and how it can orchestrate an entire interactive session in workshop format.

Pepper is a social robot with a tablet on its chest which is designed to be friendly and interactive. How does it work in the classroom with students in the interactive session?

In the Communications Lab we try to understand and empathize with the future user or the future learner for whom we're designing a learning application. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of our future learners and try to imagine what they see, what they think, what they say and what they feel. The role of the Pepper robot in the interactive session is to orchestrate the entire class: it introduces the session and says how it's structured, what will happen step by step, and how students have to discuss the ideas in groups and write the final results in a template. The robot asks each question, and records the response time for each one. It can also move around the class, work with different groups of students, and display the question and an example on the tablet. If students want to check the question or see the example again, they can interact with the tablet. So the robot asks the questions, provides the examples, keeps track of the time, and signals with a gong sound when the session starts or finishes. 

And the teacher?

They have more time to go to each table and discuss the students' questions with them, or give them an explanation they need, or discuss an issue that the robot cannot enter into. The teacher participates, helps on a personalized level, and doesn't have to worry about time-keeping. And that contributes to the teacher's well-being. Actually, when the robot helps me, I walk out of the class feeling less tired and stressed.

What other roles can robots play in classrooms?

Apart from being a teaching assistant, as I said, it can help to structure the class. Depending on how we program it, it can also be an assistant for students. For example, a smaller robot can be placed on a table to help the student in a more individual way. And if there is any group work, the robot can also moderate the group. On the other hand, if we think of schools and universities as physical spaces, the robot can also work as a concierge, for example, welcoming students, helping them to find a place in the classroom or providing them with the information they need.

You also work in the field of educational game-based learning. What does that consist of?

Most of the scenarios in which we apply robots have some game-based elements. It can be a game based on feedback: for example, the robot gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down depending on students' answers. Or we could outline a scenario in which the robot has been specifically developed to recognize non-verbal sounds in the classroom. A lot of AI techniques are targeted towards verbal speech recognition and speech generation, but little work has been done on non-verbal sounds, which are also very important in education. You hear the sounds students make in the classroom (if they laugh, clap, etc.) and you know what's going on, in other words what the students' mood is, or how they feel. The first step in this process is teaching the robot to recognize simple mechanical sounds like a buzzer sound.

How does Pepper play a role in educational games?

We designed a scenario in which there are two groups of students at different tables, and the Pepper robot is the quiz master who asks different questions with whatever type of content you want. The team that knows the answer first has to press the buzzer and the robot, which recognizes which buzzer was pressed first, tells the group to say the correct answer. The robot counts the points scored by each group, and puts them on a type of scoreboard. We trained the robot to recognize the sound of the buzzer, but this is only the first step in this project. In the future we're going to try to teach it to recognize different types of sounds that express emotions, such as applause. So the robot can tell if the person who needs help is bored, wants to be reminded of something, or is just having fun.

Other than in the classroom, what other uses do you think robots could have?

If they become more accessible in the future, as I was talking about earlier, everyone will be able to afford a robot as a personal assistant: one which interacts with humans, that can express emotions that we can understand on its face, that can go to the kitchen and get a glass of water, or check the various vital signs when caring for elderly people, for example.

Could they contribute to our well-being?

They could help us maintain a better work-life balance by checking whether we're working too much and need a break to relax, or learning too much and need to rest our minds and go outdoors. They could also be very useful helpers around the house: monitoring the schedules of the entire family, and letting them knew if there are any conflicts in schedules, or helping with household chores. And of course, they could help students and people with various disabilities and special needs, which is a field where robots are very useful, such as children with autism.