Do androids dream of electric schools? Israel experiments with robot teachers

In first, Israel prepares to host OECD’s Education Innovation Conference; 31 countries are expected to take part.

 The robotic teacher that Dr. Chen Giladi is developing with the Israeli Education Ministry's research and development department. (photo credit: Courtesy)
The robotic teacher that Dr. Chen Giladi is developing with the Israeli Education Ministry's research and development department.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Robots could be coming to a classroom near you.

Israel is testing out robotic teachers in a groundbreaking project that aims to uncover whether androids could one day become an inextricable part of every child’s education.

Teaching Israel's next generation - with robots

The innovative venture, which combines robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technology, is being carried out by the Education Ministry’s research and development department.

“Robots have greatly advanced recently in terms of their ability to understand things,” Dr. Chen Giladi, director of the Telerobotics Lab at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, told The Media Line. “I’m mainly talking about an algorithm that enables them to respond to all kinds of situations and complex problems without [human] supervision.”

Closeup of the robotic teacher that Dr. Chen Giladi is developing with the Israeli Education Ministry's research and development department.  (credit: Courtesy)Closeup of the robotic teacher that Dr. Chen Giladi is developing with the Israeli Education Ministry's research and development department. (credit: Courtesy)

Giladi has been working for several years with the Education Ministry to explore how robots can be used in educational settings. The robot that he has helped develop is currently being tested as a teacher’s assistant in a fourth-grade classroom in one elementary school.

A human android

The android has been given a rudimentary human form. It can project information onto the notebook of a student that is seated next to it, read the student’s writing and provide feedback on his or her work. According to Giladi, one of the goals is to make the machine as autonomous as possible, so that it can freely interact with humans using visual cues or speech.

The idea is to give the robot human-like design and capabilities.

Dr. Chen Giladi

“It can be used in a variety of scenarios, like planning [classes] or helping teachers. We decided to go with a differentiated instruction method,” Giladi added. 

Differentiated instruction is an educational framework that involves teaching students new material using a range of methods and strategies. For example, teachers may provide students with reading materials at varying levels of readability, present new ideas through audio or visual media, or tailor lessons to meet individual students’ needs and interests.

How will it work inside the classrooms?

Teachers in busy classrooms often do not have the time to give each student the attention and help that they need. Robots can assist with this, by providing feedback to students very quickly during class.

“The interaction is such that a student writes about what he or she is interested in learning about or asks a question on a sheet of paper and the robot will then respond by projecting the answer onto the same sheet based on what it has learned from the teacher,” Giladi said.

The robot itself can be outfitted with a variety of faces and voices and has motion capabilities, but the pioneering project is still in its initial phases and more research needs to be completed before it can be scaled up.

“If we had a greater budget, we could get this out there much faster,” Giladi said. “In the current educational model, a teacher cannot differentiate between each student’s [needs]. Our robots could be in every classroom and be a cost-effective solution.”

Not so fast

At this stage, though, teachers cannot be replaced by automatons.

“Teachers have other qualities that are not easy to replicate: affection, emotions, love,” Giladi said. “When kids go to class, they’re not just going there to learn like machines, they need human warmth and teachers know how to provide this.”

Giladi spoke to The Media Line ahead of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Education Innovation Conference, which is scheduled to take place in Jerusalem next week.

The event serves as an arena for entrepreneurship and innovation in the educational sphere. Hundreds of products and tools that are being used in approximately 400 Israeli schools will be on display. Inspectors, educators, psychologists and school principals from 31 countries are slated to attend.

The conference also will be attended by Israel’s Education Minister Dr. Yifat Shasha Bitton, as well as Dalit Stauber, the Education Ministry’s director-general.

Stauber told The Media Line that the biggest challenge facing Israeli schools is adapting the educational system to the realities of the 21st century.

“We moved from knowledge-based systems to knowledge plus skills and values,” she said. “All plans today stress the importance of combining skills, exercising them and developing them for the 21st century.”

The ministry also is seeking to improve teachers’ long-stagnant wages, Stauber noted, since new teachers only make a monthly salary of roughly 6,000 NIS, or $1,790. In fact, Israel’s Teachers Union on Tuesday announced that it would be holding a half-day strike next week over the issue.

Stauber is hopeful that these salary disputes will be resolved in ongoing talks with the Finance Ministry.

“I am optimistic because I think that there is no other possibility but to raise the salaries of teachers and headmasters,” she said. “There is a huge responsibility.”

The Education Innovation Conference will be open to the public and will take place at the Jerusalem Convention Center from May 31-June 2.