Under pressure teachers in rural schools may soon receive help from an unlikely quarter.
A University of Auckland-led study says the use of robots to help teachers in the classroom may benefit rural schools, many of which are struggling with low student numbers and funding, isolation and difficulty in attracting qualified teachers.
The study has also found that social robots could be useful in health services by engaging and comforting those in need.
Associate Professor Elizabeth Broadbent of the University's Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences says a majority of students who took part in the study said they liked the idea of robots in class.
Over 200 students ranging in age from two to 18 and 22 teachers from pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary schools in the central North Island and Buller region of the South Island worked with the robots in 30-minute sessions spread over two weeks.
Two types of robot were used – iRobiQ, a South Korean robot used in that country in early childhood education to teach English and tell nursery rhymes and Paro, a Japanese companion robot used primarily for therapy with older adults in rest homes or with dementia.
Broadbent, who headed the study, says many of the students said they were happy interacting with the robots and found they helped make them more interested in subjects like science and technology.
"Schools in rural areas face many challenges including declining populations and persistent poverty," she says. "Small student numbers mean funding levels are lower than in urban schools and it is difficult to offer specialised courses and attract qualified teachers, particularly in mathematics, science and special education.
"So robots may be particularly useful for rural schools by assisting teachers in the classroom with lessons in these subjects."
Broadbent says girls were "significantly more enthusiastic" about the robots than boys and as a result she believes their use may be a way to help attract more women into careers like engineering.
Among girls, 91 per cent said they would like to have Paro in their school while 90 per cent were happy to have iRobiQ. By comparison just 78 per cent of boys wanted Paro and 72 per cent iRobiQ. Of the age groups, students aged between five and 12 were the most positive.
Most of the teachers who took part were also in favour of using robots in class with 68 per cent saying they would like Paro and 60 per cent iRobiQ. However nine per cent (for Paro) and 20 per cent (iRobiQ) said they would not like to have the robots at school.
Broadbent says researchers also found many of the children felt calmer around the robots: "This suggests the companion robots especially may have a role to play in comforting students who are in distress or in the sick bay when feeling unwell.
"In fact this was seen as one of the most useful functions," she says. "Other uses included helping children with autism, comforting those in sick bay and repeating exercises for those needing help.
"Both teachers and students saw Paro as a pet and given the prevalence of anxiety and depression in school-age children, robots may be a useful tool in school-based approaches to promote mental health."
Broadbent says while the study was a good starting point into finding out how students and teachers would respond to the robots, more research is needed before decisions on their use can be made.
"Some schools overseas are using similar robots and it is technically possible to have them in schools here now," she says. "But at the end of the day that is really up to the schools themselves."
Broadbent and her colleagues have also been undertaking research into how iRobiQ may benefit people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a chronic lung disease that affects at least 200,000 New Zealanders, most over the age of 40, according to the Asthma Foundation of New Zealand.
Sixty people took part in a pilot study funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand in which the robots were given to patients at home for four months. The robots measured oxygen levels, heart rates, reminded patients to take their medication and do their rehabilitation exercises.
The data collected was monitored by specialist physiotherapists and physicians at the Counties Manukau District Health Board.
"These patients might only get to see their doctors once every three months," Broadbent says. "But in between these visits they have to manage their illness themselves and the research has shown those with a robot at home were more likely to take their medication and do their exercises when required."
About 75 per cent of those who took part said the robot helped not only with medication, but with education and companionship; although 25 per cent did not find them useful.
Broadbent says a number of technical issues would need to be resolved before the robots could be used on a wider scale including the reliability of the robots themselves and the provision of infrastructure to provide support in the event of technical difficulties.