Technological progress is generating fresh and captivating possibilities across various research domains. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted one such use for technology, with many schools across the globe relying on the use of online teaching platforms to minimise disruption to students’ education. The effects of the pandemic are still felt today, with an increasing number of students experiencing anxiety-related attendance difficulties, preventing them from attending school. The extensive reliance on technology during the pandemic begs the question: Could technology provide a solution for supporting students facing attendance difficulties?
Robots to support student attendance
Robot devices (e.g., Figure 1) have been used in schools for decades, enabling students with physical health conditions to establish remote connections to their classrooms through these devices. However, there is a notable evolution in the use of robots to assist students facing mental health-related difficulties, including the promotion of social interactions within the school environment. As a result, there is growing popularity in employing robots in schools to support pupils with various needs, encompassing both physical and emotional health-related challenges.
Our research project, published in 2023, aimed to explore students’ experiences using robotic devices in schools, including popular products on the market, such as AV1 (Figure 1). We comprehensively reviewed 11 research papers that presented insights on various robot devices implemented in schools worldwide. Our analysis unveiled a diverse array of participant views, which we categorised into the themes of inclusion, engagement, influencing design factors, and acceptance.
The shared experiences of users primarily centred around the concept of inclusion (Figure 2). A substantial number of participants praised the use of robot devices, which provided an opportunity for unwell pupils to access the same educational materials and lessons as their peers, albeit through remote means. Additionally, the robot devices enabled students to maintain social connections, including interactions with their friends. As a result, more than half of the studies concluded that the robot devices alleviated student isolation. Despite being too ill to attend school, students felt connected and avoided feelings of loneliness by interacting with their friends and maintaining social contact through the robot.
For some users, it was reported that the robot did not create new friendships and, instead, was only effective if the student had existing social contacts/friendships they could engage with through the device. Several research discussed how the use of robots created newfound attention for students, given that the robot device was a novelty within schools. Some students liked the attention they were receiving because of the robot; however, several students did not like this additional attention, impacting their desire to use these devices.
All reviewed papers also discussed the impact of student engagement by using robot devices (Figure 3). Many papers discussed how using a robot to access their education increased student self-esteem and confidence, increasing their desire to engage with their learning. The robots also allowed students to engage with social contacts; examples were given of robots being taken on school trips and to extra-curricular activities such as sports.
A leading benefit of the robots was linked to their one-way camera capabilities. For example, the AV1 (Figure 1) has a camera that allows the student to see the classroom directly; however, the students/teachers cannot see the student at home. In several of the reviewed studies which discussed the AV1, the one-way camera helped the students at home to feel safer, respecting their privacy if they did not want their peers/adults to see how unwell they were. Some of the reviewed studies, however, shared views from students who wished they could be seen by their friends, indicating that the type of robot device used should be carefully considered compared with the needs/desires of the student using it.
Influencing design factors
All of the papers that we reviewed discussed the impact of their specific robot design (Figure 4). Over seven different variations/robots were recorded in our study, highlighting the range of devices available on the market currently. Regardless of the device used, all studies highlighted how the robots were often user-friendly in their design and marketed towards students.
All reviewed papers, however, also highlighted that they had experienced IT-related difficulties, which require consideration in future research. Many users had difficulty with Wi-Fi connection, sound/camera problems, and mobility issues (if their specific robot had movement capabilities). This highlighted the importance of schools carefully selecting a robot product appropriate to their setting and the need to support families with how to set up and use robot devices.
Feedback from classmates (Figure 5) and adults (teachers/parents) was generally positive about the use of robot devices, linking their reasons to the previous themes discussed in this article. Feedback from the robot users (students) was also largely positive. However, there were considerations in all papers with people proposing important developments to improve robot experiences, such as the previously discussed IT issues.
Several papers did report mixed acceptance of the devices; however, this was largely due to the lack of support from adults/concerns about the privacy of the robot devices. In most papers, concerns were alleviated via information sharing and informing adults/peers about the robotic devices, how they are used and how their privacy is protected. This highlighted that for future implementation, it is important to support all adults/students by providing them with information about the robot devices.
Our study provided the first paper to collate users’ experiences around robot devices to support physical and emotional health needs. This research identified a huge potential for robots to promote inclusion in schools by allowing pupils, who ordinarily would be at home due to their health, to access their education alongside their peers. Considering their potential, these devices could be trialled in a variety of scenarios, such as for immunocompromised pupils who need to shield at home, hospital-bound students, or students experiencing emotionally based school avoidance. In such cases, the device can be utilised as part of a graded exposure approach to gradually reintegrate them back into school.
Fletcher, M., Bond, C., & Qualter, P. (2023). User perspectives of robotic telepresence technology in schools: A systematic literature review. Educational Psychology in Practice, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/02667363.2022.2155932