Are robot teachers creating new ways of learning?

Robots are being used in classrooms to allow virtual teaching. But what are the benefits, and is virtual instruction really the future of education? Nichole Dobo, education reporter at the Hechinger Report, joins Hari Sreenivasan to talk about one school where robots in the classroom are a reality.


Robots are being used in classrooms to allow virtual teaching.

But what are the benefits and is virtual instruction really the future of education?

Here to tell us about one school where robots in the classroom are a reality is Nichole Dobo, education reporter at the Hechinger Report.

So let's talk about robots in the classroom.

This idea that there are, essentially, these machines moving around on these screens with teachers in the screens, why is this happening at all?

Yeah, it allows virtual teachers to have a physical presence in the classroom.

They can get on a computer and, say, do a live video chat with a student.

But the teachers that I spoke to when I did the story for Hechinger told me that being able to drive around the room or follow a student around just made them feel more connected to the school.

So you've got kids working at their desktops, and over their shoulder comes this robot.

And they look over, and that's the head of a teacher, that's the face of a teacher.


I interviewed one student who told me he was pretty creeped out by it at first, actually.

[ Both laugh ] He wasn't expecting it.

The teacher couldn't find him and decided, 'I'm gonna go drive the robot around the school and take a look for myself,' and snuck up on him.

So this isn't a replacement for the teachers that are in the classroom, this is trying to pull teachers from far away into it, maybe that have different expertise.


There's on-site teachers that are there every day.

Certain subject areas have virtual teachers, and these are the teachers that would use these robots in the classroom.

Okay, and this is just a small trial, right?

So -- and it's also it seems like kind of a special school.

Yeah, yeah.

They've actually recently opened it up to more schools.

They found the pilot went well, and so they are using it, I think there are 17 robots now, so...

So what about when the robot runs into something or -- did you see that happen when you were there or...?

Yeah, I heard about it.

They... they don't have a lot of depth perception, the teachers who are driving the robot.

So think of it like a video game.

They'd be sort of using a controller to drive around.

It might be difficult to see exactly where the edge of the door frame is, and they crash right into it.

So, then, how does the interaction happen?

Do the teachers that are on the other end, do they find this beneficial, the kind of one on one, or at least the ability to move around and talk to a student?

Yeah, they told me that they just -- there's something about it that makes them feel more connected than doing just a video chat with the student.

They can look around the room, whereas they couldn't with video chat.

You know, we've seen the idea of tele-presence work across the country in different hospital settings, where a doctor with a specific expertise in another part of the country can weigh in on and help a physician that's local do something.

How does this impact education when, perhaps a history teacher from a different part of the country can be in a classroom anywhere in America?

Yeah, you know, that brings up a great point.

There are some schools that use these robots for students who can't leave the hospital, so they can have a physical presence in their school, which gives them the ability to maybe attend classes when they otherwise couldn't.

So the student would be steering the robot around the hallways and basically going through all that --

Yes, yeah, yeah.

What about when they run out of batteries?

How long do these things last?

Oh, that's a great question.

They have to -- scheduling is another issue -- two teachers at once trying to use them.

They've found that they haven't set up elaborate systems to deal with it.

They just kind of do it as they will, rather than trying to plan out every...

And they just charge up every night?


There's a little dock that they drive into.

All right, Nichole Dobo, thanks so much.

Thank you.