Robot Teaches Handwriting by Turning Students Into Teachers

By Jordan Moeny — March 17, 2015 1 min read
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A robot from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne may be able to help students improve their cursive and boost their self-esteem—by letting them teach it how to write.

Teaching robots aren’t anything new, but the CoWriter system seems to be unique in that it acts more like a student than a teacher. The two-foot-tall robot, which is programmed to have poor handwriting, writes words on a tablet using “deformed letters,” then allows the student to correct its mistakes. Over time, CoWriter’s handwriting slowly improves as the student teaches the robot how to write.

Learning by teaching is well-established as an effective way to improve a student’s understanding of a concept, so as the robot “learns” how to write, the student’s own writing improves. CoWriter can even copy a student’s own mistakes—mis-drawing letters that a student has difficulty with, for example—to focus on improving specific problem areas.

Researchers from the institute also say that teaching a skill to someone else can improve a student’s self-esteem, particularly if they’ve struggled with that skill in the past.

While it may seem as though CoWriter is filling a space that doesn’t need to be filled—students could presumably teach each other to write—a robotic learner avoids some of the uncertainty that comes with pairing up small children and hoping that they manage to teach each other correctly. And, as the researchers point out in the video above, a robot "[gives] the opportunity for even the child who’s the worst in their class the potential to teach someone else.”

The robot was presented at the Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Portland, Ore., in early March. While CoWriter is still only a prototype, the researchers have already tested the system with about 70 students with encouraging results, and the research team is moving forward with further studies on how the program could be implemented in classrooms.

Image: CoWriter works with a student on improving her handwriting. Photo courtesy of EPFL.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.