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Updated on 23 apr 202410 min read

Special Education: What role does technology play in the quest for autonomy and inclusion?

EducationNAOEducational Robotics
Grant Phillips
CEO United Robotics Group Americas

Special Education: What role does technology playin the quest for autonomy and inclusion?

Estimated at nearly 1% of the global population, individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are our children, our parents, our friends, our loved ones. Their daily lives are a series of unique challenges ranging from fundamental social interactions to learning and accessing education in its broadest sense. Supported by technological advancements in recent years, educators and instructional coaches are making significant progress in special education. To what extent can these tools transform the learning experience for students with special needs? What role do education robots like Photon and NAO play in creating a learning environment that respects and meets individual needs? How can robotics become a cornerstone of teaching? Let's explore the immense potential of these technologies intended to enrich and personalize learning.

Understanding the challenges faced by young people with autism

Challenges for students with learning disabilities

People with autism and those facing learning difficulties encounter unique obstacles in traditional educational environments. These challenges include communication difficulties, socialization issues, decision-making skills, and adapting to standard teaching methods. To ensure their specific needs are met, it is imperative to have an individualized teaching approach. Impact on educators and the academic environment Special education educators are tirelessly striving to develop fresh methods for engaging and effectively teaching these students. Customizing lessons for each individual student poses a dual challenge, adding to the already heavy workload of educators, who are notoriously overworked and underpaid. This search for inclusive learning technology must be considered a priority to enhance every child's learning experience, regardless of their situation.

The rise of education technology

Robotics has gradually been integrated into special education to meet the demand for innovative and tailored solutions. Through the implementation of various programs, this field has opened new horizons for adaptive and inclusive learning. The needs of students with learning difficulties and autism spectrum disorders have found answers that were previously elusive. Although we are only at the beginning of exploring these technologies, the promise of revolutionizing education, making it more accessible, engaging, and empowering for both learners and educators, has never been more palpable.

Educational advantages of robots

Robotics has demonstrated the most significant positive impact on student engagement and the development of their social skills. Between October 2018 and May 2019, Olivier Duris and Charlotte Labossière conducted a study exploring the therapeutic benefits of humanoid (Nao) versus non-humanoid (Cozmo) robots for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The study revealed that both types of robots enhanced emotional understanding, relational, and social skills among participants. Notably, children interacting with the humanoid robot exhibited more significant improvements in recognizing adult facial emotions, while those engaging with the non-humanoid robot showed greater progress in child facial comparison tasks.
In a recent study published by Molecular Autism, special education robots were deployed, yielding results that were as encouraging as they were remarkable. During this study, 68 children were divided into two groups. The first group interacted with an adult, while the second engaged with a humanoid robot, CommU. As the child/robot interaction unfolded naturally, the second group exhibited improved outcomes in the completion of various exercises in comparison to the first.
The study suggests that specific types of robots, such as humanoid robots, may be more suitable for therapeutic purposes, underscoring the significance of robots resembling human agents for effective ASD intervention.
Taking this into account, robots like NAO have been designed to bear similarities to humans. This is not merely an aesthetic pursuit but a practical goal to provide tailored support to their individual needs

Robotics put to the test

In another study conducted by Scassellati & al involving 12 young students (between 6 and 12 years old) with various forms of autism, these students participated in hands on activities with a robot for an hour each day for over a month. These exercises were aimed at improving their attention span, social and relationship skills. The session was divided as follows: listening to a story, then playing amongst each other, and finally, interacting with adults.
Over the course of the month, the students' attention improved, their interactions with one another progressed in a positive direction, and. they showed clear improvements in their exchanges with adults. Throughout this program, the targeted use of adaptive technologies proved to be a more practical solution for capturing the children's attention than traditional methods applied in schools. Additionally, it helped students put their newly acquired skills into practice in real-life social situations.
More than a social initiative, we are witnessing a genuine educational breakthrough. If we plan to create an inclusive education environment, adopting robotics as an innovative and personalized tool that benefits learners with specific needs can no longer be ignored.

Artificial intelligence for unifying education

Among these new technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) plays a pivotal role in advancing education for individuals with autism. This technology enables:

  • Providing hands-on contextual experience in STEM subjects (Science, Technology,
    Engineering, Mathematics);
  • Promoting student engagement and offering other significant benefits (including
    adaptability, support in accomplishing various complex tasks for people with TSA, such
    as interpreting others' emotions and body language).

However, the use of AI also presents challenges for both learners and educators. Some of these challenges include accessibility, adaptability, versatility, understanding, and application.
To overcome these challenges, solutions must be proposed at educational, technological, and socio-cultural levels to support socio-cultural inclusivity in schooling.

Towards diversified pedagogical strategies

Adopting new pedagogical methods that consider the sociocultural diversity of students is
crucial for the emergence of truly inclusive education. This requires a reevaluation of
teaching methods and learning content to ensure that pupils, from culturally diverse
backgrounds, develop skills grounded in the social context. A reactive pedagogy,
acknowledging diversity and the contextual realities of communities, is essential for effectively
preparing teachers to integrate technology into their learning processes.
While robotics and AI offer opportunities to tailor education to the needs of each student, they
remain constrained in the current context. Challenges related to cost, teacher training, and the
scarcity of innovative solutions make the environment less favorable. However, the many
victories in education technology in recent years suggest that by focusing on accessibility,
educational robotics has the potential to become the most effective tool in classrooms.

Ethical and responsible practice of robotics in special education

In the integration of robotics into special education, two major aspects stand out: the impact on professional development and the ethical and regulatory framework.

Impact on teacher training

The use of academic robotics requires specific training for educators, highlighting the importance of their perception of the usefulness and adaptability of these tools for students with special needs. A study conducted among 187 active teachers revealed that they perceive educational robotics as highly beneficial, especially for disorders such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and dyspraxia. However, their intention to use robotics varies depending on their perception of its adaptability and their experience with this technology.

Ethical and regulatory framework

The ethics of using special education robots raises several questions, particularly regarding privacy, surveillance, autonomy, and potential biases and discrimination. Educators must
consider these ethical considerations when using AI and robotics in their classrooms to ensure a fair and respectful academic experience for all students.
Furthermore, the ethical principles of responsibly using robotic technology include a clear distinction between machine and human, the advancement of human interest, and the primary
functionality of robots. These principles are designed to promote the use of technology in a way
that advances human interest and enhances society while also respecting and employing
technology intentionally and respectfully.
Together, these elements highlight the need for a thoughtful and ethical approach to integrating
robotics into special education, ensuring that technologies optimally serve the needs of
students while respecting ethical and regulatory standards.
Robotics and artificial intelligence represent more than just technological advancements in
education; they embody a pedagogical revolution. In this new reality, every child, regardless of
their specific needs, can benefit from an adapted, inclusive, and stimulating learning
environment. Thus, the promise of robotics-enhanced education to support individual needs
and equip learners with vital future skills is within reach.
By making new technologies accessible and affordable, we are confident that every school,
educator, and student will have the chance to realize their full potential. But these tools alone
are not enough. The entire academic system's expectations must be redefined. Expecting a
child with autism to develop the same skills as other children without receiving an individualized
education plan is to deny the very principle of their condition. Thanks to new technologies, we
now have the opportunity to make a difference. It is our duty to ensure that every child,
regardless of their needs, benefits from suitable, inclusive, and fulfilling solutions

EducationNAOEducational Robotics

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