Technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated and its capabilities more diverse. With the ongoing desire to prepare students for the future workforce, Education Matters discusses robotics and its place in the modern classroom.
As robotic technology evolves so too does its ability to impact the way we live and work. The concept of machines replacing work previously done by humans isn’t new. Switchboard operators and knocker uppers (i.e. human alarm clocks) have long been replaced by technology; and ATMs and self-checkouts are performing tasks previously done by staff. In recent times, fully automated factories have resulted in factory workers being replaced in favour of machines, with robots capable of undertaking tasks with absolute precision and enhanced speed.
Rod Bassi, Acer Sales Director Oceania, says robotics has become an essential tool for preparing students for the jobs of the future. “Automation of the world through IoT (Internet of Things) is happening all over the world today, via our smart phones, vehicles and the other modes of transportation we use, and in our households and appliances. The world has changed dramatically in the last 15 to 20 years and will continue to do so. Today’s students are our future. By understanding robotics, how it works and impacts the world, students can continue to innovate and build on the transformation that the workforce of today has begun,” he says.
“Teaching the fundamentals of robotics has clear pathways immediately in today’s world, however moving forward within the next five to 10 years, this will increase exponentially as technology continues to expand and be embraced in everyday life.”
According to a recent report released by Oxford Economics in June 2019 – ‘How robots change the world’ – up to 20 million manufacturing jobs globally could be replaced by robots as early as 2030. In Australia, the report identifies South Australia as likely to be the most affected by manufacturing automation, followed by Victoria.
And, in a major report released by the Centre for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), ‘Australia’s future workforce?’ (June 2015), it was predicted that over five million jobs – almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs that exist today – had a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing by 2030 due to technological advancements.
But as some jobs become obsolete, various new jobs are being created, some of which don’t even yet exist. So with this in mind, how do we prepare today’s students for the world of the future when we don’t know for certain what the future will bring?
Information Technologist and Associate Professor of Educational Technology at CQUniversity, Dr Michael A. Cowling, labels robotics as an important tool in preparing students for the jobs of the future. “More than teaching students how to code, robotics teaches students a set of new digital skills that they will need in the future workplace. Skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, functional decomposition and algorithmic thinking are all important components of working with robots that students can learn.”
He says robotics is an excellent way to get students involved in hands-on learning and enhance student engagement. “Robotics makes STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) learning more physical. Rather than just working with lines of code to make a control on a screen change, robotics allows students to complete coding they can see reflected in the real world. Robotics can also be used as a tool to teach more theoretical concepts in Science and Maths, such as incident angles, distances, measurements, etc.”
Global advanced electronics business Acer adds that the potential for robotics in the classroom is huge. “We see robotics as a necessity to correctly skill up today’s students for our evolving technological world. It is important to teach robotics today but it is also very important for the total learning eco-system to be sufficiently skilled so that the teachers of today and tomorrow can appropriately teach and keep up with students. We also want to see the tertiary sector be sufficiently ready and capable to receive students that have gone through secondary schooling acquiring years of STEAM, coding and robotics learning to arrive at university and take this learning to the next highest level,” explains Mr Bassi.
Acer continues to push the envelope in innovative classroom technology. Its Mixed Reality Headset for example, is designed to bring classroom experiences to life and create engaging, informative and memorable experiences for students. Acer is also actively working with schools in the mixed reality field, where students can create their own models in a mixed reality world.
When it comes to robotics, Mr Bassi says the fundamentals begin with coding. “It is incredible that today’s generation are learning the basic skills of coding in early primary across many schools in Australia. It is quite typical for beginner coding principles to be applied to classroom robot kits to demonstrate the application of coding. Acer believes this early onset of coding and robotics learning will increase students’ natural desire for expanding their learning in this field. If you fast forward to when this generation enters university and the workforce, robotics will be an essential skill which will give them the correct platform for future career pathways and at the very least an understanding of how the world of today and certainly the future will operate.”
As robotics continues to disrupt the workforce and its capabilities become more widely understood, the reasons businesses are choosing to implement this technology is changing.
In the fourth edition of Deloitte’s Global Robotics Report, ‘The robots are waiting: Are you ready to reap the benefits?’ (June 2018), organisations from around the world took part in a survey, with responses coming from various industries. While Deloitte’s 2016 and 2017 research indicated that cost reduction was a key influence in the decision to implement robotics, 2018 data showed the top three priorities as:
* Increasing productivity (38 per cent)
* Improving customer experience (18 per cent)
* Delivering automation at significant scale (16 per cent)
While we hear a great deal about the importance of preparing students for the future workforce, Dr Gary Stager, a globally renowned expert in robotics and computer programming, warns that schools should ensure they understand the bigger picture.
“In a learner-centered context, robotics adds colours to the crayon box. If in the recent past, seven-year-olds made dinosaurs out of cereal boxes, now their cereal box dinosaurs can sing, dance or send a text message to their grandmother. While it’s surely the case that any new idea introduced in schools runs the risk of stealing time and attention from something else, robotics is an interdisciplinary medium for expression – like drawing, painting, writing, composing. Schools need to embrace project-based learning, not as the pudding you get after suffering through a semester of instruction, but as the primary educational diet. Once that occurs, the power of robotics/physical computing as a vehicle for personal expression becomes self-evident.
“Schools make a terrible mistake when they see their purpose as vocational in nature. The sorting of kids into winners and losers with career pathways determined by some artificial school assessment should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Schools should prepare children to solve problems that none of their teachers ever anticipated. Schools should do everything possible to create the conditions in which children can become good at something, while gaining a sense of what greatness in that domain might look like.
The ‘something’ is irrelevant. Currently, academic success has little to do with the development of expertise,” he says, applauding Australia for having the first schools in the world to pioneer 1:1 personal computers for every student.
According to Dr Stager, in a wealthy nation like Australia, every student should have their own personal multimedia laptop computer; and they should learn to program that computer and control external devices. “Not because it might lead to a job someday, but because programming and physical computing (a term preferable to robotics) are ways of gaining agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world.
“Programming and robotics answer the question Seymour Papert began asking more than 50 years ago, ‘Does the computer program the child, or the child program the computer?’ In an age of rising authoritarianism and ‘fake news’, learner agency is of paramount importance.”
With the speed at which technology evolves happening so quickly, how can students – and their teachers – be expected to keep up? “It’s likely that any language taught to students during their schooling will be superseded by the time they move into the workforce,” says Dr Cowling. “Coupled with the use of education specific languages such as Haskel, and block programming tools such as Scratch or Sphero, it’s clear that the value in teaching students to code is not the language syntax, but rather the skills that learning the language gives students in solving problems and learning from their mistakes. The Digital Technologies Curriculum reflects this with a focus on iterative practice. Working out how best to invest in modern technologies for the classroom, such as robotics can be a challenge for many schools.
“Couple this with a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of the digital competencies students need, as well as the need to reskill teachers so often on a changing technology landscape, and it’s often hard to work out what technology is best to embrace. But having said this, many schools are trailblazing in this area, moving beyond the technology to the skills and taking the risk to put a stake in the sand and try out various new types of technology, even if there is a risk it will become outdated,” Dr Cowling adds.
Organisations such as the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision are working to take robotic technology to an entirely new level, moving beyond programming by humans, and
researching the possibilities of creating intelligent robots that can learn, see and understand the world around them – which would create a whole new range of possibilities.
“When most people think of robots, they have this vision in their head that comes from what they’ve seen on television and films,” says Dr Peter Corke, Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision. “Robotic machines capable of doing useful work came around in the late 1950s, when an American company began shipping robot arms that could unload items from manufacturing machines. Technology has evolved greatly since then but robots still can’t see what’s going on. Instead they rely on the fact that they are inherently accurate. Robots are completely blind and don’t actually know where anything is.”
If a robot is used in assembling a car, for example, the robotic equipment is programmed to move the components to a specific place. Not being able to see, learn or understand means that robots are limited in their applications.
“We don’t see robots in many other places besides factories because the rest of the world is quite chaotic, and this hinders the introduction of robotics into other areas. Robots are fast, accurate, relentless and never get tired. Our idea is about creating robots that can see. We are working on problems that relate to how a robot understands what is in its world.
Once a robot sees and understands what is in the picture, it can plan what it needs to do,” explains Dr Corke.
He believes that robotics and coding are important skills for students to have, because in the future, coding won’t only be required for robotics, but for many other jobs too.
“In factories we don’t need robots to interact with people, but the robots we want in our houses and around our workplaces in the future will need to be able to interact, so an understanding of human centred design is also important. If you look at the trends in technology today, everything is getting smarter. Once upon a time a car was made largely of metal, but a modern car has upwards of 20 computers in it. Smart phones, toasters and air conditioners are simple mechanical machines but the computer-based intelligence improves it in many ways. This is a trend that has been going on for a while now and it’s getting stronger,” Dr Corke adds.
Robotic vacuum cleaners and self-driving cars are examples of how robotics can impact on the way we live and work. Dr Corke says in coming years, we can expect to see more service robots or concierge robots created using technology that already exists.
Pepper the humanoid robot, created by SoftBank Robotics and unveiled in 2014, is one example of a social robot. It has been programmed to recognise faces and basic human emotions; and can interact with people via its touchscreen and through conversation.
“School systems around Australia are wrestling with the question of: What does the future look like? And, what will future jobs look like? No one really knows what the future will bring. We know there is rapid change and we have a hunch that maths and coding will be important skills going forward,” Dr Corke adds.
But coding, he says, is boring unless you are doing it for a particular purpose. “So robots are used as a means to motivate coding. Lots of schools are doing robotics activities but it’s not standardised in any way. How robotics is taught depends on the motivation and confidence of teachers and the funding available to support it. It really relies on teachers going the extra mile and having the passion and knowledge to teach it.”
In the STEAM space, Dr Cowling says Australia is very well placed. “We are at the forefront and recent work with the Digital Technologies Curriculum puts us in a good place. The biggest risk is that the message on what teachers should focus on can sometimes become muddled. With campaigns focused on teaching every student code, or putting robots in every school, teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the rapid movement of technology. But if we can instead put pedagogy first, remind teachers that knowledge and skills are important here, then we can remove this fear and make the message clearer – pedagogy should come before technology, teachers should focus on teaching the knowledge and skills, and remember that the technology is only a tool.
“Robotics and the Digital Technologies Curriculum go together very well because robotics is often about problem solving and breaking large problems into smaller parts, and the Digital Technologies Curriculum focuses on iterative development. So students can be presented with a large problem to solve with robotics, and then encouraged to use a design science approach to break that problem down into smaller parts, solve each part individually and then iterate through the solutions to come up with the final larger solution to the whole problem.”