Thymio: a holistic approach to designing accessible educational robots

Technology is now an important part of our lives. We often see robots cited as the future of education, and reports of their imminent entrance in schools. New projects create buzz in the media and online, but when we look at the actual situation, very few robots are currently used in education, and most of the time, the platform used is the Lego Mindstorms. Why so little diversity? What do robot actually bring to the learning experience? How can we design good educational robots? Hopes are that they bring additional motivation to pupils. Since the use of robots is fun, the learning is supposed to become easier. Robot projects and activities are also expected to foster thinking skills, collaboration, and creative spirit. Finally, there is a need to educate people on technology for two reasons. The first is to break the "black box" image they have of technology, and the second is to encourage them into technical careers. Thanks to the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics (NCCR Robotics), we could develop some innovative concepts in educational robotics, and implement one such pedagogical tool. We designed a small wheeled robot with many sensors, and LEDs making its internal state apparent to the user. A simple, white look makes it a neutral base for creating one’s own application, for all age and gender groups. Different user interfaces allow to make it accessible to everybody: • Pre-programmed behaviours that demonstrate its different possibilities • A Visual Programming Language (VPL), without text and based on event-action pairs • The Aseba script language (text-based), with a comprehensive development environment to accompany and inform the user The resulting platform, Thymio II, is completely open-source and open-hardware. It was mass-produced and commercialised at a low cost. This gave the opportunity to evaluate the public’s response to it. We could assess that the robot design is well received and appreciated by different age and gender groups. It seems particularly popular with girls. We analysed the expectations of the different age categories and proposed activities that fitted their specific needs. We could also validate that users of Thymio II learn notions of programming, understand essential concepts such as what sensors are, what is the relationship between the robot, the computer, and the programming environment. With the VPL, they could quickly grasp the meaning of events and event-action pairs. We realised that in spite of the interest it generated, the robot was not used much at home or in schools. We think that there is a need for more guidance and that parallels should be drawn with e-learning for the use at home. In schools, we observed that teachers who use robots are pioneers, who invest time and sometimes money into new technologies out of personal interest. The others do not feel strongly against robotics but are probably discouraged by the lack of institutional injunction, appropriate training, budget, and ready-to-use pedagogical materials. At the end of this work, we conclude by giving a set of guidelines, based on our experience, for the design of educational robots. This project demonstrated very promising results and we believe that it can be a first step toward renewing teaching habits.

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