Armed with the knowledge that children tend to learn better when they teach their new-found skills to others, Swiss researchers have enlisted the help of a humanoid robot that improves along with them. This CoWriter system has been well received in tests with school children aged six to eight, where students "teach" the robot to improve its penmanship and see the robot's improved performance reflected in their own handwriting.

The 58 cm (23 in) NAO robot used by the scientists can be programmed to reflect the specific difficulties a student is having, or simply to reproduce common errors made by young children as they learn to write. It draws on a database of handwriting examples for this, able to draw words at varying levels of clumsiness on demand on the screen of a tablet.

The idea is that children who are struggling to form letters on their own need a boost to their dwindling self-esteem and motivation. Without someone – or something – to teach, they are likely to eventually lose interest entirely, with knock-on effects that could stay with them throughout their entire education and into adulthood. Another student could, of course, fill the role, but what if there is no one at a lower level of proficiency? That's what CoWriter is for. With a robot to prop up the struggling students, the researchers hope that no child will again be left behind.

"The goal is to provide a tool for teachers that is given a new role in the classroom," explains Séverin Lemaignan, one of the authors of the study. "That of a student who knows even less than the slowest student in the class."

To teach the robot, children first prepare words with small magnetic letters of the sort found on fridges the world over. The robot then writes the word on the tablet screen and the child identifies and corrects errors by rewriting either the whole word or specific letters. Once satisfied with the robot's legibility, the child moves on to the next word. The robot meanwhile analyzes the corrected letters for differences and then in repeat attempts converges towards the child's level of writing. And in the process of teaching, the child gets handwriting practice without realizing it.

Its creators say the CoWriter system is still at the prototype stage, with further studies to quantify the benefits of such a program set to be conducted in the coming months.

You can see a video of the project below.

View gallery - 6 images