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Student Perspectives on Robot Teachers

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Laura Butler  

Could — or more importantly should — robots replace human teachers? What do students think about robot teachers and teaching assistants? This session will explore what we know about student perspectives of robot teachers. We will also look at ways to engage students in your district/classroom on the issue.

Audience: Curriculum/district specialists, Teachers, Technology coordinators/facilitators
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Android, iOS, Windows
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Windows, Android, iOS
Topic: Artificial Intelligence
Grade level: PK-12
Subject area: Preservice teacher education, STEM/STEAM
ISTE Standards: For Students:
Empowered Learner
  • Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.
  • Students understand the fundamental concepts of technology operations, demonstrate the ability to choose, use and troubleshoot current technologies and are able to transfer their knowledge to explore emerging technologies.
Creative Communicator
  • Students choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.
Additional detail: Graduate student

Proposal summary


The proposed study is framed using a post-structuralist paradigm (Sharma, 2020), socio-material theory (Fenwick, 2010), Biesta’s three functions of education (Biesta 2020), the education ecosystem and socio-material theory (Bandyopadhyay & Dey, 2021).

Post-structuralist paradigm
Post-structural research is designed around the belief that a student’s education and a classroom environment are unique and complex. Post-structuralism rejects grand narratives for local ones (Grant & Giddon, 2002). For example, one classroom’s use of an agent may contradict another classroom’s use. Definitions of educational success, the requirements of educational policy and curricula, and the materials available to students will differ between classrooms and the post-structuralist paradigm is designed for such variation (Sharma, 2020). I use post-structuralism to focus the research design on student’s perspectives rather than an abstract definition of educational success.

Socio-material theory
Sociomaterial theory is a way of observing post-structuralism using a grounded approach (Law, 2008). Sociomaterial theory explores the relationship between people (actors) and things (materials) in their environment (Fenwick, 2010). Materials can be technologies, organisations, objects and environments (Fenwick & Dahlgreen, 2015). Actors use and interpret materials such as texts, symbols, meanings, intentions (Fenwick & Dahlgreen, 2015). Actors and materials are given equal importance in explaining an event or change (Fenwick, 2010). A sociomaterial approach can be used to explore the many interactions between social systems and digital agents (Fenwick, 2012). I use a sociomaterial approach to explore how students use agents, within the context of other parts of the education ecosystem.

Biesta's functions of education
Education is not just what students learn, but the reason they learn it and who they learn it from (Biesta, 2020). Biesta (2012) proposed that education can be thought of as three interconnecting functions (qualification, socialisation and subjectification). Qualification is the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge and skills which has characterised classroom learning since its beginnings (Seldon et al, 2012). Socialisation is the situation of knowledge and skills in cultural, historical and social contexts, resulting in students being prepared to function in a given community. Biesta (2020) notes that socialisation can be intentional (for example national curricula) or unintentional (for example a teacher’s beliefs they may not know they hold), but it is always present. Subjectification is students developing the capabilities to be autonomous, making their own decisions.

An education ecosystem
The education ecosystem was first proposed by Cremin (1976) as one way to analogise how ‘... classrooms deliver education by interacting and collaborating with other parts.’ Ecosystems are defined in ecological science as ‘…systemic communities... which interact and connect...creating a complex network ...’ (Chaplin et al, 2000). Bandyopadhyay & Dey (2021) define their education ecosystem as a series of living (human) biotic entities and non-human abiotic entities. The ecosystem is socio-material, meaning it illustrates a number of interactions between people and material objects. Biotic entities in this study are actors, abiotic entities are materials.


Theoretical frameworks and the literature inform my methods. A multi case-study approach will be taken. The variables identified in the literature along with those identified in the data collection will be used for thematic analysis that will inform a discussion answering the research questions.

Data sources
Data will be collected from multiple sources including observations, agent logs, student focus groups and teacher interviews. Data from observations and agent logs will help me prepare for the student focus groups and teacher interviews which will all be semi-structured. The case study data collection will focus around student use of three digital agents - a smart speaker, a zoomorphic smart 'dog' and a software agent run through Minecraft.

Methods of analysis
Case study data will be apriori coded to variable groups and also emerging themes will be identified ( (Johnson & Christensen, 2016). Thematic analysis will explore commonalities . An inductive approach will be used, with the data guiding the formation of axial codes, where themes and hierarchies will be identified to help explain the observed phenomena (Braun & Clarke, 2019).

Participant selection
A self-nomination form will collect basic information and ask teachers if they can commit to the duration and activities of my study. I intend to use purposive sampling (Johnson & Christensen, 2016) choosing cases that are likely to provide sufficient data. To make regular visits to the classroom realistic for me, the convenience of location will be a factor in case selection. Given the small sample of four classrooms, the selection process may be limited by the requirement for case study classes to return 100% parent and student consent (N must equal n).


My study will add to the discussion on student use of, and engagement with, agents in a classroom ecosystem. It will be the largest such study in the primary school classroom. My study will also uniquely compare three agents in multi case-studies over an extended period, adding to an understanding of how use and engagement with agents may change over time. My study will be useful both for educators making choices about if and how to use agents in the classroom and also inform the designers of edTech agents.


My presentation aims to give useful descriptive insight and qualitative data analysis for both educators and those developing intelligent agents for education settings. It will add to an exciting body of knowledge on how students choose and use intelligent agents in the classroom, with two significant contributions. Firstly, it will be the first such study in the New Zealand primary school classroom. Secondly, it will compare three agents in multi case studies over an extended period, increasing the variables to better study the choices students have, and possible change in their choices over time. My study will help inform educators to make better choices about the tools they make available to students and the skills students may need to best utilise these agents for their education.


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Laura Butler, Laura Robyn Butler
Graduate student

Laura is a PhD student and tech coach from New Zealand, with over 7 years of experience in the classroom. In 2019, as her Master's thesis, she completed the second-biggest study of voice assistant devices in the classroom. Laura has presented and participated in panels on AI in education and works with teachers 1-1 to get them started with Smart Tech in their classrooms. She was an ISTE Live 2020 presenter and is a Seesaw Ambassador, Apple Teacher, and Google Innovator (#SYD19). You can find her on Twitter @ElleButlerEDU

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