The value of learning human values from robots

Lately, I have been questioning the human robot relationship, the natural reactions we as humans have towards humanoid robots, and the value of learning human values from robots.

While being perfectly aware that these beings are not living beings, recent interaction with Erica and Nao have made me realise that whether the interaction is with an android or a humanoid, my emotional reactions towards them are the same.

When touching Erica’s hand I was careful to place my hand on hers gently refraining from any sudden movements that may startle her, just as I would with a human whose hand I place mine upon for the first time. Interacting with Nao, I was careful not to take his hand to firmly in mine as I walked him along the worktop, for fear of hurting or damaging him.

What is this inherent ‘care’ that the human brain automatically takes on when interacting with humanoid robots? A research sample from studies carried out by Hiroshi Ishiguro demonstrates that human interaction patterns with androids parallel those with humans, and evidence demonstrates that it is the ‘humanness’ of the robot, which provokes this subconscious reaction.


android robots for language learning

I have recently become extremely interested in research carried out by Ishiguro regarding human responses to android robots. By using the Total Turing Test it was possible to determine that subjects were unable to identify android robots when being flash exposed to them for one or two seconds when given the task of remembering the colour of the clothing the android was wearing. For me this demonstrates that the neurological capacity of the brain believes what it sees but is also influenced by what it wants to see. With respect to language learning and the use of androids, studies have demonstrated that the lack of emotion in androids supports learning in individuals with autism because they do not respond emotionally to the subjects they are interacting with. This highlights important parallels with inhibition in language learning and the subconscious facial gestures teachers often demonstrate in response to learner performance. One raised eyebrow is enough for a learner to become aware that something they said was incorrect and they will directly react to this by either losing their train of thought, pausing for correction or stopping what they were saying all together. Remove the facial gesture from the teacher out of this equation and the learner will probably continue to speak. Perhaps androids can offer a different solution to this problem.

Differentiation, dictaphones, and decision-making


This week I have been talking about the best strategies for developing turn-taking skills for the Cambridge exams. It has been an interesting insight on many levels, but specifically into how other teaching professionals deal with the challenges of a mismatch of pairs when candidates have different levels of proficiency. Differentiation is a very common issue in the classroom and not one that I feel is given enough consideration. While we can do our best to mix students when carrying out different activities, what I have really realised is that the students that are less proficient really need extra support and scaffolding to help them progress so changing their partner in class regularly isn’t necessarily going to solve this problem.



I often suggest to both teachers and learners that voice recordings using mobile phone dictaphone apps can be a very quick and easy solution to confidence building. By making short recordings on the dictaphones, and listening to themselves, learners are able to become familiar with how their voice sounds and feel less inhibited to speak. I then suggest that by playing back short recordings several times, it is possible to identify weaknesses in pronunciation, and the features of connected speech but also whether the task requirements of the exam task have been met. Part 3 of the FCE, CAE and CPE is designed to evaluate candidate turn-taking skills by assessing a two-way conversation between them. Candidates are assessed on their ability to maintain a conversation, suggest ideas, and respond accordingly to the other candidates’ ideas. All of this needs to be achieved in a time limit of 2 minutes, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of lexical resource and a varied grammatical range. By timing and recording their practise runs, students are able to refine and focus their answers in order to meet the task requirements.



The final stage of part 3 in the speaking test is a decision-making question where the candidates need to reach a decision regarding the discussion just taken place during the previous stage. A common error for candidates is to choose the most ‘important, urgent, greatest effect etc’ during the first stage, which often results in them repeating themselves during the second stage. To avoid this I encourage learners to only answer the question in the diagram for the first stage and nothing more. I have found this to be the best strategy to avoid the aforementioned. Again, timing and recording themselves has proven to be invaluable especially considering the 1-minute time limit given.

Androids – Erica – Ishiguro – Geminoid

I have just returned from my annual trip to Japan, which has proved to be extremely insightful. I had the great pleasure of meeting Prof Ishiguro in Osaka and the opportunity to see some of his current research in action.

Ishiguro: Through his research, it is possible to gain a sense of Ishiguro’s motivation for creating android robots. He argues that society itself is responsible for shaping humans, therefore by using a combination of computers, motors, and sensors he is able to create androids that are capable of mimicking humans. So synergistic androids are created, that with exposure to language and HRI, are able to develop a personality, therefore making them as human as any other being that depends on exposure to language, society, others and interaction to shape who they are and who they become. In addition, robotic research enables us to gain further insights into the activities of the human brain, and therefore a greater understanding of cognitive neuroscience. In this way robots reflect the activity of the human mind which permit this understanding.

Robots in Japan: Japanese citizens openly accept robots and autonomous systems into their society so they don’t feel the need to distinguish the differences between them, and humans. Robots are considered beings, just like any other being, and take an active part in society in theatre productions, as caregivers, companions and shop assistants.

Erica: Erica, one of Ishiguro’s projects designed as a research platform for an autonomous conversational android, uses voice recognition software to interact with humans. Unfortunately my Japanese is not proficient enough to have successfully interacted with her myself, but here is a short clip of her talking with one of Ishiguro’s research students.

Intelligent microphones: Ishiguro is also working on intelligent microphones that would permit scheduled turn taking among robots, thereby releasing the pressure for humans to partake in interaction. From a pedagogical perspective this is a very interesting development for language training and the treatment and education of humans with communicational disorders like autism.

Geminoid: When asked about the reaction of his students to learning with Geminoid, the responses were all positive. Japanese communication etiquette is an inherent part of the country’s culture. By teaching his classes via a tele-operated android doppelgänger, Ishiguro confirms that students feel less intimidated to ask questions and extend their enquiry, which they may not otherwise do with the professor himself. Ishiguro also confirms positive learning outcomes in European contexts (with 13 different nationalities) and is working alongside several European companies to bring these positive learning outcomes to a wider variety of contexts and nationalities.

The current goal for me is to get my Japanese to a proficient enough level to be able to reap the rewards of HRI myself.

Freedom for students to choose their own materials Part 3

Continuing with the theme of freedom for students to choose their own materials, here is another insight into one of my students.

I asked an advanced general English teacher that is a web designer and coder what he would like to learn. Much to my delight, like me, he is keen on technology and science fiction. So, in addition to the deep conversations and debates we have had about AI and ethics and the possibility of sustaining life on Mars we have shared YouTube clips, films and series that we both find fascinating.

This student is keen to widen his lexical range and to know if his colleagues are speaking correctly when they converse in English (because he works in a Danish company in Barcelona, so the “lingua franca” is English). To help him broaden his lexicon, I have suggested that once a week when he is reading journals and literature for work, that he focuses on the language, and pays special attention to the lexical items he understands from context, but that he wouldn’t be able to define in English or in Spanish. I steered him towards a free Spanish English dictionary app that stores the words looked up in “recientes” an option at the bottom of the screen. This is a great way to revise lexis which has been consulted in the dictionary and can be used to review and retrieve to ensure lexical items become a part of personal lexicon. The student has started to do this and is so far sticking to it! Bearing in mind that lexical items need to be used no less than twelve times it will take time to see drastic changes however gradually he will be able to build up his working vocabulary.

Another useful tool that we discussed doing was writing notes on his smartphone while talking to his colleagues (it is now considered professional etiquette here in Spain to use your phone while engaging in conversation with somebody) to help him remember what his colleagues have said. The idea is that he will then have more time to reflect after the conversation to ensure what was said was correct. This may seem an odd strategy, but the student is worried that his English is being “dumbed down” by less proficient colleagues. Recording progress on this is understandably more difficult.

Freedom for students to choose their own materials Part 2: Mindfulness

Freedom for students to choose their own materials

Part 2: Mindfulness

I had mentioned mindfulness with a business class before the summer. They have returned to their office after the holidays with several organisational changes that they are not particularly enamoured with, so they asked if they could learn about mindfulness at work. After the class the students said it was all good and well what we had learnt about mindfulness during the lesson, but asked for suggestions about how to continue practising and incorporating what we had learnt in the lesson in their day to day. I therefore suggested two apps which I use which find help me engage in mindfulness.


Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness


This was perhaps one of the first free websites and apps that came on the market and introduced the general public to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. It is a good way for students to be exposed to authentic listening material and in addition they are reaping the rewards of a calmer state of mind. In class the students agreed they are going to listen to and engage with the app once a week at home. They are going to discuss which meditation they listened to, if they enjoyed it, and how it made them felt, the following week in class. So by doing this we will be bringing mindfulness into the classroom every week.


Mindful quotes


This app sends daily mindfulness quotes for inspiration. It is a good way for learners to read something authentic in English every day, despite being short. The students have agreed that if there are any quotes which they especially like, or if there is any language they are unfamiliar with or want to discuss, we will also dedicate class time to that once a week.

Freedom for students to choose their own materials Part 1

Freedom for students to choose their own materials

Part 1: New year, fresh start


With the new academic year in sight I decided it was time to finally dust the bookshelves, recycle any unwanted papers I had held onto “just in case”, and make space for new books and journals. The autumn clean also involved rearranging and tidying the bookshelves, which lead to the idea for this post and others to come in the near future. Amongst all the books and papers was a pile of dog-eared notebooks that I have accumulated from conferences, talks, and workshops.

So, with no further ado, I have decided to spend some time going through the notes and scribbles that I made with gust and vigour at the time, but that have stayed safely squirrelled away and not seen the light of day since they were originally written down!

So I’ve decided to embark on a long journey of teacher development as I try, test and experiment with the ideas that others in the field have kindly taken the time to share.

In the first notebook I randomly opened I found “Freedom for students to choose their own materials & why chosen”. Obviously giving learners the freedom to choose their learning material is not appropriate for every context but it is certainly an idea that I feel will give them more learner autonomy and make them more mindful and aware of what they are learning and why. I intend to try this with my classes during the next few days, and share their ideas and findings here!


Listen ear! Ted Talk listening & speaking activity and Presentation & Cambridge Exams practice

Recently I’ve been prompting learners to use the dictaphone function of their smartphones to help them develop their listening and pronunciation. Here are a range of activities that I have found to be particularly effective.

Listen ear! Ted Talk listening & speaking activity

  • Choose any Ted talk from the category 1-6 minutes and watch twice. Take notes of the key points while you are watching.
  • Present the main ideas of your talk to your partner, they must take notes.
  • Your partner will now give a 60 second presentation of the key points from your presentation and record this using their phones.
  • You do the same with their talk.
  • You both listen to the voice recordings/video, and the original Ted Talks.

This activity can help learners develop listening skills in any context. I have used it in Cambridge exam preparation classes and EAP classes.

Presentation & Cambridge Exams (speaking paper) practice

  • Using the dictaphone of their smartphones learners can record part or all of their presentations or part 2 and/or 3 of the Cambridge Exams speaking paper.
  • During playback learners make a list of 2-3 features they liked and disliked about their recording. This could include: pronunciation; intonation; stress; pausing; signposting; voice projection; articulation, hesitation.
  • Students re-record themselves working on the features they identified they wanted to improve. Playback can be individual or in pairs for peer feedback.
  • If a class IM group has been set up, students can send the recording to the teacher for on the spot feedback and pronunciation support.

Pronunciation is one of the aspects of speaking students from both my EAP and Cambridge Exam classes. My students have found this quick turn around and instant feedback strategy extremely beneficial. Here is some feedback:

  • We learn to express our ideas clearly
  • Each recording is easier
  • The recordings make me feel more confident to speak in front of others
  • I realise giving presentations is difficult
  • How to control your time and speed of speaking to a time limit


Bax on “normalisation” at UCLAN

“As we seek to learn in this brave new digital world…how can we blend technology with human intervention in the most productive way?”

At a recent conference at the University of Central Lancaster (UCLAN), Professor Steven Bax opened his talk with this question. He went on to discuss the “normalisation” of technology once we as humans go beyond the ‘wow’ factor (Murray & Barnes 1988).

Bax argues that normalisation is achieved once technology becomes invisible and integrated into our teaching and learning practices without it being noticed. Obviously we as educators, and our learners are aware that technology is being used, but normalisation suggests that it is imbedded in such a way that it becomes unnoticed and a part of part of normalised practice, thereby supporting learning invisibly without a conscious thought.

In this way, it can be argued that more teaching and learning is achieved because the real pedagogical value of activities is considered, and the learning becomes the priority, rather than the servant, in a paradigm where technology is considered the master. Therefore, learning is maximised and the technology provides an optimum contribution to achieve this.

As individuals, Bax notes seven stages of normalisation and characteristics of users of technology:

  1. Early adopters
  2. Ignorance/scepticism
  3. Try once (find no real advantage)
  4. Try again
  5. Fear/awe/excessive dependence
  6. Normalising
  7. Normalisation

Normalisation of technology seems to be more prominent in society today due to the rise of electronic devices. However, as I reach for my glasses to step away from my screen to go make a coffee, I depend on another technology that has long become normalised in my life. I’m sure when they were first invented, glasses also had a wow factor too!

Enhancing Emotional Facial Expressiveness on NAO: Pluggable Eyebrows

Apparently we say a lot with our eyes. I have woken this morning to see a short video which you can watch here of Nao, one of my favourite robots, who now has the option of unpluggable eybrows. It is believed that enhancing facial expressiveness can enhance emotional expression so Nao is now able to express anger, sadness and delight more effectively. Nao was the first humanoid robot created by Softbank Robotics in 2006 and has been continuously evolving since its release onto the market. It stands at only 58cm tall and was designed as an interactive companion robot. While the new unpluggable eyebrow option may not appear a revelation to many, it is yet another step towards giving humanoid robots a more human-like guise by providing them with the option of expressing emotion.