USING ACTIVITY THEORY TO UNDERSTAND HOW USING ROBOTS CAN FOSTER LEARNING OF BASIC CONCEPTS OF PROGRAMMING

P. Abrantes, J.F. Matos

University of Lisbon, Institute of Education (PORTUGAL)
Recently many educators have been using robots in teaching activities in order to assist students' learning in a variety of subjects and topics across all levels of education. Several studies address robotics and programming as an educational activity, showing that, in many situations, there is an added value in the use of robots in the classroom.
In this research report we use the central principles of Activity Theory to analyze, describe and understand how students learn basic programming concepts in interaction with robots in the classroom.

In the framework of Activity Theory (Engeström, 2001; Matos, 2010) learning is essentially associated to the development towards an expansive field, both in terms of subject and the context.
Specifically, we focus on the relationship between subjet (students – individually and in group) and object (programming concepts), being mediated by the construction of a guide dog (guide-robot), leading to conceptual transformations in terms of understanding programming through the use of tecnological tools. We address also the mediating role of the classroom culture (emergent norms), division of labor (groups’ dynamics and student-teacher interaction), and rules (formal and informal norms in the classroom).

The task that students are supposed to develop is the construction and programming of a robot that would simulate a guide dog.
Through data analysis, we interpreted the classroom activity system and the results suggest that learning is driven by real needs of students, as manifested in dilemmas. Learning emerges from social interactions and is well located in the co-participation in a social (and not just individual) understanding. We conclude suggesting that there is evidence that a constructionist practice in the classroom may help the development of students’ programming concepts.