University of Madeira (PORTUGAL)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2012 Proceedings
Publication year: 2012
Pages: 6727-6731
ISBN: 978-84-615-5563-5
ISSN: 2340-1079
Conference name: 6th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 5-7 March, 2012
Location: Valencia, Spain
The purpose of this work is to discuss the process of knowledge building in virtual communities of practice within a research project that involved the use of robots as mediators of learning. The project, called Virtual Droid, lasted three years and included partners from Madeira, the Azores and mainland Portugal. Each virtual group consisted of a high school student from each of the three regions and a tutor teacher, who played the role of an old-timer within the group. The members of each group interacted virtually, with the objective of developing small robotic projects in a Web-based learning environment. Each member of the project received a Lego Mindstorms NXT robotic kit, a copy of the Droid MLP multi-language programming platform, developed under the Droid project, and a board for the execution of the proposed activities.

The project was developed in three main steps. In the first one, the communication tools to be used within the project were chosen. The second step involved the formulation of the problems to be solved, which were structured taking into account the following requirements and restrictions in terms of context: the board should be unique; the robot should be built with the basic robotic kit; the standard models proposed by LEGO could not be used as a basis for the construction of robots; a single robot should be able to accomplish all the problems; the problems should be arranged by level of difficulty; the problem statements description should be simple and unambiguous; all problems should have a unique solution but allow different forms of resolution; the solutions could not be subjective; one of the problems should be of a mechanical nature; and finally, the contents involved in the problems should be limited to those discussed in high school Mathematics and Computer Science courses, in order to allow participants to develop skills in these areas. The third and final stage involved the collection and recording of data and information from the virtual sessions and their subsequent analysis using a qualitative interpretative approach, based on Lave and Wenger’s theories of situated learning in virtual communities of practice.

The use of robots as mediators of learning facilitated the exploration and learning of the fundamental abstract concepts involved in computer programming and allowed the proposed programming tasks to make more sense, because the results could be achieved in the real world.

The analysis of the participants’ interactions allowed to identify a dynamic evolution process throughout the development of the project, through the increasing use of the technical vocabulary of programming and reification of the concepts and ideas involved in solving the proposed set of challenging problems, in the form of producing computer programs, which led to their successful resolution.

Although the main objectives for the proposed project have been achieved, it is necessary to further investigate the learning that occurs in virtual spaces, since the Internet provides access to a huge and rapidly-growing volume of information, which leads to experience the space, the social relations, the identities and the representation of the acquired knowledge in a manner very different from that possible in traditional school and family contexts. Understanding this reality is essential for adequately structuring new forms of teaching and explaining the learning processes that occur within virtual environments.
Virtual communities of practice, situated learning, educational robotics.