Roamer was a long-time classroom favourite. Chris Drage welcomes its successor
The reintroduction of programming in the ICT curriculum can be achieved far more effectively by integrating pedagogy that we know works. Instead of focusing on programming games and on-screen applications, a far better approach is to combine the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning that hands-on control technology offers.
And a device which provides the perfect vehicle for doing just that for early years and primary school children is Roamer-Too. It can help struggling students or challenge the gifted and talented. It really is that versatile.
Valiant Technology's Roamer-Too is an educational robot that you can use to help pupils learn not just programming skills but also help early learners with basics like reading, spelling and mathematics or help adolescents appreciate the size of the solar system, learn a foreign language or grasp the concepts of calculus or algebra. It really is learning for all and it's a worthy successor to the original Roamer, or Classic Romar as it's now called.
Roamer-Too's design incorporates Valiant Technology's 25 years of experience of making robots to meet the demands of the classroom. Those readers as long in the tooth as me will recall that the Classic Roamer was a 30cm 'Smartie-on-wheels' that could be programmed to move from here to there. It beeped and, after programming it to move from A to B, teachers often asked “What next?”
The Roamer-Too is 20cm long and 15.5cm wide. It has an ergonomic, tear-drop shape so that either end can be nominated as the front. This makes it easy for young children to pick up and ideal for running on the table or the floor. It's powered by six AA batteries which makes it far more manageable than the Classic Roamer which ran on two very large batteries.
However, as with all these devices, you do need to have a battery "policy" in effect in the school. The original Roamer travelled at one speed. Roamer-Too goes much faster or slower as children can program the robot to travel at different speeds at different times. Again, this offers more scope for activities.
Roamer-Too has 'one fundamental difference' – keypads for all ages
Apart from the size and shape, Roamer-Too has one fundamental, important difference which sets it far apart from the original: it utilises programmable keypads of which there are currently four – for early years, infant, primary and junior – covering the full range of pre-school to Years 6 and 7. The early years keypad presents a Bee-Bot-like keypad for very basic movements (Bee-Bot is the simple, popular floor robot from RM's TTS Group).
At infant level Valiant Technology believes that children should have moved beyond the simple "counting" technique employed by other simple robots ("left 3, right 4 etc") and should be focusing on using numbers, relationships and patterns properly. For example, as pattern forms a very important part of the maths curriculum, the Roamer-Too infant keypad offers "Repeat" for shape and space activities and introduces speed and volume values and offers "music".
It also offers turns in degrees. This is a concept normally introduced in Year 3 in key stage 2. So how do infant teachers who want to talk about "¼ turns" overcome this problem? The solution is fundamental to how the new robot works: its programmable keypads mean that it can be given different "behaviours" via software from Valiant Technology to accommodate many of the key stage 1 teacher requirements – for example, incorporating 30° turns to simulate a clock face or a 45° turn – simply by downloading the "behaviour".
The primary keypad introduces procedures and enables Roamer-Too to offer both input and output channels for children to program. Sensors will be available to enable some feedback-control activities. As with the original Roamer, a penholder is available to enable turtle graphics. The junior keypad offers far more flexibility as you can change all the parameters and have an unlimited number of procedures. In addition to a scaffolded approach to programming, there is also progression in learning as well. I particularly like the way in which Roamer-Too can be tied into the learning that children should be doing at each stage.
Teachers can create their own keypad overlays too
Teachers of my generation will immediately recognise that the Roamer-Too keypad is, in effect, like the Concept Keyboard. This is why Valiant Technology has deliberately kept the overlays printed on plain paper so teachers can print further copies of the "standard" overlays or simply design their own. Software is provided with all the standard behaviours and their associated keypad graphic overlays so teachers never need worry about an overlay becoming soiled or unusable as another can quickly be printed out.
Roamer-Too can have many different behaviours. "Behaviour" is this floor robot's equivalent of software. Different behaviours allow the children to learn and do different things. They help create rich learning environments called microworlds. By exploring these worlds they can explore ideas and gather factual knowledge – acquiring knowledge with an understanding of the ideas and underpinning concepts. In the online RoamerWorld teachers or pupils can create behaviours. This can be part of an activity or the creation of one.
Although Roamer-Too is essentially about programming, it does also fit very comfortably into many aspects of the curriculum. An example I saw showed how the device integrated perfectly with the nursery rhyme "Incy Wincy Spider". The keypad displayed graphics from each of the parts of the rhyme in random order. The children’s task was to enter each one in correct sequence whereupon Roamer-Too would speak the relevant section of the rhyme and move up or down a paper-drawn drainpipe.
A suitably ‘dressed’, spider-suited Roamer-Too would have an immediate impact on children. This might be a simple early years activity, but it's one which not only reinforces the rhyme but adds action and movement to the words – ideal for pupils who have English as an additional language (EAL). To think, years ago, I used to get children to colour in and cut out the sections of the rhyme to paste in the correct order on a page in their books! That’s just one example: Valiant Technology is developing many more across the full primary age range to share on its website.
Roamer-Too's body, like the original, has been kept deliberately bland in order to encourage children to create their own characters and "dress" the device. Another aspect I like is that Valiant Technology has kept the body geometry central as the basic unit of measurement: 20cm is a sensible unit of measurement which can fit on a table top or floor depending on the activity and age of the children. There’s space under the cover for a wireless receiver so units can download wirelessly or ‘talk’ to each other.
I also like the fact that there are five different voices available, so if a class is using five different Roamers, each can have its own individual voice. The use of voice is a huge improvement over the ‘beep’ feedback that the original provided. Now, if you make a mistake, Roamer-Too can actually tell you the sequence of key presses required for a particular action. For example, instead of children learning how to program the robot, they can explore it. When they press buttons it guides them to an understanding of how to make it work. The Roamer-Too can ask questions, give answers, set challenges, provide information relevant to tasks, respond to pupils’ actions, give tips and hints, or it simply tells you it’s tired and needs its batteries recharging!
Free activities and training are available
Supported by free activities and training, there is also the promise of a range of optional extras including a QR-code reader and pen kit for turtle graphics. It is claimed that Roamer-Too is far more accurate in its movement than its predecessor. With improved accuracy the robot should engage in many of the original Turtle Graphic (geometry) activities that were beyond the capability of the Classic Roamer, making the experience far more rewarding for children. You can even calibrate the motion of the robot to take into account discrepancies that arise from the type of surface it runs on.
Valiant Technology is preparing a set of videos that teachers can access to learn how to use the system in simple, easy stages. In addition, it promise online webinars, a helpline and supporting website.
Early adopters of the Roamer-Too are enthusiastic. Michael Blakey, class teacher and head of ICT at The Cavendish School, reports: “Roamer-Too allows controlling devices to be used with a wider range of age ranges than Bee Bots. While Bee-bots can be used very well for children aged 4-6, I feel that Roamer-Too can be used productively for children up to the age of 11 in primary schools.
"At present we have only one, as it had just been released and we only bought it a couple of months ago, but we are looking at purchasing more in future with different keypads. We have just the standard keypad at present. With one Roamer-Too I can demonstrate to a whole class; however, ideally it would be great if children could use them in small groups or pairs.
"In terms of the curriculum it will fit in with predicting and controlling devices, making routes and working out turns/angles, as well as more which I am sure I have not discovered yet. I hope to use our Roamer-Too – we have named Penny – across a range of age groups. What I enjoy doing is seeing how the children can control it and develop ideas from the parts of the controls they enjoy using.
"I do at least one ICT staff training session a halfterm so once I have taught Roamer-Too to a range of year groups and seen how it is best used, I can roll out a staff training programme.
"Valiant Technology has been excellent, coming to our school and demonstrating how Roamer-Too can be used.”
How do the children feel about it?
Yilu (aged 6): "I like predicting where I can move it to and then seeing if I can make it go there!"
Oliver (aged 6): "It is so clever the way it can move and turn so much"
'Robots offer a unique path for learning'
The human body is an incredible tool for learning which is under-used when children are sitting at a desk. I want younger children using their bodies to explore the world and discover things for themselves. Robots offer a unique path for learning, combining the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic aspects in one device. Today's children grow up with technology and are not fazed by it and will automatically use it when they need to. The Roamer-Too makes it easier, more effective and relevant to the children's world.
Roamer-Too also puts the emphasis back on programming. It is certainly not a toy: it is a robust robot designed to be used on a daily basis and is particularly relevant for those with special educational needs. I am confident that Roamer-Too’s scaffolded approach to learning, starting at a very simple nursery and early years level, and with ever-increasing challenges as it works up to an upper primary school level, will prove a vital tool for pupils to build strong foundations of knowledge and develop ideas through kinaesthetic, visual and spatial activity. Thoroughly recommended.
Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose 5
Ease of use 5
Value for money 4
Programmable floor robot for primary schools, with four programmable keypads for four age groups up to 11 years, £89.95 ex VAT from Valiant technology
Valiant Technology Ltd, Valiant House 3 Grange Mills, Weir Road Balham London SW12 0NE
Tel: 020 8673 2233
Fax: 020 8673 6333