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Telepresence with a Twist: Robotic Students

Telepresence is the art of projecting oneself so that natural conversations, and even interactions can be held between parties, exactly as if both members were physically at the same location - when in fact, one or both parties may in fact be absent. It is being there without going there, in simple terms.

Recently, that has had an impact on education, in a classroom. Whilst telepresence and related systems should eventually make classrooms an anarchistic memory, this will not happen for some time yet, due to the nascence of the various technologies.

A perhaps surprising twist that is surfacing already, however, is the prospect of using telepresence to allow students who cannot be in the classroom, to be in the classroom.

Case Study: Hospitalised Child.

In June 2006, 13-year-old Achim Nurse lay on a hospital bed, suffering from severe meningitis, he faced months recuperating in Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, New York, before returning to school.

Rather than let him fall behind, he was loaned two PEEBLES robots.

PEEBLES, which stands for Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students, possessed at the time, some 40 robots, developed in Toronto by Telbotics Inc. with Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. The robots work in pairs, so 40 robots could help 20 children. That number has, of course, since grown dramatically.

One robot was at Achim's side. The other, in his classroom at school, was inconstant communication with it, via a wireless internet link. The two robots puppetise. That is to say, when one moves, the other repeats the movement.

The one at school knows where to go for classes, and moves on a four-wheel base, guided by Achim, stopping wherever he needs to interact.

"The robot literally is embraced by students in the classroom as though that is the medically fragile student," said Andrew Summa, national director of the robot project, which was, at the time, in use at six other hospitals around theUS. Achim's teacher, Bob Langerfield, said his other students had become used to the robot - and were treating it as if it were Achim - after just a few days.

The bots are more or less identical. They stand at five feet tall, and each shows a webcam link of what the other sees, on a 15" display screen on the face of the other.

"If he's looking out the window, the teacher will know it," said Jim Desimone, who still is the traumatic brain injury co-ordinator at Blythedale and the school's "robot guy."

Using the buttons and a joystick on the control box, Achim could zoom in to read what was on the board; swivel the robot's head to see and talk to a classmate; raise the robot's hand; adjust the volume; or log out, if a nurse came to take him away for tests or physical therapy.

At one point, when the teacher wanted Achim to see something printed on a piece of paper, he held it up to the classroom robot's "face."

The robots also have scanners and printers so the patient can receive whatever the teacher is handing out in class - a fact sheet, a homework assignment, a test.

"When you're in the hospital you're isolated, you're stuck here," said Desimone. "You don't have friends, you don't have anything except maybe a phone call from home. You fall behind at school. With this you have social interaction, which is a part of school. Yeah, we could have a teacher come into his hospital room and teach him, but that's not the same."

The robots aren't protected in class or in the hospital, and there has been no abuse, Desimone said.

"The kids see it as another kid, so they wouldn't pound on it," he said.

"You can have a child hospitalised in New York City and his classroom can be in New Zealand," Summa said. "We can connect any two points around the world."

Summa said one student used a robot so fully that it joined the boy's classmates to sing a song at a school show. He said a child in the audience asked, "What's that thing up on stage?" to which a friend of the student replied, "That's no thing. That's Jimmy."

Whilst the system is less than perfect (at $70,000 usd for a pair, the PEEBLES robots are a bit beyond most school budgets), it does highlight a solution, to forced home schooling. Once this sort of technology is cheap enough, to be in more widespread usage, it also is a great tool for dealing with excluded pupils - just switch the speakers off on the robot, and disable the wheel motors. They have no excuse for not participating, but cannot disrupt the class any longer.

Other, cheaper solutions already exist, in the form of a PC in each classroom, with a webcam, dedicated to use by absent students. The problem there of course, is the students have little means of signalling (in the form of raising a hand), and classroom PCs are more easily disabled by other students, than a robot is.

Certainly, it opens up the possibility, however remote currently, that a prestigious school or college could find itself accepting many more students from remote locations, who cannot physically move to the school location, for one reason or another.



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