Over the past year and a half I have been working with telepresence robots at my school. In that time, I have made some discoveries, that I think are important to keep in mind if others want to start a similar project. All in all, the technology is very simple to use, yet there are some considerations and extra purchases to be made, if you want to make sure that it will be a good and usefull experience for the user.
I have listed some points that are worth paying attention to, if you want to invest in a telepresence robot for teaching purposes. I wont go into details, but if you want to hear more about my experiences and adaptations of the robot, please feel free to contact me.
Choose the right equipment
First of all, you need to decide which robot you want to use. When we started the project, I had several different robots for testing and chose to purchase the Beam robot from Suitable Technologies. Mostly because it was the one that had the best sound / image quality, but also was the most stable one, which is important when the robot is going to be used at a school with many obstacles and a lot of children.
Furthermore you have to consider, whether you need a model with wheels on it, or if you just need a model, where the screen can be rotated, but without the possibility to steer it around the classroom. This type of telepresence robot is manufactured by the Norwegian company No Isolation, and the robot is called AV1.
My personal recommendation is to go for the models with full mobility, because it’s all about the freedom and independence given to the user, compared to simply using a regular Skype connection.
Mobile broadband – a necessary investment
Before you start using a telepresencerobot, you have to make sure that the infrastructure at the place, where the robot is located, is in order. Is the wifi signal strong enough, or are there places with no wifi signal at all. Furthermore it’s important that you can access the internet without a captive portal, because there is no built-in browser in the robot. If the infrastructure is not ok, then there is a great risk that the project will fail, due to a bad user experience on the robot, because it will affect the image and sound quality.
To avoid these issues, you may consider purchasing a wireless broadband router and mount it on the robot, so the robot always has it’s own network, wherever it goes.
By creating a unique network for the robot, we also give the user the possibility to be a part of all the activities that take place outside at the playground, on field trips and so on, and therefore we give the user the ultimate freedom to be part of whatever he or she wants to.
Without a mobile router the robot is limited to indoor use, because it depends on the wifi inside the building.
The student’s personal classroom
When a student uses the robot, he typically sits in front of a computer or an iPad. Therefore the setup would be, that he uses the integrated webcam and built-in microphone on the device he uses. This solution may work well, but I would recommend investing in some kind of headset with a built-in microphone, because the sound is significantly better.
In addition, I also think you must keep in mind that when the student is using the robot, that is located at school, it’s his personal classroom that the parents should respect. Under normal circumstances our children want to be alone with their friends, and prefer not to be disturbed by the parents.
I think that it’s important that the same rules apply to being social through the robot.
Blackboards and interactive whiteboards, a great challenge
One of the biggest challenges with BEAM and other telepresence robots is that the camera has a hard time reproducing what the teacher writes on the board, regardless of whether it’s the traditional blackboard or an interactive whiteboard.
The main problem is, that the teacher’s writing is too small for the robot’s camera to detect, and therefore it’s very difficult for the student at home, to read the words that are written on the board. However, the simpel solution to this problem is, to give the student at home an extra computer on which he has access to the program that the teacher uses for writing on the whiteboard.
For instant by using an online document like Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 or a program like Teamviewer, where the student can see everything that is produces on the teachers computer attached to the interactive whiteboard.
This way, the student can see the teachers notes on his own screen, instead of keeping track through the robot’s camera.
Spectator or participant
Telepresence robots give us the opportunity to be present without leavin the comofrt of our home, and that is absolutely fantastic and offers completely new possibilities for being social.
However, the challenge in an educational context is that it ‘s difficult to be active in class, when you’re not physically present. One thing is that the student can talk to his classmates and the teacher, and see what’s going on in class, and vice versa. But how do we activate the student, so he is able to write on the interactive whiteboard or solve his assighments along with his classmates.
It all comes down to thinking out of the box, to find a solution that is customized for each student, that uses the robot. At my school we have managed to establish a solution, where the student can sit at home and write on the computer, while the students in the classroom immediately can see what what he has written. This solution opens up for unprecedented opportunities for interaction and collaboration, and can even be used to enable students to play board games through the interactive whiteboard in class.
This way the robot enables the possibility for engaging the student in a whole new way, and personally I think we must strive for the student to have the same terms as the rest of the class, even if he is not physically present.
It’s about the mindset
After one and a half year of running this project, I can conclude that the biggest challenges are not the ones that has to do with technology itself, but on the contrary it has to do with peoples’ mindset.
Often when I open a dialogue about the use of BEAM with a colleague, a parent of a possible user of the robot, I often feel like I’m beating my head against the wall. Everybody can see how amazing the technology is, but at the same time, the same people are afraid of embracing the technology. I often hear arguments like “we can not introduce him to the robot, because then he would rather sit at home instead of going to school” or “this student is not sick enough, to use the robot instead of being psysically in schoolI”.
I fully recognize this skepticism, and it is important to be critical of new technology, but to rule out the robot in advance, that is not justified. I think it all has to do with peoples’ fear of the new and unknown, and I imagine that the same scenario took place in the late 1800s when the phone was invented. At that time people were probably worried that the phone would keep people from visiting each other.
It is important to keep in mind that telepresence robots never can or should replace the human, physical presence and contact. Instead the technology should be seen as an extremely useful alternative, where physical presence is not possible.
For the students I’ve encountered in my project, they all have one thing in common, they all have a giant wish to be psysically in school with the rest of the class. Unfortunately, in periods of their lives, it has just not been possible … And in that period, our telepresence robot has made a world of difference.
Perspectives – who can benefit from telepresence robots?
At my school, most of the time our robot has been used by a 12-year-old boy who, due to a genetic mutation, hasn’t been able to go to school due to infection hazard. In this case, the robot has made a huge difference in the boy’s life because there simply have not been any other possibilities for social contact.
But there are many other students who could benefit from the robot, it just requires that the teacher can see the possibilities and benefits.
At my school, I’ve just put the finishing touches on a project plan for how to use our BEAM for students, that suffer from anxiety and school refusal. In this case the robot has a huge potential, because it can be adapted to the individual student’s mental state and needs.
For example, the robot can be used for transition to new unknown situations for the students.
One time, we used the robot in a situation, where a student wanted to be able to buy lunch in the cafeteria at school, just like the others. Because of her anxiety, she was afraid of what happened in the cafeteria during lunch hour, so we instead we placed the robot in the cafeteria. To make sure that the student felt safe, we covered the camera and microphone on the student’s computer so the others couldn’t see or hear her, but she could see and hear them. This way, the student got a realistic picture of the atmosphere in the cafeteria, and that brought her one step closer to buying lunch with her friends.
Another way to use BEAM could be for the students who suffer from anxiety or ADHD, but are in school, in their own room together with an adult support. By using the robot the student will be able to participate in some activities with his classmates, and when it all gets to much, he can just turn off the robot.
This way the student is in a safe place and furthermore he doesn’t disturb the others, for instance if he has a behavioral disorder.
It is important for me to emphasize that the robot doesn’t “cure” the students. Therefore, it is necessary, that a pedagogical plan is made, in order to make sure that sooner or later, the student will be able to attend class again under normal conditions.