Pushing the boundaries

Jennifer Davis

THE WASHINGTON POST – It has been a year full of the unexpected for families who have had to quickly adjust to masks, quarantines and virtual and hybrid learning, all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. For Eliza Engel and her son Thomas McKnight, one of the surprises 2020 brought is that the sixth-grader at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia, now attends class with the help of a robot.

“It is really, truly amazing, because it looks like something out of Star Wars, really,” Thomas said. “It is like techno wizardry.”

A robot is also helping Amy Kleine’s seven-year-old son Zach stay connected to teachers and other students at St Rose School in Longview, Washington, while he attends remotely to minimise the virus risk to his family members.

“At this point, he has been away from the public for the majority of eight months now,” Kleine said. “He has not spent time with many kids, other than his cousins and a few friends here and there. So it is really important for me to continue to gauge his happiness. As a mum, I see this robot as a game-changer in terms of social interaction. It changes everything for the better.”

Zach uses a robot called a Swivl; Thomas uses one called an Owl. Both are types of telepresence robots or smart videoconferencing computers with microphones and speakers attached. Some sit on desks. Others stand in the classroom or even roll around. This technology has become increasingly popular in K-12 classrooms during the pandemic thanks to hybrid or blended learning models, where some students are in the classroom while others watch from home. The big difference between a robot and a conventional camera is that the robot follows action and sound – spinning as much as 360 degrees, so students at home can see more than a static shot of the classroom.

A teacher uses a telepresence robot during class at the Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia.

“We found that it is much more engaging than a standard camera,” says Joe Peacock, director of technology at Burgundy Farm, which invested in the equipment for the first time this summer and now has Owls in 11 classrooms. “It feels more natural. It is like you are sitting in the classroom and turning your head to hear who is talking.”

“The kids in class interact very naturally with the children at home, and I do think the kids at home appreciate it,” he said. “It helps them connect and feel more like they are there.”

Parents notice the difference and appreciate it, too. Kleine said without this technology, she does not think virtual school would have been sustainable for her second-grader.

“I probably would have had to consider putting him back in person despite our covid-19 concerns if we did not have this device, because the longer your child sits there staring at a screen showing a whiteboard with no interaction, the bigger the social impact becomes,” Kleine said. “The Swivl has given him a 10-fold ability to interact more with the classroom. He feels like he is in there, rather than just watching it. He gets to see the other kids and what they are doing.”

There are several telepresence robots on the market. Pre-pandemic, they were most commonly used in higher education and for teacher training. But manufacturers of these devices said starting in June, sales to K-12 schools skyrocketed. Owl Labs spokeswoman Kristin Celano said the company has seen a 13,000 per cent increase in usage of its device by K-12 education customers since the onset of the pandemic. Another manufacturer – Xandex – said there have been post-coronavirus months where sales of its Kubi are up 100 per cent over the same time last year, and on average, it has seen over 50 per cent growth as a result of the pandemic.

The robots move in a variety of ways. Some come with tracking devices that teachers wear around their neck or leave in parts of the classroom, so the robot knows which direction to point its camera. Others follow the loudest sounds in the room. And the Kubi is controlled by students at home through a widget downloaded to a device such as an iPad or laptop. That is what Pari Nanavaty, a junior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, Virginia, now uses for one of her classes.

“I have the ability to adjust my view so I can see the board and what’s happening a lot better,” she said. “I do not have to ask people what is going on; I just move the camera. Now I feel more involved.”

Pari is the only student using the Kubi in her class; the manufacturer said that is ideal to avoid a battle for control of the device, but it said that with planning, the device can be shared among students and also works well when shared among cohorts attending class on different days.

As strange as it sounds, parents said over time, they discovered that the robots are also actually decreasing the feelings of isolation and remoteness their children feel. “It is more immersive. He’s been raving about it. It makes him happy,” Engel said of her son. “The teacher sometimes lets him stay on during break time to talk with friends. It is not the full experience of being there, but it is definitely a lot better than a normal camera.”