How robots can help chronically ill students to attend school

Among today’s challenges for the educational system there is the integration of those students who still cannot attend school because of their serious chronic illnesses. Robot technology is the powerful option to finally make it possible.

A revolutionary opportunity to win the challenge

Today’s educational system serves students with many medical issues such as Down syndrome, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and Dyslexia, but there is one group of children and young people who still cannot attend school. They are the homebound students who suffer from serious chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease or immune system disorders.
The telepresence robots allow these students to be finally included in the daily activities at school. Thanks to this technology, students can see, hear, move around and interact in real time from their homes, with people in faraway places.
The homebound child operates the robot from home, setting a rolling camera-speaker-screen in motion. Thanks to the telepresence robots, a student with chronic illnesses can:

  • travel from classroom to classroom;
  • interact and get involved in small group discussions;
  • join their friends during lunch breaks;
  • attend extracurricular activities (such as Literature and Poetry clubs, Choir, Boy Scouts, Trivia and Quiz clubs).

Telepresence robots offer homebound and hospitalized students a revolutionary opportunity to overcome barriers and isolation, finally living the traditional school learning environment.

How does a telepresence robot operate?

Thanks to telepresence robots, students are able to see and be seen, participate in discussions and interact with their friends and teachers. But how does this Internet-enabled technology work? Let’s understand it thanks to the paper “Virtual Inclusion via Telepresence Robots in the Classroom: An Exploratory Case Study”, by Veronica A. Newhart, Mark Warschauer and Leonard S. Sender, (University of California Irvine, USA).

Telepresence robots are two-way video streaming automatons equipped with wheels for feet and a screen showing the student’s face at the top of a vertical “body”.
The user can control his own telepresence robot from home (or hospital) simply using a laptop: he can move around, ha can see and hear everything in the classroom, he can interact with classmates and professional staff, and he can even raise his hand to ask or answer questions via flashing lights!
The unit must be recharged every night and it provides a two-way, secure, real-time connection that lasts most of the school day.
The telepresence robot is not a traditional video conferencing (or telepresence) solution where two or more people meet using specially equipped rooms or devices. In the school environment, a telepresence robot improves virtual inclusion by enabling the homebound students to be in virtual attendance in a distant location, giving them the freedom to move around as if they were physically in the classroom.

The benefits and the importance of anthropomorphism

In the study by the University of California Irvine, one of the most important aspects for the acceptance of a telepresence robot in the classroom is the level of anthropomorphism of the device. During the exploratory case study, in fact, social attachment to classmates and a sense of normalcy seemed to be related to this.
Talking about benefits, the telepresence robots seem to provide them not only for homebound or hospitalized children and young people but also for their classmates. Students don’t have to wonder what happened to their classmate or experience his long absence as a disappearance.
Last but not least, all students – and their teachers – get involved into an experience with an example of innovative robotic technology, learning more about it and becoming more confident with this kind of “futuristic” solutions.

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