A Robot-powered Field Trip Brings Vermont Middle Schoolers to New Perspectives
ATPN Editor Eliza Anderson takes Vermont students to Georgia Tools for Life with VGo
Telepresence robots have arrived! Once deployed for situation comedy, today they’re emerging in schools and workplaces across the U.S., providing users miles away an embodied physical presence, and expanding our notion of Access and Inclusion. Telepresence robots look like the offspring of an iPad and a Segway and are often described as "Skype on Wheels.” Yet they allow far more than the typical videoconference: robo-commuters navigate remote locations, accompany peers, and attract attention; they participate with greater independence and some say, even equality.
In 2015, ATPN attended a presentation by Georgia Tools for Life (GATFL) that discussed the telepresence robots in their assistive technology (AT) demonstration and loan programs. The robots are available for short-term loan as well as used in-house by GATFL Training and Outreach Coordinator Liz Persaud. During the presentation, Liz explained how she robo-commutes when she works from her home office and during some recent hospital stays. With the VGo she cruises the lab and talks with colleagues and clients, and with the Kubi she pivots on a desk to participate face-to-face in staff meetings. GATFL emphasized that anyone is welcome to visit their AT center using a robot in this way.
My hand shot up, "Even my son's rural Vermont classroom?"
A field trip for Westford School
Telepresence robots typically bring students who are home for health reasons back into their classrooms. They also allow teachers with special expertise access to remote rural schools. What I had in mind was a little different: use the robot to carry the class.
At the time, my son was a 6th grader in a K-8 on a dirt road with under 200 children. Field trips took place once or twice each year; there was the trip to a solar farm, the trip to the Shelburne Museum, trips to the theater in Burlington. Westford has little diversity although 24% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. A robot-powered field trip sounded not only fun, but also like a tremendous opportunity: a way to leave Vermont altogether and reframe disability with high-technology… in the eyes of middle schoolers who are, after all, already obsessed with technology.
Georgia Tools for Life was delighted to host
A few weeks later, GATFL’s Liz Persaud and Martha Rust worked with me to figure out how to bring Westford’s 5th and 6th graders to Georgia using the VGo robot. I explained the class tie-ins: students were studying a unit on space robotics; why not examine one way robotics are used here on earth? A classmate who is visually impaired uses AT; why not invite her to talk about her tools and what she is learning to do?
Liz and Martha explained how the VGo is operated with either desktop software or an iPad app by a driver in a remote location. Drivers see where they are going through the VGo’s camera while the robot displays the face of the driver as they navigate. At Westford School, our plan was to use the classroom Smartboard so everyone could see, no matter who was driving. GATFL and Westford School technology staff helped troubleshoot the hardware and software necessary to try and make that happen. Unfortunately, however, we had to confront the realities of a rural public school’s infrastructure.
Everything goes wrong and right
Indeed, Westford’s Robot Day field trip was a great success, but not because of seamlessly working technology. Predictably, the school's Wi-Fi capacity was not strong enough for smooth video streaming and the teacher’s desktop PC was incompatible with VGo’s software. In addition the external speaker we planned to use failed, and the resolution on the classroom Smartboard was too poor for robot navigation. In the end, two students did drive the VGo using an iPad. But Robot Day’s success came less from the robot, and much more from talking with AT users about their AT!
Timeka Giroux, Westford 6th grader, kicks off the day
Virtual field trips are highly visual experiences and Robot Day might have sidelined Timeka Giroux. But Timeka, who uses a range of AT because of a visual impairment, welcomed the opportunity to present her assistive technology to her classmates and generally take a central role. Timeka kicked off our day standing at the front of the class to talk about her Apex BrailleNote and other tools. She explained how she uses the refreshable braille display to access the Internet, how she reads and writes her emails and papers, and how she prints out her work in braille independently.
Timeka’s presentation, and the questions and answers that followed, introduced the concept of assistive technology and led to a discussion of Universal Design and the mission of Tools for Life. We considered how technologies first created for persons with disabilities are now common on smartphones and other devices familiar to students: from environmental control and text-to-speech to voice recognition and word prediction. People with disabilities, I explained, had used these technologies years ahead of typical consumers, individuals such as Liz Persaud at Georgia Tools for Life, one of the highest-tech people I know.
Liz Persaud quiets the room
Since the Smartboard was too dark, we greeted Liz through the iPad which I held awkwardly in front of the class. Looking back, if I’d known we’d rely on an iPad screen and speaker for use with more than 30 middle schoolers, likely I’d have cancelled the day. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t know.
Liz appeared seated in her power wheelchair and to our astonishment, the room grew suddenly quiet. For classroom teacher Kurt Sherman this had been a primary concern. It was also a concern that his students behave well. Earlier in the week, when he’d first met Liz on his desktop monitor, he’d appeared caught off guard. He hoped his students would be appropriate, he said, and wouldn't offend, but kids were kids and he could make no guarantees. Liz assured him of her ease with school children and her years of experience speaking to a range of audiences on disability issues. Later I emphasized to Kurt: this is an amazing opportunity for this classroom.
Now here they were, Westford’s rambunctious unfiltered tweens, attentive and respectful, asking direct questions and receiving direct answers. Liz explained the work she does at Tools for Life exploring technology solutions for and with persons with disabilities, and she introduced us to her colleagues Martha Rust, Rachel Wilson and Ben Jacobs. One classmate asked why she uses a wheelchair and she explained about her disability and her neuromuscular condition. On the Smartboard we watched a video about the VGo and then Timeka pulled names printed in braille from a cup to announce who would get to drive.
Sebastian and Lydia each took turns using the VGo app, navigating with Liz on the other side guiding them across the room. Their classmates gathered around. Each discovered that driving the robot for the first time is challenging. It’s easy to swing to one side and then the other as you get a feel for dragging a bright dot across the iPad’s screen.
Liz was sympathetic. She explained that when she drives the VGo she uses her wheelchair's joystick. She explained that her wheelchair’s joystick is equipped with a switch that toggles between controlling the chair and working as a pointing device on her computer.
Questions turned to Liz about her power chair. Our Internet connection cut out and still the class waited, attentive. Eventually her point came through: because of her power chair, operating the VGo is native to Liz. She drives with a joystick every day. Her abilities are skilled and different from theirs.
As I had told them, Liz is one of the highest-tech people I know.
- AT apps are not always compatible with the latest Apple OS. Both Vermont and Georgia’s AT Act programs maintain some iPads running older OS for this reason. To use the VGo app we borrowed an iPad from the Vermont AT Program.
- Technology is a way to get kids comfortable talking about disability.
- Take risks, raise the bar of expectation, compelling classroom content makes all the difference.
From Westford students:
“I was surprised at how flexible the VGo was when it came to movement. I was also surprised, kind of, at the advances we have in technology. I found Timeka's braille presentation cool and informative. I could get used to a life with a VGo, staying at home while being at school.”
“I really enjoyed the presentation on the vGos and I learned that technology isn't only socializing and stuff but it can also help you in your daily life.”
“I learned that they make high-tech wheelchair.”
“I thought that the most important thing is that the people that need help can get the help with the V GO and not miss out in anything in life”
From Kurt Sherman:
“To say that our cyber-outing was a success for the kids of 5/6 grades today would be an understatement. In spite of the technology challenged our way, the obvious importance of examining assisted technology with VGo brought new insights to rural schoolchildren. I was particularly impressed with the students' desire to have an extended dialogue with the representatives contacted. Driving the VGo device was simply the icing on the cake. Becoming better citizens of a larger learning world was the more important agenda for the kids.”
From Elaine Morse, mom to a 5th grader:
“Robbie came home and got to work designing a car for blind people.”
Interested in touring Georgia Tools for Life with their VGo? Email Liz.Persaud@gatfl.gatech.edu
A Robot for McKenna
You've probably seen a telepresence robot marketing video; the face of a student or business professional zipping neatly around a school or workspace, their perfect HD image on display smiling beatifically, smartly engaged with colleagues or buddies. You may have seen a news story featuring the use of a robot at a museum or hospital or during a Ted Talk. Marketing videos tantalize us with technology and help envision a futuristic world. News stories raise awareness about new technology applications and center on inclusion and participation. After all, the technology is still emerging; the results are not yet in.
But then comes the story of McKenna Smith….
Last year the Nixa Missouri School District made a different sort of robot video. It features McKenna Smith, a high school student, her teacher, Jennifer Robinett, and a Double 2 robot borrowed from the Missouri Assistive Technology (MoAT) program. What makes this video different is its clear message of academic and social gains made through the use of telepresence robot technology, gains achieved in a remarkably short period of time.
McKenna moved to the Nixa District for high school. As a result of complications from a genetic condition, she has not attended classes since 6th grade. In the video we see McKenna's classroom presence; she is glowing from the tablet mounted to the Double 2, rolling herself front and center so she can clearly see the white board and also get the attention of her teacher. Robinett exudes, "It's just like any other student sitting in class. You see her there. I respond to her. She responds to the class just like anyone else. She pairs up with kids..."
McKenna emphasizes, "That's one of the things I really like. I can actually make friends and not just be, like, captive in my room."
Academic gains on top of social integration
The district heard about the robot at a Special Education Administrators Conference where MoAT staffed a booth that included their Double 2. The robot was new to Missouri's short-term device loan program and they were looking to generate interest. Karen McKnight, Nixa District's Director of Special Services, took it for a test drive and thought of McKenna right away. A short-term device loan was soon arranged.
In the video McKenna explains the difference she's experienced between traditional online learning and her new robo-commute: "When you are doing school online you don't talk to people. […. ] This, actually, is like I'm almost in the classroom."
McKenna's teacher underscores the impact: "I've seen her blossom mathematically. When she was doing [a conventional] homebound [accommodation] at the beginning of the year, she didn't know how to finish the concepts. This way she can just ask direct questions and the teacher is right there."
The video went viral. John Effinger, Program Coordinator with MoAT, says It caught fire with educators and eventually led to a local news story about McKenna and the robot. It's easy to see why.
"We're on our fourth week of trying out the Double robot in the classroom," Karen McKnight explains later in the video. 4 weeks! McKenna has soared with this technology in just the course of a short-term device loan.
Device loans linked to funding for purchase
The video's popularity led to monthly calls to the MoAT from schools interested in test driving the Double 2. Interest is due, of course, to McKenna's success; most inquiries are for students who, like McKenna, are studying at home for health reasons.
But enthusiasm may also be aided by the availability of a unique AT Reimbursement grant program (ATR) the MO Dept. of Education administers through MoAT. Indeed, it's likely that public schools in Missouri are less inhibited to consider unique high-technology solutions for their students with special needs because of the support they can receive for both trialing and funding devices.
The grant program reimburses school districts for devices that cost between $500 and $5000 so long as the device is successfully trialed with the student and is listed in the student's Individual Education Plan (IEP). MoAT can advise the schools on technology solutions for specific learners and help them set up a trial through the short-term device loan program. "It's a really good program in terms of helping the school determine what's going to work best for the student and then actually helping with the purchasing," says Marty Exline, MoAT Director (at the time).
The video was originally made for presentation to the Nixa District School Board in order to justify the expense of purchasing a Double 2 robot and to explain the availability of AT Reimbursement. The message was received. With support of the school board, the Nixa District purchased their own Double, funding the device up front (a cost of about $2,500) and subsequently receiving full reimbursement through an ATR grant. Last year, Exline says, the ATR grant program received 287 applications from 85 districts. This was, however, the only request to purchase a robot (most devices funded are for vision or augmentative and alternative communication).
Like any other student…
In the local news story produced by KY3, McKenna says she looks forward to driving the Double 2 in more classes, now that the District has their own equipment. The device trial was limited to math, but McKenna will soon join her classmates throughout the building. Her teachers, no doubt, look forward to similar academic advantages.
"McKenna's a really super, super bright kid," observes Effinger. "But if you look at the [school's] video there are a couple of times she looks really bored. What that video taught me was that even kids driving a robot can get bored listening to a math teacher! But this isn't audio like a webinar, this is different. The teacher can see her face, interact with her, tease her about being bored. Just like any kid in the classroom."
The Nitty Gritty on Robot Device Loans:
Explore more telepresence robot videos from around the U.S. at this Double Robotics webpage.
- Telepresence robot trials require significant technical assistance to set up and support effectively, more support than the MoAT could sustain. The MoAT eventually arranged with the Double company to directly provide the robot trials and technical assistance with schools.
- The robots are used primarily within individual classrooms. Traveling down hallways and broadly within school buildings looks good on marketing videos, but the reality is few schools have a WiFi connection powerful enough for this kind of seamless range.
- The Double is very lightweight with an internal gyro that will right itself if knocked over. Effinger says if someone picks it up off the ground “the gyro inside kind of goes nuts,” as it works to figure out how to balance itself, and once replaced on the floor it will rocket forward. “We had to put a note on the one in the high school for people not to touch it." In general, however, he heard few negative reports about trouble with the robot in the school.
- The Double mounts a user-supplied iPad. The better the iPad’s camera, the better the user's experience.
- The MoAT demos their robot onsite and at conferences and expos. Anyone is welcome to test drive their robot remotely from home; it requires just a username and password for use with a compatible home device with a webcam.
Farewell ATPN, Hello
AT3 Center News and Tips!
With only a little sadness I report this is the last edition of AT Program News in its current incarnation. The federal technical assistance grant serving the national field of Assistive Technology Act programs has now transitioned to the new AT3 Center, an initiative of the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP). AT Program News is closing and AT3 Center News and Tips is born!
Thank you, subscribers, for your years of readership and stay tuned for the new format! Current subscribers will seamlessly make this transition and receive a monthly AT3 e-newsletter in their inboxes. New subscribers will soon be able to sign up at AT3Center.net where each article will be posted.
AT3 News and Tips you can look forward to:
Thanks to everyone who completed the recent survey on your content interests. And thank you for all your enthusiasm for sharing ideas and resources that nourish this field dedicated to enhancing the lives of individuals with disabilities, seniors and their families. It continues to be such a pleasure to work with this community.
- Articles highlighting AT program best practices, innovations, development strategies and thought leaders.
- AT policy updates
- AT success stories from state programs
- Tech Spotlights from state programs
- AT tips for employment and community living/aging-in-place
- Shareable program resources
- Links to free upcoming and archived AT webinars compiled from around the web (thank you ATCoalition!)
Eliza Anderson, AT3 News and Tips Editor