Earlier this year, 11-year-old Cloe Gray spent months at home from her Maryland elementary school after having surgery. But she still took part in her fifth-grade class, strolled the halls with her best friend, and joined her classmates at the school cafeteria.
She did it by using a telepresence robot, an internet-enabled videoconferencing machine on wheels that looks like a tablet attached to a Segway.
“She was able to participate in class,” says her mother, Tiffany Gray. “She’d raise the robot up to be able to raise her hand. She participated in group sessions, reading activities.”
Before the machine from the Burlingame, Calif., startup Double Robotics entered her life, Cloe worked on her schoolwork at home and was visited a few times a week by a traveling teacher.
“I felt like she was starting to fall behind,” Cloe’s mother says. “She wasn’t looking forward to getting out of bed or getting motivated. But once we got the Double robot she was more excited to get up and get ready—just like a normal day for her.”
Thanks to the robot, which Cloe used from January through April before physically returning to school, she was able to get back into her ordinary routine. Each day, she’d log in to the Double server and steer her robot from its overnight berth in a guidance counselor’s office to her classroom. Teachers sent written work home with her brother so she could follow along with her classmates. When the class left the room for “specials” like art or music, or for the lunchroom, a friend would help make sure the robot got where it needed to go. And when the fifth graders went to recess, Cloe would steer the bot back to its docking station for a quick charge.
“A large part of her recovery was just being around her friends,” Tiffany Gray says.
Cloe was the first elementary school student in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County school system to use a telepresence robot, but other students in the district have used them as well. Double estimates that there are about 300 of its devices in use in schools around the world, and another robot-maker, the Cambridge, Mass.-based VGo, has delivered approximately 800 of its own telepresence bots to schools. These machines enable homebound students to attend school while recovering from illness or surgery, or when dealing with immune disorders that make it unsafe for them to be with large groups of people.
“They can do all the things that in classroom students can do, like break off in small groups, look at each other,” says David Cann, cofounder and CEO of Double Robotics.
When the company was founded, Cann says it focused on the better known workplace applications of the devices, which enabled remote employees to participate in meetings and watercooler discussions. (Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower in exile in Russia, also uses a telepresence bot to give lectures and attend events around the world).
People began asking about using the machines in the classroom, Cann says. (The devices cost about $3,000, with a small discount available to people who use them for educational purposes.) He and his colleagues initially didn’t know how the robots would fare, but Double Robotics has found that after the initial novelty wears off, the machines and the students who use them usually fit into schools quite well.
“Actually, we find that in schools, the kids get used to it faster than employees and adults do at companies,” he says.
The machines, usually paid for either with funding for students with special needs or from grants and donations, allow students who might otherwise be socially isolated to stay in touch and even make eye contact with classmates and teachers. That helps keep their spirits up and helps them stay motivated academically, according to Judy Olson, a professor at the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. Olson is the coauthor of a paper on telepresence robots in education that was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s recent annual conference on human-computer interaction.
“There was a little boy who had a heart condition, and when the mother heard about the opportunity for a telepresence robot, she was excited about it but said, ‘I don’t think he has the energy for it,'” Olson says. “But when he got the telepresence robot, the very first day he was on it for 6 hours.”
The student even tried out for his school’s choir and was able to sing along with the group, thanks to the speakers and microphone on the machine. “He’s got a voice, he can hear, it’s all real-time,” Olson says.
And while adults sometimes worry that the robot-linked students might be bullied or teased by their classmates, that’s generally just not the case, says Ned Semonite, VP of products at VGo.
“The student who is on the robot is really sort of the rockstar in the school,” he says. “Everybody wants to be friends with the kid in the robot.”
But the spotlight isn’t for everyone. Some students who try the robots end up returning them, uncomfortable with the attention from classmates. And some teachers have raised questions about having cameras and microphones effectively monitoring everything that happens in the classroom, concerned about student privacy or about parents monitoring their teaching.
“There needs to be just a clarification of expectations,” says Veronica Newhart, a grad student at UC Irvine’s School of Education and the other coauthor of the recent paper.
Robot manufacturers can also help ensure privacy: VGo’s robots can be configured to only activate at certain times of day, so students can’t use them to roam the halls at night, says Semonite. And Double has allowed schools to disable features that let the robots snap and save photos of their surroundings.
Internet connectivity can also sometimes be an issue for the robots. Tiffany Gray says Cloe was occasionally unable to attend class due to school Wi-Fi issues, and Olson says she’s recommended that schools consider mounting cellular hotspots on the devices, which can also help them on excursions outside of school.
“They even go on field trips,” she says. “They are restricted in field trips right now to places that have Wi-Fi.”
But within school, students with robots are largely able to participate in activities alongside their classmates. One student Newhart encountered rolls her robot to an after-school robotics club, working on her own creation from home or collaborating with classmates to design a group bot. And some students dress up their robots, adorning them with a distinctive T-shirt or accessories.
“I just interviewed the family of a first grader, and they did not dress up her robot, but her classmates dressed it up for her,” Newhart says. “Every semester they re-dress it up.”