We are, of course, talking about beneficent robots. And, to be completely accurate, we’re only talking about one robot when it comes to classes in the Lawrence Township Public Schools. A program called Reggie’s Robots will allow one student in the district to attend classes from home while she recovers from a medical issue that’s been keeping her out of the classroom.
The name of the student, her grade, and her condition are not public. But district Superintendent Dave Adam does acknowledge that there is one student who has been and will continue to be out for a while. And that in her stead, a friendly robot will make its way to class for her, enabling the student to attend class virtually, as it happens.
“Yes, the robot actually shows up,” Adam said.
The robot is a 4-foot motorized platform called “VGo.” It’s the same technology used in materials handling in business settings and patient engagement solutions in healthcare settings, according to the VGo Robotic Telepresence website. The unit features a camera, microphone, and video display. Think of it as a mobile interactive video conferencing platform, only way cooler because, you know, it’s a robot.
Steven Prentiss, the district’s IT supervisor, said the VGo is remotely piloted by the student, who controls it through an iPad given her by the district.
She’s coming along nicely with it, he said, even though “it takes a little getting used to. She can see the class on the tablet.”
‘It’s an opportunity to connect with her peers and her teachers. It’s a much stronger connection to the school community.’
The VGo itself has a screen and a camera that allows the teacher and students to see her in return. The robot is also equipped with a flashing light that acts as the student’s way of raising her hand. According to the VGo Robotics website, it works like this:
“Using a computer and mouse, the student is able to “drive” the robot to school assemblies as well as to each of his classes. In class, the student will be able to actively participate in lessons, discussions and group work. This allows the student to develop strong teacher and peer relationships, stay socially connected, boost morale providing tangible health benefits, and receive quality instruction without falling behind on coursework.”
The idea is to allow students recovering from long-term illness or injury to be home bound but still present in the classroom. It also lets her virtually attend other activities, like pep rallies. This way, Adam said, the student won’t just get the academic exercises, she will actually get the experience of being in school, among her friends, staying in touch in real time.
“It’s an opportunity to connect with her peers and her teachers,” Adam said. And though it’s in some ways a form of distance learning, the interactivity with the live class is a step above. “It’s a much stronger connection to the school community.”
Adams said the district learned about the VGo when Kaitlin Murtaugh called the district with the idea. Murtaugh is the education coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. She also works with the Valerie Fund., which helps children with cancers and blood disorders find ways back into everyday life, especially through technology.
Adam said Murtaugh called Michele D’Angelo, a member of the district’s child study team, to let her
know that the Valerie Fund would sponsor the robot coming to Lawrence, if the district was interested. It being a robot—especially one of no cost to the district—had everyone jumping at the idea, Adams said .
“We were very excited for the opportunity,” he said.
The VGo was delivered to the school in November. Setting it up, said Prentiss, was actually a lot smoother than he’d anticipated – but then again, he said, it’s meant to be usable by children, so it wasn’t that complicated.
“We had it up and running in an hour,” he said.
The student should be set for virtual attendance in school this upcoming semester. In the meantime, the VGo has already made its initial showing at the school.
“We told the families that the robot was on its way,” Adam said. District staff wanted the teachers and students to get used to the idea of a robot wheeling around through the halls before it was ready for prime time.
The first reaction by the students meeting VGo?
“Fascination,” Prentiss said. “But very quickly they accepted it.”
The VGo has been rolling around the school while everyone works the bugs out, Adams said. While the teachers were all on-board with the idea, he said it does take a moment to get used to. But the teachers, like the kids, moved quickly from fascination to recognizing the robot as just another member of the student body.
Of course, it’s easier to do that when you remember that it’s not just a robot buzzing into classrooms, there’s a real person, a real fellow classmate on the other end of the controls guiding VGo where to go.
Adam said one of the district’s guidance counselors, Marjorie Corbin, was instrumental in getting the VGo into the district as well. He said she was excited about the possibilities and summed up what a robot built as a two-way vehicle for interconnectivity really meant for Lawrence school.
“She said, ‘This can be invaluable,’” Adam said.