The full implementation went off without a hitch.

“The process went very well because the teachers he had were excellent teachers,” Malone said. “That’s one thing Old Mill has a reputation for–I’ve worked with some of his teachers and they were right on board with it. They didn’t have to modify things too much.”

Peter’s friends also helped ensure the robot’s success. For instance, using the elevator in the older school building caused the robot to lose wireless connectivity, so one of Peter’s friends carried the robot up the steps to maintain its connection.

The infrastructure to support the robot already existed, Malone said. AACPS was already working to upgrade its infrastructure, and by the time Peter began using the robot, all of the district’s high schools were on a fiber optic network with 10 gig speed into each school.

“We tested the infrastructure and wireless with the elementary school student who used a robot for the middle school math class,” Malone said. “Network security was tested to ensure that security measures from Double Robotics were compatible with the district’s own measures. As far as Peter going through the hallways, there really wasn’t ever an issue–the robot can run on as little as an LTE signal. We had it fully connected to the wireless network. With any wireless technology, unless you have wireless boosters and transmitters everywhere, there will be some dead spots, particularly in a building constructed in the 1970s with more cinderblock than you can imagine.”

“We really want to thank AACPS,” Kathleen said. “This made a huge difference–Peter will graduate on time. And sometimes, certain courses weren’t available online, and this way, Peter was able to keep up with certain Advanced Placement and Honors courses.”

Supporting students’ social needs

Peter’s mother said the robot did wonders for Peter’s desire to see his friends.

“It was so cool using it,” Peter said. “Even more, I was just looking forward to being back in class with my friends and having social interaction while still being in the protected environment of my home. At the time, because I had just received a bone marrow transplant, I had the immune system of a newborn baby. I could see maybe one friend at a time and I couldn’t go into big crowds.”

“Peter is a very social kid, and one of the problems we had due to his illness, which was over roughly a 3-year period, was that he felt, and was, isolated. With Marvin, that changed,” Jauschnegg said. “The kids and the teachers started to see Marvin as just Peter. They forgot about the robot and just interacted with Peter. It was amazing, because he enjoyed going to school. When he was enrolled in online learning, it wasn’t quite the same experience.”

“Two or three weeks into it, Kathleen told me that since Peter had been using Marvin, she couldn’t remember the last time he laughed or smiled as much,” Malone said. “When kids have the ability to work together, they learn better. When they have the opportunity to interact, they benefit.”

Because the robot is mobile, students aren’t restricted from group collaboration like they might be with a traditional and less flexible video conference.

“I could still move around and join a group. If I couldn’t see the screen from a certain position, I could move the robot,” he said. “Another featured I used quite a bit is the ability to change the robot’s height. I’d keep it at the low height, and in order to ‘raise my hand’ in class, I’d raise its height.”

The mobility also makes for a more traditional high school experience. “Moving from class to class gives a sense of normalcy to things,” Malone said.

Before his illness rendered him homebound, Peter worked on the school yearbook and found a mentor in the club’s adviser. But once he was in the hospital and, later, required to stay home, he was unable to participate–until the robot made it possible.

“One day, I surprised my friends and the yearbook adviser by rolling into their classroom,” Peter said.

“From watching him interact with the people in his class, they seem to forget it’s a robot,” Jauschnegg said. “That made a huge difference. In a video conference, you’re always aware of the video connection, and you’re always aware of how you’re looking at it. With the robot, students just treated it like it was Peter.”

“The recognition of the individual and the added movement component made a huge difference, even though you might not initially think it would,” Malone said. “The robot was him, and that was the intent. That takes it to a level that typical video conferencing doesn’t reach.”

After word spread about Peter and Marvin, AACPS purchased additional robots–the district now has four–with leftover funding and donations. Today, Peter is in remission and is back in school. As class president, Peter hopes to organize a fundraiser to generate funds for another robot.

At the end of the day, AACPS educators didn’t select a telepresence robot for its cool factor or to make headlines. They did it for a simple reason–to help a student keep learning.

[Editor’s note: This story is part of the eSchool News Innovate to Educate Awards program, sponsored by Xirrus. The awards program recognized the country’s finest ed-tech initiatives and offered schools and districts across the U.S. the opportunity to showcase their groundbreaking approach to improving teaching and learning through the use of technology.]

Laura Ascione
About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura