Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all education. Today, forward-thinking school leaders know that leveraging powerful learning technology can help all students excel and learn to work collaboratively with peers–even if that student is homebound due to chronic illness.

In Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), a team of educators worked to secure telepresence robots for sick and homebound students after seeing the robots demonstrated at a conference. By turning to virtual inclusion, they hoped homebound students would feel more engaged in both their learning and their social relationships at school.

Traditionally, sick and homebound students in AACPS learn independently with the help of a home and hospital teacher, who meets with them approximately six hours a week. But this can be lonely and isolating, because students don’t have the opportunity to talk and collaborate with their classmates. They also can’t participate in extracurricular activities such as clubs.

This is where the Double robot from Double Robotics became invaluable for a high school student battling cancer, AACPS educators said.

“Using the robot allows a student to interact with their classmates and be included in activities that learning in isolation at home cannot provide,” said Stephanie Kelly, the district’s senior manager for instructional technology.

And because the robot helps students interact with peers, it benefits their mental and emotional well-being and makes the healing process less isolated.

“Not being able to come to class, going through treatment, and having to be in quarantine is a challenging and lonely process,” Kelly said. “With the help of a robot, the student can engage with their class through their computer. Whether they are at home or in the hospital, they can participate with their teacher and classmates and feel a part of the school environment.”

Piloting the robot

Along with Mary Tillar, the district’s assistant superintendent for Advanced Studies and Programs Kelly attended a state-level meeting for assistant superintendents and watched as robotics company Double Robotics demonstrated how the company’s telepresence robot was piloted to help homebound students have a more personalized distance learning experience.

(Next page: Ensuring everything was in place for the pilot’s success)

The robot features a rolling base with a tablet on top, secured to a middle part that the user can move up or down.

Kelly knew the robot could change learning experiences for AACPS, and she asked to take one of the robots back to the district with her that day. After a few phone calls, the company made it happen.

Kelly and Patrick Malone, an instructional technology online specialist, took the robot to Shady Side Elementary School to pilot it with a fifth-grade student who needed an elevated mathematics program. The student could not physically attend a sixth-grade math class and travel between the middle school and the elementary school for one learning period each day–but the robot made it possible, and the first pilot was a success.

Next, an educator in Kelly’s division had a knee operation and was unable to attend a professional development opportunity in person. Once again, the robot came to the rescue, and the educator attended the all-day meeting using the robot’s platform.

Kelly and Malone reached out to Colleen Childs, who manages home and hospital teaching for AACPS, to ask Childs which students might want to use the robot. Childs pointed them to Old Mill High School, and after sitting down with Principal James Todd to address concerns about logistics and teacher training, the plan was set in motion to connect homebound student Peter Jauschnegg with the robot.

Watch Peter’s story here.

“Peter was at Johns Hopkins Hospital for a three-month stay at that time, and he jumped on this very quickly when we were asked if we would be interested,” said Kathleen Jauschnegg, Peter’s mother.

Marvin’s debut

Malone gathered Patrick’s teachers and school counselors for training to get them comfortable speaking to and teaching in front of the robot. They developed a deployment plan to address concerns such as minute schedule adjustments that would let Peter move the robot through the hallways when they were least crowded, along with elevator access to travel to classes on different floors.

They also wanted the robot to have a bit of personality. “I asked Peter to name the robot–it was going to be his,” Malone said.

“I named it Marvin, after the robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Peter said. “It’s a funny character, so I figured it’d be the right choice.”

The name stuck. “Everyone refers to the robot as Marvin,” Malone said.

Next came a dry run through a typical day. Malone went to the Jauschnegg home to help Peter become familiar with the robot’s controls and take the robot on a “driving test” through the district’s staff development center.

“Peter’s a pretty big gamer, and he understood the first-person environment really well,” Malone said. “He picked it up right away.”

(Next page: Supporting students’ social needs)

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.]

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. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura