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Robot Stands and Live Streams for Student with Disabilities at School

January 02, 2019

As digital technologies continue to evolve, the ways in which they enrich human lives continue to impress. For example, a student at East Elementary School, despite being unable to attend school in person, has been able to attend class, virtually, using a remote-controlled robot.

Steve Gunderson, director of technology for the Athens City School District, informed the district’s School Board of the new technology at a board meeting in November. He explained that the family of the student who uses the robot, whose name has not been provided, learned about the technology through a partnership between Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University, both in Columbus.

The Beam® remote-presence robot at East, affectionately referred to as “Urban the Robot,” is basically a tablet screen on wheels. (The Beam virtual communication technology is a product of Suitable Technologies, based in Palo Alto, California.)

“The student can hear, talk, just like they are in class,” Gunderson said at the School Board meeting. “The robot can go down the hall, classroom to classroom. So, it’s a pretty neat piece of technology but the impact on the student is tremendous.”

The Beam is wireless and has a charging station in the school building. It also has cameras that allow the user to see where the robot is going as well as what and who is in the room around it. A student can control the device remotely, and Gunderson has said that he can see when and how the device is being used, and can control it himself from his office.

In an interview Dec. 14, Gunderson explained that he had little to do with bringing the technology to East. He just helped to connect the device to the district’s WiFi, and showed the student how to operate it.

“They thought that was really cool,” Gunderson said of the student’s reaction.

OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY’S College of Engineering is home to Assistive Technology of Ohio, the federally-funded nonprofit responsible for putting telepresence robots in Ohio schools, according to Bill Darling, executive director for the program.

Every state and U.S. territory is required to have its own similar program under the guidelines of the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 (amended in 2004), Darling said. According to the organization’s webpage, AT Ohio's mission is to help Ohio residents with disabilities learn about and acquire assistive technology, which refers to any “devices, equipment or services that assist individuals with disabilities to function independently in the areas of work, home or school.” The federal Department of Health and Human Services provides funding for all Tech Act programs, the nonprofit’s webpage states.

“Basically any Ohioan with a disability can use our services,” Darling said. “We have a bunch of different programs… and all of our services focus on how technology helps people with disabilities (statewide).”

The main service offered by the organization is a tech library that allows people with disabilities to borrow the devices. “It’s just a way to get stuff into people’s hands,” Darling said, adding that the library also educates people on how technology can help people with disabilities be more productive.

AT Ohio has “just a ton” of communication devices, equipment for the visually impaired, and much more to benefit people “across the whole disability spectrum,” Darling said.

While the telepresence robot program, as Darling called it, has been in existence for only about two years, AT Ohio has been at OSU for more than 20.

“We’re just not a program that’s very well known,” Darling said, adding, “we’re always trying to get the word out.”

When his team found out about telepresence robot technology, Darling said “it seemed promising” but no one knew exactly how useful it would be. The program began with a student in Worthington, Ohio, and has grown since then, he said.

So far, AT Ohio has placed seven different robots in six different school systems across the state. Besides Athens City Schools, Darling said, “we’ve been in Akron, we’ve been in Middletown… and the remaining ones have been in central Ohio.” The nonprofit first informed Nationwide Children’s Hospital of its telepresence robot program, and the hospital has since recommended eligible students to participate in the program.

Darling said the future of AT Ohio’s program is still uncertain. “We’re trying to fill a need but we don’t know how big the need is,” Darling said. “…You have to have a reason why you can’t go to school but you also have to be well enough that you can do school stuff. That’s not a lot of kids.”

Those who have observed the telepresence technology, however, have seen the positive impact it can have on students. Darling said his team has kept in touch with the families of students who have used or are using telepresence robots. Based on those conversations, the main benefit students seem to receive is not academic, he said, but social.

“To be able to keep in contact with their friends and their classmates... It seems weird but the robot helps keep them normal through a challenging time,” Darling said.

Other students benefit from the technology as well, as Athens City School Board Vice President Kim Goldsberry said at the meeting on Nov. 15. “One of my friend’s sons is in the class, and he’s talked to me all along the way about the initial meeting, and they love it,” she said of the Beam robot at East.

RESEARCHERS AT THE UNIVERSITY of California Irvine in 2016 found in a small case study of five students who used telepresence robots at school that the technology can help homebound students feel more socially connected with their peers.

“While no general conclusion can be drawn beyond the experiences of these five children, the impact of remaining connected to their school communities is undeniable,” the study states. “The implications from this small sample are sobering – children with chronic illness and their classmates are strongly affected by physical segregation and social isolation and, until recently, there has not been a way to provide them with inclusive academic and social experiences.”

The study also concluded, however, that more research is needed on the impacts that using telepresence robots can have on homebound students.

“Getting to see their friends and staying socially connected was what [the students] said they liked best about using the robots,” according to an article about the study on the UCI News website. “The school day felt more normal, they reported, because they were able to participate in discussions, interact with peers and undergo new experiences with their classmates.”

Source: The Athens News

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