‘Telepresence’ robots are making virtual school feel a little more like real school

It has been a year full of the unexpected for families who have had to quickly adjust to masks, quarantines, and virtual and hybrid learning, all thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. For Eliza Engel and her son Thomas McKnight, one of the surprises 2020 has brought is that the sixth-grader at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, Virginia, now attends class with the help of a robot.

“It’s really, truly amazing, because it looks like something out of ‘Star Wars,’ really,” Thomas says. “It’s like techno-wizardry.”

A robot is also helping Amy Kleine’s 7-year-old son, Zach, stay connected to teachers and other students at St. Rose School in Longview, Washington, while he attends remotely to minimize the virus risk to his family members.

“At this point, he’s been away from the public for the majority of eight months now,” Kleine says. “He hasn’t spent time with many kids, other than his cousins and a few friends here and there. So it’s really important for me to continue to gauge his happiness. As a mom, I see this robot as a game-changer in terms of social interaction. It changes everything for the better.”

Zach uses a robot called a Swivl; Thomas uses one called an Owl. Both are types of telepresence robots or smart videoconferencing computers with microphones and speakers attached. Some sit on desks. Others stand in the classroom or even roll around. This technology has become increasingly popular in K-12 classrooms during the pandemic thanks to hybrid or blended learning models, where some students are in the classroom while others watch from home. The big difference between a robot and a conventional camera is that the robot follows action and sound — spinning as much as 360 degrees, so students at home can see more than a static shot of the classroom.

“We have found that it is much more engaging than a standard camera,” says Joe Peacock, director of technology at Burgundy Farm, which invested in the equipment for the first time this summer and now has Owls in 11 classrooms. “It feels more natural. It’s like you are sitting in the classroom and turning your head to hear who is talking.”

“The kids in class interact very naturally with the children at home, and I do think the kids at home appreciate it,” he adds. “It helps them connect and feel more like they are there.”

Parents are noticing the difference and appreciate it, too. Kleine says that without this technology, she doesn’t think the virtual school would have been sustainable for her second-grader.

“I probably would have had to consider putting him back in person despite our COVID concerns if we didn’t have this device, because the longer your child sits there staring at a screen showing a whiteboard with no interaction, the bigger the social impact becomes,” Kleine says. “The Swivl has given him a tenfold ability to interact more with the classroom. He feels like he’s in there, rather than just watching it. He gets to see the other kids and what they are doing.”

A variety of robots for sale

There are several telepresence robots on the market. Pre-pandemic, they were most commonly used in higher education and for teacher training. But manufacturers of these devices say that starting in June, sales to K-12 schools skyrocketed. Kristin Celano, a spokesperson for Owl Labs, says the company has seen a 13,000% increase in usage of its device by K-12 education customers since the onset of the pandemic. Another manufacturer — Xandex — says there have been post-coronavirus months where sales of its Kubi are up 100% over the same time last year, and on average, it has seen more than 50% growth as a result of the pandemic.

Kristin Silva, the principal at St. Rose School, where Zach attends, was among the educators looking for something new to address parent concerns after a spring of remote learning.

“We had to figure something out,” she says. “We had feedback after the spring about what was and wasn’t working, and overwhelmingly, parents said: ‘Our kids aren’t getting any engagement. We need more interaction.’ ” So her school bought a Swivl robot for each of the K-8 classrooms, plus music and physical education. “It’s the bridge between the kids who want to be at school and the kids who want to be at home,” Silva says.

A number of schools across the country are trying out robotic technology for the first time. Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland, invested in 80 Owls for this school year, so students in every grade — K-12 — could use the technology. “We worry about kids at home feeling isolated,” says Connie Shaffer Mitchell, Stone Ridge’s director of marketing and communications. “The Owl helps them feel they are part of a community, and that’s something any independent school prides itself on.”

There are tech challenges: The devices occasionally malfunction or need rebooting. A bigger hurdle for their widespread use is probably their cost. The devices start around $600 apiece and climb into the thousands, so they’re more commonly in use in private schools, but some public school districts are now using them, too. Chester County in Pennsylvania has been using Kubi and Double devices for just over three years, and it began using the Owls and Swivls this year.

River Forest Public School District 90 in Illinois did not use these robots before the pandemic, but it now has 110 Swivls in use across three schools and in 40 instructional spaces, primarily middle schools.

How the robots move

The robots move in a variety of ways. Some come with tracking devices that teachers wear around their neck or leave in parts of the classroom, so the robot knows which direction to point its camera. Others follow the loudest sounds in the room. And the Kubi is controlled by students at home through a widget downloaded to a device such as an iPad or laptop. That’s what Pari Nanavaty, a junior at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in Suffolk, Virginia, now uses for one of her classes.

“I have the ability to adjust my view so I can see the board and what’s happening a lot better,” she says. “I don’t have to ask people what’s going on; I just move the camera. Now I feel more involved.”

Pari is the only student using the Kubi in her class; the manufacturer says that’s ideal to avoid a battle for control of the device, but it says that with planning, the device can be shared among students and also works well when shared among cohorts attending class on different days.

As strange as it sounds, parents say that, over time, they’ve discovered that the robots are also actually decreasing the feelings of isolation and remoteness their children feel. “It’s more immersive. He’s been raving about it. It makes him happy,” Engel says of her son Thomas. “The teacher sometimes lets him stay on during break time to talk with friends. It’s not the full experience of being there, but it’s definitely a lot better than a normal camera.”

Kleine agrees. “There are new kids in the class, and if he wasn’t on the Swivl, Zach wouldn’t even know who they are. Now he can see everyone and all parts of the class and be a part of it.”

Adds Rajiv Nanavaty, Pari’s father: “For parents like my wife and I who feel very strongly that virtual is the way to go, this is a great way to accommodate us and still keep students involved. Anything that makes things easier for students is great. I think we are in this for the long haul, and the more we integrate technology and the sooner we do it, the more we are serving students and keeping the rest of the community safe.”

Parents in the schools that are using the robots say they’re grateful for this new technology, and they believe the robots are also teaching students some valuable lessons about resilience.

“There’s a larger lesson being taught here about adapting and pivoting and trying new things when the going gets tough,” Nanavaty says.