Kodiak will use robots to enhance virtual learning

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KODIAK, Alaska (AP) - Soon, Kodiak teachers will be able to roll into classrooms on two wheels.

The Kodiak Island Borough School District has purchased 12 telepresence robots to expand the district’s virtual learning program. Instead of being tied to a webcam attached to a computer, teachers can use the robots to move around a classroom and communicate through an attached iPad.

“What’s amazing is how fast people move past it being a robot,” schools superintendent Stewart McDonald said. “It’s not a robot, it’s you. You get to be in more than one place.”

Each robot - which costs about $2,000 - looks like a scaled-down Segway with an iPad for a head. A second iPad or computer runs an application that works as a remote control.

Only one robot is being used in Kodiak schools, but soon there will be 17 more - the 12 purchased by KIBSD and six on loan - rolling around Kodiak schools.

McDonald said he was inspired by the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” which featured a similar robot.

Last October, McDonald attended the Association of Alaska School Boards conference and saw Bob Whicker, director of digital learning for AASB, using one. McDonald brought the robot back to Kodiak, and it has been rotating through the in-town schools.

The remaining robots are expected to arrive by the end of the week.

“I want to put them in all the villages,” McDonald said. “I want to put them in all elementary schools and the remainder will go to the high school and middle school.”

On Wednesday, McDonald picked up the robot from North Star Elementary School, but not before giving third-grader Sorraya Arndt a chance to drive it around the cafeteria. She picked up the concept effortlessly.

“The kids don’t need training,” McDonald said. “The more video game skills they have, the faster they take to it. Most adults are not struggling.”

The remote control app uses the Internet to connect to the iPad on the robot. Each Kodiak school has a complete wireless network. The driver can log into the program, see where a robot is located, then place a call to the robot, which charges at a docking station. At the user’s call, the robot turns on and can be moved around.

The app allows the driver to turn right and left, move forward and backward, and change the height of the robot from 47 inches up to 60 inches. During a demonstration on Wednesday, the robot bumped into walls and windows as its user became used to the touchscreen controls. McDonald said the robots are built to withstand bumps and scrapes like those.

The robots are not meant to replace teachers - there will always need to be a teacher on the other side of the screen. Instead, the robots are intended to supplement the district’s remote classes. Skype and other video programs on laptops provide a face-to-face connection, but when a teacher is teaching a class in person and students online at the same time, there can be a disconnect.

“Often times those students on the screens get forgotten when the teacher moves around,” McDonald said. “You can have autonomy with this.”

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