Robots In Class

New technology allows home-bound students to attend class by proxy.

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SUMTER S.C. (AP) — A girl who has not been able to attend school in nearly two years now gets to go to class via a robotic version of herself.

Sumter School District is the first school district in the state to pilot VGo, a machine that allows a student to attend school and interact with others through a camera and audio.

“It’s designed specifically for students who are on permanent medical homebound,” said Shawn Hagerty, director of specialized programs for the district. “It’s a remote, telepresence system. The student can get the feeling of a school culture by remotely interacting academically and socially.”

Lexie Kinder, the third-grader operating the machine, decided to dress it up. The 8-year-old had her mother, Cristi Kinder, make a shirt out of some pink material from a hospital visit. She also added a pink hair bow, pink tutu and two necklaces.

“It looks pretty,” Lexie said. “(Pink is) my favorite color. I like how it’s light, but I like all shades.”

Before now, VGo Communications Inc. had not had a client decorate the robot.

“They were truly amazed at her taking down that wall and personalizing it,” Hagerty said. “Lexie has a lively and creative spirit. She embraced it 100 percent and put a little bit of herself into the sterile piece of plastic. It’s been dubbed ‘Princess VGo.'”

The district ordered three robots a month ago, but it takes time to set up the infrastructure and networks, he said. Lexie also had to learn to operate it. So she started attending Alice Drive Elementary via Princess VGo just this week.

“I did practice a lot,” Lexie said. “I bump into things sometimes, but that’s okay.”

The VGos cost $5,000 apiece and were bought using a set of funds marked specifically for health-based concerns, Hagerty said. The experience the students will get is priceless, though, he said.

“I’m very excited for her to have the opportunity to be part of a normal class day,” Cristi Kinder said. “I think she misses it more than she realizes. I’m always about what is best for Lexie, so I thought it was a wonderful idea. I did some research about the benefits of VGo, and said ‘we should try it.'”

Her teacher, Ivey Smith, said it has been an adjustment having a robot in class but nothing that couldn’t be handled.

“I pulled up VGo on the Promethium board to show kids what it would look like,” she said. “The kids are real excited because we just started.”

Lexie dials into the robot at 7:45 a.m. and drives it to her desk. She turns the robot so she can say the pledge of allegiance and the state pledge. Then she joins in the lessons.

“Lexie is precious,” Smith said. “The robot reminds me of her. It suits her personality. I really look at it as a person. I see Lexie.”

The students agree. They yell “Lexie’s coming” when the screen on the VGo lights up. They wave at it and greet her as she moves the robot to her desk.

“At first I was surprised,” said Hazel Kolb, a student who sits near Lexie’s Princess VGo. “She’s bumped a few things, but now she’s got the hang of it. It’s kind of cool. I like it. My best friend is on it.”

The other student who sits near the robot, Tymirh Beyfoster, agreed.

“It was strange at first, but I’m used to it now,” he said. “It’s fun because she comes in every day.”

Cindy Roberson, an assistive technology specialist with the district who helps students overcome barriers to their education, has observed the children helping. The VGo’s “head” lights up when Lexie has a question, but it doesn’t make a noise.

“So the students raise their hands, and when they are chosen they say, ‘Lexie has a question,'” she said.

Principal Sheree Boozer also prepped her staff before the robot made its appearance.

“They were emotional,” she said. “A lot of them know Lexie, and for her to just have that sense of normalcy, it touched them.”

Thirty-five other districts across the United States have VGos, Hagerty said. He hopes they become a “wave of the future.”

“There will always be students on homebound, and this piece of technology can bring a sense of normalcy,” he said. “Even if they have to stay home, they can participate remotely. They can interact with pictures and video. It will benefit students, and I hope it will be utilized across the nation.”

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