Ashton Ryan is, in many ways, a typical 16-year-old. He balances a busy extracurricular schedule — organizing a coat drive, serving on the Charlottesville Youth Council and appearing every month on Rob Schilling’s radio show on WINA — with the demands of school.
But for Ryan, a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, there is another complication thrown in — back and leg problems have forced him to take classes from a homebound teacher for the last two and a half years.
That’s a problem for a self-described social creature who hates missing out on the school culture as much as he worries about keeping up with his assignments.
The solution to Ryan’s conundrum looks more like something from “The Jetsons” than a public high school. One day a week, Ryan attends math class via a two-wheeled iPad-wielding robot.
The $3,400 device, made by California-based Double Robotics, allows him to essentially telecommute to class, interacting with his teacher and classmates through a program similar to Skype that shows his face on the iPad and projects his voice through a small speaker.
“The main difference with the homebound robot is that you are there in the classroom,” Ryan said. “It really changes the experience, because you are in for a specific class … but when I am here with the homebound teacher it is all subjects.”
The device, which Ryan controls with his laptop keyboard, frees him up to move and interact in ways he could not before.
“You can participate in group projects and raise your hand and ask questions … it is really, really cool,” he said.
Kim Ryan, Ashton’s mother, said her son has always been able to adapt quickly, shaking off his physical issues and taking quickly to homebound instruction. But the robot, she said, still has a noticeable effect on his mood.
“You see him just perk up, the kids say hi to him, and he says hi to them,” she said. “Everybody pretty much knows Ashton, and they like when they see him and he likes when he is part of the school.”
Jeff Faust, Charlottesville schools’ director of technology, first saw the robot, which was originally designed to increase workflow for businesses, at a conference and was convinced it would translate perfectly to the division.
“It was an obvious solution for a remote worker,” Faust said. “When we think about it, the needs of a remote worker and a student who is homebound are very similar.”
Ryan is using the robot this year as a pilot for other homebound learners, and is sharing his experiences with the Charlottesville School Board as he goes. So far, he said, the machine itself is working well.
But there have been challenges along the way. If internet service gets spotty or goes down, it can be hard to hear what is being said, and the controls can stop communicating with the robot.
“When you look at the robot, it will either have a green, a yellow or a red light … Green is good, yellow there are some issues and red it is not working well at all,” Ryan said. “That is all dependent on the internet connections.”
An update from Apple didn’t help matters. When the iPad was loaded with the latest iOS, the Bluetooth connection between the tablet and the robot suddenly got finicky. Ryan and Faust quickly figured out a workaround, and the next iOS update is expected to solve the issue.
Ryan became the guinea pig for the robot experiment after guidance staff contacted Faust after learning about the robot.
“One of the things that is important is that, as technology director for the system, I would never prescribe an intervention for a student,” Faust said. “Guidance contacted me and said they thought it would be a good fit for Ashton.”
Though there have been software and connectivity issues, the robot itself so far has been reliable.
Though the system has worked for Ryan, Faust said there are no plans to build a fleet of the robots for future school years. Instead, additional devices will be purchased on an as-needed basis.
“I do not want to buy 20 robots. I want to use technology to augment our homebound instruction,” he said. “Acquisition of additional devices will be based upon situations where we are approached and told we need a way to keep students engaged at school.”
Ryan said he thinks the program should be expanded, even though his plan is to be physically able to return to class next year.
“I think they should buy more robots for kids that need them and have them in more classes,” he said.