A new breed of robot is helping young students who can’t go to school because of chronic illnesses, including cancer and cystic fibrosis, to take part in mainstream education.

The Oxfordshire Hospital School, which teaches children who are too sick to attend their usual schools, is giving pupils the chance to take part in regular lessons and extracurricular activities with their friends and teachers using telepresence robots.

The OHS has invested in two robots, which are thought to be the first to be used in schools in the UK, although the technology is already being used in the US.

They allow their users to see, hear, move around and interact in real time with their classmates and teachers, despite not physically being there. The child operates the robot from their home or hospital bed, and can watch and take part in lessons through a camera and speaker. Classmates and teachers can see and speak to the pupil on a live screen feed, and the pupil can move the wheel-mounted robot around the school, between lessons and to the dinner hall, for example, to spend time with their friends.

Adam Bennett, aged 13, is a Year 8 pupil at Wood Green School in Witney, Oxfordshire. In December 2017 he was diagnosed with bone cancer after doctors discovered a tumour in his femur. He began an intensive programme of chemotherapy at the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital in Oxford and, though he tried to continue going to school between treatments, this soon became impossible. When the bone in Adam’s leg, weakened by the tumour, broke one morning as he got ready for school, he was forced to begin a three-week hospital stay and his hopes of attending school with any regularity were put on hold.

The Oxfordshire Hospital School that Adam attends during his time in hospital, and which also provides outreach teaching when he is at home, was keen to find a way to help him and other children like him to keep up with their peers at the schools they usually attend. They saw the emerging telepresence robotic technology as a potential solution.

“For a child with a compromised immune system who might also be suffering from intense tiredness, attending school can be impossible, and this can lead to feelings of isolation and anxiety,” explains OHS Assistant Headteacher James Shryane.“

At the hospital school our priority is to ensure pupils receive the highest quality education, but recreating their usual school environment and the social interactions that are so vital in a young person’s life, is much more difficult in hospital or at home.

“When we saw and read about how the robots are helping pupils in the US to reconnect with their studies and their friends we immediately saw how the technology could work here.”

Adam began using his robot this month and is now beginning to attend form periods and lessons, supported by his friend and ‘robot buddy’ Isaac, who accompanies Adam’s robot around school.

“Personally I think that my robot is an essential part of my education at the moment,” says Adam.

“It means that I can attend each lesson as if I am actually there in the classroom. After missing out on school for many months, my favourite part is finally being able to reconnect with my classmates, as that was what I missed most from school.”

Rob Shadbolt, Headteacher at Wood Green School, says teachers and pupils have been keen to make sure the robot project is a success and that Adam’s return to school goes smoothly:

“When the Hospital School asked if we would pilot the robot project with Adam, we jumped at the chance. We’re very grateful to the Hospital School for an initiative that will allow us to have Adam back at Wood Green.

“Everyone here has been so keen to be part of this innovation. The students in particular are very eager to take responsibility for the robot and to make sure it works well for Adam. They are loving having him back in class with them.

“As with any pilot project, there is a great deal of learning for us to do too. Our teachers are trialling different strategies to make sure Adam is included fully in the lessons and events he attends via his robot. In the future we hope to pass on our experiences and the lessons we have learned to other schools, to help more students around the UK benefit from this technology.”

The OHS’s James Shryane adds:

“This pioneering work is truly game-changing, and we’re exceptionally proud of Adam and what he is doing to improve the lives of other children too.

“He’s approached the project with great maturity and determination to iron out early teething problems and make it a success.”

The OHS is now preparing to match the second robot with another pupil in a local primary school.

  

Adam taking part in a maths lesson using the telepresence robot.

Photos (c) Wood Green School, used with permission

Notes and links:

The robot being used by the OHS is the Double 2 from Double Robotics purchased from RoboSavvy

Many thanks for advice from Leslie Morissette of Grahamtastic Connection

For further information contact Oxfordshire Hospital School Assistant Headteacher James Shryane