KODIAK, Alaska — 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."
It also makes it easier for students in the villages to participate in small group conversations with students at schools in town.
Nicole Fuerst, a virtual teacher with the Enliven (Engaging Native Learners in Virtual Education Now) program, said she uses video conferencing on a regular basis to teach classes. She often coaches students individually through Skype or by phone, and admits it can be difficult.
"There are a few times that I've had to pick up the phone and make the secretary run all over the school to hunt a student down," she said. "Even then the student can hang up on me, whereas if I have the robot, I can chase them around the school if I needed to, to say, 'what's going on with this assignment?'"
The 12 robots the district purchased cost $24,000, but McDonald expects their usefulness to outweigh their cost.
They can be used to cut costs for travel to and from the villages, and teachers may benefit as well when they need instruction from outside professionals.
Even when bad weather grounds flights into Kodiak, the robots will still work.
"For the price of a laptop, one robot can do something that an airplane ticket can't do," McDonald said.
Margaret Coons, a third-grade teacher at Main Elementary School, has used the robot in her class while working with a reading comprehension trainer in California. The robot comes into the room with the trainer logged in remotely. The trainer can then watch and participate in the lesson and give advice to the teacher.
"She watches me teach and gives feedback to me in front of the kids via the robot," Coons said.
The first time the robot came into Coons' classroom, her students were extremely excited. After three months, it has become normal.
"They love it," Coons said. "They listen to me and her . it's turned out to be really great for learning."
The robots allow teachers and administrators to keep an eye on things even when they can't be in the building. The robot recently spent time at Main Elementary when principal Angela Chervenak was in Minnesota. She logged in remotely and used the robot to attend a disciplinary session with a student, then spoke with students around the school.
"It was terrific," Main Elementary secretary Robin Killeen said. "An instance that I think was really sweet — our principal was out of town for a while and she got on the robot and moved it out into the front hall so as the kids were leaving, she was on the robot. One of the children saw her and ran up and hugged the robot and said, 'we miss you Mrs. Chervenak.'"
Information from: Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com