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'Telepresence Robots' Connect Virtual Teachers With Classrooms

Here's a new twist on e-learning:  A school district in Alaska is using robots, controlled by virtual teachers at remote sites, to roam around actual classrooms and interact with students. 

Dubbed a "telepresence robot," the new machine is essentially a tablet computer mounted on what looks like a mini-Segway—the stand-up, two-wheel vehicles you see people riding around in cities.  (Our colleagues at the Teaching Now blog also took a look at this new technological development.)

Kodiak Island Borough School District Superintendent Stewart McDonald recently purchased 12 robots and began using them in classrooms, according to the Associated Press. Virtual teachers sign in to an operating program that controls the movement of robots, and their voice and image is projected through the tablet mounted on the devices. The goal is to create more opportunities for individual, face-to-face interactions between teachers and students, and establish a livelier alternative to other forms of virtual instruction, such as Skype or teleconference tutoring.

But some education experts question the value behind the mechanized instructional tool.


Mike Kaspar, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, believes students and teachers should be introduced to new technologies, but not at the expense of face-to-face interactions that can only be achieved in person.

"Physical presence can make a huge difference in a student's life," Kaspar said in a telephone interview with Education Week.  "There is so much technology out there that is far...cheaper and [more] cost effective." 

McDonald told the AP that the robots are intended to supplement the district's course offerings by using virtual teachers. He insists the machines are not meant to replace teachers all together.

"What's amazing is how fast people move past it being a robot," McDonald added. "It's not a robot, it's you. You get to be in more than one place."

Kodiak Island Borough school district Superintendent Stewart McDonald uses a telepresence robot to video into a school library. Photo by Nicole Klauss/Kodiak Daily Mirror/AP

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