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Remote Control

Robots help homebound students keep pace with classmates.

By Pamela H. Derringer | September 2006
Jerilyn McLean appears on a Twin PEBBLES robot at school.
Jerilyn McLean appears on a Twin PEBBLES robot at school.

Although she’s five blocks away from her third-grade classroom, Jerilyn McLean can raise a hand to answer a math question, collaborate on a geography project, or ask for advice. Thanks to PEBBLES, a pair of 160-pound robots with interactive video systems that link her home to school, Jerilyn has been able to participate in class discussions at William Lincoln School, in Brookline, Massachusetts, without leaving home. “It’s not the same as being in class,” admits Jerilyn, 9, whose treatments for an immune deficiency forced her to miss all of second grade and most of third. “But I get to socialize with my friends. I love my class.”

Using a joystick, Jerilyn can raise the robot’s hand to signal that she wishes to speak, swivel the robot’s head (and her field of vision) to follow class activities and zoom in on a blackboard, textbook, or speaker. She can also adjust the microphone volume. It’s the next best thing to being there.

PEBBLES could potentially help some 600,000 U.S. students a year whose illnesses prevent them from attending school for extended periods. The units also could potentially help autistic students, who would be able to control their interactivity with other students. For Jerilyn, who was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia and underwent 80 blood transfusions and a bone marrow transplant, PEBBLES has helped keep her up-to-date academically and socially, says her father, Paul McLean.

Jerilyn’s success also depends on her teacher, Libby Donovan, who schedules appropriate lessons and tech assistance in the one to two hours a day that Jerilyn participates in class. Donovan says the key is communication with Jerilyn’s parents to explain Jerilyn’s inclusion in daily lessons and confirm that Jerilyn has the required written materials ahead of time. Thanks to PEBBLES and her teacher, when Jerilyn returns she’ll be right in step with the classmates she last sat next to in September 2005.

What it is: PEBBLES stands for Providing Education by Bringing Learning Environments to Students.
How it works: PEBBLES goes beyond conventional videoconferencing to create a “telepresence,” or physical connection between the remote student and the rest of the class by swiveling the head and maintaining eye contact with whomever is speaking, according to Andrew Summa of the National Center for Electronically Mediated Learning, in Milford, Connecticut. Some units even have scanners, printers, and faxes for transmitting tests and materials.
Who has it: Thanks to $2.5 million in grants from the Department of Education over the past five years, the U.S. now has about two dozen PEBBLES units, most located in children’s hospitals. The units are developed at Ryerson University, in Toronto, and manufactured by IBM Canada.

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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