Growing up as a kid, I loved to watch “The Jetsons,” a TV cartoon about a futuristic family who had a robot named Rosey. Rosey did all the household duties like cleaning, preparing dinner, and even giving George (the father) advice in tough situations. I used to dream of having a robot someday to help me with everyday tasks. Who would think that, decades later, I’d be leading a school that uses robots to empower students in their learning? Today, telepresence robots play an essential role in education and learning in our school.

As principals, our charge is to advocate for all students, even those who can’t come into the school for learning. A growing number of students aren’t able to attend a regular school day for various reasons—medical, social-emotional, a court’s decision, or other extenuating circumstances. Regardless of the reason, we have a responsibility to educate these students in a way that allows them to interact, engage, and collaborate with their peers and teachers in entirely new ways. Telepresence strengthens inclusion and student participation in class.

What Is a Telepresence Robot?

A telepresence robot is a tool that allows students to remotely enter the classroom, engage with classmates and their teacher, and actively participate in learning. They have a giant wheel caster on the bottom, a battery pack, a pole stretching to an adjustable height of 4–5 feet, and an iPad mounted on the top. The iPad allows the student to be seen by their classmates, and the camera provides the remote student with a full view into the classroom. Students have control over the robot; they can wheel over to a pod of students working in a group, to the back of the room to ask a question to another student, or closer to the front of the room to see what’s written on the board. The amazing thing is the autonomy that the students have in controlling the robot. They can raise their hand in class to ask a question, their voice is heard through a speaker, and they can listen to the teacher through a speaker on their end. The large wheel caster makes it easy to navigate throughout the room—its small, sleek size can move freely between the student desks. All the student needs on their end is an iPad or computer.

As telepresence robots evolve in their quality, we are finding that camera angles are increasing, autonomous controls are increasing, and the authentic learning experience is becoming more of a reality for students. Soon the robots will feature 360-degree camera angles for students and a virtual reality experience. Other features include ultra-responsive tilting features of the camera and screen, high-capacity-charging batteries, auto-docking charging stations, and glide drive technology.

What Does a Telepresence Robot Provide for Students?

Without a telepresence robot, the student typically sees only one dimension of the class and lacks a major aspect of connectivity and interaction. A telepresence robot empowers students and teachers with four key dimensions.

  1. Fosters engagement in learning: Before the telepresence robot, students stared at a screen for hours with no interaction whatsoever. These same students can now interact with peers, talk to teachers, and answer questions in class. This engagement strengthens learning, provides comparable learning to their peers, and supports inclusion in a way that empowers the learner. It also provides students with the ability to stay on top of their classes without ever needing to step foot into the classroom.
  2. Builds personal connections: Often, the students who need telepresence robots for learning are isolated from their peers and lack personal connections. The robot allows them to see their peers’ smiles, hear a welcoming hello from a teacher, and get a virtual high five from someone in the class. What I love about the robots is when they are walking from class to class. I will regularly see one of our students walking their robot to their next class—we have a paraeducator assist the student in walking to class. I frequently stop and say hello to the student, give them a virtual fist bump, or ask how their day is going. This personal connection is vital to the social and emotional well-being of our students.
  3. Enhances school life: The tele­presence robot allows students to participate in large group events such as assemblies, pep rallies, and concerts in a way that was not possible before. They can move to get a better angle, participate by cheering, and be active participants in the pep rally. I’m hoping we can empower our students who use telepresence robots to participate in relay races and different events during pep rallies and field days. This engagement in school-life events strengthens the connection with the student and the school as a whole. Plus, it provides the student with an opportunity to see school in an entirely new way. It’s no longer just about the classroom; now they can join the lunchroom to spend time with friends, visit the school store to get something shipped to them, or help out at the coffee shop welcoming new customers. Only our imagination limits how we can engage students in the life of our school through these tele­presence robots. Let’s think creatively and out of the box to integrate these students fully into school-life events.
  4. Strengthens teaching and learning: Teachers benefit from having another great student mind sharing in their class as remote students embrace live adjustments to learning. Plus, the teacher no longer needs to spend time preparing packets, teaching at the student’s home, or following up on a video that didn’t download correctly. The teacher never needs to leave their classroom and can provide real-time updates for the student. Now the teacher engages the student similar to other students in the class, in an authentic and live format. More importantly, the teacher gains another student who can actively contribute to the class and expand the rich collaboration of learners in the room.

At Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA, teachers enjoy the opportunity to engage students through telepresence robots. Our school has close to 10 telepresence robots to support a number of students. Our teachers are trained in how to use and interact with the robots, and they focus on engaging students through the telepresence robots similar to how they engage other students in their class.

“The use of the robot allowed me to connect with a student whose medical needs did not allow him to be in school,” notes Judy Reinhart, a special education teacher. “The student was able to attend class and be included with their peers, just as if he was in the building.”

Melissa Grubbs, another special education teacher, shared that “The telepresence device was a great learning experience as a teacher. This device not only allowed my student to connect with his classmates and teachers, it gave him a great sense of belonging, pride, and accomplishment. Personally, it showed me how teaching can be done through many avenues with the same result in mind: growth and success!”

Our school is a better and more inclusive place with telepresence robots. Without these vital technology tools, many of our students’ learning experiences would fall short and they would not have the robust and rich learning opportunities equal to their peers. The robots provide an avenue to build and strengthen relationships, enrich learning experiences for all, and keep the dreams and hopes of our students alive. A student’s dreams shouldn’t be stopped just because they can’t enter the schoolhouse—that’s why telepresence robots are so important. Rosey the robot on “The Jetsons” can’t compare to the real-life, interactive, and collaborative telepresence robots that support our students every day. But Rosey sounds like a great name for a telepresence robot, because it makes the lives of our students rosy and bright for learning in the days ahead!

William T. Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. Kate Pacitto, EdD, is the director of pupil services at Pottsgrove School District.