Special Needs

A Little Robot Friend On The Desk Can Help Troubled Students Back To School

AV1 keeps children with cancer in touch with their schools. Now it is a channel for blended learning and could be a lifeline for children with poor mental health
Girl sitting at a school desk with books and a pencil case. there is also an AV1 robot sitting on the table
An AV1 robot means you can be present in class, even when you are absent

With the rise in children’s mental health cases, a little robot caled AV1 is proving to be a steppingstone to getting troubled students back into the classroom .

Staff are also beginning to look at it as an alternative to Zoom and MS Teams for blended learning.

The TES Award 2020: Best Use of Technology went to Hospital and Outreach Education AP Academy in Northamptonshire. Led by headteacher Cath Kitchen. They have been using AV1, the little robot, as a communication channel between children in a hospital bed or isolated at home and their friends in school.

TeachingTimes featured the technology in an earlier article and showed how it was being used to maintain continuity of education for children undergoing long-term medical treatment.

How it started

AV1 was launched by Norwegian company No Isolation in 2016 in Oslo and brought together a team of hardware and software developers, plus user experience experts.

They created the prototypes using 3-D printers and cardboard and tested everything on children, families and teachers. This is perhaps one reason why there are so many thoughtful features.

The child has an app on their phone or tablet that lets them control the robot. AV1 flashes to get the teacher’s attention and its eyes have different coloured LED lights. These are controlled by the user who can indicate if they are happy, confused or need help. It also has a directional microphone and can swivel to face a pupil in class who is speaking.

This means that children away from school can play a full part in lessons, learning from classmates, engaging in discussions and participating in group work.

The No Isolation charity set up a UK office in 2017 and soon met Cath Kitchen, the headteacher of Hospital and Outreach Education AP Academy. Cath led a successful bid for the Alternative Provision Innovation Fund, a Department for Education initiative, with the aim of improving outcomes for children who require alternative provision.

Sending the robots out

Theproject started in 2018 and is coming to the end of its two year cycle. It is called the APIF Telepresence Alliance and has put out 90 robots into 10 settings to see how successful the No Isolation telepresence robot can be in ‘furthering the educational progress, attendance and involvement of children affected by long-term medical and mental health illnesses, while reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.’

While the final results have not yet been published, the research has shown that it is a very useful tool for children with cancer who are undergoing treatment and have a suppressed immune system and it has raised the profile of children with medical needs.

Research focused on

  • Improvement in attendance
  • Progress and attainment data
  • Improvement in engagement
  • How easy it is to return to school
  • How easy it is to remain in school following the return
  • Improvements in wellbeing and lessening of anxiety, feeling of isolation, and loneliness

Findings in 2020

Interim findings have shown that when an AV1 robot is used in the classroom, attendance rates double.  Attendance of 29.4% before using AV1 rose to 58.4% afterwards.

The project also uses a Personal Development Scale, specially designed scale to measure a child’s readiness to reintegrate into school. It consists of 80 points overall, and measures areas such as ‘communication with adults’ and ’hopes for the future’. The average score at baseline was 31.7 points which has increased on average to 50.2 points.

GCSE success

One recipient, Zoe Johnson, was 12 when she was found to have ME – myalgic encephalomyelitis – also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This causes total exhaustion and is very disruptive to day to day life. Zoe was not expected to get any GCSEs because she had missed so much school, although on her better days she worked with an online tutor.

She believes AV1 was one of the factors in her success. For the last few months, Zoe was ‘in class’ with her former classmates, able to see and hear their ideas and comments. She came out with five GCSEs and is going on to study History A-level but is looking forward to doing so, ‘with my friends, rather than on my own.’

Blended learning in lockdown

Other schools have started to use AV1 as part of their Blended Learning strategy. Queen’s Gate School is an independent school in South Kensington with around 510 pupils.

At the beginning of lockdown some girls were in India, in Los Angeles, in New York. ‘We had girls in different time zones and one A level student had health problems and was self-isolating long-term,’ said Mark Crundwell, Director of Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

In the early days of lockdown staff faced challenges. They adapted the timetable to provide a two hour break in the middle of the day so students weren’t burnt out by too much screen time. School managed to make class times as normal as possible and were teaching nine periods a day.

Participating in lessons

When the school returned in September, staff moved over to blended learning with a WebCam in every single classroom. Teachers and students who couldn’t attend in person were logging into the normal timetable with each teacher having their own zoom login code.  This meant that it was easy for girls who were self isolating simply to ‘attend’ the classes in a normal way without having to have a separate zoom link for each lesson.

It worked for most students but they were concerned about Lucy who needed a different solution if she was to be part of the class. They rented an AV1 for her which quickly became part of the lesson.

In class at Queens Gate School

Lucy is studying for A levels. ‘Sociology in particular relies so much on learning and applying core concepts,’ said Mark Crundwell, ‘and AV1 proved to be an ideal tool for discursive discussions.  The sound quality is particularly good, so she can catch comments from other people in the class.’ 

Mark has discovered that the charge lasts well so there is little downtime but he recommends that one pupil is made responsible for collecting AV1 in the morning and returning it at the end of the day. He also found it beneficial to try out AV1 before the first lesson to make sure it is situated in the best place to read information from the board but also has good sightlines to cover all the other pupils in class. ‘Once you have established this,’ he says, ‘mark it on the seating plan.’

Meeting other children’s needs

It is well known that AV1 helps children with cancer to go into the classroom and take part in lessons. But it has been trialled with children and young people with many conditions: By August 2020, more than 1250 children in the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland were using AV1. Their ages range from 6 to 25.

AV1 has been part of more than 15 pilot studies and used by children with a large variety of diagnoses including ME/CFS, cancer, cerebral palsy, anxiety, burn-out, tick-borne illnesses, gastroschisis (gastrointestinal illness), viral infection and rare conditions including autoimmune diseases and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The common factor is that the users have been unable to undertake their normal everyday activities.

AV1 is a one way video channel so the child can see everyone else but cannot be seen. This reduces the pressure on them, especially those who are experiencing trauma. It is super-secure and came 2nd in the Norwegian Government Privacy by Design Competition. For more information on safeguarding, click here

Mental health and the pathway back to school

The rise in SEMH, the number of children impacted by trauma and the effects of long-term lockdown have led to what some are describing as ‘a social anxiety pandemic’. AV1 could be a solution.

Three boys playing ball in the playground with three other boys and an AV1 robot on a bench watching
Not just for the classroom -AV1 can go out to play too

This little robot is not just about formal schooling. It has a 4G sim card so it can go out and about. If it falls off the table or gets damaged in the playground, the extended warranty means the user will get a replacement. AV1 can go to the dinner hall and sit with friends, be a spectator at sports lessons and even go on school trips.

Users and their families are finding that AV1 doesn’t just reduce feelings of loneliness in the short term, but also acts as a bridge to face-to-face communication, providing a pathway for a phased return to school.

Transition from home to school

The child may start in their bedroom but via AV1 they are visiting the class, seeing what is going on, talking without being seen and without the pressure of making eye contact. Then they may Zoom with an individual teacher or talk to a friend on their phone. Over time, the aim is to get the child into school, perhaps to sit in a quiet room or Learning Support with their iPad, moving day by day for some, month by month for others, until they get the confidence to go back into the classroom.

‘This is hugely transformative for children who have been secluded for a long time,’ said Harriet Gridley, No Isolation’s UK Director. ‘ We all need continuity and to build personal connections and AV1 can break down some of the barriers.’

AV1 is iOS and Android compatible. AV1 – the robot for children with long-term illness (noisolation.com). Schools may want to try before they buy or enter into a short term rental agreement. If you buy it and use it for three years it works out at £8 a day. This contrasts favourably with the cost of home tuition.

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