By AMANDA KIMBLE
DUBLIN (February 5, 2016) – Dublin ISD, with the support of its education service center, is taking 21st Century learning to new distances with the REATA Robot program. The initiative is allowing a homebound third grade student to remotely attend classes and navigate through the halls of education.
Jaylon SeChrist, 9, is recovering from a January 26 open-heart surgery, according to his mother, Denise SeChrist.
The REATA program, implemented by Education Service Center Region 11 (ESC 11) about two years ago, allows certain qualified students to remotely attend classes with the help of a laptop, an internet connection, two-way video conferencing and a VGo robot, vgocom.com.
While various corporations and institutions across the nation have used VGo technology for everything from remote patient monitoring and managerial meetings to tours and distance training and instruction, Dublin ISD Technology Director Craig Parks said the school district is the first in the immediate area to place robots inside the classroom.
ESC 11 authorizes the program on a case-by-case basis, assisting students coping with issues such as long-term illness, recovery from surgery and teen pregnancy. The service could also benefit those placed on in-school suspension, in a disciplinary education program or facing other circumstances.
“Falling six weeks or more behind would be hard for any student, at any grade level, to overcome,” Parks said. “The REATA program allows school districts and students to overcome those challenges.”
With the VGo ready to roll into Dublin Elementary, the school held an assembly Friday, allowing students to meet their virtual peer. Parks said as with anything new, REATA may cause excitement across campus over the first few days, but students will learn – and were asked – to treat the robot like a person, “just another student”.
The robot looks less like R2-D2 and more like a monitor and camera mounted on a Segway. The fact that the device doesn’t resemble something out of a classic science fiction thriller makes integration into the classroom more seamless.
“Students (here at school) see the face of the homebound student, who they already know and who is controlling the robot, on the monitor,” Parks said. “They will see that student going from class to class and traveling the hallways with the assistance of a backpack buddy.”
The buddy walks alongside the REATA, telling Jaylon where to turn and explaining obstacles the VGo may be approaching. As Jaylon’s robotic counterpart maneuvers the elementary campus, the distance learner will at the same time control the VGo from the comfort of his home, using a laptop on loan from Dublin ISD.
“It’s controlled just like any remote-controlled vehicle,” Parks said. “The student will use the directional keys on the keyboard to move the REATA to the left or right, backward and forward.”
Jaylon, who will recover at home for about six weeks, is excited about the program and being on the controlling end of a robot, Denise SeChrist said.
“He’s very anxious,” she said. “And I am very thankful. Dublin ISD has wonderful schools, and they’re always so helpful and supportive.”
There are many benefits for Jaylon. Parks said unlike other more traditional options, REATA allows “real time” instruction, keeping the student on schedule and giving the recovering patient the ability to participate in question and answer sessions.
Dublin Elementary Principal Melissa Summers agrees there are many benefits from participating in the program.
“I am really excited to have this technology available to us,” Summers said. “It’s important for Jaylon to be able to receive instruction from home while he recovers. Perhaps more important is that he will be able to continue to interact with his classmates and teachers. He is a very social and outgoing student, so this will benefit both (his education and recovery).”
Other students across the region have previously participated in the REATA program. Lori Burton, communication services coordinator for ESC 11, said 10 students in seven of the region’s 77 school districts have used one of the robots in some capacity.
“There is also a robot at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History,” Burton added. “They use it for field trip students who are unable to travel.”
The program also benefits school districts, according to www.esc11.net. The website states the robots reduce homebound teacher and tutor costs and allows districts to continue to receive ADA (average daily attendance) income when waivers are filed and approved.
For affected students, the ability to remain connected is priceless, but the program is being implemented with minimal cost to the district. Dublin ISD is leasing the VGo from ESC 11 for $150 per month, whereas purchasing a robot to remain within the district would cost thousands of dollars.
Parks said there weren’t any other costs incurred by the school district. He said the infrastructure needed is already in place to provide the robot the needed bandwidth and Wi-Fi.
“All we have to do is charge and connect the robot and it’s ready to go,” he said.
The entire program is being provided to the SeChrist family, which includes father Dwaine, who is undergoing chemotherapy, at no cost.
“That’s a big deal and honestly, very amazing,” Denise SeChrist said.
Parks said the family’s internet connection was not powerful enough to support the video upload speed, 768 kilobytes per second, that will allow Jaylon to attend class remotely. But local internet service provider NextLink, nextlinkinternet.com, is providing that service at no cost while the student remains homebound.
Once the internet is installed at the SeChrist residence, Katrina Brister, instructional technology director Dublin ISD, will deliver the laptop and train the family on how to operate the VGo.