Three years ago, the Llano Independent School District (ISD) began looking into ways to solve a very specific problem. The rural Texas based schools had to find a way to educate students unable to physically attend classes. Whether illness, injury or some other special circumstance kept a student absent for long periods of time, the district was required by law to provide that student with an education.
Llano ISD doesn’t have a large population of remote students. In fact, according to Jim Beasley, Llano ISD’s Technology director, no more than four students out of 500 in the high school have ever been absent at one time—which is actually the problem.
“If I had a big number of remote students then everyone would be OK with throwing lots of resources at it,” Beasley says. “You get caught in this resource bind where you can’t get enough money allocated to this so what do you do?”
The district’s original approach was to have teachers go to the remote student’s house after school, but that proved problematic. Llano spans a large geographic area so schools had to be careful to choose a teacher who lived relatively close to the remote student. Otherwise, a teacher could easily end up driving an hour each way after putting in a full day of work. The district also tried using desktops with webcams and controllable robots that could be driven around the school, providing a telepresence-like experience for remote students. The only problem was these robots didn’t move quickly enough and often had issues getting to class on time.
“What the other kids were doing is they’d pick up the robot and wrap their arms around it and carry it to the next class, which seemed kind of silly,” Beasley says. “And controllable robotic systems are kind of expensive. They’re like $4,500.”
In other words, they cost too much to not get the job done. The controllable robots were also short, which made it difficult to place the robot in a way that allowed the remote student a good view of the board. Enter Kubi, a telepresence robot by Revolve Robotics. It’s not a robot in the same sense as Rosie from the Jetsons. Kubi is actually a robotic stand that holds a tablet. In the case of Llano ISD, that tablet is an iPad and the telepresence experience is delivered via FaceTime. The Kubi stand turns from side to side or up and down to allow the remote student to look around the room. It’s sort of like a head, allowing the person FaceTiming in for a class to move in the same way they would if that student was actually present.
To make this solution work, a student must have a computer and an Internet connection. Llano ISD prefers to use a Mac to allow for FaceTime so if a student doesn’t have one, the district will provide it. The school needs the Kubi, a tablet and an Internet connection.