Classroom robots in line for top award

Somerset County Council’s trail-blazing use of robot technology, to help poorly children learn, is in line for a top award – and has been commended nationally.

In the biggest initiative of its kind in the country, the Council invested in 50 AV1 robots to support children who can’t be in school – whether it’s because they are sick or overcoming physical or mental health challenges.

Now the project has been shortlisted in the Digital Transformation category of the national MJ Awards 2020. The winner is due to be announced in early October.

It has also been commended in the MJ’s Transforming Lives category and congratulated for the achievement in the light of record entries this year.

The AV1 robots take the place of the child in the classroom, letting them see, hear and contribute to lessons while they are out of school at home or in a hospital bed.

Schools and colleges can request use of the robots to work alongside or instead of traditional home tutor support. The 50 robots come at a cost of £145,000 and schools pay a rental fee that covers running costs with any ‘profit’ being reinvested in more of the robots.

Since being introduced late last year, 45 schools have already asked to use a robot to support children who cannot physically be in the classroom, including through the Covid-19 crisis.  The Council expects that in the new school year students who are still required to shield due to the Covid-19 situation will benefit hugely from the AV1 Robot scheme.

“It’s so rewarding to hear that our use of cutting-edge technology is being recognised at a national level. I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to Dr Julie Young for bringing these avatars to our attention and to everyone involved in making this scheme a reality,” said Councillor Faye Purbrick, Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation.

“Schools, families and students have shown that they are ready to embrace new technology to support ongoing participation in education and to ensure those who are unable to attend can still feel part of their school community. That will also be important for students shielding due to coronavirus.”

The robots are carried from lesson to lesson by a ‘buddy’ classmate. The child watches a secure livestream of their lessons on a tablet or phone – being able to ask questions, hear answers and move the robot’s head to look around the room.

This means they can carry on learning and, importantly, stay in touch with their friends and classmates while making the difficult journey back into the classroom.

Originally developed in Norway, national research in schools and hospitals has shown how successful this innovative technology can be. So have initial trials in Somerset and the authority expects to see the investment lead to increased attendance and attainment.

Nationally, there are an estimated 72,000 pupils who are frequently absent from school due to long-term illness. In Somerset, 35 children are referred for extra support for medical reasons every year.