By Nicole Greco
Like all kindergarteners, Henry Chang is practicing his letters and numbers right along with his classmates. But instead of learning all these lessons in his Mt. Pleasant School classroom in West Orange, he’s there through a robot.
While undergoing cancer treatment at home, Henry uses VGo, a remote-controlled avatar which provides a live two-way video stream. VGo allows users to see, hear, move and speak remotely as though they were in there in person. Henry is able to watch his teacher, and he converses with his friends by controlling the four-foot robot from a laptop. The technology is allowing him to stay in school and keep up with his classmates.
According to his principal, despite the distance, Henry’s excelling academically and socially.
“He’s thriving in kindergarten,” said Principal Julie DiGiacomo, “When Henry is not in class, but present virtually, the children will include him in activities.
On a recent visit, I witnessed a child call him over to her table saying ‘Henry come over here’ and Henry moved his robot to the table.”
The robot was provided to the Mt. Pleasant School by The Valerie Fund, a Maplewood-based nonprofit which assists children with cancer and blood disorders. While VGo is also used in healthcare settings, allowing doctors to connect with patients in other locations, the implications for success in the classroom compelled The Valerie Fund to help the children they serve return to the classroom. Over the past two years, The Valerie Fund has equipped 20 local students with a VGo, allowing them to interact in classroom discussions, attend school assemblies and share after-school activities. Commenting on the success of The Valerie Fund’s VGo program, Morristown Medical Center- Goryeb Children’s Hospital Educational Liason Joann Spera noted that a robotic telepresence would allow sick and injured students a more well-rounded education.
“School districts try to accommodate special needs by providing online courses, in-home tutors, special busing, videoconferencing and more,” said Spera. “These options are limiting since students, particularly in middle school and high school, miss out on the classroom experience and social life that comes with attending school.”
Trading several school services for each homebound student for one machine could carry significant savings in the future. DiGiacomo says the technology is “changing the way that we view instruction.”
Henry, through VGo, attends a full school day. While several hours of activity can be tiresome sometimes, Henry is “really enjoying school,” according to his father, Henry Chang.
While the five-year-old is expected to finish treatment for neuroblastoma next month, his father says “he’s looking forward to getting back to doing the things he loves, like swimming.” His classmates can’t wait to see him, too, many of whom he knows from pre-school. There will be plenty of teachers and older students looking forward to greeting him as well. The West Orange School District holds a very special place for his family; his parents are teachers in the district and met each other on the job. Henry’s mother, Heather Young, is a fine arts teacher at West Orange High School and his father is an instructional aide at Roosevelt Middle School.
According to DiGiacomo, the students and his teacher have all found it easy to welcome Henry and his VGo. While they’re waiting for Henry to join them at their tables in person next month, the kindergarteners, both human and android proxy, will continue focusing on their alphabet and counting.