This article is written by researchers from the Research Centre for Digitalisation of Public Services and Citizenship (CEDIC).
After schools closed on March 12th, 2020, almost all children in Norway have felt the consequences of social isolation. During this period in which schools were closed, we heard about children who were afraid of being neglected, whilst also missing their friends and their teachers.
For some children and young people, this has been their everyday life for months and years. Young people with cancer, chronic pain or fatigue must be kept home from school on a regular basis. The costs can be high. School is a space not only for learning, but also for play, friendship and human connections.
One form of technology that can make everyday life easier for children unable to attend school is the communication robot AV1. AV1 is designed for isolated children to participate both socially and in their education. We have spent the last three years studying children and young people's experiences with the robot.
Our findings show that the device can make contact between home, friends, and school easier — but it requires both effort and facilitation in school and at home.
A robot that promotes active participation
AV1 offers a social connection between two parties who are separated physically: teachers and students at school and a child at home. The robot is placed in the classroom while the child follows along via their mobile phone or tablet.
Using an app, the child can see, hear and talk to those in the classroom. The app also allows the child to adjust the sound level of the robot, "raise their hand" by flashing a light on the robot's head, and rotate the robot 360 degrees horizontally, as well as 40 degrees vertically. The robot thus offers a greater degree of control and participation than traditional video chat technology.
Helping children stay connected
In a qualitative study we conducted, we examined the experiences of 37 children and young people who have used the robot in everything from kindergartens to upper secondary schools. Before we started collecting data, we must admit that we were sceptical. AV1 had received considerable press coverage, and we perceived the robot as a fun, but slightly naïve, invention. We were therefore surprised that almost half of the total sample group described themselves as "very satisfied" with the robot.
The children especially appreciated that AV1 enabled them to have contact with their friends. Children unable to attend school can easily experience loneliness, especially during the day, when friends are busy with their life at school. For some, loneliness is painful and traumatic. One mother believed that the robot helped her 16-year-old son feel that he "was not completely alone in the world".
For the full potential of the communication robot to be realised, we recommend that the authorities clarify privacy issues pertaining to the use of robots in schools.– Lars E. F. Johannessen and Marit Haldar
Several people also appreciated that the robot can be used as a learning tool. Although it is not equally suitable for all lessons, it is often well suited for blackboard teaching. This was particularly emphasised by older users, who are often encouraged to follow a conventional study progression.
Many also pointed out that AV1 use requires far less energy from the students than physically attending school. When they can participate from home, under controlled conditions, they can experience social contact and learn even on days when they are not able to go to school physically.
Challenging to use for some
For technical, individual and bureaucratic reasons, not everyone succeeded in using AV1. Schools objected to the use of robots. Principals were often unsure about how the robot related to privacy legislation, especially in the wake of the EU's new privacy law, GDPR. Several teachers also expressed scepticism about having video technology in the classroom.
Many children have struggled to establish a stable internet connection with the robot. They have also experienced inconsistent audio and image quality and therefore received a limited benefit from the use of these robots.
Some children and young people turned out to be too ill to use the robot. This was especially true for those who experience fatigue, who can be very sensitive to sensory impressions.
Several users of the robots also lacked adequate support. Those who want to borrow an expensive AV1 must themselves have a conversation with the school about use of the robot. This task often falls onto their parents or guardians, who already shoulder too many responsibilities. Many felt powerless in the face of the school's bureaucracy. Some gave up and sent the robot back without having been able to use it at all.
Need for systemic changes
AV1, in other words, has great, but still largely untapped potential. For the full potential of the communication robot to be realised, we recommend that the authorities clarify privacy issues pertaining to the use of robots in schools.
The Ministry of Education and Research has previously commented on AV1 and privacy, but in an ambiguous way. The Ministry should therefore, in consultation with the Norwegian Data Protection Authority, develop a legal clarification for the use of robots. Schools and municipalities should also take greater responsibility for obtaining and distributing AV1.
In doing so, they will be able to relieve the parents of this burden, gather experience and information, and establish ground rules and best practices for robot users. In this way, we will be taking important steps toward including those who may otherwise be excluded.
Keys to success
Three important keys to success in using the AV1 are:
- A commitment on the part of the school to using the robot?
- Sufficiently good and stable internet connection, both in the school and at the user’s home?
- Necessary training of the teachers in using the robot?
The earlier in the process these questions are clarified, the greater the chance of success with the robot. With proper planning, the use of the robot can be of significant help for children who are unable to attend school physically.
The study was commissioned by the Gjensidige Foundation, which, following an application process, lends robots free of charge to private individuals and organisations. Interested readers can read the entire report here (in Norwegian only): "Can a robot help children with long-term illnesses? Experiences with AV1 in school (PDF from OsloMet Skriftserien)".