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Robots might be able to help pupils with disabilities

Pupils with muscular atrophy may benefit from attending school via a robot. It could help them be present without them needing to expend energy on attending in person. In the long term, this could help create greater educational equality for people with disabilities, says the researcher behind the project.

by Nanna Stærmose

Imagine being able to attend math class while lying in bed at home. Not via a screen like we have become accustomed to, but actually present. This may be the future.

“A telepresence robot is much more than an online connection via Teams. Firstly, you’ll be able to participate much more actively because you’ll be able to look around the room since the robot can turn its head and raise its hand. And attending class via a little robot will also make you more of a presence to your classmates than if you were only there via a screen,” says Sofie Skoubo, who has a Master of Science in Public Administration and is currently a PhD student at the Danish Rehabilitation Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases and No Isolation. The latter is a Norwegian robotics firm that produces the telepresence robots that are part of Sofie Skoubo’s PhD project.

Robots can create accessibility

Why do we even need robots in the classroom?

Sofie Skoubo has two answers to that question. In the short term, robots can help reduce absences by pupils with neuromuscular diseases such as muscular atrophy, who sometimes have less energy than their friends or are hospitalised for periods of time, etc.

“If they can be present via a robot then they won’t miss out on teaching and the social aspects of being in class, which in turn will ensure that they won’t have fallen between the cracks once they return,” says Sofie Skoubo.

In the long term, she believes that this could reduce inequality in education and ultimately reduce inequality in terms of access to the labour market between individuals with a disability and people without disabilities.

“We know from previous studies that people with disabilities often have a lower level of education than average, perhaps robot technology will be a way of helping more people get an education,” says Sofie Skoubo.

She herself has made it far in the education system despite the fact that she has muscular atrophy, but she does not hide the fact that she might have benefitted from the help of a robot during her schooling.

“When you’re a child, you just want to be like everybody else, and that meant I sometimes over-exerted myself beyond what I could handle physically. When that happened, it might have helped me if there were days where I could’ve been present via robot,” she says.

A robot can be for everyone

Sofie Skoubo’s PhD project consists of three studies. The first study examines legislation in relation to absenteeism from teaching in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In Denmark, if children and young people are absent more than 15 days, then they must receive home schooling. However, according to Sofie Skoubo, many pupils do not receive this and she wants to find out why. The second study looks at the children’s perspective and what it’s like to have a telepresence robot as an aide, so they can complete an education on equal footing with their classmates. The last study examines the perspective of the teacher and what it’s like to have a robot in the classroom and what it requires.

“There are many hurdles connected to having a robot in the classroom and this is one of the things I’d like to take a closer look at. It’ll also be interesting to see whether the robot can actually help. We know that it can have positive impact socially, but we don’t yet know whether it’s an aide academically,” says Sofie Skoubo.

Finally, there is also the Universal Design perspective. A robot could also benefit the rest of the class.

“It’s not just children with a physical disability who might benefit from participating in teaching from home. Who knows, in twenty years robots might be in every classroom as an integrated part of teaching,” she says.

More about the project

The PhD project was started in the spring of 2022.

The project is being funded by No Isolation and the Research Council of Norway. Twenty AV1 robots are being used at primary and lower secondary schools and upper secondary schools across Scandinavia as part of the project.

Sofie Skoubo

PhD student at the Department of Public Health, Aarhus University and based at the Danish Rehabilitation Centre for Neuromuscular Disease in Aarhus

Her PhD project examines how robots can assist children and young people with neuromuscular diseases during their school years

Member of the Bevica Foundation’s interdisciplinary research network

Read more research profiles