SPARTA, NJ - A virtual student will be attending Sparta Township schools. The VGo was introduced at the December board of education meeting. Presented by Dr. Daniel Johnson, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Danielle Hamblin Director of Special Services and Michael Cronin Technology Coordinator the computerized devise on wheels will be standing in for students who are not able to attend school.
Officially called a Robotic Telepresence, the classroom tool will be available when school resumes after the winter break. The technology allows a student receiving bedside tutoring to attend school remotely from anywhere, according to Johnson’s presentation.
“Students on long term home instruction or who have frequent leaves of absences are candidates for the VGo,” Johnson said.
Sparta school district Special Services has purchased the $6,000 unit using funds through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA grant money. Johnson said the district anticipates it will initially be used in Helen Morgan School and Sparta Middle School.
The VGo was demonstrated for the board and audience. It was operated by Carlos Chappara from the district’s technology department, who was in the conference room down the hall from the meeting. Through the machine Chappara was able to talk and listen to the discussion, demonstrating several of the features including moving around the room and the flashing lights that indicate the student is raising a hand from home to participate.
A built-in screen can display the face of the student from home or be switched off for privacy as needed. Hamblin explained the sound can also be muted. She said this is important for several reasons including to allow for the student to receive medical treatments.
Standing approximately four feet tall with the screen at the top the VGo assumes a seat in the classroom allowing the homebound student to feel connected to classmates and teachers. The head can even tilt to follow the action in the room, look at demonstrations on a desk top and see the board, Hamblin explained.
There is also a text to speech interface “in case a student can’t speak,” Hamblin said.
It is “bottom heavy so it does not tip over,” Cronin said as Chappara made the VGo drive over a bump on the floor.
Hamblin and Johnson said some of the challenges to the VGo’s use are stairs and wifi connectivity in the student’s home. They explained sensors stop the VGo from rolling off the edge of the steps.
The district has the ability to provide sufficient wifi to allow the VGo’s use in a home with insufficient coverage. An instructional technology assistant will be in the home as well, while home-bound instruction is in use.
“Operating it is a lot like playing a game,” Johnson said. He explained driving it is similar to driving a remote-controlled toy car.
Like a Roomba, the VGo will dock itself to recharge.
The initiative is currently in use in other area districts including Chester, Vernon, Mount Olive and Lopatcong. In addition to education the technology is also being used in healthcare and the workplace.
Board members expressed support for the initiative.
“We’re cutting edge,” Hamblin said.