A little larger than a milk carton, the avatar looks like a modern bust: an oval head on a rectangular bust, both made of glossy white plastic. When it is on, a pair of eyes will appear on the face.
On the forehead there are two black dots: camera and microphone. Through them, Leonie can see and hear what the avatar sees and hears on her tablet. Leonie is 14 and has cancer. That’s why she can’t go to school alone at the moment. She has been in class through the avatar for a few weeks and she is still trying to figure out how best to do it.
“The first time, I was standing on the teacher’s table, which is in front of me, and I could see everyone doing group work and things like that. I could watch everyone and not participate “.
The robot is now on Leonie’s friends’ school desk, much better! Leonie can control the robot via an app.
“So you can mute it, make it louder, quieter and then you can even swipe the screen on the screens, if you move right, turn your head to the right or if you get up, turn your head up. And you can also present yourself in such a way. not to want to talk to you “.
Your friends know what that means.
“I don’t even know what color she is when she answers. – I think it’s white then and you blink? – Yeah, exactly. But if it’s blue, then she doesn’t want to be spoken to, and if that thing flashes under her head, then must be charged – Then it flashes red.
The connection to the class is maintained
Leonie attends the Grünau Comprehensive School in Berlin. Your class teacher, Mrs. Schindler, quickly got used to the robot:
“Maybe in the first hour you are a little nervous or afraid that the technology is not working. But then you get used to it very quickly and the feeling that we can continue working together with Leonie is much stronger than the excitement. This really gives Leonie. the opportunity to stay in touch with the class “.
Leonie received the avatar from Renate Fischer. She is a social worker in the pediatric oncology department of the Charité Berlin.
“I think an advantage is that they actually take up some space, even in the classroom, that someone is also present somewhere, even if now it’s just this device. But somewhere that obviously seems to be more present in the classrooms than if they were tuning into it any other way. “
Children can remain part of their class
Renate Fischer supports and advises families when a child has cancer. School is a big problem. Many children cannot attend classes regularly for a long time. There is a home school and teachers in the hospital. But through the avatar, they can remain part of their class community and participate in the usual lessons, so that no one can see them. This is important to Leonie.
“If you’re not doing so well now, but you can still take part in the lessons, not everyone has to see you now, so absolutely. It’s stupid otherwise. With the zoom or something, you almost have to leave the camera on. That’s why I think. that it is better this way “.
Charité’s pediatric oncology department has been using avatars since 2018 and has now purchased eight.
“So one thing is that they are relatively expensive to buy. But we also have to pay annual taxes. ”
The purchase of a robot costs just under 4,500 euros, and the program adds 900 euros a year from the second year onwards.
“And at the moment it’s all on a donation basis, so we can offer it to children regardless of their parents’ income.”
Besides funding avatars, the other big issue is data protection. The avatar broadcasts a live stream. So it doesn’t make recordings or screenshots. However, all classmates and their parents must give their consent before the robot can enter the classroom. Luckily it wasn’t a problem for Leonie. After an online evening with the parents, everyone gave their consent, much to the delight of Leonie’s parents.
“We also give the avatar a very good chance that it can come to the next class as well, that it just doesn’t lose this class, this class level or have to repeat it. This is actually the biggest concern we have.”
An almost normal school day
Because for Leonie, the avatar is a long-term project. She certainly won’t be able to go back to school on her own until next year. Her friends are very much hoping that Leonie will be able to return to the same class with them.
“We want to keep Leonie in our class.”
Until then, Leonie has to make do with the avatar.
“It’s cool on the one hand, because you’re still there and you don’t miss out on school so much. So what can you stop. But on the one hand I think it’s stupid, because you’re only there on the Internet. I’d rather be in school, mainly because of the my friends. There are also funny phases where you have to laugh “.
Of course, if you’re not sitting in class alone, you’re missing out on a bit. However, the avatar can allow for a normal school day. As normal as it is, from a robot.