Reading, Writing and Robotics: Baylor to Use Remotely-Controlled "Telepresence" to Aid School Districts Hurting from Funding Cuts in Cultural Education

  • News Photo 5324
    VGo could offer "Pied Piper" tours at Armstrong Browning, featuring such library treasures as illustrations inspired by poet Robert Browning's poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and a stained-glass window with an image of the tale.
  • News Photo 5323
    Baylor plans to use the VGo robot for cultural education in public schools. Pictured with the VGo is Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of University Libraries at Baylor.
Nov. 16, 2011

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A sleek white remotely-controlled robot soon will be used by Baylor University Libraries to enrich future curriculum for children in grades K-12 across Texas and perhaps the nation.

The VGo robot will be demonstrated by staffers from Baylor University Libraries at an area education summit in Waco on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Funding for cultural aspects of education has been cut drastically in many public schools, but "cultural experiences are very important to a child's education. We'd like to see that restored," said Pattie Orr, vice president for information technology and dean of University Libraries at Baylor.

Baylor has committed to purchase a VGo robot, a four-foot-tall device which allows a user to see through its camera, hear through its microphone and interact through its speakers. Rather than simply providing a virtual tour of museums, art galleries and libraries, it can deliver instruction to schools by making conversation possible between the user -- who directs it remotely with a computer mouse -- and those at a different site, who can view the user on the robot's screen, said Tim Logan, assistant vice president of the Electronic Library at Baylor University.

"This is a new and different use for the VGo," said John Nye, vice president of sales and business development for New Hampshire-based VGo Communications Inc. The robot currently is used by businesses and for enabling students with disabilities or immune-deficiencies to attend school without leaving home.

The VGo will make its Waco debut at "Designing Our Future," the Greater Waco Community Education Alliance Summit, at Waco Convention Center, with presentations on Thursday by Orr and John Korb, a distance learning and advanced applications specialist with Texas Education Telecommunications Network.

Baylor, Education Service Center Region 12 and the Texas Education Telecommunications Network are exploring how best to use the VGo to enrich learning for school districts.

"We're planning to provide content and services from Baylor, but the robot could be used in various venues," Logan said. "Our ideas for Baylor locations include virtual tours of Armstrong Browning Library, The Texas Collection and possibly Mayborn Museum Complex, for starters. The robot could provide access to resources that many schools don't have.

"We've got the technology, the places and the partners, but now we're looking forward to program content," he said. "We're optimistic we can deliver unique material. For this to work, it really needs to be matched up with educational goal elements for the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness) test and specific curricular goals."

Besides having wireless video-conferencing capability, the robot can be guided from room to room by the user. It integrates a camera, microphones and video display on a light-weight, motorized, remote-controlled platform.

"The user can see and be seen, hear and be heard," Logan said. "It pivots, and the camera can go up and down and zoom in. It can't open doors, punch an elevator button or go down stairs, but it has sensors to prevent it from going off the edge of steps or bumping into a wall.

"From a social and psychological standpoint, it's amazing," he said.

Virginia DuPuy, executive director of Greater Waco Community Education Alliance, predicted children will be delighted.

"I tend to personalize, and I see this as a little fellow you can talk to and see some of the amazing resources at Baylor, like its libraries and museums," she said. "The potential is huge for classrooms and homebound children."

Teachers would need special software to connect to it -- perhaps through a preconfigured laptop -- as well as a camera for the connecting computer and a computer projector or large screen for group viewing, Logan said.

"Baylor is working to develop a portable pre-set 'laptop in a bag' or a 'network in a bag' to make it easy for our classroom partners to connect with our robot," Orr said.

A promising possibility for the robot's use would be the "Pied Piper tours" for fifth-graders at Baylor's Armstrong Browning Library. The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and his magic flute inspired 19th-century poet Robert Browning to write his beloved poem.

The library's Pied Piper treasures -- including books, artifacts, manuscripts and illustrations -- would be accessible to students who cannot physically make the trip, said Rita S. Patteson, director of Armstrong Browning Library.

The poem is set in the year 1376, when the German town of Hamelin is overrun by rats. The mayor hires a piper to rid the town of the plague by playing his magic flute and leading the rats to drown in a river. Once they are gone, the town council reneges on its promise, offering the piper 50 guilders instead of the promised 1,000. The piper again plays his flute and the town's children follow him to a hill. A portal opens and the children disappear, never to be seen again.

Browning was a friend of actor-manager William Macready, and when Macready's eldest son Willie became ill and bed-ridden, Browning composed two poems for the boy's entertainment to read and illustrate: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" and "The Cardinal and the Dog."

Among the library's treasures are the original pencil sketches drawn by Willie and the boy's thank-you letter to Browning, as well as the poet's copy of Wonders of the Little World, which contains his manuscript of "The Cardinal and the Dog" written in the margin. The exhibit case also includes a tiny Pied Piper with rats hand-carved from ivory and a framed silhouette of the piper, colored with iridescent butterfly wings, as he leads the children.

Reproductions of Pied Piper illustrations by artist C. Walter Hodges are displayed in a library stairwell, and a stained glass "Pied Piper" window was installed at Baylor in 1924, when Browning Collection founder Dr. A.J. Armstrong staged a "Pied Piper Festival" at Baylor, with Waco school children enacting the poem for an audience of hundreds.

Large groups of fifth-graders took the tours during the late 1950s through the mid-1990s. But attendance began to decline a decade ago as schools' budgets were cut, limiting field trips, Patteson said. The tours, which include a 45-minute video of the Faerie Tale Theatre's version of the play, are available upon request during the academic year.

The presentation -- "Reading, Writing, and Robots: Using remote-control video conferencing for instructional enrichment" --will be given from 1:45 to 3 p.m. and also from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Waco Convention Center, 100 Washington Ave., in Room South 118. The summit, which is open to the public, takes place from Wednesday, Nov. 16, through Friday, Nov. 18. Cost is $35 for Wednesday night, $25 for Thursday and $5 for Friday.

For more information about the summit or to register, call (254) 741-0081. On-site registration also will be available.

ABOUT BAYLOR

Baylor University is a private Christian university and a nationally ranked research institution, classified as such with "high research activity" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university provides a vibrant campus community for approximately 15,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating university in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 11 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE BAYLOR UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES

The Baylor University Libraries connect people with ideas in support of teaching, learning, scholarship and academic distinction. The Baylor University Libraries are comprised of the Moody Memorial Library, Jones Reference Library, Electronic Library, W.R. Poage Legislative Library, Armstrong Browning Library and The Texas Collection.

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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