National | Regional Voices: Hiroshima

Avatar robot allows Hiroshima students to attend classes from hospital beds

Chugoku Shimbun

The education board in Hiroshima Prefecture has pioneered the use of a pint-sized “surrogate robot” to realize what was previously considered impossible: allowing hospitalized students to take classes remotely without being monitored by teachers.

The success of the board’s tech-savvy initiative, considered an educational first in Japan, has prompted the education ministry to relax rigid requirements that have long prevented many hospitalized high school students from qualifying for class attendance.

Under the board’s initiative, jointly developed with Hiroshima University Hospital, a 23-centimeter-tall robot called Orihime is placed in a classroom to act as an avatar for an ill student in the hospital. The Orihime robot simultaneously records and broadcasts the content of each class for hospitalized students to watch on their tablets, enabling them to take part in classes in real time.

Students not only can watch real-time footage but speak to their classmates or teachers through the robot as well. They can also command Orihime to move and make a variety of gestures, such as turning its head sideways and waving.

According to Hiroshima University Hospital, three students have so far used the system to attend classes remotely. The feedback, the hospital says, has largely been positive, with the students voicing delight at being connected to their classmates and even crediting the robot for cheering them up and inspiring them to work harder on their treatment.

The education ministry long stood by the position that high school students who take classes remotely must be physically accompanied by a teacher in order to qualify for attendance.

Hiroshima Prefecture’s education board, however, concluded that the virtual classroom system made possible by Orihime is enough to fulfill students’ attendance requirements even without them being monitored by a teacher in the same physical space.

As a result, the education board instructed schools under its jurisdiction on Nov. 20 to acknowledge the attendance of hospitalized students who use Orihime — on condition their progress is checked in on by their doctors and parents from time to time.

“We believe we were able to lay the groundwork for an environment where students can study with less to worry about,” an education board official said.

At the moment, however, the system is only made available for pupils at Hiroshima University Hospital, since close communication between schools and doctors — as well as the establishment of stable internet access — are deemed integral to its smooth operation.

The Hiroshima education board’s successful use of Orihime ultimately triggered a policy shift that the ministry said it had long mulled.

“Hiroshima Prefecture is probably the first education board to make such a decision in Japan. We hope this example of technology-driven educational assistance will spread to other regions as well,” an education ministry official said.

According to Hiroshi Kawaguchi, a pediatrician at Hiroshima University Hospital, the need for teachers to constantly monitor hospitalized students has long been seen as too rigid a requirement, having often resulted in students who are hospitalized for an extended period being disqualified from taking classes.

It is for this reason that doctors at the hospital began lobbying the prefecture’s education board to relax the requirement a few years ago.

“There were some kids in the past who worked really hard on their treatment, only to find out upon leaving the hospital that they’ve missed too many classes to graduate from school together with their classmates — they were so disappointed,” Kawaguchi said.

“But their dream is finally coming true.”

This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on Dec. 27.

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