What the children don’t know

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By Sutton Eaves

PEBBLES, a Ryerson project that takes class to kids is snubbed in the country that made it.

Six-year old Thomas Palmisano has high hopes of going to university and becoming an actor, but before he can get to Hollywood, he has to get through grade one.

Diagnosed with a moderate case of cerebral palsy, Thomas has the cognitive abilities of a normal child. And while he also has many of the physical characteristics of an able-bodied child. Thomas cannot walk. He is confined to a walker

“Basically, he’s got a physical disability. He’s very smart – cognitively, he’s totally there. But he cannot walk or dress himself. My goal is for him to be mobile one day, like other children,” said his mother, Sandra Palmisano.

There are plenty of therapy programs available to children like Thomas, but that most of them are at least five weeks long.

“Taking him out of school for five weeks? That’s a serious decision,” Palmisano said.

“If I knew technology existed that would allow Thomas to continue his school – [technology] that really worked and was accessible to someone like me – I would be able to consider these therapies a lot more seriously,” she said.

It just so happens that the technology does exist. What doesn’t exist is a major Canadian investor that could bring this technology to those who need it most – kids like Thomas Palmisano.

The technology is called PEBBLES, an acronym for Providing Education by Bringing Learning Environments to Students, and it’s the newest member of elementary schools throughout North America. The project is a collaboration between Ryerson, the University of Toronto, and a manufacturing company.

Developed in 1996, PEBBLES allows children in a hospital or home to care situation to take part in regular classroom activities via a two-unit computerized system. The school unit is a yellow, egg shaped robot with a 15-inch monitor on the front that displays a live, full-sized image of the child’s face on it. Children can control the robot with a game-pad, similar to ones used in Nintendo entertainment systems, that raises a robotic arm, turns the “head” in all directions, and allows children to speak and listen to their peers and teacher.

A camera on the unit at school transmits audiovisual information from the classroom to the hospital, enabling the child to hear, see what is happening, participate in lessons and other classroom activities. PEBBLES even comes complete with a built-in fax machine so tasks can be assigned and completed on the spot.

Deborah Fels, a professor at the school of information technology management, was one of three people who helped create the first PEBBLES prototype in 1996.

“Kids with disabilities tend to be in and out of hospitals which impacts their success rates,” Fels said. “We wanted to do something to help. I mean, there are things these kids need in order to participate and achieve the academic goals they may have.”

She worked in collaboration with Graham Smith of Telbotics Inc., the company that manufactures the machine, and researcher Jutta Treviranus of the University of Toronto’s Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.

Fels said that one of the biggest challenges to children who spend significant time away from school is the social isolation they suffer, and the difficulty of coming back and fitting into the class.

She said PEBBLES allows them to stay fully involved in both the social and academic aspects of their schooling by maintaining the child’s physical presence in the classroom.

“Kids who came back to school say it was like they were never gone. Their friends would see them on PEBBLES on Friday and then in person on Monday. And, they don’t have to catch up on any schoolwork. The results have been very positive.”

Fels says that within a day, most of the students forget that there is a robot in the class. Because of the realistic audiovisual capabilities of PEBBLES, it is simply as though the hospitalized child is right there with them.

“Some kids would spend recess in the classroom with PEBBLES, even kids not even in the class. There was often a big line-up to go visit PEBBLES and talk to the child.”

Ending last January, eight pilot studies were carried out in hospitals in Vancouver, Montreal, northern Ontario, Kleinburg, and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children over the past four years. The results were very positive, and so, Ryerson contracted Telbotics to begin producing the units.

Michael McHale, president of Telbotics Inc., said PEBBLES is not an average two-way video-conferencing system in that an actual physical presence is felt in the classroom as opposed to just a digital image on a television screen.

“This is where PEBBLES is so special – it prevents interruption of the educational process and helps maintain contact with the child’s social network.”

While this special piece of technology is attracting contracts in the U.S., the Canadian government has shown no interest in purchasing any PEBBLES units so far.

A year ago, Telbotics entered into a contract with the U.S government to provide 16 PEBBLES units to six hospitals across the U.S. Rosa Delaura, a congresswoman from Conneticut, helped secure the $975,000 contract by adopting the PEBBLES project as a sponsored discretionary funding request.

“Which basically means the U.S can cut a cheque for us,” said McHale.

Currently, Telbotics is waiting for the word on an extension of this contract, which includes the purchase of another 25 units, is worth $2.2 million in states such as California, Washington, and Texas.

In Canada, the response has been less positive. Despite the Ontario government’s involvement in the project, which they showcased at a 1998 government-sponsored technology conference, the provincial educational parties have not show any serious financial interest in PEBBLES.

“They [provincial government] love showing up for events and basking in the sunlight of this new technology, but when you actually sit down with them, no one wants to commit,” said McHale.

Some government-sponsored research grants have been awarded to the PEBBLES project, but nothing substantial, said Fels.

Telbotics, along with new-found partner IBM’s Global Financing division, even proposed a leasing agreement to the government, under which IBM would purchase the units from Telbotics and lease them to the government at a competitive rate.

“This is something that should be made available to every special needs child in the province,” said McHale.

The government obviously didn’t agree. Officials turned down Telbotics’ offer, and no contract with federal or provincial governments in Canada has been made to date.

Ted Zwibel, the PEBBLES project business manager, said he is frustrated by the lack of Canadian government interest, especially since it was created in Ontario by three Canadian organizations.

“The Ontario government could at least tell every school and every hospital that they could have access to equipment that would keep sick children in school, and that they wouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said.

Zwibel says there are many avenues the government could explore, including buying the idea altogether and mass-producing it cheaper than Telbotics could ever hope to.

But both Zwibel and McHale don’t foresee any government support in the future though.

“I don’t think there’s a focus on Canada at all. We will end up being a by-the-way,” said Zwibel.

“We hope that once we install units in the U.S., the publicity they will create will generate sales in Canada,” said McHale. “But we may just decide to move our business down to the US completely.”


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