A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Take Me to My Diploma

By Cathy Cruise, MFA '93 on November 3, 2015


Like her fellow graduates, Erica Cohen, MEd Special Education ’15, was excited to attend her George Mason University convocation this spring.

Unlike them, Cohen attended from 250 miles away, with the help of a four-foot-tall robot.

Erica Cohen used a VGo robot to attend the College of Education and Human Development Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Erica Cohen used a VGo robot to attend the College of Education and Human Development Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation at the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

For the past two years, Cohen had been part of a cohort of Fairfax County (Virginia) teachers working on special education degrees at George Mason. She’d looked forward to graduating with her peers, but nixed those plans when she found out her daughter was graduating from Virginia Tech the same day.

Margaret Weiss, an assistant professor in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, suggested Cohen attend graduation using the school’s new VGo robot. Purchased two years ago for the school’s Assistive Technology Lab, the device is operated remotely by laptop or iPad through a Verizon network. Users move it around with a keyboard or mouse, and interact with others through an onboard computer screen and microphone.

Cohen had to practice a while before she could operate the VGo.

Erica Cohen attends her graduation virtually.

Erica Cohen attends her graduation virtually.

“I was a little nervous,” she admitted. “The first time I practiced, I scared somebody. I moved it into a dark classroom and said, ‘Hello, is anybody there?’ And I heard this scream.”

On graduation day, Cohen logged in from the Virginia Tech library, while fellow grad Andrew Orenstein watched over the robot on the Fairfax Campus. Cohen had a great view from her “seat” in the aisle, and could even zoom in to see the stage.

Originally designed to help doctors remotely visit patients, VGo robots are now used in many places, especially classrooms where homebound children need to attend class virtually.

Aside from Cohen, other Mason students have used it to attend class, with reasons ranging from broken bones to new babies.

Being able to move the device proved especially useful for one student who relocated to Canada, said Kristine Neuber, Assistive Technology Lab manager for the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human disAbilities. When the class broke into small groups, Neuber explained, “She was able to walk over to her group and be a part of it, as opposed to being up on some big screen somewhere in the room, like in typical videoconferencing.”

Weiss used the robot when doctoral students taught a class of hers while she was at a conference.

“It was their first opportunity teaching,” she said, “so I came into class on the VGo, watched what was going on, and gave them feedback.”

The VGo’s relatively inexpensive price of $6,000, plus $1,000 per year for maintenance, was paid for with a grant received by the Kellar Institute. The institute is hoping to expand the use of the VGo in school-based research.

Using the robot, Cohen said, was a great way to “put out there how assistive technology can make such a difference for a student.”

As a teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, she noted how one of her students would benefit from this device, since he is often too weak to come to school. “It was fun for me, but it seems essential for kids who can’t be in school for whatever reason.”


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