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Remote programming using Microsoft Teams

Everything has started when distance learning was imposed on us in March this year. We had to organize remote classes and we wanted these classes to make use of our students’ favorite tool – Photon Robot, and make the most of it. Our children did not have the school’s robots at home. Quickly we have realized that even at regular school classes with Photon Robot we were programming it remotely. 

It’s easy to connect your Photon Robot to a computer or tablet through Bluetooth, although it is a short-range solution. Therefore, the only thing that held back our children from using robots during their online lessons was the connection range – we had to extend it. In this post, I’d like to share our know-how knowledge on using Photon Robot in distance learning and allowing children to program it in real-time from their home computers.

How it works

To create an environment allowing remote operations you need two essential elements. The first one is a tunnel, which allows you to program the robot directly from the student’s computer via the teacher’s computer (the one connected to Photon Robot). The second one is a CCTV-like monitoring system. Adding a camera to this setup allows you to stream the real-time image of the surroundings of the robot, as well as to have control over its operation. After several rounds of tests, we’ve discovered that all these elements work best in a configuration with the Microsoft Teams platform. The MS platform allows screen sharing with the students as well as give control over your computer feature enabling children to control the robot. Moreover, if you use an additional user account it is possible to stream live video of the robot surroundings from a camera. Therefore, during preparations before your lesson, it is a good idea to ask your school administrator of the Microsoft Office 365 platform to create an additional free account, e.g. Photon_Video, and add it to the group/channel where the meeting will take place.

The connection procedure turns out to be very simple. 

  1. Use the Photon™ Magic Dongle to connect Photon Robot to your computer via the Photon™ Magic Bridge application. 
  2. Next, using Microsoft Teams start the class (e-meeting) through the dedicated channel in a group/class. 
  3. Join the same meeting on a separate tablet/smartphone using the additional account Photon_Video. Make sure to disable the microphone and speakers on this account. If there are two cameras on the tablet/smartphone, make sure to switch to the rear camera. 
  4. In the next step, you must share two screens – a screen from your computer (main account) with the Photon™ Magic Bridge application running and a screen from your tablet – the Photon_Video account. Students are free to choose between one of the two screens (application/video) using the Pin option. 
  5. Now, using the Give control option hand over control over your computer’s screen to your students, one by one. 
  6. In this setup, students can control Photon Robot from their computers via a tunnel to your computer. Children control or program the robot using the application you launched at the beginning. In more technical terms, the teacher’s computer becomes a host, and the student’s computer acts as a terminal allowing to control the robot. 

Monitoring your robot at work

The remote connection allowed us to discover many new educational possibilities while still making the best of Photon Robot. First of all, the camera that we place near the robot can be set up in four different ways. The first option is of course FPV (First Person View). Using attachments, you can place the camera directly on the robot, so that the driver-programmer can see exactly what is in front of the robot. This front view is perfect for playing games where children learn how to control the robot remotely, giving an additional advantage of searching for various objects in the close vicinity.

The second option is the driver’s view – your camera is positioned in such a way that you can partially see the robot – the head and ears. In this view, the robot’s body could be used as a reference point in regards to what is around, at the same time allowing for a more accurate distance assessment, i.e. between the robot and an obstacle.


The third option is a fixed position camera, for example on the ground, level with the robot. This camera view allows you to observe all the robot’s movements, e.g. during the execution of simple code where the programmer makes use of the Photon’s sensors. 

The fourth and last suggestion is the aerial view – simply grab the tablet or smartphone and show the robot from above. In a way, this is a universal solution as you can assist your student on the spot, e.g. by showing the way to go.

Team building

Another interesting option that emerged during the remote online classes is the potential for team building. It is not possible to control Photon Robot, write the code and monitor it at the same time. You either see the screen with the programming app or the camera image. Students must help each other here and this is a great opportunity to develop teamwork skills. The programmer is responsible for the coding but needs navigators. Navigators monitor the robot and report on the movements. It turned out, the navigators are not able to make the robot move without the programmer. Students are not able to see each other – so simple indications are not working here: “turn here, turn there”. They cannot point to show directions either. Children’s communication had to be clear, simple, and precise: turn left, drive straight now, move 10 centimeters forward. 

Remote programming – where to start

Once you have introduced students to the world of remote connection to the robot, it is time to play and program. The best way to start is to use the Joystick interface – the easy and simple way to control Photon Robot. This interface is ideal for games where you need to search for various objects. Place several objects on the floor and ask students to find them, i.e. drive up close enough to an object to make it clearly visible on the camera. Believe me, controlling the robot in the teacher’s house is already a huge fun for students. There was one more game that really caught on – ball-pushing – remote soccer with Photon Robot. And yet, we came up with another skill-developing task – creating an obstacle course and labyrinths with some building blocks. You can organize such tasks as tournaments where students practice their skills one by one or in groups and try to beat the time. 

Smart Home 

Nevertheless, remote programming is also a great way to make the best use of built-in sensors of Photon Robot and teach the concept of a smart home. After all, in many schools, this topic is now an essential part of the core curriculum for children aged 10 to 12. To make smart home classes a bit more realistic you might want to build a house for your robot. A simple house, made of cardboard or stacked building blocks. Sensors and lights in Photon Robot are great to show endless possibilities of programming a remotely controlled smart home. At first, students might learn how to switch on and switch off the lights in this house (eyes and ears being the light source). This useful feature is available right out of the box (the Joystick interface) or you can ask students to prepare a piece of code to light up the house automatically at dusk. This task is a great opportunity for you to talk about potential safety features and comfort features of a smart home, such as automatic driveway illumination. 

If you decide to use the sound sensor you can ask students to create a simple personal safety alarm for the Photon’s house. Moreover, if you place a speaker near the robot, students can remotely start the robot – use the voice activation feature, the same sound sensor. This is a great opportunity to introduce students to voice commands and explain that remotely transmitted voice commands are also an efficient element of a smart home.

Not surprisingly though, kids find sensor feedback programming in Scratch “the most awesome” feature. Using the distance sensor, you can create a program where Photon Robot alerts you when there is an intruder in a house. If a “thief” comes close enough to the house, your robotic guard sends an alert using the Scratch interface (e.g. the screen in Scratch turns red and a little ghost shouts “Thief, thief!”). Of course, there are other simpler ways to do that, e.g. you can create a simple program using the Blocks interface – if the thief is close, the robot sounds an alarm.  

One thing might seem to be problematic here – only one person at a time actually controls the robot and the rest is watching (navigating). Therefore, it is worthwhile to organize your tasks in such a way that all students are involved and to make sure there is still room for teamwork. There are simple ways to achieve that, for example, by using the interactive whiteboard feature that allows multiple users to participate in coding.

Benefits of remote programming

Robotics and programming in distance learning open up many new possibilities. First of all, students get a firsthand experience of remote cooperation and learn how to find solutions and program in a team. Secondly, we can show students how the remote controlling works, i.e. of smart houses, drones, rocket launching, or production lines. Showing how remote programming works is a great opportunity to prove that in the age of the Internet and the latest technology distance doesn’t matter. We can control robots as far as a few yards away or even several thousand miles away. 

To summarize, is distance learning with Photon Robot worth the effort? It’s definitely worth a try!

This article is based on the real experience of conducting remote classes in one of the primary schools in Katowice, Poland. If you are interested you can learn more about this project from our webinar Distance learning with Photon Robot (for now only in Polish).

Authors:

Sebastian Pontus – Photon EdTech Expert

An educator and teacher of early and pre-school education, as well as an English teacher. A methodologist in education and robotics and programming enthusiast with a vast experience in this domain – his achievements, among others: a finalist in the Polish edition of the International Lego Teacher Award 2018, an expert taking part in the British educational program Apps For Good (Areas of Expertise: Coding & Web Development), Masters of Robotics portal and website administrator, admin of several other groups Educational robots at schools, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, member of the Polish SuperTeachers group.

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