They are 40cm tall, made of white plastic, and don’t look like your average students, but robot avatars have taken their place in the classroom at Cambridge University – to help two mothers with new-born babies continue their Masters degrees in Genomic Medicine.

I get the avatar set up and my daughter goes through the module with me every day.

Neeta Lakhani

Neeta Lakhani and another fellow student are NHS professionals, full-time mothers and part-time students who fell pregnant and gave birth to their children while studying for the Genomic Medicine Masters Programme. Cambridge is believed to be the first university to have used the avatars for classroom teaching.

Using the avatars, which were originally designed to help schoolchildren with long-term illnesses continue their studies, both Neeta and her classmate were able to carry on (virtually) attending their classes in a more profound and engaging way than simply viewing a livestream of the lectures they were missing, or using platforms such as Skype.

The avatars have microphones, speakers and can move their heads to view both teachers, classmates and presentations – enabling the students to listen, ask questions, talk and interact with classmates and supervisors both during lectures and at breaks.

If the babies are crying, then both mothers can mute the microphones at home so as not to disturb the classroom environment. If they wish to ask a question in class, they can activate a flashing light on the avatar to signal their wish to speak.

Neeta, who alongside her daughter Aniya was filmed for Channel Four News, said: “The way we do it is that that we all get up as we normally do and I get Aniya set up and I get the avatar set up on this end and she just goes through the module with me every day. Whenever she needs attention, I’m able to give it to her without disrupting the class by putting the avatar on silent from my end, but still being able to hear. As soon as she’s settled, I’m able to go back to the avatar.

“I’ve actually found that I’ve concentrated more being at home because it gives me the opportunity to be able to do the two things that I needed to do in the environment that I can most easily do it in. Obviously, the alternative would have been to be in Cambridge and her not be there and I think that would have been very distracting.”


Sarah Morgan, Scientific Training Coordinator at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), said: “This was a bit of an experiment for us, but I would say it’s a successful one. The robot avatars allowed the two students to participate without physically being in the room. Using the avatars allowed the students to continue their training while caring for their new-borns. It’s certainly inspired us to think outside the box in terms of the needs of our students.”

The Genomics Medicine Masters Programme is a joint Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) and School of Clinical Medicine course for the University of Cambridge, delivered in collaboration with EMBL-EBI, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and the Wellcome Genome Campus Advanced Courses and Scientific Conferences.

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