Bridging the Gaps

School in the Hospital and Domiciliary Learning

Milan (I), November 2010 - What happens if a child needs to be taken out of school due to long-term illness or an accident? In one complicated case, a young person even needed to live permanently - and receive his schooling - on a boat due to a specifically harsh case of allergies! How can children in such circumstances still be offered access to education? CHECK.point eLearning asked Matteo Uggeri from Milan, who is involved in the development of groundbreaking concepts to provide a centralized system of distance education for children in hospitals or home care in Italy.

To teach hospitalized children seems like a very difficult undertaking, requiring highly individualized assistance and great technical effort. How do you achieve this?

Matteo Uggeri: Well, of course it's not exactly the kind of situation where a pure online distance-education solution will work. In our case, and I speak for Italy, there is a national plan that provides two kinds of solutions for children who are ill and cannot attend the lessons: school in the hospital and domiciliary learning.

The first one is a solution that depends on whether the particular hospital can organize classrooms in the wards, etc. To do this, the hospital administration needs, of course, support from schools. In the second case, some schools may provide teachers who can go directly - on a spontaneous basis - into the houses and provide personal lessons for children who are forced, for instance, to stay in bed for a long period.

As you can imagine, this is a huge effort for single structures, and therefore there's a need for national support, which is provided by the government itself by the Divisione per lo Studente (Department for Students) at the Ministry of Education, Research and Universities. Moreover, each region has a responsible person at its USR (Regional Scholastic Unit) and also has its own "Pole School", a school that is in charge of taking care of both situations on a regional level.

Therefore, this can be a total mess without a centralized system that supports everything and can coordinate the efforts. It is in this type of situation that eLearning and online solutions can be very useful. We at the METID Centre of Politecnico di Milano have designed a complex portal that allows centralization of the information about all the hospitals, the schools, and the teachers involved.

This helps a lot every category, from the final user, usually the parents of ill children (who can find the information about how to keep on providing the education for their offspring), to the person responsible at the regional level (who can collect data about the flows of hospitalized children), to the ministry (which has the overall control of the resources allocated in each city, province, and region).

Moreover, we have developed a system to support the communication among all the actors involved in the process (mainly teachers and students) with the classic online tools: forums, chat, agendas, etc.

Please describe the special case of the "Bubble Boys".

Matteo Uggeri:
Usually "bubble boys" are children who are forced to live at home and in a very particular and dedicated environment. The reason is often a strong intolerance of things that can seriously endanger their health, for instance kids with a failed immune system.

Every case is completely different, and of course it's very difficult to provide an education for such people. Of course their health is the most important issue, but to help them obtain a normal education is really, really fundamental, also because it helps them to establish social relations.

As you can imagine, eLearning is more than useful in most of these cases because with videoconference systems and internet, the school can reach the children in their homes.

Which experiences can you generalize?

Matteo Uggeri: That's a really good question, but it's extremely difficult to generalize. Honestly, at this moment, we're still at the early stages of experience in Italy.

Our case is not an easy one. We're now working with Niky Frascisco (it's a public story, so the name is well known), a child who has participated in his lectures from a boat since the first day of school. He suffers from a particular form of strong allergy, so only living on a boat can allow him to avoid having to take tons of pills to survive.

At the beginning, the whole thing was in the sole hands of his parents, who proposed the videoconference system to many school in Italy to allow him to follow lessons. With a great deal of effort, they found sponsors to support them: Fondazione Telecom Italia, Telespazio on the technological side and then UNICEF and Guardia di Finanza on the social and logistic side.

It was very difficult for them to find a school that was prepared to cope with videoconferencing and whiteboards. (It was 2002, and you cannot imagine how many teachers where skeptical about it... and today the situation is not very different!). Fortunately, they finally made contact with the Capaci School in the Sicily where they found two dedicated, proactive teachers, Donatella Lo Bosco and Giuseppe Viola, who took care of all the content and materials required for the complete learning path until high school.

When Niky reached the high-school level, there was a need for something more than a videoconference and some technology enthusiasts and experts, so the boy's parents asked the ministry directly to for some help.

As the ministry was already working with us in METID on the above-mentioned PSO portal, they asked us to provide methodologies and technologies for Niky, which we were happy to do. We kept on using the videoconference and whiteboard system as it is, which was renewed and transferred to the Liceo Scientifico school in Salerno, which Niky chose, but we planned a training path for the teacher of his class and for the school personnel (some technicians and the principal), everything still in collaboration with the previous sponsors and also with the two previous teachers. They, of course, know the situation very well, and they are so important for training the new instructors.

Moreover, we designed an online platform to provide all the complementary functions related to communication among all the actors involved. It's based on the open-source software Liferay, but it has been customized extensively. It contains the "classic" eLearing tools (forum, agenda, document repository...), but it's also organized to allow all the children in the class to communicate among themselves online with a system of internet-based videoconferencing, which is much cheaper and thus accessible for the entire class, not only Niky. It enables all the children to do their homework together from a distance or simply meet online with a normal webcam and talk about whatever they want at any hour of the day or the night and on weekends.

Moreover, there is a room in the platform for the teachers where they can have virtual meetings and discuss important issues. This is something they really need because they don't have the possibility to meet in the school corridors every day, yet the situation demands a constant process of re-focusing and re-adaptation in pedagogical terms.

So, to finally get back to your question, it's difficult to generalize, but I think that this is a very good pilot course that can certainly be replicated. The problem may be to scale it: for instance, the training for the teachers and the children also has to be done face to face, so it's costly in both money and time.

How is such a special kind of education financed?

Matteo Uggeri: It is partly financed by the above-mentioned sponsors, but also by many others whose names you can find in the family website. And now the Divisione per lo Studente is financing our contribution. Thankfully, there's someone there, in the person of Speranzina Ferraro, who is the head of that department and who allocated the funds for the operation for the first year. It costs quite a lot, but if it works, as I said, perhaps it can be replicated on a larger scale and provide support for both to such complicated situations as well as for easier ones.

A car designed to run in the desert can go quite well on a normal asphalt road, so if you design something for a very complicated and difficult case, you can almost be sure that it will also work in "normal" ones.

At Online Educa Berlin, people will see, although many of course already know it, that new technologies can be useful for high schools in general. We have become convinced that they can save effort, time, and money for the teachers and for the schools themselves. This is especially important now in Italy - and many countries - where schools have become comparatively poor because of crazy governmental cuts to educational funding, which they attribute to the world financial situation.

Do you know of other comparable projects in Italy?

Matteo Uggeri: Honestly, no. From what I know, this is the only one that has this kind of support from the ministry, but perhaps there's something else. I'm curious about similar situations elsewhere in Europe, and that's another reason why I'm really looking forward to Online Educa Berlin!