Project Spotlight

Michigan State Tests Telepresence Robots for Online Students

Michigan State University

Photo: Michigan State University Board of Trustees

Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, has been experimenting with telepresence robots that let online students participate in face-to-face classes.

The university offers a doctoral program in educational psychology and educational technology, which is available in both face-to-face and distance education formats, but the university has integrated the two options into a synchronous, hybrid model — a single, integrated program with online students typically participating via Skype or similar telepresence system on a fixed monitor in the classroom. However, integrating the local and online students into the same classes made it difficult to ensure that both groups of students were treated equally.

"Our big concern is that if you aren't physically present, you become a second-class citizen," said John Bell, associate professor of counseling, educational psychology and special education at Michigan State. "You're there, you can listen and you can speak, but online students would say, 'Excuse me, can I say something now,' revealing they see themselves as not having the full rights of a face-to-face student."

Testing the Technology

Bell is the director of MSU's CEPSE/COE Design Studio, which supports faculty in the use of technologies to enhance teaching and learning. Last fall, the Design Studio worked with the professor and students in CEP 956, a doctoral-level course called Mind, Social Media, and Society, to test the telepresence robots in the synchronous, hybrid environment. "We were very interested in the telepresence-type technology that potentially makes a shift in how students see themselves and how other students and the instructors see these online students, more like just another student in class," said Bell.

Two of the online students were on KUBI telepresence robots from Revolve Robotics, two were on Double robots from Double Robotics and the remainder of the online students were on wall-mounted screens, as they had been in the past. The KUBI robots use iPads mounted on a pedestal that can pan and tilt. The online student's face appears on the iPad screen, and the student can rotate and tilt the pedestal to control his or her point of view. The Double robots also have a screen but are mounted on a tall, mobile pedestal, so the online student can move the robot around the room.

Results

The university has been offering the synchronous, hybrid classes for about five years, and the students had already participated in many classes in that format, but this was the first time online students used telepresence robots rather than fixed screens. The robots let the online students "sit" in the class rather than watch from the walls, and let them look freely around the room. "The students were ecstatic," said Bell. "They expressed that this was a game changer. It changed how they engaged with the class. One student said, 'This was the first time it mattered to me if I knew the names of the face-to-face students because I could turn and look at them.' That was a dramatic response."

Bell pointed out that some of the enthusiasm could be the honeymoon effect and the novelty could wear off. "So that we don't know," he said. "But we do know that the initial response was overwhelmingly positive, both by the students sitting in the class physically and those who joined online."

The response from the professors was also very positive, according to Bell, because "it was now possible to view the class as a more integrated group instead of thinking of two different groups of people, where the online student was up on a screen on the wall. Now the online student was in effect sitting right next to the instructor."

Challenges and Psychological Effects

There have been a few minor challenges associated with the robots. For example, the devices lock up occasionally and the professor or one of the local students has to do a quick reset on the device. "The joke is that every now and then the local people have to do CPR, but it takes a few seconds and they're back running again," said Bell.

With the mobile Double robots, the online students have occasionally had trouble navigating around obstacles in the room, which may be a distraction for the students. "They [the online students] can't easily see the floor under themselves, and so our guess is that with the Double robots, that process of moving around is more distracting. Whereas with the KUBI, you don't feel that you're at risk."

While the students on the KUBI robots couldn't move themselves around the room, and consequently couldn't tip over, they did sometimes need to be moved to participate in different class activities, such as small group discussions. In that case, the local students picked up the KUBI robots and moved them, which was an odd experience for both the student moving the robot and the student being moved. "People felt awkward, like they were picking somebody up and moving them because they started to think about the device like this person," said Bell. "They literally do pick them up, but they apologize and say, 'I'm going to move you now,' and they carry them more carefully than they do other things because psychologically this has become an extension of that person."

Next Steps

The university is currently offering the CEP 956 course with the robots for the second time, except this time there are 12 online students using robots — 10 on KUBI robots and two on Double robots — and only one in-person student. "Last fall, the majority of students were face-to-face, and a few of them were engaged through these robots. Now we'll have just one face-to-face student, and so it will be a very odd experience to walk in the room and see these devices that are turning of their own accord, faces on all of them," said Bell.

Bell thinks robots such as the KUBI and Double may make it possible for online students to engage in the class much more like those students who are physically present in the classroom, making them more equal participants. "I'm fascinated by the idea that online students hadn't realized the limitations that they were living with until those limitations were removed, so students have expectations about what it means to engage as an online student, and in some sense, perhaps they've accepted constraints that they don't even realize are there until those constraints are removed," he said.

On the flip side, Bell is interested in how the robots change the face-to-face students' and the instructor's perceptions of the online students. "As we give online students greater capability to control their own presence in the classroom, will that have an impact in how other students think about them in terms of colleagues and their learning? And again, it's an idea that's just begun to open up for us and open questions for research," said Bell.

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