Michigan State Tests Telepresence Robots for Online Students
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.
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."
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.