Cover Stories: A Robot Revolution?

May 18, 2015

Students in the hybrid Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) doctoral program participate in a live course via Kubi and Double robots. Pictured (from left): Will Imbriale of Long Beach, N.Y. and Sarah Dysart of Chicago, Ill.,
(top) Carl Weckerle of Warren, Mich.

There’s something inherently powerful about a professor and a group of students gathered to discuss the potential of an education theory.

When all but two of the class participants around the circle are actively communicating from miles away via screens controlled by robots, you might say it’s particularly extraordinary.

This was happening in Erickson Hall this spring, during a regular course introducing doctoral students to the field of educational technology and pushing the limits of learning through telepresence devices—possibly further than any other university so far.

As the College of Education commits to broaden its community of students through online and hybrid academic programs, faculty members are taking bigger risks in their experiments with new formats and technology. And they are paying off, says Assistant Professor Christine Greenhow.

“Often times, I feel we get comfortable with the technologies we integrate into our classes and we stay there,” she said. “Here, we really are breaking new ground, and the students love that.”

The college has offered opportunities for online students to participate during face-to-face classes in various formats for about five years, but Greenhow’s most recent CEP 901b course was the first time online students were using robots rather than fixed screens to represent themselves.

Space to meet growing teaching and research needs has become limited in Erickson Hall. However, the college has developed innovative, multimedia spaces in existing classrooms with leadership from the Design Studio, which is committed to expanding the boundaries of technology in education through research and faculty partnerships.

The future of learning

Greenhow’s class, held in the recently created virtual flex classroom, includes 13 students from states such as California, Iowa and New York. They are all students in the hybrid portion of the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) Ph.D. program.

As class begins, their faces pop up one at a time on iPads mounted to robots on desks—and on wheels.

“Hello Carl,” Greenhow says as Carl Weckerle, from his home outside Detroit, appears on one of two “standing” robots that can move anywhere in the room. He rolls the machine up to the circle, and his classmates turn their “head screens” to greet him.

The students transition back and forth between small-group video chats and full-class discussions. Most of the time, they can see and hear everyone through a sophisticated network of cameras, microphones and speakers. And they say it’s an improvement from the more common form of videoconferencing used in college classrooms, often with multiple faces appearing on a large screen.

“When I’m in robot form, I feel more of a presence in the physical space of the classroom,” said Carmen Richardson, an instructional technology specialist in Hawaii. She said technical difficulties do occasionally interfere, but having previously developed relationships with her classmates—hybrid students gather on campus each summer—makes the experience more seamless.

There is also a shared understanding. They are learning not only about their own course of study, but about the future of learning.

Greenhow, who is also conducting research on the course structure, says she and her colleagues are not aware of any other research on robotic telepresence in higher education contexts. The studies that do exist focus on technical capability, not educational potential.

“It’s exciting to be part of a course that’s really trying out new things,” said Sarah Gretter, who happened to be the only on-campus EPET student enrolled in the course. “Anything that comes after this will move the technology forward. There will definitely be something exciting for students to come.”

For more on the class:

More online

The Department of Kinesiology recently gained new research labs by transforming old locker rooms inside IM Sports Circle. Leaders hope to renovate more space in the aging building to enhance opportunities for a fast-growing student body—enrollment has jumped by more than 75 percent in the last decade.