Robot Students? College Classrooms Try Letting Far-Away Students Attend Via Remote-Control Stand-In

Robot Students? College Classrooms Try Letting Far-Away Students Attend Via Remote-Control Stand-In

Someone looking in on Bill McCaw’s educational leadership class at the University of Montana might see students talking in small groups, or peers helping each other on assignments. It’s an age-old classroom scene, except for one space-age detail: More than half of the students are robots.

Ok, to be more precise, nine of the fourteen students in the course are joining the class remotely by using a robot stand-in. The hope is that the approach will let students, who are working professionals, join from hundreds of miles away and feel more a part of the group than would be possible with standard videoconference links.

“The space in Montana is huge. That's why this is really important for us,” says McCaw.

Every day before class, McCaw will wake up the robots, a device by Double Robotics that looks like a small segway with an iPad attached to the top, from their charging stations and arrange them before students arrive. Distance students meanwhile login and choose which robot they want to use (each has its own name, such as Aristotle or Rosa Parks). The “robot” students can then view their classmates through the video screen, and also control the device to move around the classroom or turn to face their peers.

With the ability to move their camera, McCaw believes his students feel more a part of the course then they would if they were Skyping in or attending the department’s fully-online course. “Students can look to see what's going on,” he says. “They're not just a static camera and a little picture up on a screen.”

One student in McCaw’s course, Charity Atteberry: “Before there were maybe five to ten small pictures of people on the front screen, but there was no opportunity to have those people really talk with each other,” says Atteberry, who is employed by the University and has attended McCaw’s class both in-person and via robots when she travels for work. “But this has been much more engaging and authentic, and it holds the students more accountable at the very least.”

(Virtually) Going the Distance

The University of Montana offers online courses for distant students, but McCaw says the option to attend a face to face class via robot is something the Department of Educational Leadership is trying to push for as a more popular alternative.

Since the early 2000s, when the department began offering online classes, online enrollments in the department have increased, while face-to-face enrollments have decreased. Courses have in turn began to mimic the pattern, and soon online courses began to outpace face-to-face options. That caused room for concern, he says, because “it's our department's belief that the best learning modality is face-to-face.”

With the robots, McCaw says the hope is to grow the number of in-person courses and begin to scale back the number of online courses. (Courses would still be offered online, he stresses, but “instead of offering six courses online, there might be three online and three more face-to-face.”)

There’s another lure for students to attend via robot: cheaper tuition. According to University of Montana's student services department, full time in-state tuition for master’s students in the department was nearly $3,500, but $3,200 for students attending via robot, who are classified in the college’s system as online learners. (The savings for students pale against the price of the devices themselves, however, which the university pays about $3,000 each for.)

Still, McCaw says he doesn’t see the devices totally replacing the online option anytime soon. “Some of our students are working teachers and full-time mothers. Eleven o'clock at night is when they have time for class,” says McCaw. “The asynchronous piece of online learning is critical for them.”

The “Hybrid Movement”

This spring semester was the first time McCaw taught a nearly 2:1 classroom. But his department has been using Double Robotics units in its master’s courses for almost two years. What started out as a pilot program with a couple devices has now expanded to a fleet of 21 robots housed at the University of Montana.

It’s part of what David Cann, CEO of Double Robotics, dubs the “hybrid movement”—where universities use multiple robotic devices for students to attend class through. He admits the idea wasn’t his own: “When we started, we didn't' know about this hybrid classroom movement. We built this for businesses, but universities are thinking about new ways to do it.”

Cann’s company is not alone. A company called Kubi by Revolve Robotics is bringing riobot students to college classrooms. Kubi includes a small stand for iPads that allows remote users to turn their screens to face in-person students. But without wheels, Kubi requires someone in person to move the robot about the classroom. (That missing feature, however, makes Kubi about half of its competitors price at around $1,500.)

At the University of Colorado, Boulder, foreign language program director Jean Bouchard teaches a Spanish course of 14 students, where eight attend on Kubi and six are in-person. Bouchard uses video conferencing platform Zoom to communicate with students on the devices, and refers to her in-person students the “roomers” and the Kubi learners the “zoomers.”

Distance learners on Kubi's and in-person students work together in Bouchard's classroom. Image credit Jean Bouchard, University of Colorado, Boulder

She says the Kubis are particularly useful for the type of teaching she does, which has students up and moving, talking with peers and using multiple senses in the language-learning process.

“We do a lot of repetitive sort of game playing,”she says. That’s hard to do for traditional online courses, she says, where students can’t see each peer eye-to-eye, or might not have an opportunity to participate in group activities.

Like the Double Robotics users at the University of Montana, Bouchard says the primary Kubi users are those challenged by distance. There have been others too, she adds, such as injured athletes, who have temporarily used the devices to keep up with class attendance during their recovery.

Bouchard has some ideas on how to use the robots to connect with people internationally for her language classes, too. “We want to start bringing in conversation buddies from other countries, and I'm working on those relationships right now for a future semester.”

Learning Beyond Lag

While Bouchard and McCaw want to continue and grow the use of robots for their distance learners, they don’t deny there have been technological hiccups along the way. “There's a little bit of awkwardness when one robot starts talking to another, and the other is still talking” says McCaw.

Instructors must also rethink the way they are teaching, and adapt to challenging students behind the screens might be facing. “You have to instruct differently with the robots to provide opportunities to engage those students,” he says. “As successful as the robots are, it's still very difficult as an instructor to read body language.”

McCaw cites cases where the audio has lagged or been difficult to connect. She says that hasn’t been too much of a distraction, though, and that the occasional technical glitches outweigh the benefits for her students.

“With Kubis, it's more convenient and cost effective because students can actually leave campus in the spring when they originally planned. They can go home and cut that cost of having to stay in Boulder for an additional semester.”

Glitches aside, the robots are here to stay, McCaw says. “Students in class are becoming more comfortable with the robots, and I'm seeing more instances where robot students visit with face-to-face students during breaks. I don't see us going back.”

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