Online education appears to be the future of learning, with more universities and colleges making their curriculum and degrees available online, especially for engineering degrees. Learning online does present distinct advantages for many students, such as those who are working or have other need for a flexible schedule. However, some students and professors have concerns that there is not enough peer-to-peer and student-to-professor interaction.
Most online programs encourage interaction through chat, forums and video, but for students who want something more interactive, the future of online learning might be robotic.
Michigan State University (MSU) has been pioneering an online, robot-learning course as part of a study into attitudes and engagement in online classrooms. According to the study, online students who use the innovative robots feel more engaged and connected to the instructor and other students in the classroom.
How is MSU’s robot-learning class different from other online courses? Where most online courses involve lectures that are accessible to students through video conferencing or live streaming, the MSU course stations video screens around the class, each of which has a robotic mount that can be controlled by a remote user. These controls allow student participants to pan their view around the room to see and talk with the instructor and fellow students in the same manner as physically participating in-person.
The study, published in Online Learning, found that this type of robot learning generally benefits remote students more than traditional videoconferencing, in which multiple students are displayed on a single video screen.
Christine Greenhow, MSU associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology, explains that instead of looking at a screen full of faces as she does with traditional videoconferencing, she can look a robot-learner in the eye – digitally, at least.
“It was such a benefit to have people individually embodied in robot form – I can look right at you and talk to you,” Greenhow said.
The technology, Greenhow added, also has applications for telecommuters working remotely and students with disabilities or who are ill.
MSU started using this format of robot learning in 2015. Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason, a former MSU doctoral student who is now a faculty member at Iowa State University, studied an educational technology doctoral course in which students participated in one of three ways: in-person, by robot and by traditional video conferencing.
Courses that combine face-to-face and online learning, called hybrid or blended learning, are widely considered the most promising approach for increasing access to higher education and students’ learning outcomes. The number of blended-learning classrooms has increased dramatically in the past decade and could eventually make up 80 percent or more of all university classes, the study notes.
With traditional videoconferencing, Greenhow said, remote students generally can’t tell the instructor is looking at them and can get turned off from joining the discussion. “These students often feel like they’re interrupting, like they’re not fully participating in the class. And as an instructor, that’s like death – I can’t have that.”
“The main takeaway here,” Greenhow added, “is that students participating with the robots felt much more engaged and interactive with the instructor and their classmates who were on campus.”
To engage the robot from home, students just need to download free software onto their computer with a webcam and microphone.