Wired Connectivity

Remote Learning Students Connect via Robots

01 December 2017

MSU's Christine Greenhow leads a pioneering robot-learning course. Source: Jeff Seguin/MSU College of EducationMSU's Christine Greenhow leads a pioneering robot-learning course. Source: Jeff Seguin/MSU College of EducationAt Michigan State University, robots are expanding learning beyond the walls of the classroom — and, according to a new study, allowing students to feel more engaged and connected to what’s happening on-site.

In MSU’s pioneering robot-learning course, robots stationed around the classroom have mounted video screens. After downloading free software, remote learners can use them to pan around the room and see and talk with their instructor and fellow students.

The study found that robot learning offers greater benefits to remote students than traditional videoconferencing, in which multiple students are displayed on a single screen. Instead of looking at a screen full of faces, one can look a robot-learner in the eye.

“It was such a benefit to have people individually embodied in robot form — I can look right at you and talk to you,” says Christine Greenhow, an MSU associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology. Greenhow adds that the technology also has implications for telecommuters working remotely, students with disabilities and students who are ill.

Greenhow also notes that remote students using a traditional videoconferencing approach 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,” she says.

Traditional videoconferencing. Source: MSU College of EducationTraditional videoconferencing. Source: MSU College of EducationThe College of Education at the university began using robot learning in 2015.

Courses that use hybrid or blended learning — a combination of face-to-face and online instructional delivery — are widely considered the most promising approach for increasing access to higher education as well as increasing students’ learning outcomes. According to the study, 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.

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