Stories of Innovation: Telepresence robots in (and out of) the classroom

Authors:
Norb Thomes, Ph.D., Learning Systems and Service Coordinator, Winona State University

Have you seen the movie Avatar? (No, no spoilers here.) Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) controls a “genetically-matched” body on a far-off moon called Pandora to commune with the local Na’vi tribe. In short, he visits the moon light-years away and moves about, working with the natives, without leaving Earth.

That is kind of what we are doing with telepresence robots, only our robots are on Earth and aren’t blue and ten-feet tall.

What is a telepresence robot?

According to telepresencerobots.com, “a telepresence robot is a computer, tablet, or smartphone-controlled robot which includes a video-camera, screen, speakers and microphones so that people interacting with the robot can view and hear its operator and the operator can simultaneously view what the robot is ‘looking’ at and ‘hearing.’” The robots come in many shapes and sizes, some with wheels and some without. All support two-way audio and two-way video and all are controlled by the “pilot” at a remote location.

The video below provides an example of a telepresence robot in action:

What it boils down to is that I can see and hear what is going on in the robot’s location, wherever that might be, and the people on the other end can hear and see me from my location. In most cases, I have the ability to roll the robot around and interact with the people on the other end, almost as if I were there – all we need is wireless Internet.

Why bother with telepresence? The reasons are pretty simple: telepresence saves time and money. There are few things that take more time and cost more money than travel, and “visiting” through a robot eliminates that completely.

How did we get started?

It all started with an event called the Shark Tank and a simple question.

Minnesota State announced the Shark Tank initiative as a way to get funding to foster innovation across the system. People with ideas could present to a panel and the best ideas would receive funds to kick off the project.

The simple question revolved around the fact that all schools in the system are interested in testing new devices to determine their educational value. “Why are we all spending time and money to test tech when we could be working together and sharing the results?”

To make a long story short, the Mobile Computing Laboratory, or McLAB for short, was funded as a place to buy and lend equipment to test and then publish the results for other schools to see and use. Test equipment included high-end tablets, 360-degree cameras, AR/VR devices, and, you guessed it, telepresence robots.

What did we try?

We experimented with three robotic devices: The Double Robotics Double 2, the Padbot P1, and the Swivl C Series.

The best way to describe the Double 2 is an iPad on a Segway.

RyderAndWheeler
The Double 2

The Double 2 is the Segway-like part and you slide a full-sized iPad into the top to act as the head. The neck telescopes from sitting height to standing height. The Double 2 can be piloted with a laptop, an iPad, or an iPhone. You can learn more about the Double 2 at http://www.doublerobotics.com.

The Padbot P1 is a three-wheeled device with an integrated monitor on top for a head. It, too, is piloted using a phone or a tablet. We found the P1 to travel a bit slowly and loudly and the lack of a telescoping monitor made it less desirable. For these reasons, we focused on the Double 2’s. There is more information available at http://www.padbot.com/.

swivl
The Swivl

The Swivl C Series is actually a lecture-capture robot which would normally disqualify it from this conversation, but more about that later. It is a small, pivoting device that holds an iPad to perform the camera and recording work. A small wireless microphone/marker is used by the presenter and the Swivl follows said marker, keeping the speaker in the frame.

More information can be found at https://www.swivl.com.

How did it go?

Very well, thanks.

The Double 2 was used in several ways.

  • Winona State University (WSU) nursing faculty used a Double 2 in simulated home visits. In the past, the instructor watched the simulation from a recording studio down the hall. When it was time for her to visit the simulation, she had to stop taking notes, leave the studio, and walk to the sim home. This meant she missed part of the simulation. Instead, she used the Double 2 to visit the room. In the future, she wants to have outside professional healthcare workers visit the simulations through the robot.
  • The WSU College of Education pulled two students from a group-work day and had them use a Double 2 to attend class from a distance. They worked with the other students in group activities and interacted from a distance (across the hall).
  • The WSU College of Business used a Double 2 to place the faculty in the classroom when he was away at a conference. They also use it to conduct virtual tours and have guests attend functions.

The Swivl C Series was used successfully as lecture capture. (In the future, we have plans to use it for telepresence.) Captures included:

  • South Central College Biology faculty used the Swivl to capture lectures to flip the classroom.
  • WSU’s Theater and Dance faculty used a Swivl to record student dance performances. This allowed the students to view their performances and critique themselves.
  • The Nursing and Education faculties used Swivl’s to record group discussions and focus groups.
  • WSU’s Health, Exercise, and Rehabilitative Sciences wirelessly hooked a Swivl to the projector and used the tracking to follow the action while demonstrating wraps and procedures. Students could follow along from their seats.

What comes next?

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (FDLTCC) wants to offer the third and fourth year of an elementary education program on their campus in Cloquet. Winona State University (WSU) is going to offer the courses and the teacher is going to use a Double 2 to visit the classroom virtually. She will also use a Swivl with Acano running on the iPad to sit in the center of group discussions and, with the students passing the marker around the table, be able to see and hear each student as they speak. (There is the telepresence use for a lecture-capture device.)

A co-worker and I are teaching three sections of the same online course this fall: Introduction to Educational Technology. We are going to post instructions on how to use the Double 2 in our course and let the students visit virtually for office hours.

I hope to set up a remote tour opportunity this coming school year. The Double 2 will be dropped at the off-campus site and the students can partake in a tour of the facility from their seats in the classroom. The pilot device (tablet or laptop) will be attached to the class projector so students can see and hear the tour. Questions can be asked of the tour guide through the robot.

Summary

In the spirit of the McLAB’s charter, we needed to determine the educational value of telepresence. The early testing described above may not give the complete picture, but there are some very positive indicators. Students were at first skeptical of the robots but warmed up to them quickly. Teachers found the robots enabled them to do things that are impossible without them.

What will tell the whole picture are trials like the arrangement between WSU and FDLTCC. Teaching a class from across the state is the type of thing that could transform education. We will be sure to update the McLAB documentation so all members of Minnesota State can see the results and make up their own minds, without the time or expense of testing it themselves.

If you would like more information on what we have done with telepresence robots or about the Mobile Computing Laboratory, feel free to email me at nthomes@winona.edu or check out the McLAB pages at http://learn.winona.edu/McLAB.

Do you have a story about a campus innovation you’ve been working on?  Consider submitting it for publication to “Stories of Innovation”!   Contact Stephen Kelly, Open Education and Innovation Program Coordinator, at stephen.kelly@minnstate.edu for more information.

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