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There are perks to attending class as a robot

Having students remotely control robots in the classroom beats traditional videoconferencing for student engagement, research finds.

Robot learning—students learning remotely online while controlling robots in the classroom—can help students feel more engaged and connected to the instructor and other students, according to a new study.

Stationed around the class, each robot in Michigan State University’s robot-learning course has a mounted video screen the remote user controls that lets the student pan around the room to see and talk with the instructor and fellow students participating in-person. To engage the robot from home, students just need to download free software onto their computer.

robot learning in action
Remote students participating via robots feel more engaged and connected than students participating via traditional videoconferencing. (Credit: Michigan State)

The study, published in Online Learning, found that robot learning generally benefits remote students more than traditional videoconferencing, in which multiple students are displayed on a single screen.

Christine Greenhow, associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology, says 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—at least digitally.

traditional videoconference (no robot learning)
An image of traditional videoconferencing. (Credit: Michigan State)

“It was such a benefit to have people individually embodied in robot form—I can look right at you and talk to you,” Greenhow says.

The technology, Greenhow adds, also has implications for telecommuters working remotely and students with disabilities or who are ill.

Michigan State University’s College of Education started using robot learning in 2015. Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason, a former 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 videoconferencing.

robot learning in action 2
Christine Greenhow, right, in the robot-learning classroom. (Credit: Michigan State)

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 says, 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 adds, “is that students participating with the robots felt much more engaged and interactive with the instructor and their classmates who were on campus.”

Source: Michigan State University

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