Michigan State Experimenting with Telepresence Robots


Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan is looking into the use of telepresence robots that would offer online students the opportunity to participate in traditional face-to-face classes.

The university has recently integrated its doctoral program in educational psychology and educational technology, which is available both as an online and traditional program, to create one hybrid model.  The new program allows distance learning students to participate through Skype or another telepresence system, appearing on a fixed monitor within the classroom.  The issue has been ensuring that online and traditional students, now both in the same classroom, are treated equally.

“Our big concern is that if you aren’t physically present, you become a second-class citizen,” said John Bell, associate professor of counseling, educational psychology and special education at Michigan State. “You’re there, you can listen and you can speak, but online students would say, ‘Excuse me, can I say something now,’ revealing they see themselves as not having the full rights of a face-to-face student.”

In order to test the technology out, two students in the doctoral level course called Mind, Social Media, and Society used KUBI telepresence robots from Revolve Robotics, two used Double robots from Double Robotics, and the rest of the online students participated through the wall-mounted monitors.

The KUBI robots make use of iPads mounted on a pedestal that have the capability to tilt and move.  The students’ face shows on the iPad screen, and students can control the movement of the screen for their point of view.  The double robots also feature a screen, but because they are mounted to a mobile pedestal, students have the capability to move throughout the room.

The experiment resulted in students being able to look or move about the room, rather than merely “sit” in class, allowing the professors to view the class as one integrated unit, writes Leila Meyer for Campus Technology.

“The students were ecstatic,” said Bell. “They expressed that this was a game changer. It changed how they engaged with the class. One student said, ‘This was the first time it mattered to me if I knew the names of the face-to-face students because I could turn and look at them.’ That was a dramatic response.”

Other forms of telepresence robots are appearing as well.  The Grasp telepresence robot features a webcam, speaker and microphone that sits on the user’s shoulder to offer a first-person view that creates a link between student and teacher.  A laser pointer on the unit can be controlled remotely by the teacher to point to certain areas as the student is learning a new skill.

The ORIGIBOT was recently launched on Indiegogo, as an Android-based telerobotic platform that also features a robotic arm and gripper, allowing for motion and control through a desktop or mobile device.