Telepresence: Helping to Overcome the Limitations of Distance Learning
Over the last few years, weâ€™ve seen technology redefine theÂ traditional student/teacher dynamic, creating opportunities forÂ students to build relationships with teachers and fellow learnersÂ around the world. The growing accessibility of broadband internet hasÂ expanded what it means to be a student, removing the limitations ofÂ location and remote access. Online learning has progressed to theÂ point where itâ€™s not only accepted, itâ€™s a common component of anyÂ education plan. More than one in four students (28%) now take at leastÂ one distance education course.
This trend began when distance learning and MOOCs (Massive Online OpenÂ Courses) first hit the scene. They were greeted with enthusiasm,Â multiplying educational opportunities for both the serious student andÂ the recreational learner. These were proof that technology hadÂ succeeded in tearing down traditional classroom walls and exponentially increasing the audience reach. MOOCs were a big success, but most were missing a critical element to learning: human interaction. Quantity of reach was solved, but quality remained lessÂ than optimal.
Traditional distance learning still faces this issue of quality of interactions as students watch videos and respond on discussionÂ boards, limiting their ability for real engagement, interaction, andÂ eye-to-eye conversations that have a significant impact on learning.Â In fact, as much as traditional online learning opens doors forÂ learners, there is some evidence suggesting that it may not deliverÂ the learning benefits online courses intend to provide, especially forÂ less proficient learners. Mobile telepresence can help solve these issues,Â providing remote students with an in-classroom presence. This technology can help to turn remote learning into a more individual, and thus more valuable,Â experience.
Here are some examples of how both teachers and students areÂ overcoming the limitations of distance learning to keep the humanÂ element in their classrooms.
Maintaining Human Connection
John Bell is the head of Michigan State Universityâ€™s Design StudioÂ and a professor in their doctoral program for educational psychologyÂ and educational technology. As one of the key personnel in driving theÂ departmentâ€™s shift from an onsite-only program to a hybrid programÂ â€“ where students attend classes both in-person and remotely â€“ itÂ was important to Bell to find a way to maintain that human connection.
â€œSocial presence is whatâ€™s so often missing when people attend aÂ class from afar,â€ says Bell. â€œWith traditional videoconferencing,Â the remote student has to rely on others to move a laptop or rotate aÂ screen so they can see and hear, and be seen and be heard. Itâ€™s inefficient and awkward for the remote student as well as those in theÂ classroom â€“ itâ€™s quite disruptive, actually.â€
Bell found that mobile telepresence removed much of this awkwardness,Â allowing remote students to control when and where they moved andÂ looked in the room, giving them a much more natural and meaningfulÂ presence.
Overcoming the Limitations of Online Courses
Kavita Krishnaswamy is an excellent example of a distance-learningÂ student benefiting from telepresence. She has a physical disabilityÂ that limits her mobility, yet she is pursuing her PhD in assistiveÂ robotics from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
Thanks to telepresence, Kavita has made her away around the world,Â sharing her insights, passion, and story with everyone from fellowÂ researchers to the Prime Minister of India. Sheâ€™s working hard toÂ solve accessibility issues for those with disabilities and has evenÂ won a fellowship from Microsoft and the Google Lime Scholars award forÂ her robotics research.
Kavita has found that her ability to be more social and interact withÂ others on a regular basis is an overall positive for her personalÂ health as well. And this should come as no surprise: University ofÂ California, Irvine, researchers recently conducted a study findingÂ that telepresence robots help homebound students, particularly thoseÂ who are chronically ill, maintain a sense of normalcy by allowing themÂ to attend classes â€œin person.â€
This socialization is the antidote to feeling isolated and depressed â€“ which is crucial, as the negative impacts of ongoing illnesses canÂ lead to students falling behind both academically and health-wise.Â Telepresence closes the loop of online education by combining aÂ widely-available opportunity with a much-needed personal touch.
Beyond the Traditional Classroom Setting
Stanbridge University, a Los Angeles and Orange County-based nursingÂ and allied health school, is another excellent example of how to getÂ the most out of telepresence technology for training futureÂ generations of healthcare workers. Robotic telepresence devices allowÂ physicians to be in multiple places at once, bringing much-neededÂ relief to the current doctor and nursing shortage in the UnitedÂ States. Doctors, specialists and nurses can remotely work in hospitalsÂ to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies. ForÂ training professionals in these fields, telepresence expands agencyÂ into multiple places at once, teaching more people, more often.
On the other end of the spectrum, museums are another conduit forÂ learning, education, and interaction – access to which can also beÂ provided by telepresence. The Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, forÂ example, uses telepresence to allow hospital patients to tour theÂ museum — a nice diversion for those laid up with an illness.
Beyond those confined by sickness, museum visits can be difficultÂ because of other painful restrictions, such as students who attendÂ schools with dwindling budgets or limited classroom time. EducationalÂ field trips have been on the decline in recent years, particularly for lower income, Title I schools. The “Museum at Your Fingertips” program let students from underserved populations virtually tour theÂ museum thanks to a program lead by San Diegoâ€™s Balboa Park OnlineÂ Collaborative (BPOC) in conjunction with the San Diego Air and SpaceÂ Museum (SDASM).
The great news about these trends is that any teacher in any school can use new technology, including telepresence, to enhance theÂ classroom experience. The element of human touch is now possible forÂ those students and teachers who arenâ€™t in the same location, andÂ weâ€™re excited to see more developments in the future.