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How to Keep the Human Element in Distance Learning


Telepresence: Helping to Overcome the Limitations of Distance Learning

Over the last few years, we’ve seen technology redefine the traditional student/teacher dynamic, creating opportunities for students to build relationships with teachers and fellow learners around the world. The growing accessibility of broadband internet has expanded what it means to be a student, removing the limitations of location and remote access. Online learning has progressed to the point where it’s not only accepted, it’s a common component of any education plan. More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course.

This trend began when distance learning and MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) first hit the scene. They were greeted with enthusiasm, multiplying educational opportunities for both the serious student and the recreational learner. These were proof that technology had 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 less than optimal.

Traditional distance learning still faces this issue of quality of interactions as students watch videos and respond on discussion boards, limiting their ability for real engagement, interaction, and eye-to-eye conversations that have a significant impact on learning. In fact, as much as traditional online learning opens doors for learners, there is some evidence suggesting that it may not deliver the learning benefits online courses intend to provide, especially for less proficient learners. Mobile telepresence can help solve these issues, providing remote students with an in-classroom presence. This technology can help to turn remote learning into a more individual, and thus more valuable, experience.

Here are some examples of how both teachers and students are overcoming the limitations of distance learning to keep the human element in their classrooms.

Maintaining Human Connection

John Bell is the head of Michigan State University’s Design Studio and a professor in their doctoral program for educational psychology and educational technology. As one of the key personnel in driving the department’s shift from an onsite-only program to a hybrid program – where students attend classes both in-person and remotely – it was important to Bell to find a way to maintain that human connection.

“Social presence is what’s so often missing when people attend a class from afar,” says Bell. “With traditional videoconferencing, the remote student has to rely on others to move a laptop or rotate a screen so they can see and hear, and be seen and be heard. It’s inefficient and awkward for the remote student as well as those in the classroom – it’s quite disruptive, actually.”

Bell found that mobile telepresence removed much of this awkwardness, allowing remote students to control when and where they moved and looked in the room, giving them a much more natural and meaningful presence.

Overcoming the Limitations of Online Courses

Kavita Krishnaswamy is an excellent example of a distance-learning student benefiting from telepresence. She has a physical disability that limits her mobility, yet she is pursuing her PhD in assistive robotics from University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Thanks to telepresence, Kavita has made her away around the world, sharing her insights, passion, and story with everyone from fellow researchers to the Prime Minister of India. She’s working hard to solve accessibility issues for those with disabilities and has even won a fellowship from Microsoft and the Google Lime Scholars award for her robotics research.

Kavita has found that her ability to be more social and interact with others on a regular basis is an overall positive for her personal health as well. And this should come as no surprise: University of California, Irvine, researchers recently conducted a study finding that telepresence robots help homebound students, particularly those who are chronically ill, maintain a sense of normalcy by allowing them to attend classes “in person.”

This socialization is the antidote to feeling isolated and depressed – which is crucial, as the negative impacts of ongoing illnesses can lead to students falling behind both academically and health-wise. Telepresence closes the loop of online education by combining a widely-available opportunity with a much-needed personal touch.

Beyond the Traditional Classroom Setting

Stanbridge University, a Los Angeles and Orange County-based nursing and allied health school, is another excellent example of how to get the most out of telepresence technology for training future generations of healthcare workers. Robotic telepresence devices allow physicians to be in multiple places at once, bringing much-needed relief to the current doctor and nursing shortage in the United States. Doctors, specialists and nurses can remotely work in hospitals to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies. For training professionals in these fields, telepresence expands agency into multiple places at once, teaching more people, more often.

On the other end of the spectrum, museums are another conduit for learning, education, and interaction – access to which can also be provided by telepresence. The Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, for example, uses telepresence to allow hospital patients to tour the museum — a nice diversion for those laid up with an illness.

Beyond those confined by sickness, museum visits can be difficult because of other painful restrictions, such as students who attend schools with dwindling budgets or limited classroom time. Educational 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 the museum thanks to a program lead by San Diego’s Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) in conjunction with the San Diego Air and Space Museum (SDASM).

The great news about these trends is that any teacher in any school can use new technology, including telepresence, to enhance the classroom experience. The element of human touch is now possible for those students and teachers who aren’t in the same location, and we’re excited to see more developments in the future.


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Bo Preising oversees all product development and operations at Suitable Technologies. Bo has more than 20 years experience helping to build and grow successful technology and life science businesses. He is responsible for setting and executing the company's product strategy. Previously, he was the COO of Curexo Technology Corporation, maker of one of the first robotic surgery systems also known as RoboDoc. He was also the COO for Consumer Genetics and has held executive positions in sales, marketing, business and product development with Technology Ventures Corp., DataSweep, WorkCard, OUR Scientific International, LifeChart.com, and Accuray. Bo was a postdoctoral researcher in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Davis, where he also received his Ph.D. and M.S. in biomedical engineering. He received his B.S. in bioengineering from UC San Diego.


  1. Thanks Ray – valid comment. I wonder what percentage of online courses and schools have made the move though? 10%, 20%, 30%? When I have taught online, I have struggled to get students to want to go beyond the discussion boards, etc., and embrace even asynchronous video tools (like FlipGrid). I do agree with Bo that more face to face connection would be outstanding, and hope that other online educators are experiencing more luck with this sort of thing, as you are!

  2. The problem I have with Bo’s article is around this sentence: “Traditional distance learning still faces this issue of quality of interactions as students watch videos and respond on discussion boards, limiting their ability for real engagement, interaction, and eye-to-eye conversations that have a significant impact on learning.” That’s painting with a very wide brush. Maybe Bo has had only limited experience with distance ed. There are some online learning structures where both students and faculty say they know each other better in the online environment than they’ve experienced in F2F classes. I realize the intent of the article is selling Telepresence, but a little more accuracy in describing the field might make the claims more believable.


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