The College of Education at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing, Michigan has established a reputation for excellence and visionary thinking in its efforts to improve teaching and learning across the nation and world, particularly within the context of urban and global education. It is on the leading edge of higher education in its use of telepresence technology to support greater camaraderie and enhanced learning opportunities for distance and hybrid students.
For the past several years, faculty and students in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology program in the College of Education at MSU have been engaged in research on human-robot interactions. Coincidentally, these studies aligned with the college’s ongoing evaluation of new technologies to support a shift from traditional on-campus degree programs to a hybrid model that affords off-campus students the opportunity to make personal connections that are fundamental to the in-class learning experience.
MSU’s two-year investigation of innovative communications technologies was not without challenges, however. Trying out traditional video conferencing technologies, the school discovered that they failed to provide remote students with an authentic on-campus presence and, moreover, detracted from the experience of others in the classroom.
John Bell, head of MSU’s Design Studio and a professor in its doctoral program in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology, explains, “Social presence is what’s so often missing when people attend a class from afar. With traditional video conferencing, 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.”
Convinced of the impracticality of stationary communications tools for dynamic classroom settings, MSU narrowed its focus to robotic telepresence solutions to give remote students control over their own mobility. Eventually, the school selected Beam not only for its easy navigation, but also for its built-in, clear video and audio that provides a more natural experience and greater social presence.