Telepresence Robots Help Engage Students during Remote Learning

Robots can vacuum our homes, deliver restaurant meals to our table, and patrol grocery store aisles. And today, intelligent telepresence robots are used in classrooms to engage students, help instructors teach, and facilitate interactive learning. 

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Image credit: Kubi

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, many K-12 schools and universities have moved to a remote learning model or a hybrid model where students are in the classroom for part of their instructional time and home for others. Some students remain at home full-time while their classmates are in school.

Many students are learning virtually, which isn’t always optimal. Video conferencing technologies can help teachers deliver lessons to the home audience or combined classroom-remote environments. In most cases, the remote students could only see what the camera operator chose to show, typically a fixed view of the teacher. As a result, students learning from home can feel bored with lessons, disengaged, unmotivated, and uninvolved. Students learning remotely can feel left out and miss the social interaction of daily classroom activity. What’s more, they may start to fall behind in their studies.

That’s where robots come in. Introducing robots in classrooms can help students connect to and interact with teachers and students in a more lifelike and realistic way. Telepresence robots and smart video conferencing computers with microphones and speakers sit on desks, stand fixed in the classroom, or some can move around. 

Where a conventional camera simply captures and relays sound and images, the robots have the ability to follow sound and action, moving or spinning in a wide 360-degree angle to give home-bound students a more natural classroom experience. Some work by connecting with tracking devices that a teacher holds or distributes around the room. The tracking devices point the onboard camera to specific stations or locations on-demand. Other robotic camera solutions are programmed to respond to the loudest sounds, so the remote student can see the action around the classroom. Best of all, the telepresence robots let teachers and students connect face-to-face, even though they can’t meet in person.

COVID-19 Increases Robot Usage

Before the pandemic, telepresence robots were used most often in higher education or to train teachers. However, robot manufacturers report a dramatic increase in K-12 usage. While the cost--typically starting at approximately $600 for a single robot--once limited usage to mostly private schools, public districts are now inviting the robots into their classrooms as well.

K-12 classrooms are using a variety of telepresence robots to boost student engagement including:

Kubi, manufactured by Xandex Inc., is a portable solution designed to sit on a desk side-by-side with students in the classroom. The device holds a tablet and lets the remote user look around the room and be a part of the conversation. Students join via Zoom, which allows them to connect with a high-quality and reliable connection with the e-learning tools built in. Each remote student appears on a separate tablet screen and can direct their attention around the classroom as they see fit. Remote students control the Kubi via a widget downloaded to a device, such as a tablet or laptop.    

Device with owl features designed for classroom support

Image credit Owl Labs

Made by Owl Labs, the Meeting Owl is a smart video conferencing camera that captures 360-degree video and audio, automatically shifting the stationary camera to focus on whoever is speaking. Schools are using the Meeting Owl in classrooms without in-person students, allowing teachers to move around and hold synchronous classroom sessions. Schools are also using the Meeting Owl in hybrid learning situations, so remote students can see their teacher, the white board, and fellow classmates. To operate the system, remote users open their preferred video conferencing platform and select Meeting Owl as mic, camera, and speaker.

The Swivl CX robot sits on a tripod and works by connecting via an infrared signal from multiple markers for audio around the classroom. It uses a tablet or mobile device for recording video or streaming via Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet. The teacher sets a mobile device into the dock, and Swivl rotates and tilts to automatically follow the teacher as he or she moves around the classroom. It’s compatible with any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet.

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