Blended Online Learning Design

Michigan State University uses robotic telepresence to transform the online students’ experience

Typically in a video-based blended online course, students attending virtually are displayed on a screen at the rear of the classroom. Without proper pedagogy, instructors cannot engage the online students nor encourage interaction with the students who are physically present.

The design studio at Michigan State University School of Education took an innovative approach to blended learning. Michigan State virtual students now have control of their presence in the classroom environment. They are no longer relegated to the screen hanging on the wall. Instead, they sit among those physically present, just as if they were on campus.

Some online students are present on roll-about robots called ‘The Double.’ Others are on desktop robots called the ‘Kubi.’ Online students join the class by video conference. They log in and take control of the robot. By doing so they can control where they sit and what they see. Being among the students changes the entire dynamic of the learning environment. Michigan State calls it “Discernible Attention.”

Faculty member Christine Greenhow from the School of Education shares her experience: “Those of us on campus, we felt our colleagues were physically present and for the online students they felt that they were in this class. We had several students tweet out ‘best class ever’ or ‘you’re breaking new ground in educational technology,’ ‘try new things in EPET and that’s really terrific because you are supposed to be about pushing the boundaries of educational technology and here we really are breaking new ground and the students love that”

Robotic telepresence is being used outside the class for team meetings and small groups as well. Michigan State University has done a great job in making the distance disappear to fully engage all students in a hybrid or blended classroom.

Dr. John Bell, Director of the Design Studio at Michigan State University’s School of Education, takes a scholarly approach to research in the field of online learning. With most students focused in education and educational technology, the Design Studio offers the perfect test bed for innovative approaches for online learning.

Previously, most universities have offered traditional courses with online students blended in and staff work to make sure the addition of online didn’t disrupt learning. Students have felt like outsiders who must ask permission to participate.

Now, the Design Studio is trying to push beyond just making sure an online component doesn’t diminish the learning experience. Setting the high bar of mutualism, their goal is to make online students feel like contributors when blended into a traditional classroom. They want to make the experience better: for online students to feel like insiders and for traditional students to feel like the greatly benefited from what online students brought to the blended learning experience.

A variety of modalities of learning are offered.

  • Regular or traditional courses are taught with a split between in-person and online students. Online students attend by videoconferencing on a robotic telepresence unit.
  • Fully online: Predominantly asynchronous online courses have team meetings for small groups of students that are synchronous. These meetings have all students online but are physically present in the same room as through robotic telepresence.

The goal is to break down transactional distance by having online students be virtually present through video conferencing on robots. Students login and take control of an available desktop or cart/Segway style robot from companies including Kubi from Revolve Robotics, Beam from Suitable Technologies, and Double from Double Robotics. GotoMeeting, Zoom or Polycom are the videoconferencing tools used to connect.

Having accessibility to move about the campus or classroom even when not present allows great flexibility for a flipped classroom, lecture, or any preferred pedagogical style of delivery. With half of the doctoral students on campus and half online and only coming to campus two weeks of a year, MSU’s research in the field of educational psychology and what affects learning with the new “discernable attention” approach is one to keep an eye on.