Telepresence Helps Universities Connect Virtual Students with Campus Life

Campuses take personal interaction so seriously that they're willing to spend thousands of dollars on robots that give virtual students a "body" on campus.

by / May 14, 2015 0
Andrew Beaty attends a pharmacy class in Chapel Hill from Hungary via a telepresence robot sitting next to classmate Andy Carrington. Beaty is a doctor of pharmacy student at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. John Zhu/UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy

In a time when more classes and interactions happen online, universities are trying to bring back the face-to-face connection that online students often miss.

This spring, Nicollette L. Johnson rolled across the graduation stage at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., from her home in South Carolina. The online student had never set foot on campus and wasn't able to fly to her graduation.

But she got the next best thing: A live video feed of her face filled a tablet on top of a telepresence robot that she remotely moved around the stage and auditorium. She said she felt the excitement in the air as she stood with the other graduates to receive her Bachelor of Science degree in leadership studies.

"This was a dream come true for me," Johnson said. "This is a new step for all online students to be able to do; it was great." 

Chief Information Officer Michael Mathews asked online graduates if they wanted to graduate via the telepresence robot, and Johnson jumped at the chance. Mathews sat next to the robot during part of the ceremony to make sure everything worked well.

"I was never so blessed as I watched the student from South Carolina glow when she was in the midst of her peers," Mathews said. 

Another student at Oral Roberts University had a severe issue during spring break and wasn't going to be able to finish her freshman year on campus. But Mathews, faculty members and the student's family worked together to make sure she could attend classes via a new robot.

The student used the robot to record the class, take pictures and roll up to the overhead, among other things. The professors didn't have to change their curriculum or even touch the robot, and after the first three weeks of use, Mathews didn't need to supervise or be involved. That was one of the quickest technology adoptions Mathews has seen, because faculty saw a student need and really wanted to help that student.

The robots can actually display up to five people at a time, and Mathews hopes to put one robot in each classroom as the campus continues its global expansion. That way, online students will be more connected to the university.

While the robot cost $2,400, Mathews compared it to the cost of an international flight. Unlike the flight ticket, the robot lasts at least three years — hopefully longer — and is more sustainable over time. 

On the East Coast, another university says the cost of the robots is worth every penny. UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy is located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but has a satellite campus — the University of North Carolina at Asheville. With about 720 students between the two locations, the pharmacy school wanted to make sure students in each cohort felt connected to each other.

A year and a half ago, they purchased three robots for both campuses at a cost of about $2,500 each, plus $500 for a tablet and $300 for a charging doc. The robots help the school bridge the gap between the two campuses, engage students on both campuses at the same time and create an environment that feels like one campus.

"Because we do have satellite campus participants, we need to be able to connect with those participants and make them feel like they are a part of the school as a whole," said Victoria Hammett, instructional technologist at the school. 

This pharmacy school encourages one-on-one collaboration, group work, and live, interactive classes. Along with robots, videoconferencing plays a big role in encouraging this collaboration. One professor might be in Asheville teaching a class, and the rest of the cohort will join in via video conferencing from Chapel Hill, or vice versa.

Students can check out the robots whenever they need to work on a group project or meet with a professor on the other campus -- or even from home if they're struggling with health issues. And they're easy enough to use that students don't need an IT person to help them.

The robots are so futuristic that they also add a wow factor that's good for the school's brand as they roll around campus, said Al Sarhangi, the school's director of education technology. Some students use the robots in class because of extraneous circumstances, but most use them for working meetings and group projects outside of class. 

"This is an innovative way for us to really bridge that gap in communication," Sarhangi said, "and to really foster collaboration and interaction."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.