How is using robotic telepresence in the classroom different from videoconferencing? Ken Frank and his students know at least one way – agentive movement – and they recently used it in class as part of a “living algorithm” learning experience.
Dr. Ken Frank is an MSU Foundation Professor of sociometrics and one of the leading experts on social network theory. Ken also teaches CEP 991B – Special Topics in Educational Statistics and Research Design, a course on how to map out social networks to better understand how and why people interact within and between groups. In one lesson of the course, Ken has taught what he calls his “living algorithm” to predict what groups an individual will choose to associate with. In the past, physically participating in the living algorithm activity would have been restricted only to physically present students. But Ken saw an opportunity to open this to online students using Beam telepresence.
In Dr. Frank’s CEP 991B class he was able to demonstrate his living algorithm using his students that were both face-to-face and online by giving the online students autonomy using Beam robots. Dr. Frank gave the simple instruction for students to “get into groups” and predict beforehand how the students would split up into groups. The Beam robots allowed online students to move around the classroom and select the groups they wish to associate with. Utilizing the presence that Beam robots give students allows for participation in class activities such as these that improve student learning. The student who used the beam in Dr. Frank’s class stated “I felt as though I was more a part of discussions, the lecture, and the classroom community. My peers noticed me more than if I was on a computer screen”.
Lessons such as this that have an interactive element, that are meant to improve students’ understanding of a complex topic by making the experience more salient, are typically hindered when students are online, but new technologies such as Beam robots allow online students the affordances to participate in interactive elements and improve their learning. The technologies allow for participant embodiment so students and teachers may collaborate and learn across different contexts. Dr. Frank stated “Without Beam and Zoom what do I do? … you take a 2 day intensive course? With Beam and Zoom you are a member of the class. He’s doing a project with someone in the class… and it’s seamless”. This benefits both online and physically present students by allowing them to share in the experience and learn from each other. The robots and video conferencing bring different affordances to the classroom that knowledgeable teachers can use in different contexts to improve learning for face-to-face and and online students.