Robotic Telepresence in the Living Algorithm

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Feb 082017

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”.


Information on using Kliquefinder to make this map

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.

Studying the Use of Augmented Reality to Teach Spatial Skills in Engineering

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Oct 242016

Design Studio’s SLATE Research Group and MSU’s College of Engineering are collaborating to study how augmented reality tools can help beginning engineering students master spatial reasoning problems. First year engineering students in EGR 291, which is focused on teaching students spatial skills, have recently agreed to participate in a study where they learn these skills using an augmented reality app that can be downloaded on student’s smartphone or tablet. The app was conceived and developed by Dr. John Bell and graduate student members of both the Design Studio and the SLATE Research Group.

The Context

Spatial skills are considered essential for learning and performing engineering. EGR 291 is a class offered to first year engineering students who can benefit more from spatial training, as determined by a spatial assessment given to all incoming engineering students. The class was created to help these students catch up on skills that professors deem necessary for success in the engineering school. This 1 semester course teaches students traditional spatial reasoning using tasks such as mental rotation, which has students mentally rotate objects to solve problems.  In addition, students are trained in paper folding, working with models, and piecing together different complex shapes.









The App

The app (designed by Design Studio’s John Bell with input from the SLATE Research Group’s Collaboratively Embodied Content (SLATE-CEC) team) features a series of mental rotation tasks using augmented reality.  Students then download the app to their mobile devices (phones, tablets, iPads, etc.) and use the app to perform mental rotation tasks similar to the problems found in their textbooks.

So what is augmented reality?  Augmented reality is when you are viewing the real world through a lens on a phone, tablet, or other computer device and the device overlays another image or information on top of the real world (see GIF below).  The overlay image is interactive in the case of this app, where students manipulate the image to solve mental rotation tasks. What the students see is a 3D geometric figure that they can walk around to see different perspectives of the object, then they are meant to look at the object at the correct angle.


The Expectation

It is quite possible that augmented reality will open up many new possibilities in engineering education, particularly for those students struggling with early engineering concepts like spatial reasoning. Collaboration between the Design Studio and Dr. Tim Hinds in the school of engineering could open up the possibility of a new and exciting approach to helping students develop their spatial skills. Likewise, the SLATE-CEC group will conduct research studies to understand if and how augmented reality tools can help all students succeed in their engineering courses.

Robotic Telepresence Beyond the Classroom

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Apr 192016
EPET Students use robots to attend, present at SITE 2016 Annual Conference


A number of students and faculty in EPET recently participated at the Society of Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) Annual Conference in Savannah, Georgia. But not everyone had to travel to Savannah to do it. Instead, a couple of students used a Beam Pro robot (provided by Suitable Technologies and managed by the Design Studio) to present and attend from the comfort of East Lansing.

So, what did they think about the experience?

Presenting via Robots
Sarah Keenan (2nd year EPET student, pictured on the robot above) experienced presenting via robot first-hand when she delivered her talk on aesthetics, coding, and computational thinking alongside co-authors Jon Good and Punya Mishra. She found that presenting remotely was “interesting”, but had a few drawbacks. “It was tricky not being able to see what slide we were on and to gauge what my co-presenter was thinking/reacting to.” For future presentation via robot, she recommended that you “make sure you prep with your co-presenter far in advance… small disruptions are much larger when one of you doesn’t really know what’s going on.”

Attending Presentations from Afar


First year EPET student Ming Lei was also able to make the rounds at SITE as both a presentation participant and an attendee. He was on hand to demonstrate how the robots worked but also took time to meet with other conference goers in the halls. Reflecting on the experience, Ming noted that, “It was nice to meet people I would not have met if I had not gone via robot. When the Internet connection was working, I could hear the presenters just fine, and I could make subtle gestures to other attendees, like a small wave or smile, and we would have a brief moment where we’d ‘connect’.” Ming also noted that some people are  “stationary and are not going to ‘approach you’ [when you are on a robot], so you have to approach them instead”. Ming recommended the use of robots at research conferences because “This allows you to move around and meet people… I presume that makes you feel more projected into the space and like a ‘real person’.”

It is sometimes hard to attend research conferences for a variety of reasons, but robots provide an opportunity for someone to remotely participate when they cannot physically be there. We as the Design Studio team are pleased that we could be a part of using robots to make it possible for people to engage in a rich way with this conference and the people there while it was happening. Physical distance does not have to mean that people cannot be a rich part of an event.

Do you need to do something similar or does this spotlight spark an idea for something you’d like to try? Come see us in the Design Studio (401b Erickson Hall) or contact us at We’d love to be a part of what you do!

Robotic Participants in Research Groups: From Cool to Connected

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Jan 182016
Watch how robotic telepresence is transforming Hybrid students’ engagement in educational settings beyond the classroom

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 11.36.01 AM

Make no mistake – in terms of synchronous hybrid learning, these are exciting times for EPET and the Design Studio.

Over the past year, members of the Design Studio have worked with faculty and students to explore and understand the impact of robotic telepresence technologies for learning and instruction. Our experiences (see our previous Video Spotlight with Dr. Christine Greenhow) have given us new insights on how to support our Hybrid students with greater presence and autonomy in the classroom. And to be honest, students coming to class on robots is just plain cool! But what about using these technologies outside of class?

In our latest Design Studio Video Spotlight, we continue our look at robotic telepresence in education with an interview with Dr. Punya Mishra and members of the Deep-Play research group. How have robots made an impact beyond the classroom? As doctoral candidate and Deep-Play researcher Rohit Mehta puts it, “It becomes more engaging, you feel more connected, and the funny thing is, when you meet [the Hybrid students] at conferences, you feel you are just continuing the discussion.”

Cool connections, indeed!

Click the image above and watch our latest Video Spotlight to find out more!

Do you need to do something similar or does this spotlight spark an idea for something you’d like to try? Come see us in the Design Studio (401b Erickson Hall) or contact us at We’d love to be a part of what you do!

From a Spot on the Wall to a Seat at the Table 

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Jun 022015
Using telepresence devices to bring online and face-to-face students closer

Watch an interview with Chris Greenhow and the students of CEP 901b as they reflect on the use of robotic telepresence devices like the Kubi and the Double in synchronous shared hybrid learning experiences.”That’s what we’re trying to explore here,” Greenhow says, “and I think we’re one of the first that are looking at these technologies in an educational context and asking, ‘What impact are they having on the quality of student learning and engagement?'”

Watch the video below to find out more!

Do you need to do something similar or does this spotlight spark an idea for something you’d like to try? Come see us in the Design Studio (401b Erickson Hall) or contact us at We’d love to be a part of what you do!

Virtual Flexibility for Synchronous Hybrid Learning

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Feb 112015

Using telepresence to engage both whole-class and small-group interactions

CEP901bSS2015_pan_whole class discussion_Greenhow

Hybrid courses are starting to come in all shapes and sizes in the College of Education and if Dr. Chris Greenhow’s CEP 901b course is any indication, that means innovating the ways in which online and on-campus participants interact.

Spotlight_CEP901bSS2015_whole class Zoom closeup_GreenhowThis semester Chris is teaching a course with 12 students online and 1 student face-to-face. Her interaction strategy for each class mixes large group seminar discussions with small group sessions based on student research teams. The question is, how do Chris and her students move between these two styles of in-class interaction without losing focus on the content of the course (or each other)?

The answer lies in their use of the Zoom videoconferencing platform in the newly created “virtual flex classroom” in Erickson Hall, Room 132. Chris hosts the large seminar discussions on Zoom using the room’s four 80” monitors, allowing her and the face-to-face student see the online participants clearly throughout the room. When it comes time for the students’ research teams to interact in small groups, they leave the main Zoom session to join a series of separate Zoom sessions designated for each group. These smaller Zoom sessions are hosted at student workstation computers located around the classroom. Links on a custom-designed WordPress course website provide quick, easy access to both the main session and the student research team sessions.

Spotlight_CEP901bSS2015_small group and instructor_GreenhowHosting the large and small group Zoom sessions in the virtual flex classroom has significant advantages. Even with most of her students online, Chris can take part in the various student teams by simply walking between stations. This allows her to cognitively sample the quality and direction of student discussions individually or as a whole without having to manage multiple links or disrupt the teams in the middle of discussion and presentation.

Chris is quick to stress that both she and the students are still getting used to the affordances and constraints of teaching a mostly online course in a physical space. “The facilities [in Room 132] help support a lot of the interactions we want to achieve during a single class session but it can still be a challenge to manage all the moving parts. It takes some getting used to but I think the payoffs in terms of students’ learning and professional socialization are really well worth it.”