Penn State

Penn State Outreach uses robots to integrate online students into classrooms

Penn State World Campus student Evonne Rivera talks with faculty advisers Cathy Hunt, left, and Brian Redmond in Rackley Building on Tuesday at Penn State via an iPad connected to “Sheldon,” a robot created by Double Robotics. Rivera remotely joined the Psi Chi chapter meeting from Pasadena, Calif. Rivera is the chapter president of the World Campus Psi Chi Honor Society.
Penn State World Campus student Evonne Rivera talks with faculty advisers Cathy Hunt, left, and Brian Redmond in Rackley Building on Tuesday at Penn State via an iPad connected to “Sheldon,” a robot created by Double Robotics. Rivera remotely joined the Psi Chi chapter meeting from Pasadena, Calif. Rivera is the chapter president of the World Campus Psi Chi Honor Society. knetzer@centredaily.com

Picture this: Students, faculty –– and robots –– roaming the corridors at Penn State on an ordinary weekday.

This futuristic scene isn’t the brainchild of H.G. Wells or the next setting of a George Lucas film. Instead, after a Penn State exploratory project is completed, classrooms featuring mobile robots could be a reality.

At Innovation Park, Penn State Outreach is demonstrating different uses of a mobilized robot, called a Double 2 telepresence robot, to see how it can affect learning for online students.

If all goes well, the research could eventually lead to integrating these robots into classrooms.

The Center for Online Innovation in Learning offered up to $40,000 in funding this year for new ideas to improve learning for online students. After two research trials, it funded about eight to 10 projects.

Brad Zdenek, innovation strategist at the center, helped run the most recent round of the research process. He read a pitch from Brian Redmond, a psychology professor at Penn State, who wanted to invest in three robot units to see how they could help the learning experience of students taking online classes.

“It was an excellent idea when I read it,” Zdenek said. “It was groundbreaking. It was innovative.”

Redmond’s proposal wasn’t one of the projects funded, but after the funding period was over Zdenek remained curious.

“The reason that we pursued it, or continued to pursue it,” Zdenek said, “is that the increase in understanding that we can have in how these robots can impact learning for virtual learners is great.”

Zdenek put Redmond in touch with Outreach, which, along with its World Campus, gave Redmond enough funding to invest in one robot.

Outreach paid $3,000 for the robot unit and its accessories — a relatively small price for the significance it could have, Zdenek said.

The robot is battery-powered and, fully charged, can roam around for about eight hours before needing to be recharged at a docking station. The docking station is included in the cost.

Double Robotics of Burlingame, Calif., manufactures the robots. Outreach has just one.

The robot maneuvers via a wireless Internet connection, which allows a student at home to control the unit through a screen paired with an iPad, which is sold separately, and mounted atop the robot.

The robot can stand up to 5 feet tall, and its height can be adjusted by the controlling student. When the robot is taller, it moves more slowly.

The robot not only can move the controlling student around a classroom, it can also bring the student into classroom discussions through video chat. The professor and other students in the class can see their classmate on video and respond.

Redmond said the attention to robots currently “is a little bit more on the online students because they are lacking a lot of the opportunities that on-campus students have. For instance, all of our online students at a distance don’t have access to participating in research labs. One of our first focuses is getting those students into those research labs on campus.”

Helping online students participate in on-campus labs also benefits faculty members, who can learn as much from the students’ research as the students can learn from them, he said.

On Tuesday, Redmond planned to test the robot on a group of students for the first time during the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology meeting.

Redmond is the faculty adviser for Psi Chi’s World Campus chapter.

Cathleen Hunt, the faculty adviser for the honor society’s University Park chapter, planned to have her students at the meeting interact with Redmond’s students, who would contribute to the meeting through the robot.

“We have one robot right now,” Hunt said. “We’re hoping to eventually have them be sort of a mainstay here.”

Matt Martell is a Penn State journalism student.

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