The classroom of the future might include one teacher, no students, and dozens of robots.
The class is proceeding like classes in every generation have proceeded up until now, except that every eager young face staring up at the teacher is projected through a video screen carried atop a robot that looks like an iPad attached to a Segway.
According to research from Michigan State University, using robots like these is the most effective way to teach remote students. Rather than being just one of a dozen faces carried over a group video call like Skype or Google Hangouts, the use of a robot proxy gives every student mobility and individuality.
So why would these video conferencing robots be anything but a rarity in the future? Because there’s no better way to teach microeconomics to elementary students.
Specialized Learning by Robot Video Conference
Using these video conferencing robots in schools could begin with the introduction of specialized classes. We’re not suggesting every child, or even most children, will suddenly stay home and receive their education online. The digital revolution, however, does make it possible to imagine a world where schools pool their teaching resources and use the internet to share expert educators across a network of hundreds of institutions.
Students at Talbot Hill, Washington, for instance, are using a network of around 200 schools to create a simulated real-world, called a microsociety, where they apply their classroom lessons to real-life scenarios. For example, students who take a math lesson at school in the morning would spend the afternoon managing a virtual store. At the moment, that arrangement costs around $100,000 to implement. However, if the schools were to pool their resources and create a single microsociety, and then each, in turn, use a video conference call to visit the site, it could become more accessible.
The same shared, remote method could be used to teach specialized subjects few schools have enough demand to offer, like less common languages or art forms, or advanced math and technology classes. Each day a different batch of students, collected from all over the country, could gather in robot form to take a unique class.
The robots would be more a means of traveling between schools than traveling from home to school. And in these specialized classes, the video conferencing robot’s unique abilities could really come to the fore.
The Advantages of Personal Telepresence Robots
The Michigan State researchers found that video calling robots, or telepresence robots, held an advantage over group video calls made from wall-of-chat-window services like Skype because they produced greater engagement among students.
Rather than have each child share their teacher’s attention simultaneously, they can instead get individual attention. Just like a traditional, in-room classroom, each student occupies their own space, has their own position in the room, and can be spoken to one-on-one. To speak privately in a Skype group call, the teacher would have to break off into a different connection, or mute all their other students.
The robots also offer students remote mobility. Each robot is powered from a normal desktop or laptop, but in addition to having video control over things like zoom and volume, the student can move their machine like a remote-controlled car. That means they can look at something from multiple viewpoints, examine objects inside or outside the classroom close-up, and engage with different aspects of the classroom individually.
Given that ability to roam, perhaps the best location for these robots isn’t the classroom at all, but the wider world beyond.
Roaming Video Conferencing
Video conferencing is already changing the way schools operate. It’s become a common way of inviting guest lecturers into the classroom and sending students on virtual field trips. Now these walking video conferencing robots could let students safely wander through the real world.
Using the Talbot Hill microsociety example, students could take control of robots and walk themselves done to a real store to spend an afternoon finding out how math is applied in day-to-day life. They could sit behind the counter of a grocery store, get a tour of the store, and shadow the checkout clerk throughout the afternoon, asking questions and moving around freely. As with any virtual field trip, there wouldn’t be any danger of a student getting lost or injured since they don’t need to leave their desks to participate.
Again, you can’t get that mobility or that natural investigation with a standard video conference link. And not every school needs to supply the robots, only those that will host the excursion or specialized class. Perhaps it could become a private sector investment, with robots placed at museums, art galleries, and tourist attractions.
At any rate, it’s clear to see there’s a potential future where the only human being left in the classroom is the teacher.