Telepresence Robots Appear in Universities to Help Experts Teach Multiple Classes Simultaneously

Universities are turning to telepresence robots to facilitate learning.

This takes some explaining.

Students from four different Virginia universities are (a) collaborating online with expert drone makers via (b) robotic telepresence video conferencing, in order to make drones capable of (c) mapping a remote part of South America, (d) tracking the movement and temperature of a colony of bees, and (e) destroying land mines.

Oh, and they’re also (f) building drones that can restore communications for first responders after a hurricane strikes.

There’s so much going on in this 4-VA project that the robotic telepresence part gets a little lost among the action. But that initiative is what ties all those disparate projects together by letting the remote drone makers address four different classes at once. That’s right–several universities are linked by video conference so that students at each school can take the same class, taught by the same experts. Each class is assisted by an expert using a telepresence robot to help individual students.

What Is Telepresence Video Calling?

If you’ve never met one of these telepresence robots, here’s what to expect:

Essentially it looks like a rejected Star Wars droid or the greeter at the gates of robot hell.

While it may look a little awkward, these robots have already been put into service across a number of fields as physical stand-ins to complete the remote video call experience.

They’ve been used in hospitals to let doctors consult remotely with patients and guide staff; at home to watch over children and the elderly; in business as a physical presence for telecommuters; and as night watchmen, tour guides, and building inspectors.

Some are as simple as iPads mounted on wheels, and some are far more intricate, with built-in screens, one-touch navigation, and integrated web connectivity.

These robots are really two components in one. A remote-controlled vehicle–like a high-tech version of the remote-controlled toy cars you may have received in Christmases past–and a standard video conferencing setup.

In the case of the Virginia universities’ drone projects, the telepresence robots give remote experts–in this case, engineers experienced in working on drones–the chance to move around a classroom and interact with students on a one-on-one level.

Robotic Video Calling

Interacting with a telepresence robot is still every bit a video conferencing experience.

The visual and audio exchange is no different than using Skype on your laptop. It’s just that now you can drive the laptop on the other end of the conversation around, and talk with anyone you can chase down and corner.

That’s a great advantage if you’re collaborating with dozens of students, each working on different projects, or on different aspects of the same project.

A common, static video call can’t generate that kind of intimacy within a crowd, unless you’re willing to repeatedly break into smaller chat rooms and in so doing lose a sense of what the rest of the group is up to.

And if these robots can let guest experts remotely move from student to student, class to class, and university to university, what could a full-time lecturer or teacher achieve with the same mobility?

Robot Teachers of the Future

Video conferencing is already delivering much to the modern classroom. But nothing would be more disruptive to the education system than replacing the teachers with robots.

You may need to humanize the robot’s body a little more to really create a friendly, inviting presence, but anything else a human teacher can do, a telepresence bot could replicate. And that includes fine motor movements. Disney’s latest telepresence offerings can thread a needle and safely handle a raw egg–they just need to add VC screens to the faces.

With that kind of evolution, a robotic teacher could mix chemistry experiments, turn the pages of a book, manipulate engineering models, and even give an encouraging pat on the back.

But why replace teachers in the first place? The easy answer is found in the Virginia drone project–so they can be in two places, or four or five, at once. Using this technology, a single teacher can work across a half dozen schools or colleges a day, and the best of them could generate demand enough to radically boost their earnings.

You could also operate two telepresence units in some advanced classes to give gifted students more attention, while only paying for a remote teacher’s time by the hour, rather than hiring them full-time.

Telepresence robots aren’t cheap, but if they allow a school to boost its appeal by offering expert classes it couldn’t otherwise staff, or if they eliminate the need to transport students to outside locations, they could be worthwhile.

Of course, if the telepresence element of the Virginia project doesn’t excite you, imagine what drone technology could do for video calling.

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