Prestigious school weighs use of telepresence robots in the classroom

Johnny-Five, please come up to the blackboard
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

After a successful experiment using telepresence robots with his own staff, Peter Hirst, Associate Dean for Executive Education at MIT Sloan School of Management, says he's experimenting with ways to integrate these bots into the classroom, albeit in a limited way.

"We had a realization that people could participate in a classroom environment remotely for a short time," says Hirst. "So we asked, is that good idea? Will it work? And then in a very MIT way we thought we'd run some experiments."

In 2014, Hirst began allowing his administrative staff at MIT to work remotely under a pilot program he helped design. "We've been seeing an increasing number of requests for people to get flexible work arrangements. And it made sense because a lot of our team are typically out of the office working with clients."

Ultimately the nudging factor was the inconvenience caused by some ongoing construction. "While they were refurbishing our building, my team ended up in an office building with other folks from the school, which is a fifteen minute walk from the rest of campus. It just sort of exacerbated the question of how to get work done while in different locations."

Like any manager in his position, Hirst had concerns about allowing his people to work off-site. "We don't do a lot of routine, predictable work here," he explains. "A lot of what we do is very creative and requires a lot of agility and teamwork."

To mitigate the loss of that spontaneous creativity, he assigned one day per week when the staff would work in the office. He also turned to telepresence technology, which he had first encountered at the Internet of Things forum in Chicago in 2014. "Someone was participating in that from Germany. Cisco and iRobot were the creators of that platform. It was very interesting to see how a person could drive a robot around the conference venue, a large one, to attend breakout groups and meet individually."

The iRobot Ava 500 that he saw is the Cadillac of telepresence units, and it isn't cheap. In search of an affordable alternative, Hirst found Double Robotics, a San Jose company that makes a bare-bones telepresence unit that costs less than $3000. "It's basically an iPad on wheels," says Hirst. "But that's all we need."

The office now has three of the robots, which remote staff can operate in order to attend on-site meetings. "It's working very well. You have an eye-to-eye view, very similar to the view we'd have if sitting in the room with them. The fact that they can go and participate in any room and remotely control what they're looking at in that space is quite powerful. You do get a real sense that you're engaging with them in a way that you don't with regular video conferencing."

Certainly the solution isn't perfect. There are connection issues from time to time, says Hirst, and one of the elevators in their MIT office is a dead zone. Since the robot won't move without a connection, they've taken to putting sticky notes on the units asking that they be returned if they're found looking a bit lost.

And the experience of interacting with the robots, while more engaging for both parties than a simple video call, still isn't the same as meeting in person. "Of course there are cues you can't pick up on, body language, which is how so much communication occurs."

But overall Hirst and his team are delighted, and that got them thinking. "Might this be a way of enabling people who can't travel to attend our executive programs?"

So far they've run five tests in the classroom, with members of Hirst's team posing as remote students to get a feel for which kinds of classroom scenarios work well with the telepresence bot and which don't. "What we've found is that in a group discussion of five or seven people, one robot works well. Two is doable, but then you have two robots interacting with each other, and you lose a lot of the immediacy of that experience."

Hirst plans to proceed cautiously before offering the telepresence option to students who might benefit. "I think I have some questions in mind still, because it does have an impact on other participants. If it's purely for the convenience of someone who feels they can't make it to Cambridge, and that has some negative impacts on others in class, I'm not one hundred percent convinced that's a model we would want to pursue, though we're not ruling it out."

What does excite Hirst is that telepresence robots may enable students with a legitimate barrier to traveling to Cambridge to attend classes. He and his team recently began collaborating with a nonprofit called Work Without Limits, whose mission is to bring more people with disabilities into the workforce.

Hirst is quick to point out that he doesn't feel that telepresence robots are a stand-in for in-person interaction. "There's no substitute for that." And widespread adoption of telepresence robots will be a thorny issue for educators and pedagogical theorists as more schools begin assessing this technology. But for now, Hirst says the early results of his tests at MIT are encouraging.

"We do believe there is a category of people for whom coming to Cambridge may not always be realistic, and this is one very intriguing solution."

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