By Tra Vu, PhD, PE
This Spring, I taught a class at New York University (NYU) remotely via Zoom. The class was an introductory course in Civil Engineering. We met every week for 14 weeks. All my students attended from their home. Some lived overseas and had to attend asynchronously due to time zone differences.
I knew it was going to be challenging for my students to learn remotely, so I implemented creative tactics to promote collaboration. NYU colleagues who taught remote classes in the Fall suggested encouraging the students to keep their videos on, chats off, and join breakout rooms where they can discuss the assignments with their classmates.
Optimizing Video Conferencing for Remote Learning
I built upon their suggestions and replaced midterm and final exams with in-class participation exercises. Every lecture I tried to find new ways to engage the students, from polling to one-on-ones, spotlight, and whiteboard. I utilized small breakout rooms a lot since the students were more likely to speak up and get to know their classmates in an intimate setting. My teaching assistant and I took turns joining the rooms to facilitate dialogues or answer questions. I also invited recent alumni and industry professionals to provide their perspectives and talk to the class.
Despite leveraging all of Zoom’s features, I have to admit that it was a struggle to connect with my students. I believe in the 7-38-55 rule of communications, and knew I was barely scratching the surface of human connections. Moreover, remote students don’t always speak up or keep their videos on. As a result, students’ 2020-2021 academic performance precipitously dropped when compared to previous years.
The Pandemic Accelerates Distance Learning
COVID-19 pandemic was a catalytic event that pushed distance learning, telecommuting, telehealth into full gear. The concept of distance learning has been around for decades, but its deployment didn’t catch on because educators have had reservations about the efficacy of learning remotely. Despite missing the physical classroom where social interactions come naturally, the COVID-19 health crisis has accelerated a new way of learning and we all have to adapt to the next normal.
The Emergence of HyFlex and RPX
A new model of education called the HyFlex classroom is taking stage. Courses that follow the HyFlex Model typically allow students to either attend in person or online at the same time. The faculty member would stream their lecture live and/or record for later playback.
HyFlex classrooms range from low-tech environments equipped with video conferencing like Zoom or Teams, to high-tech Real Presence Experience (RPX) environments. The underlying design ethos behind the HyFlex Model is flexibility and student choice. However, all students want to be social, mobile, and interactive. In a classroom equipped with Mobile Telepresence Robots technology, remote students can dial into a robot and attend the class as if they were physically present.
How Universities Implement HyFlex and RPX
Universities across the United States have been experimenting and adopting Real Presence Experience to its fullest. For instance, Seattle Pacific University (SPU) offers Ohmni Mobile Telepresence Robots to their overseas students who are attending the Master’s program in Digital Education Leadership. As experts in educational technology, SPU knows that asynchronistic learning runs the risk of losing the benefit of human connection provided by a face-to-face classroom. Being in the same room at the same time with other students and the professor activates learning, which is why SPU educators explored advanced synchronous collaboration tools like Mobile Telepresence Robots.
Unlike video conferencing which is usually guided by the presenter or others in the room, Ohmni Robot puts the student in charge when implementing HyFlex and RXP learning. A student can move the robot around the room, make eye contact, and help others see that the person is there and engaged. The robot gives students who are not physically present the same agency and freedom of movement.
A unique way SPU students utilize Ohmni Robot is to attend educational conferences. The robots allow remote students to participate and receive valuable information. Because conferences generally happen several times per year, this is a great way to stay connected with their larger educational community and stay abreast of the latest trends.
Robots Help Students Earn Their Degrees
Another innovative higher education institution, College of Wooster Department of Education has been using Mobile Telepresence Robots to place their future graduates into the K-12 classrooms remotely and safely. Due to the pandemic, placing future educators in the field for training was a real challenge, because a lot of schools were trying to de-densify their classrooms. So Wooster faculty got creative and brought the classrooms to the students via Ohmni Robots. A huge benefit of using the mobile telepresence robots is Wooster’s education majors got the chance to train in a variety of different classrooms, and the opportunity to work with younger kids and older kids, from first-grade classroom to eighth-grade English class and high school History class.
While technology cannot replace the experience of being physically present in a classroom, Mobile Telepresence Robots, like the Ohmni Robot, can certainly help replicate collaboration and discussion while providing its own benefits, such as including gifted students from around the world who would otherwise be unable to participate in person. Ohmni Telepresence Robots give SPU & Wooster students agency, decrease anonymity, and enhance their learning experience.
With Ohmni Mobile Telepresence Solutions, our OhmniLabs team hopes to bridge physical limitations and usher in a new era of transformative learning. Hyflex and RXP models for distance learning are here to stay. How are you adjusting to the next normal? Are you using HyFlex and RPX? We’d love to hear from you.