Like many educational programs, Seattle Pacific University (SPU) efficiently uses technology by offering many of their courses online. In fact, the school’s Masters in Digital Education Leadership program is a fully online program. While some students live close enough to attend face-to-face meetings, many do not. But what is the best way to make non-local or overseas students feel included and to make sure they are not disadvantaged due to their location? How can they interact with professors, tour the campus, and make students feel like they belong?
Dr. David Wicks, Associate Professor and Chair of the Digital Education Leadership Graduate Program struggled with the same questions. Committed to providing one student in China with the same experience as other students, he and his team searched for solutions. 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 educators are now seeking advanced synchronous collaboration tools.
Real-time communication methods such as video conferencing and live chat are great, but they do have their limitations. Many do not allow a student to create a social presence and to make themselves known among their peers and faculty. They also do not put the student in control.
Today, SPU’s Digital Education Program utilizes the Ohmni Telepresence Robot in their learning environment. Unlike video conferencing which is usually guided by the presenter or others in the room, Ohmni puts the student in charge. 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 ability to make themselves known.
One great example of how SPU uses Ohmni is through their Hacker Sessions where students come together to work on case studies and problem-solve. In this instance, the Ohmni Robot is more useful than video conferencing because a student can meet a classmate in a breakout room, Plus, it’s better for the student to drive the robot rather than having to continually make themselves known and not be forgotten. With Ohmni, students can look at people when they’re talking and see each other.
Another unique way students can use Ohmni is to attend educational conferences. Robots allows students who are unable to attend conferences in person 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.
While technology cannot replace the experience of being physically present in a classroom, Ohmni 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 gives SPU students agency, decreases anonymity, and makes them feel equally included.