Doctoral student at Texas A&M looking to solve distance learning issues with telepresence robots

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) – A doctoral student at Texas A&M is trying to fix the engagement issues students have in virtual learning environments with telepresence robots.

Virtual or distance learning is something everyone became very familiar with due to the pandemic. When the pandemic began, most if not all schools across the country shut down and were forced to use some form of virtual classes. Unfortunately, most teachers and district superintendents say this form of learning is less effective because it’s harder to keep students engaged, causing their performance to suffer.

That’s where curriculum and instruction doctoral student Amin Davoodi’s research comes in.

“One of the biggest challenges [students] have is that they get tired after a couple of hours,” Davoodi said. “That’s because virtual classes in their current format are not similar to in-person ones because there’s only one angle, we have to look straight, and we feel everyone is in front of us, rather than around us.”

The goal of Davoodi’s research is to improve distance education by integrating new technologies like telepresence robots.

“I thought it would be a great idea to integrate telepresence robots into virtual classes, just to make these virtual classes look more real and make students feel they are really present,” Davoodi said.

It’s a robot you’ve probably seen before. It is essentially a tablet that’s attached to a roughly four-foot-tall stand. The user, which in this case would be the student, can control it through a phone app to move forward and backward, swivel, and rotate, making a more interactive experience possible.

“We might say that that robot was an extension that helped that student embody the knowledge and relationships that were going on in that class,” Teacher & Technology Education Program Lead Cheryl J. Craig, who is also Davoodi’s academic advisor, said. “If the student was just getting a videotape, they wouldn’t have that 360 kind of look at what’s going on in the class because the student could move that robot around.”

“The research is moving and pushing the edges of educational learning and access,” Texas A&M Teaching, Learning, & Culture Department Head Michael De Miranda said. “It’s closing the access gap for all students who may be in need.”

Davoodi envisions a single classroom having a few of these robots that would operate among other students who are physically present for learning. He says each robot costs about $500, but obviously, each school district has different kinds of budget constraints they have to deal with.

“If the purpose of buying a robot like this is to help homebound students who are sick, a couple of them would probably work well for a school district,” Davoodi said. “Based on my research, there are usually about two or three students who are sick or suffering from serious illnesses and cannot attend their classes.”

De Miranda says adapting these robots for the classroom can help students because each one has unique needs.

“A student may be going through cancer treatment and had to leave their classroom to go to a children’s hospital in Houston, and the student can still participate in the class with their peers,” De Miranda said. “That’s a really good example about how that gap in access can be closed. It adds to the educational experience for all students and keeps us focused and committed towards that goal.”

The next step is to do more studies with these robots actually in the classroom.

“As far as I know, there have only been five research projects in which people use telepresence robots for educational purposes, and I’ve been involved in two of them,” Davoodi said. “There’s not a lot of data yet on this.”

“There’s a lot about teacher presence in the literature,” Craig said. “But what Amin is doing is taking it up a notch, which is telepresence. It’s kind of building on a research base that’s there but taking it in a new direction.”

Davoodi won Texas A&M’s Three Minute Thesis Competition this year when he pitched his idea to the judges last month. It’s a contest for graduate students to communicate their science to the public in a very succinct, clear, and energizing fashion in, of course, three minutes.

“It was a very good feeling to win the competition,” Davoodi said. “There were a lot of students from different disciplines, so I also had a chance to learn about other research programs at Texas A&M University.”

Davoodi is the first student from the College of Education and Human Development to take home the honor.

Copyright 2021 KBTX. All rights reserved.

Janelle B. Smith

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