WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO TEACH in telepresence classrooms, equipped with wall-mounted screens through which remote students and instructors can interact in real time? These spaces can mitigate distance by allowing more eye-to-eye contact and more seamless conversations in online and blended classrooms.
Here’s a look at how three business schools are integrating the technology to enhance the global reach and interactive nature of their online programs.
The University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business in Columbia opened its first telepresence room in 2009 and now has seven telepresence locations statewide. Its multi-location courses link sites in Columbia, Charlotte, Charleston, Greenville, Bluffton, Aiken, and Spartanburg. Each room is equipped with one to two cameras, a 72" display screen, and a control room. Each room accommodates from 20 to 45 students who attend in person, joining students at other sites taking the same course via telepresence. Students who cannot attend in person at one of the seven sites also can log in via the Adobe Connect web conferencing platform.
With Moore’s system, the current speaker’s classroom is displayed large on the 72" television screen. The classrooms of previous speakers are moved to smaller images at the bottom of the screen. The system switches from classroom to classroom in the larger image, depending on who is speaking, allowing students to sustain real conversations with each other. In addition, the system can be set up so that the instructor and students on different campuses can share notes in the shared system.
Robert Lipe, a clinical professor in accounting, has taught telepresence-based courses in the Moore School’s evening professional MBA (PMBA) for several years. While he most often delivers the class from the main Columbia location, he occasionally travels to one of the satellite classrooms during the semester, to meet other students face-to-face.
Managing a single class with students at seven different locations has its challenges, Lipe notes. For one, the instructor can’t use the ability to move about the classroom as a teaching tool. “In a live class, I can walk around, get animated, and walk up to individual students to get them involved. With telepresence, I’m in one spot, because that’s where the camera is pointed. It’s not quite the same thing as being there in person. However, I still can use gestures and facial expressions to make my point.”
Perhaps a bigger challenge is the extra effort it requires to make sure all students—whether they’re connecting through telepresence or web conferencing—stay engaged. Lipe addresses that challenge by teaching from the control booth, rather than in the theater in front of the students who are physically at that location. Because he now is comfortable using the system, he no longer requires the help of a control room crew.
He notes that some professors prefer to teach telepresence courses from the theater space, so they can interact with the students who are there in person. However, Lipe finds it too easy to “focus on the faces in front of you and not treat the camera as a student. I like teaching from the booth, where I have 15 screens in front of me that show students in all of the different rooms. I can see them move, I can see their expressions. If someone looks puzzled, I can ask, ‘What’s going on in Charleston?’ If I’m teaching from the classroom, all I can see, other than the large image of the person speaking, are thumbnails of each room where I can hardly tell the people are there.”
He also makes use of polling technology to track how engaged students are with the material; he uses the breakout “rooms” in Adobe Connect to engage web-conferenced students in debate. “I can ask students at our telepresence sites to break into groups of five, and then I randomly assign our web-conferenced students into breakout rooms,” says Lipe. “I flash a message on everybody’s screen when it’s time to come back.”
Despite the challenges this technology represents, Lipe believes telepresence offers advantages to faculty and students alike. For one, telepresence makes it possible for the Moore School to offer an evening MBA program for professionals in the first place. Columbia’s population is not concentrated enough to support an evening program, he says, “but with telepresence, we can open it up to the entire region.” The PMBA program enrolls around 110 students, with the majority attending in Columbia and Charlotte, in rooms that can accommodate around 40 students each.
The program also offers students maximum flexibility, he adds. “These are working students with jobs that take them all over the world, and they can come to class via telepresence one week and via Adobe Connect the next if they have to. We also record the class and they can watch it later. They never have to miss a class due to their schedules.
For Lipe, the combination of telepresence, web conferencing, and in-person teaching makes for an exciting educational environment. “I knew this system was working during one class, when a student from Charleston and a student from Columbia got into a debate. As I watched them go back and forth, as if they were on different sides of the same room, I started getting goosebumps. I thought, ‘This is what the classroom is supposed to be like.’”
"With telepresence, I'm in one spot, because hat's where the camera is pointed. It's not quite the same as being there in person. However, I still can use gestures and facial expressions to make my point."
—Robert Lipe, University of South Carolina
In August 2015, Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, introduced its telepresence room, called the HBX Live studio, where participants in HBX online courses can interact with faculty and each other in real time.
Faculty will use HBX Live to enhance participants’ online experience, says Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard’s HBX learning initiative. Equipped with its own production studio, the room features fixed and mobile cameras, a video wall capable of displaying up to 60 individuals at once, and a semicircular floor to mimic “in-the-round” seating. Located at WGBH, Boston’s public television station, the studio is meant to replicate the intimacy and synchronous interaction of Harvard Business School’s case study method in a digital environment, Mullane explains.
Since the studio’s opening, no full courses have been hosted in the room, but the school has experimented with its use via smaller, one-time sessions. These include an introduction to the school’s new Leading in Finance course; a two-session workshop on leadership for HBS alumni; and several short-term executive education and corporate learning programs. In March 2016, Harvard’s political philosopher Michael J. Sandel used the HBX Live studio to host the first episode of BBC Radio’s “The Global Philosopher,” in which global participants debated on the moral implications of immigrants crossing national borders.
Having conducted these experiments successfully, Harvard Business School now is developing more virtual programming for 2017, says Mullane.
In October 2016, IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, announced the opening of its WOW Room, a space that uses telepresence in conjunction with other emerging technologies, from simulations to artificial intelligence. According to administrators, the school wants to use the room to “break with traditional on-site, blended, and online education models.”
The room is equipped with 48 screens mounted in a curved U-shape configuration, which gives remote students a 200-degree view of the classroom. Other technology includes two touchscreens for faculty to control the room’s features, as well as real-time recording and editing technology. Classroom delivery employs low-broadband video so that remote students can participate even if they have slow internet connections.
“We built the WOW Room to bring more collaboration and engagement to our online teaching,” says Jolanta Golanowska, the school’s director of learning innovation. “We wanted to give the faculty more ways to engage the students, and to do so easily.”
IE Business School retrofitted an older classroom to create its telepresence space. Technicians added soundproofing to the walls, blocked daylight, installed new electrical and broadband infrastructure, and built support structures for display screens, lights, and cameras. The space can accommodate 30 students who attend classes in person and up to 80 students via telepresence. An unlimited number of students can participate via chat.
Golanowska is particularly enthusiastic about the potential of educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning. Designers have incorporated many established technologies—such as instant student polling, multimedia, simulations and games, and the ability to break all students into smaller discussion groups. But this telepresence space also integrates a range of emerging technologies.
For example, the IE Business School will be exploring new artificial intelligence infrastructures that could allow faculty to engage with the WOW Room’s system conversationally, rather than by giving specific voice commands. The room also will incorporate hologram technology that would make it possible for professors to appear to walk around the room in 3-D. “We’re currently testing a holographic teacher that would allow one professor to teach students on our campuses in Madrid and Segovia,” says Golanowska.
In addition, IE faculty currently are pilot testing mobile telepresence robots, to discover whether they offer another way for students to participate meaningfully in WOW Room courses.
"We built the WOW Room to bring more collaboration and engagement to our online teaching. We wanted to give faculty more ways to engage with the students."
—Jolanta Golanowska, IE Business School
The room’s underlying software includes emotional recognition coding capable of detecting movements in facial muscles, particularly those correlated with emotional expressions. “We will pass video feeds live through the emotional detection algorithm and record the outcomes,” Golanowska explains. “With the resulting data, we can display information on students’ emoresult for the class second by second, so that faculty can review the class to see whether students’ attention dropped at any moment, or spiked when faculty intended.” That data will provide a feedback mechanism that professors can use to adjust or enhance their teaching.
Although faculty will receive training and the support of instructional designers to use the room effectively, Golanowska emphasizes that the room is a “one-button system” that requires little technical knowledge to operate. The school expects that about 100 professors and more than 1,000 students from 130 countries will participate in courses in the WOW Room in its first year.
The room presented a range of new pedagogical and technological challenges and will continue to do so as technology evolves. This means that the future of learning will require engaging students more deeply, Golanowska notes—and that the role of faculty must change as well. “It’s not enough for students to just see and hear a lecture. It’s critical that they get to try to do things in the classroom and have faculty coach and guide them through the process, while observing them and providing instantaneous feedback. We also need to provide meaningful feedback to faculty so they can continuously improve their interactions with students,” she says.
“Achieving those things is difficult enough in offline programs, but it is particularly challenging online,” Golanowska adds. “We have designed this room with those needs in mind.”
Want to learn more? Harvard Business School and IE Business School have created videos showing HBX Live and the WOW Room in action.
Related Reading: Read “MIT Sloan Tests Out Mobile Telepresence Technology” to learn how the school’s executive education program makes use of telepresence robots.