Don't Fear Telepresence

It could be the wave of education’s future.

Demand for blended and online business programs has increased significantly, particularly among students who otherwise could not participate in on-campus business education—because of location, workload, or other factors. Telepresence technologies could be a boon to these programs, by allowing students not just to connect to the course material online, but to interact more naturally and spontaneously with each other.

There are two categories of telepresence. Fixed telepresence uses high-resolution wall-mounted display screens in the classroom. Mobile telepresence uses a Bluetooth-enabled robot equipped with an iPad mounted at eye level. Either approach can allow schools to take blended learning one step further, by offering remote students a way to access course materials and interact with classmates as if they were located in the same classroom or sitting around the same conference table. Telepresence could, in effect, remove a lot of the distance from distance education.

That’s particularly true for mobile telepresence. Mobile telepresence robots also offer users a nearly 180-degree field of view, as well as the ability to raise and lower the height of the screen to better interact with others in seated and standing positions. The technology enables face-to-face, one-on-one interactions though both voice and facial expression—in essence, it offers a sense of being physically present. That’s a capability that fixed telepresence, traditional video conferencing, and conventionally delivered online learning still lack.

Whether fixed or mobile, telepresence offers a wide range of possibilities for management education:

  • It supports sustainable business practices by reducing student and faculty commuting.
  • It makes multi-campus courses possible, even when student enrollment numbers on a single campus are modest.
  • It expands flexible work options for staff.
  • It makes education accessible to those with disabilities.
  • It allows more interactive, effective, and personal collaboration among virtual team members.

Some schools are still reluctant to adopt telepresence, often because they view mobile devices, in particular, as potentially disruptive to their classrooms. But far from being disruptive, telepresence offers business schools opportunities to support learning, share knowledge, and encourage collaboration in ways that aren’t possible without it. By exposing students to this technology, schools won’t just prepare them for tech-enabled workplaces of the future, but also will help them gain global perspective and improve problem-solving skills on virtual teams. 

Pepperdine University is in the process of evaluating the use of mobile telepresence for both students and staff. We hope that our community will use the devices to reduce commuting, which is particularly important in Los Angeles. That effort supports the university’s commitment to sustainability.

Of all the factors affecting management education—globalization, changing student demographics, an uncertain economy—technology is the one factor business schools can best manage and control. Telepresence technology has tremendous potential to blend the best of face-to-face and Internet-enabled education. Business schools should not hesitate to explore its possibilities.

The future of mobile telepresence is now.

Owen P. Hall Jr. holds the Julian Virtue Professorship and is a professor of decision sciences at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management in Los Angeles, California. He leads a project at Pepperdine focused on creating a virtual learning environment using mobile telepresence robots.